Meena Alexander

2004 EP. NO. 9
MEENA ALEXANDER is the author of many books, including novels, a memoir,literary criticism and poetry. Born in India, raised there and in North Africa, educated in England, Alexander explores themes of memory, migration and displacement in her work.

Born Mary Elizabeth Alexander in Allahabad, India, she was called “Meena” since birth and in her fifteenth year, she officially changed her name to Meena. Ironically, Meena, which means “fish” in Sanskrit, “jewelling” in Urdu, and “port” in Arabic, represents her own multi-lingual background. Alexander learned to read and write early on, and at the tender age of ten began writing poetry and by age fifteen, she published her poetry (in Arabic translation) in Sudanese newspapers. Her first book, a single lengthy poem entitled The Bird’s Bright Wing, was published in 1976 in Calcutta.

“. . . being raised as a girl child, I was taught very clearly that I wasn’t meant to write . . . because that’s not the sort of thing a woman did . . .”

Once she 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 her grandparents and ended up working at Delhi University, Central Institute of Hyderabad, and Hyderabad University. Her nomadic life also involved speaking in many tongues – her native Malayalam, English, the Arabic of Khartoum, Hindi and French. It was in Hyderabad that Alexander met her husband, David Lelyveld and in 1979, they moved to New York City. Alexander became an assistant professor of English at Fordham University.

Alexander’s writing has appeared in publications such as The New York Times Magazine, Daedalus, Poetry Review (UK), and Grand Street; and has been translated into Malayalam, Hindi, Arabic, French, Italian, and German. She is the author of several highly acclaimed books of poetry, including: House of a Thousand Doors: Poems and Prose Pieces (Passeggiata Pr., 1988); Storm (Independent Literary Pub Assn., 1989), River & Bridge: Poems (Tsar Pub., 1998); which reveals experiences and images where the political and historical merge with the imagined and remembered; and Illiterate Heart (Triquarterly, 2002), an intensely autobiographical book of poems exploring both the foreign and the familiar.

While her poetry might be her best-known work, her works span a variety of literary genres, including essays, memoirs, plays, novels, and literary criticism. Women in Romanticism (The Feminist Pr., Rowman & Littlefield, 1989), examines the work of three women: Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Shelley; The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial Experience (South End Pr., 1998), confronts stereotypes and explores the challenges facing postcolonial immigrants in America through prose and poetry; the poem-play Night-Scene The Garden (Red Dust, 1992 ); Nampally Road (Mercury House, 1991), a lyric narrative that focuses on issues of cultural richness, psychological complexity, feminism and social politics and VLS Editor’s Choice in 1991; and Manhattan Music: A Novel (Mercury House, 1997), which is infused with the power of myth, poetry, and the inner life. Alexander’s autobiography Fault Lines: A Memoir (The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1993), named one of the best books of 1993 by Publishers Weekly, revolves around the theme of “establishing one’s self, an identity independent of one’s surroundings.”

Her work appears in many anthologies of poetry and prose, including Truth Tales: Contemporary Stories by Women Writers of India (The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1990); Blood into Ink: South Asian and Middle Eastern Women Write War (Westview Pr., 1994), edited by Miriam Cooke and Roshni Rustomji-Kerns; Cast Me Out If You Will: Stories and Memoir by Laithambika Anterjanam (The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1998), edited by Alexander and Gita Krishnankutty; Translating Nations (Aarhus Univ. Pr., 2000), edited by Prem Poddar; and Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam (Three Rivers Pr., 2001), edited by Tony Medina and Louis Reyes Rivera.

Alexander’s writing is lyrical, poignant, and sensual, dealing with large themes including fanaticism, ethnic intolerance, terrorism, interracial affairs and marriages, and what it means to be an American. She has given us an unsentimental, multifaceted portrait, and her lyrical narratives have the eloquent economy that marks the best poetry. As a writer, Alexander is particularly interested in “fault lines,” the areas of fracture between one cultural tradition and another.

Alexander is Professor of English and Women’s Studies at the Graduate Center and Hunter College, City University of New York (CUNY), and Lecturer in Poetry in the Writing Program at Columbia University.

artistic statement
Life as it comes to me comes to me in a female body – so all the truths of my experience are female truths. I mean I’m a writer just as anyone is a writer, male or female, but the most intimate hum and flow and buzz of my body – just things like what it means to wear a sari in a certain way, what it means to give birth, what it means to menstruate, all of these are parts of the rhythm of my bodily life which is female. Coupled with fact that, being raised as a girl child, I was taught very clearly that I wasn’t meant to write, wasn’t meant to expose certain kinds of experiences because that’s not the sort of thing a woman did, so that was something else I had to struggle with but I think in the end it makes you stronger.

I think it is the pain of no one knowing my name that drives me to write. That, and the sense that I am living in a place where I have no history. Where all I am is surface and what is not reducible to a crude postcard dangled round the neck, a torn card with name and address pinned to the blouse, cannot exist, has no place. In Manhattan, I am a fissured thing, a body crossed by fault lines. Where is my past? What is my past to me, here, now at the edge of Broadway? Is America a place without memory?

Last updated 2009.

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