Meena Alexander spent her early life in Kerala, a state at the southwestern tip of India. She received her English education in the Sudan, traveling between her parents’ home in Africa and her grandparents’ home in India. She received her bachelor’s degree in 1969 from the University of Khartoum and a Ph.D. from the University of Nottingham in 1973. After teaching at universities in Delhi and Hyderabad, she moved to New York City in 1979. By the age of forty-four, she had published six volumes of poetry, a novel, a play, two volumes of literary criticism, and an autobiography.
Alexander describes herself as a “woman cracked by multiple migrations,” acted on by the disparate and powerful influences of the languages and customs of the four continents on which she has lived. Although her works are written in English, she grew up speaking Malayalam, a Dravidian language of southwest India, and Arabic, the language of her Syrian Christian heritage, spoken in North Africa. Her writing reflects the tension created by the interplay of these influences and serves as a way to derive meaning from her wide range of experience.
The most prominent theme of Alexander’s work is the difficulty inherent in being a woman, of having a woman’s body and coping with the societal, physiological, and personal pressures on and responses to that body as it develops through childhood into maturity and middle age. Her grandmothers serve as mythical figures with whom Alexander closely identifies. Her perspective is further complicated by her alienation from the language and culture of her childhood, and by her need to recover something of that past. The images of fecundity and beauty with which Alexander’s work is suffused derive from her youth in Kerala; these images may be juxtaposed with images of infirmity, sterility, or brutality, underscoring the writer’s need to integrate the fragmented components of her life as an expatriate woman.
The imagination provides a synthesis of the elements of history and personality in Alexander’s work. Her poems “begin as a disturbance, a jostling in the soul” which prompts her to write, seeking “that fortuitous, fleeting meaning, so precious, so scanty.”