The concept of six degrees of separation is endlessly fascinating. For the longest time, I have been putting off reading Elizabeth Alexander’s memoir, The Light of the World. Joan Didion’s account of losing her husband in The Year of Magical Thinking made me feel hollowed out with sorrow, and I hadn’t even lost my mother or my brother in quick succession by then. I was nervous to open up the vulnerability of loss of a loved one in Alexander’s account. Her book turns out (I am about half way) to be so buoyant with love that I need not have worried. Yes, there is the paralyzing pain of grief, the trembling on the brink of tears every day for months on end, but the memoir is so shot through with love that this is the overriding emotion I am taking from it.
I know from her memoir that Alexander’s family is descended, in part, from African slaves, and I know that the love of her life, Ficre Ghebreyesus, was a political refugee from war-ravaged Eritrea in East Africa. Although I am not a poet, and am not of that world, I have picked up glancing references to Alexander over the years; most especially when she wrote and recited her poem, Praise Song for the Day, for Barack Obama’s first inauguration. Today, I felt that urge, as I usually do when I feel a connection to a writer, to find out more. Thank you Wikipedia.
Imagine my surprise to discover that her first book of poetry is called The Venus Hottentot. “Hottentot,” the (now derogatory) term for the ancient Khoi people of South Africa, is a word and concept I grew up with. Wiki tells us that Alexander’s title “comes from Sarah Baartman, a 19th-century South African woman of the Khoikhoi ethnic group.” The “Venus Hottentot’s” story is yet another aching fragment of South Africa’s history, and this African American writer, who has drawn me into her world and emotions through her words, took something from my native country to make a piercing cri de coeur. This kind of looping connection make me feel as if there is, after all, a thread that links us in this chaotic life we live.