The Light of the World

A Memoir


By Elizabeth Alexander

Formats and Prices




$14.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around April 21, 2015. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

A deeply resonant memoir for anyone who has loved and lost, from acclaimed poet and Pulitzer Prize finalist Elizabeth Alexander.

In The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander finds herself at an existential crossroads after the sudden death of her husband. Channeling her poetic sensibilities into a rich, lucid price, Alexander tells a love story that is, itself, a story of loss. As she reflects on the beauty of her married life, the trauma resulting from her husband’s death, and the solace found in caring for her two teenage sons, Alexander universalizes a very personal quest for meaning and acceptance in the wake of loss.
The Light of the World is at once an endlessly compelling memoir and a deeply felt meditation on the blessings of love, family, art, and community. It is also a lyrical celebration of a life well-lived and a paean to the priceless gift of human companionship. For those who have loved and lost, or for anyone who cares what matters most, The Light of the World is required reading.


Begin Reading

Table of Contents


Copyright Page

In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author's intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at Thank you for your support of the author's rights.




The story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story. Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss. Loss is not felt in the absence of love. "The queen died and then the king died" is a plot, wrote E. M. Forster in The Art of the Novel, but "The queen died and then the king died of grief" is a story.

It begins on a beautiful April morning when a man wakes exhausted and returns to sleep in his beloved thirteen-year-old son's trundle bed, declaring, "This is the most comfortable bed I have ever slept in!" Or it begins when the wife says goodbye to the man a few hours later, walking in front of his car switching her hips a bit, a blown kiss as she heads to her office and he continues on to his painting studio.

Or the story begins as he packs a tote bag with the usual slim thermos of strong coffee made in an Italian stovetop moka pot, a larger thermos of cold water, two tangerines, a package of Nat Sherman MCD cigarettes, and a plastic sack of raw almonds. The tote is astral blue and printed with Giotto angels. Off to his studio for a day of painting, then home—as if nothing extraordinary has happened, when in fact he has been envisioning worlds—hanging the Giotto bag on a hook in the mudroom and changing out of his paint-splattered jeans into gym shorts and a T-shirt for yoga in the family room or a run on the treadmill in the basement.

Soon the two children will walk down Edgehill Road from the bus stop like burros under their knapsacks, and his wife will prepare dinner while listening to Thelonious Monk's evocative open intervals and sipping from a glass of white wine that he's opened and poured for her. "My frosty white?" she'd ask a few times a week, and he'd chuckle and say, "Right away, my love. Chop chop." They enjoyed playing, and acting out boy-girl courtliness. The thirteen-year-old does his homework and the twelve-year-old practices his drumming. The man's home life is the unchanging beautiful same, so anything could occur in the painting studio each day.

I am the wife. I am the wife of fifteen years. I am the plumpish wife, the pretty wife, the loving wife, the smart wife, the American wife. I am eternally his wife.

Perhaps the story begins with the three dozen lottery tickets he bought two days before he died, which I discovered weeks later, when they fluttered out of the pages of one of the many books he was reading.

Or it begins with his surprise fiftieth birthday party, four days before he died, and the spoken tributes from his loved ones, and strawberries and pancakes and music the next morning.

Or it began when I met him, sixteen years before. That was always a good story: an actual coup de foudre, a bolt of lightning, love at first sight. I felt a visceral torque, I would tell people, a literal churn of my organs: not butterflies, not arousal; rather, a not-unpleasant rotation of my innards, as never before. Lightning struck and did not curdle the cream but instead turned it to sweet, silken butter. Lightning turned sand into glass.

The story began in the winter of 1961, when two quietly mighty women were each pregnant, one in Asmara, Eritrea, and the other in Harlem, USA; one with her sixth child, one with her first.

The East African son would arrive on March 21, 1962, the most hallowed day of the zodiac. It is the beginning and the end of the astrological calendar, and so it is said that children born on March 21 are ancient souls who possess the wonder and innocence of newborns.

The American child, a girl, would come on May 30, into the chatter and buzz of Gemini, in Gotham.


When Ficre Ghebreyesus and I met in New Haven in the late spring of 1996, the first thing he wanted to do was show me his art. He was living at the time at 218 State Street, the New Haven Cash Register Company building, in an unfinished loft where he slept and painted when he was not cooking his Eritrean fantasia food in the kitchen of Caffé Adulis, the restaurant he owned and ran with his brothers Gideon and Sahle. The restaurant was named in homage to Adulis, an ancient port city on the Red Sea that is now an archaeological excavation site, one of Africa's great "lost cities." Pliny the Elder was the first writer to mention Adulis, which he called "city of free men."

