Dart Hosts "Light of the World" Conversation with Elizabeth Alexander
Reading from her memoir, The Light of The World, Elizabeth Alexander began with a steady voice, standing proudly in front of the painting projected on the wall behind her. It was the same painting by her late husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, titled “Solitary Boat in Red and Blue,” that hung above the table in her home, where she wrote this memoir.
In a conversation that followed with Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, Alexander spoke candidly on how we as writers confront loss and how we confront trauma.
Watch the full conversation in the video below:
In front of a room full of students and journalists, Alexander recalled the year she spent working as a reporter for the Washington Post. She says of journalism and memoir that, “In some ways it feels like the same gathering practice, the only difference is what you shape it into. I’ve always loved journalists; that’s what I wanted to do," she said, before realizing "there’s a line you don’t cross, where you make stuff up, and I just wanted to go right over that line!”
In The Light of the World, Alexander decided to write "the terrible part" first. On April 4, 2012, only four days after celebrating his 50th birthday, her husband and the father of their two sons died unexpectedly from heart disease. "I knew that the book was occasioned by this terrible story. It is our responsibility to speak through the veil between the living and the dead, between loss and love,” she says. “Say what you see. Say what happened.”
“This is a story that seems to begin with catastrophe” is the first line of her book, but with each turned page it is evident that the story she is telling is about so much more than the life and sudden death of her husband. “I had to tell the terrible story first and then show why you should care about these people,” she said.
But in memorializing her husband and their shared life, detailing the trauma that resulted from his death and describing the consolation she took in raising their two sons, Alexander writes of truths that are universal: love, death, grief, struggle and solace. It is not loss but strength that resonates from these pages.
Elizabeth Alexander is a poet, essayist, and teacher. She is the author of six books of poems, two collections of essays, a play, and various edited collections. She was recently named a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, as well as the Wun Tsun Tam Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. She previously served as the inaugural Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University, where she taught for 15 years and chaired the African American Studies Department. In 2009, she composed and delivered “Praise Song for the Day” for the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Her memoir, The Light of the World, has just been released to great acclaim.