Mary Elizabeth Alexander was born in Allahabad, India, on February 17, 1951. She passed away on November 21, 2018 at the age of 67 (see obituary in the NY times). Her final poem, “Prognosis,” can be read here. Although christened Mary Elizabeth, she has been called “Meena” since birth, and, in her fifteenth year, she officially changed her name to Meena. Not so much an act of defiance as one of liberation, Alexander writes: “I felt I had changed my name to what I already was, some truer self, stripped free of the colonial burden” in her autobiography, Fault Lines (74). Representing her own multilingual nature, “Meena” means in “fish” in Sanskrit, “jewelling” in Urdu, and “port” in Arabic. Alexander and her family lived in Allahabad, yet returned every summer to Kerala where her mother’s parents resided.
In 1956, the Sudan gained independence and asked other Third World countries for assistance in establishing its government. Alexander’s father applied for a job with the Sudanese government and the family relocated to Khartoum. From age five to eighteen, Alexander traversed the waters between the Sudan and India, between Khartoum and Kerala, and between her immediate family and her grandparents. Once she was eighteen and had received her degree from Khartoum University, Alexander left her Sudanese home for Nottingham University in Britain. It was here that she earned her Ph.D., but her tie with India was not broken. She returned to Pune to live with her grandparents, and ended up working at Delhi University, Central Institute of Hyderabad, and Hyderabad University.
It was in Hyderabad that Alexander met her husband, David Lelyveld. In 1979, the two moved to New York City,where they still live with their two children: Adam Kuravilla Lelyveld (b. 1980) and Svati Maraiam Lelyveld (b. 1986). Alexander is currently a professor at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and still takes trips back to Kerala annually.
Meena Alexander’s literary career began early, at the tender age of ten, when she began writing poetry. While her poetry might be her best-known work, her works span a variety of literary genres. Her first book, a single lengthy poem, entitled The Bird’s Bright Wing, was published in 1976 in Calcutta.
Since then, Alexander has published eight volumes of poetry, including River and Bridge; two novels: Nampally Road (1991) and Manhattan Music (1997); two collections of both prose and poetry, The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial Experience (1996) and Poetics of Dislocation (2009); a study on Romanticism: Women in Romanticism: Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Shelley (1989); and her autobiography, Fault Lines (1993/2003). (See Postcolonial Novel, List of writers and Filmmakers from the Indian Subcontinent)
Establishing Identity in Fault Lines
Fault Lines is Alexander’s autobiography. Not only an unraveling of her past, the book also highlights themes that occur in Alexander’s poetry. As a result of her family’s relocations as a youth, Alexander struggles in Fault Lines to forge a sense of identity, despite a past full of moves and changes. Thus, this work revolves around the theme of establishing one’s self, an identity independent of one’s surroundings. In her autobiography she writes: “I am, a woman cracked by multiple migrations. Uprooted so many times she can connect nothing with nothing” (3). In fact, the title itself suggests a questioning of lines, boundaries, definitions of oneself. As Alexander writes, “I am a poet writing in America. But American poet?. . . An Asian-American poet then?. . . Poet tout court?. . . woman poet, a woman poet of color, a South Indian woman who makes up lines in English. . . A Third World woman poet. . .?” (193). Alexander searches for her own identity and self-creation amidst a world that strives to define, identify, and label people. These definitions of race and nationality prove difficult to defy. (See Mimicry, Ambivalence, and Hybridity)
The tension surrounding self-identification emerges in a scene where Alexander’s son, Adam, encounters a man who asks him: “What are you?” Adam, of mixed heritage, chooses to identify himself as neither American nor Indian, but, rather, a Jedi knight (172). Alexander asks: “What did my first-born wish for himself? Some nothingness, some transitory zone where dreams roamed, a border country without passport or language?” (172). Even choosing a cultural identification has its boundaries and borders by which to abide.