In those days Ficre used to chef through the evening, close down the restaurant, then paint until dawn in that loft, with its salvaged Steinway piano, a clothing rack he'd rolled down the street from Macy's when it went out of business and used as a closet for his few hanging garments, and graffiti scrawled by a previous occupant on the heavy metal door that read, "Foster Kindness."

There were paintings everywhere, mostly large dark canvases lit with brilliant corners of insistent life. The paintings gave a sense of his beloved homeland in wartime—the Eritrean War of Independence began shortly before he was born—infused with the light of determined humanity that would not be deferred or extinguished. He showed me pastel drawings with the driving color concerns that echoed Eritrean textile work and basketry as well as Matisse's sky-lit hues. There were linocuts and mono-prints he'd made at the Printmaking Workshop with master teacher Bob Blackburn, and paintings he'd made while studying at the Art Students League with Joseph Stapleton, one of the last of the Abstract Expressionists then teaching. Ficre made that art during New York years in which he was mostly working as a young people's leader and activist on behalf of Eritrean issues. And then there were portfolios of photographs—some of which would be exhibited at an office building of the U.S. Congress that summer—which told stories of Eritrea and its uncannily resilient people in saturated, painterly colors.

As Ficre showed me work he talked about his family: his late father, Gebreysus Tessema, a judge so ethical he was exiled hundreds of miles away from home when he refused to tamper with his judicial decisions to suit the wishes of the dictator and his minions. He adhered to many formalities and customs, Ficre said, but also loved his children—seven in total, one, Kebede, lost to war, Ficre at the number-six position—to climb on him and laugh when all would come home from work and school for the midday meal.

His mother, Zememesh Berhe, also navigated the family ship through the vagaries of war. She came from a clan of many sisters and one brother, respected and tough Coptic Christian highlanders, who all raised their children near each other until war scattered them and took some of their lives. Mama Zememesh had Parkinson's disease, he told me that first day, and all of his siblings—Tadu, Mehret, Sara, Gideon, and Sahle, then in Addis Ababa, Nairobi, and New Haven—doted on her as she moved from one family constellation to the next. Their language was Tigrinya, an Afro-Asiatic tongue derived from the ancient South Semitic Ge'ez and spoken in Eritrea and its diaspora. His full name, Ficremariam Ghebreyesus, means "lover of Mary" and "servant of Jesus." The abbreviated "Ficre," as he was called, means "love."

Our love began in an instant and progressed inevitably. When Solomon Kebede Ghebreyesus, our first son, was born in April of 1998, we moved to 45 Livingston Street in New Haven. Ficre continued to invent and cook at Adulis. The great food writer and old-school newspaperman R. W. Apple visited the restaurant and after tasting Ficre's creations asked, in his article in the New York Times, "A Culinary Journey Out of Africa and into New Haven":

"Is all this authentic?"…

"Tricky word, authentic," [Ficre] replied. "Tricky idea. Food ideas move around the world very quickly today, and if you went to Eritrea, you'd find American touches here and there. There are thousands of Eritreans living in the United States, and when they go home, they take new food ideas with them. For us, that's no more foreign than pasta once was."

Adulis was a gathering place where people ate food they'd never imagined and learned about the culture and history of a country that most of them had never heard of. Ficre created legendary dishes such as shrimp barka that existed nowhere in Eritrea but rather in his own inventive imagination. Women called for it from St. Raphael's and Yale-New Haven Hospitals after they'd delivered their babies; people said they literally dreamed of it, a fairy food that tasted like nothing else. Here is how you make it:


Time: 30 minutes



4 tablespoons olive oil

3 medium red onions, thinly sliced

4 to 6 cloves garlic, minced

5 very ripe and juicy tomatoes, chopped coarsely

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

½ cup finely chopped fresh basil (1 bunch)

15 pitted dates (½ cup), cut crosswise in thirds

3 tablespoons unsweetened shredded coconut

½ cup half-and-half

1 pound medium shrimp (16 to 20), shelled and deveined

⅔ cup grated Parmesan cheese

2½ cups cooked basmati rice


1. In a large, heavy pot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onions, and sauté until wilted, about 10 minutes. Add garlic, and continue sautéing, stirring frequently to prevent sticking, for 2 minutes longer. Stir in the tomatoes, salt, and pepper. Cover, and cook for about 5 minutes.

