Elizabeth Gilbert and the Ghost of Rayya Elias

Elizabeth Gilbert and Oprah Winfrey

This morning I happened to turn on the television to find Oprah Winfrey talking with Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert, whom I had met in 2019 at a reading by author Azure Antoinette Varos. At the time, I had no idea that Elizabeth had recently buried her partner Rayya Elias, who was also an author and musician. After doing some research I learned that Gilbert had divorced her husband of nine years to enter into an intimate relationship with Elias, who had been her best friend for fifteen years. At that time, Elias had been diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer. She died within two years at age 57.

Gilbert and Rayya Elias

A Syrian-born writer, musician, and filmmaker, Elias’s own book (titled Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-Punk, From the Middle East to the Lower East Side) was published in 2013 with an introduction by Gilbert. In it, Elias detailed four decades of her life as a gay Middle Eastern woman in the U.S., from fleeing Syria at age seven with her family to Detroit, to arriving in New York City’s music scene during the punk era.

Elias became a heroin addict and spent many years living on the street. When she met Gilbert in 2000, she was working as a part-time hairdresser in an East Village walk-up. Today there is a plaque honoring her on a bench in Thompkins Square Park where she often slept.

When I met Gilbert in 2019, I was not yet a published author. In fact, I had just returned from Vienna where I had filmed my music videos, and from performing in Nashville. I remember telling her about the Fisk Jubilee Singers and their role in the naming of Nashville as "Music City" by Queen Victoria. I also showed her the picture I had in my phone of the portrait of the group commissioned by The Queen. She was fascinated as she had not heard of them.

It is remarkable how someone can be so well-read and so well-educated, and still not know about the Fisk Jubilee Singers!

Nina Kennedy and Elizabeth Gilbert

In recent interviews, Gilbert has spoken of other-worldly encounters and spiritual visitations. This is something we now have in common. I look forward to discussing these events with her in the near future.

Enjoy this conversation between Gilbert and Elias recorded at the Sydney Opera House in 2015 before Gilbert had divorced her husband.

Rayya Elias & Elizabeth Gilbert: Sex, Drugs & Hair, All About Women 2015


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