Early in her youth, Alexander’s mother tells her she must never take a job, that her work is to raise her children (14). Alexander’s choices obviously took her in a direction different from that which her mother had taught her, choosing both a career and a family. Thus, the process of self-creation for Alexander has numerous facets: creating an identity despite a patchwork past; fighting against definitions demanded by greater society; and, also, fighting against traditions and definitions enforced within the community. (See Gender and Nation)
English and Colonialism in Fault Lines
Alexander emerged from a postcolonial country; thus, her work deals with personal as well as national concerns. One of these themes is the use of the English language. Though she has written in French, Hindi and Malayalam, Alexander’s work is predominantly in English. As with so many other postcolonial authors, Alexander struggles in Fault Lines with the use of English itself:
- There is a violence in the very language, American English, that we have to face, even as we work to make it ours, decolonize it so that it will express the truth of bodies beaten and banned. After all, for such as we are the territories are not free. (199)
She also asks, “Was English in India a no man’s land?” (126). In other words, was the use of English a betrayal to India’s, and thus Alexander’s, past? English was a leftover of colonialism; of its association with British rule, Alexander writes: “Colonialism seems intrinsic to the burden of English in India, and I felt robbed of literacy in my own mother tongue” (128). Alexander struggles to develop her sense of identity in a culture still imprinted with the stamps of Britain. Alexander demonstrates in this autobiography both her triumph of will and her artistic talent.
Poetry within Fault Lines
Some of the same images used in Fault Lines surface in Alexander’s poetry. “No man’s land” is a particularly poignant image because it stems from growing up in a postcolonial country, where boundaries and borders are blurred into a “No man’s land”. Here, in an excerpt from her poem “Night-Scene, the Garden,” these images are very strong:
My back against barbed wire
snagged and coiled to belly height
on granite posts
glittering to the moon
No man’s land
no woman’s either
I stand in the middle of my life…
Out of earth’s soft
and turbulent core
a drum sounds summoning ancestors
through puffs of grayish dirt
scabbed skins slit
and drop from them
atop the broken spurts
the drum skins
with their flighty heels.
(From Fault Lines. New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1993.)
- Alexander, Meena. Fault Lines. New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1993.
- Young, Jeffrey. “Creating a Life Through Education.” Chronicle of Higher Education 43: 27. 14 Mar.1997: B8-B9.
- Alexander, Meena. The Poetic Self: Towards a Phenomenology of Romanticism. New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1979.
- —. Stone Roots. New Delhi: Arnold-Heinemann, 1980.
- —. House of a Thousand Doors. Washington, DC: Three Continents Press, 1988.
- —. The Storm: A Poem in Five Parts. New York: Red Dust, 1989.
- —. Women in Romanticism: Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Shelley. Totowa: Barnes and Noble Press, 1989.
- —. Nampally Road: a novel. Hyderabad: Disha Books, 1991.
- —. Night Scene: The Garden. New York: Red Dust, 1992.
- —. River and Bridge. Toronto: TSAR Publications, 1995.
- —. “Accidental Markings.” Modern Language Studies. 26:4 (Fall 1996): 133-136.
- —. ”Observing Ourselves among Others: Interview with Meena Alexander.” Between the Lines: South Asians and Postcoloniality. Eds. Deepika Bahri and Mary Vasudeva. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996. 35-53.
- —. The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial Experience. Boston: South End Press, 1996.
- —. Manhattan Music. San Francisco: Mercury House, 1997.
- —. Illiterate Heart. Evanston: Triquarterly Books, 2002.
- —. Raw Silk. Evanston: Triquarterly Books, 2004.
- —. Quickly Changing River. Evanston: Triquarterly Books, 2008.
- —. Poetics of Dislocation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009.
- —. Atmospheric Embroidery. Hatchette India, 2015.
- Nair, Hema. “Bold Type: The Poetry of Multiple Migrations.” Ms. Jan. 1994: 71.
- Rubin, Merle. “A Romantic Faces Reality.” Rev. of Nampally Road by Meena Alexander. Los Angeles Times. 27 Jan. 1991: BR1.
- Tammie, Bob. “Bombay and Beyond: Three Indian-American Writers Examine Cultural Conflict and Identity.” Rev. of Manhattan Music, by Meena Alexander. Chicago Tribune. 25 May 1997: sec 14: 1. Print.
Author: Carolyn Walters, Spring 1998
Last edited: December 2018