2. Add basil, dates, and coconut, and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 5 more minutes. Add the half-and-half, cover, and cook for 3 minutes.

3. Add shrimp to sauce. Cook, covered, until shrimp turns pink, about 5 minutes. Stir in the cheese, and then the rice, and serve immediately.

In the mornings before Ficre went to the restaurant, he painted in a garage studio behind our house. There his practice and colors changed. He moved more fully into his brilliantly abstracted space; figures, landscapes, and icons were discernible but not strictly representational. With this work, he applied and was admitted to the Yale School of Art.

Ficre's time in art school was a mixed bag. He was a "grown-up," extremely open to learning, as ever, but also not a malleable kid. He was a respected town professional and, by that time, a father of two after the arrival of Simon Alexander Ghebreyesus in 1999. His particular African diaspora aesthetics were sometimes mis-read by teachers—"Where are your African colors?" one asked (to our quiet amusement), perhaps noting the absent combination of red, black, and green. But he had a good experience as a teaching assistant for Richard Lytle—who had taught the class "Color" for decades in the manner of his friend and mentor, the painter and color theorist Josef Albers—and strong, honest encouragement from Sam Messer, a Brooklyn artist known for his collaborations with writers.

Ficre loved outdoor painting excursions in New Haven's mixed-metaphor landscape of New England trees and industrial detritus. He made some fascinating text-based pieces in class with conceptualist Mel Bochner. Most important, however, were some artist's visits to the school. He had an expansive studio visit from the painter Amy Sillman, whose use of color and commitment to abstraction spoke powerfully to Ficre. Having Adrian Piper and Martin Puryear in his studio was a highlight of his time in graduate school. He revered each artist as a true master and had worked with his classmates to arrange the visits. Though his work looked nothing like either one's, Piper and Puryear asked him the deep questions that took his practice to the next level. It especially pleased him that Piper practiced yogic headstands during her visit in his studio, for he was beginning his own devoted yoga practice around that time. He cared deeply that people come in peace, for he himself was a profoundly peaceful and peace-loving person, forged in the crucible of war.

Ficre was shy about his artwork. He wasn't a schmoozer. He loved to have certain visitors in his studio, but the marketplace was not for him. Dozens and dozens of friends in and out of the art world urged him to show and sell and literally begged to buy paintings and photographs. He was never quite ready, he mostly said, still finishing, still perfecting. It made me crazy, for I believed fervently in the beauty and power of what he made and wanted him to have an art career commensurate with his talent and output. "People will know this work after I'm gone, sweetie," he would say. He said it with a laugh, but he meant it. I don't suggest he thought he would leave this earth prematurely, but I do think he had faith in the long-run, and the lasting power of art, and that he also clearly knew what was his and his alone to accomplish. He understood that ars longa, vita brevis, no matter when you die.


The story begins on a Thursday night. I bring an unexpected guest home to stay with us, an artist friend who'd spoken on campus that afternoon. When I take her to her hotel after dinner we find that it is in a deserted corner of town far off the beaten track, so I offer to bring her to sleep in our guest room. She accepts with relief, and I call Ficre: to let him know company is coming.

When Lorna and I arrive home ten minutes later the house is lit and glowing. The kettle is hot and tea is brewing in the black Japanese cast-iron pot. Ficre has put raw almonds in a small, celadon bowl. It is late; the boys are sleeping.

We are so pleased to live like this, organized and open and welcome when friends pass through and we can bring them to Hamden, the hamlet adjacent to New Haven where we recently moved to live in a tan stucco Arts and Crafts–style house surrounded by a magic garden. Hamden, my first suburb, albeit a very urban one. Hamden, where Ficre fell in love with property that reminded him of the African "compound" where he grew up amidst flowers, inside walls his mother painted apricot, spring sky blue, rose violet, and butter yellow.

The next morning, I organize the children for school and send them off and Ficre makes coffee when our friend rises shortly after. We three drink our cappuccinos under the gazebo, which he'd painted in the delicate colors of the remembered borders of his mother's gauzy dresses and shawls. Some might take the colors for straightforward pastels, or Monet water lilies, but they came from Africa, and from his mother. Hanging inside the gazebo is a mobile he fashioned from some slender, twisty branches that blew down in the yard after a storm. The mobile turns gently in the breeze. The morning is gray, and the yard smells of the fresh, damp earth of early spring.

