Elizabeth Gilbert believes one need not go looking for suffering. “It will come and find you. And then, it will knock at your door,” the author reassures during her session on fiction writing at Jaipur Literature Festival. Gilbert’s oeuvre has been as much about looking out for others as it has been about looking inside at her own soul; her words infected by her life and, in turn, infecting others. Her 2006 memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, considered one of her most celebrated works, bears a fitting testimony to this symbiotic relationship as it changed her life as much it did of the many who read it “Women routinely tell me that the path of their life changed after reading the book. For many, it was the first book which told them that their life belonged to themselves. If that alone is the purpose in my life, I am happy with it.” The book she is currently writing is on grief, an emotion she feels is extremely similar to love. An emotion which, much like love, is not a noun but a verb.
Her life has served as a text and a subtext to her work. In 2016, the author announced her divorce with José Nunes (the man she falls in love with at the end of Eat, Pray, Love). “[T]his is a story that I am living — not a story that I am telling,” she had written in a long Facebook post. Months later, she wrote another post informing her readers (she refers to them as Dear Ones) that her best friend for 15 years, Rayya Elias was diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer and Gilbert was leaving everything to be with her. “For those of you who are doing the math here, and who are wondering if this situation is why my marriage came to an end this spring, the simple answer is yes,” she disclosed. Gilbert speaks about Elias in present tense, says they are still in a relationship and then, as if caught letting out a secret, hastily adds, “I don’t expect you to get it.”
It was this similar sense of mysticism— her “dance” with it — that helped her cope with the devastating loss. She had almost abandoned writing her new novel City of Girls — a coming-of-age story situated in New York prior to World War II — after Elias’ death (“I could not care for the book”) but received a signal which convinced her to continue writing. “After she died I just got a message, I call it mothership, that told me that the best possible thing for me to do would be to write. Writing gave me a job and I am so grateful that I had something to do which is all consuming. For a few hours every day I did not grieve.” The result was a dazzling book coloured with everything Gilbert has come to be known for — sensuality, frivolity and an unabashedness that shuns shame. But at its centre lies female friendships, the emotional sustenance and comfort which come with it. “At some point in a woman’s life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time. After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is,” Vivian, the protagonist says, looking back at her life. City of Girls is Gilbert’s non-apologia for who she is and what she chose to do with her life.
Elias continues to be “her person” (Gilbert uses the term endearingly in the same post). “I could not live without her and the good thing is I don’t have to. I consult her all the time and when I am very quiet, I can hear her. Either she is actually communicating with me or she is ingrained in me. She changed me. She was my teacher, my guide. My heart belongs to her,” she freely admits.
With the book she is writing after City of Girls, Gilbert seems to have returned to the quietude of her own self after a much public acceptance. Except this time, having lost the one person she could not bear to lose, she recognises absence as the necessary proof of presence; losing love as the validation of being in love itself.
“I have great reverence for grief. It is very, very inconvenient, as much as love. I tried very hard not to fall in love with her (Elias) but the heart knows where it belongs. You cannot negotiate it.” Grief, which she believes is a “steep tax” one ought to pay for falling in love, comes in waves. “It washes over me. But one has to stop resisting it. Learn to obey. It will not be forever. Surrender and perhaps one day, you can get up and eat a sandwich.” Gilbert lives in hope as she extends her hand again, to offer and seek guidance.
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