As we walk toward the house, something makes us look back into the yard over our shoulders. There is a giant hawk sitting on the branch of our hundred-year-old oak tree, eviscerating and devouring a squirrel.

We freeze to watch. The raptor is utterly focused on its task. I watch Ficre and Lorna scrutinizing, their artist's eyes recording what they see. The hawk attends to its business undisturbed. It is rapacious; it takes what it wants. The bloody ribbons of the squirrel's entrails hang off the branch as the hawk eats the entire remains of the hapless rodent in about five minutes.

Ficre tells us he has seen the bird the day before, with the children, and shows us a short video he took on his phone of the creature on the same branch, eating another squirrel. I have seen a hawk a few times but never one so intent on its survival, never seen predation itself up close and in action. It is pure and elemental, necessarily violent, riveting, nature itself. We watch for as long as we can before we have to go off to the duties of our days.

Some weeks later, on his bureau, I find an acrostic Ficre made, which exhausted variations on the word hawk. He'd assigned numbers to the letters and then assigned those numbers to lottery tickets, which I later discover he bought by the dozens and secreted in the pages of the books he was reading.


Ficre was born in East Africa in Asmara, Eritrea's capital, in the midst of a three-decade-long war with Ethiopia for independence. There the story begins. Almost every family lost a child during those long war years. Ficre's eldest brother, Kebede, was always described as "a freedom fighter who fell in battle." The dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam's "Red Terror" claimed legions of young people in Eritrea and Ethiopia—500,000, by Amnesty International's final count—and years later he was convicted of genocide in absentia while in protected exile provided by Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

Ficre's parents' bravery was in constant evidence in those years. They faced down soldiers who broke into their home while the children hid in the bedroom, and when Ficre was a teenager his mother retrieved him from the front lines where he'd gone to enlist and promptly arranged for him to leave the country. So at sixteen, Ficre was a refugee, first in Sudan, then Italy, then Germany, and finally in the United States at the age of nineteen, in San Jose, New York City, and then, for almost thirty years, in the perhaps unlikely place of New Haven, Connecticut.

Before he came to this country, Ficre was exposed to U.S. black power rhetorics—an early visual icon for him was Angela Davis's luminous Afro—and thinkers such as Martinican Frantz Fanon. Black soul music from Sam Cooke to James Brown rocked in his head along with Fela Kuti's Afro-beat and Bob Marley's reggae. Thus culturally he was a global diasporist, a "conscious synchretist," in his own words. He was proudly and resolutely Eritrean, East African, and African. At the same time, he was unambiguous about being a black Eritrean American.

In a 2000 artist's statement, Ficre told his story and described himself and his creative influences:


  • "THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD simply took my breath away."—First Lady Michelle Obama, MORE
  • "This is a beautifully written, heartrendingly candid account of the abrupt loss of her husband by the distinguished poet Elizabeth Alexander. It is a vivid, intensely rendered elegy of a remarkable man--husband, father, artist, chef. Both a memoir and a portrait of a marriage, THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD is, as its title suggests, a bittersweet testament to love and the memory of love, one of the most compelling memoirs of loss that I have ever read."—Joyce Carol Oates
  • "Elizabeth Alexander has written a brave and beautiful book about love and loss-the deep pain that comes with such a loss, and the redemptive realization that such pain is a small price to pay for such a love."—Jeannette Walls, New York Times bestselling author of The Glass Castle
  • "This is a gorgeous love story, written by one of America's greatest contemporary poets. Graceful in its simplicity, sweeping in scope, this book is proof that behind the boarded up windows of America's roiled marriages and ruined affairs, true love still exists, and where it does exist, it graces the world-and us-with light and hope. Elizabeth Alexander is a prose writer of deep talent and affecting skill. With ease, she peels back layer after layer to show the soft secrets of affection, the kindness, and the wide open generosity of a full hearted man and talented artist, who had more love to give in his relatively short lifetime than most of us will ever know."—James McBride, National Book Award-winning author of The Good Lord Bird and #1 New York Times bestseller The Color of Water
  • "Remarkably uplifting."—The Washington Post
  • "She shows us how feeding your family and remembering to be aware of the small details of everyday life are the bedrocks of true connection. In this book of prose, each page is a poem."—O, The Oprah Magazine
  • "It is both raw and exquisitely crafted, mercilessly direct and sometimes lavishly metaphorical... THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD is, quite simply, a miracle."—Boston Sunday Globe
  • "THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD is crushing, lovely, painful, and above all powerful. It is difficult to believe that anyone who has suffered loss will remain unaffected by this marvelous book."—New York Journal of Books
  • "[An] elegantly drawn memoir."—Los Angeles Times Book Review
  • "THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD is as beautiful and moving as a gorgeous piece of music. The minute I finished it, I longed to read it again."—Anna Deavere Smith
  • "A radiant book of love's everlastingness and art's infinite sustenance."—Booklist (starred review)
  • "An elegy that records, in hypnotic waves of love and grief."—New York Times, T Magazine
  • "In THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD, Alexander discovers a warmth that will remind some readers of the deeper truth of grieving: It is a sign of love."—New York Times Book Review
  • "[A] gorgeous and intimate tribute."—Newsday
  • "Feel[s] authentic and true."—The Economist
  • "A deeply intimate and lyrical portrait."—Essence
  • "In art, in poetry and in her community of friends and family, Alexander finds divinity. The memoir itself is, of course, art. Its eloquent, grief-struck gratitude draws the reader in, and we celebrate and mourn alongside Alexander."—Miami Herald
  • "THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD is a celebration of life, a portrait of grief, and a lesson in the healing power of memory."—KMUW
  • "[Elizabeth Alexander] is gifted with an incredible ability to put words to meter and create profound meaning."—The Root
  • "This memoir is a celebration of love, life, books, family, food and friends. Reading THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD is like reading an extended narrative poem, the main character, though dead, is fully alive on the page. This is more elegy than memoir, a tribute to her husband's memory-her memories of him with her."—Tallahassee Democrat
  • "Like a poem, so carefully has each word, each sentence, been chosen and polished."—Entertainment Weekly
  • "[In THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD, Elizabeth Alexander] tells a love story that is, itself, a story of loss."—WAMC Northeast Radio
  • "The book is a testament to ardor, and also to profound loss."—Valley News
  • "The poet's answer to her husband's death is spiritual and ethical."—Editors' Choice, New York Times
  • "THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD is an absolutely luminous read, the kind full of incompressible dimension best experienced in its totality."—Brain Pickings
  • "Beautiful, warm, lyrical, honest and reverent, THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD is a loving tribute to a much-loved husband, and to the strength, tenacity and determination of the wife left behind."
    Winnipeg Free Press
  • "Alexander relays the story of her husband's sudden death and how her grief affected her. Using her gift for words, however, she was able to find meaning in her loss"—BookReporter
  • "THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD is a tale of beautiful people who made a beautiful life together-a life of delicious food, fresh flowers, music, and friends."—Los Angeles Review of Books
  • "Accomplished poet Elizabeth Alexander paints the lush details of a life well-lived in her memoir, THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD."
    The Charlotte Observer
  • "[A] deeply touching memoir."—GOOP
  • "A powerfully poetic testament to living on through those we loved."—Family Circle
  • "This is a compelling memoir, told through a poetic voice that blends prose and poetry as Alexander details the death, the loss and the grief that she and her sons experience."—Neworld Review

On Sale
Apr 21, 2015
Page Count
224 pages

Elizabeth Alexander headshot

Elizabeth Alexander

About the Author

Elizabeth Alexander is a prize-winning and New York Times bestselling author, renowned poet, educator, scholar, and cultural advocate.  Her most recent book, The Trayvon Generation (2022)is a galvanizing meditation on the power of art and culture to illuminate America’s unresolved problem with race and the challenges facing young Black America.  Among the fifteen books she has authored or co-authored, her memoir, The Light of the World, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Biography and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2015 and her poetry collection American Sublime was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 2006.  Notably, Dr. Alexander composed and recited “Praise Song for the Day” for President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration.  Over the course of an esteemed career in education, she has held distinguished professorships at Smith College, Columbia University, and Yale University, where she taught for fifteen years and chaired the African American Studies Department.  Dr. Alexander is currently president of the Mellon Foundation, the nation’s largest funder in the arts, culture, and humanities. 

Learn more about this author