Meena Alexander Essay - Critical Essays

Alexander, Meena

Introduction

Meena Alexander 1951–

Indian poet, novelist, critic, and autobiographer.

The following entry presents criticism of Alexander's career through 1998.

Alexander is an Indian writer whose poetry and fiction reflect her mulicultural life experiences among diverse ethnic and religious communities on four continents. Generally concerned with the roles of place, memory, and language in identity formation, Alexander's works examine the disparate elements of her heritage and her cultural displacement, concentrating particularly on her status as an educated woman of the South Asian diaspora living and writing in the West. Alexander's search for psychic wholeness through language—a prevalent theme of her poetry—also articulates the concerns facing many postcolonial writers silenced by the dominant literary traditions of the imperial past. Critical discussion of her writings often centers on her contributions to Anglophone postcolonial literature, but scholars also have responded to her feminist perspective on literary and cultural issues. Alexander has remarked: "While I do not think I consciously write as a woman, I have little doubt that some of my deepest emotions and insights spring from having been born into a female body, learning to grow up as a woman in both a traditional Indian culture—South Indian, Syrian Christian, Malayalam speaking—and as part of the complex, shifting South Asian diaspora."

Biographical Information

The daughter of a diplomat, Alexander was born into a socially prominent, Syrian Christian family in Allahabad, India, but was raised in the Sudan, where she attended high school and graduated from the University of Khartoum with a bachelor of arts degree in 1969. She pursued graduate studies at the University of Nottingham in England, writing her dissertation on Romantic English literature which later evolved into The Poetic Self (1979). After earning a doctorate degree in 1973, Alexander returned to India and taught at several universities until 1979, when she accepted a visiting fellowship at the Sorbonne in Paris. During her return to India, she also published her first collections of poetry: The Bird's Bright Ring (1976), I Root My Name (1977), and Without Place (1978). Late in 1979 Alexander emigrated to the United States and settled in the New York City area, assuming an associate professorship at Fordham University. While acclimating to American life, Alexander immersed herself in writing. By the late 1980s she not only had contributed numerous scholarly articles to literary journals and feminist anthologies, but she also published the poetry collections House of a Thousand Doors (1988), The Storm (1989), and Night-Scene, the Garden (1989) as well as the critical study Women in Romanticism (1989). A lecturer in the writing program at Columbia University since 1990 and a professor of women's studies at City University of New York since 1992, Alexander produced more prose than poetry during the 1990s, writing two novels, Nampally Road (1991) and Manhattan Music (1997); an autobiography, Fault Lines (1993); another volume of criticism, The Shock of Arrival (1996); and a single poetry book, River and Bridge (1995).

Major Works

Marked by processes of mediation between and meditation on different literary and cultural traditions, Alexander's imagistic and somewhat romantic poetry attempts to create a sense of identity for the poet and represents a type of psychoanalysis through which different aspects of her personality approach some sort of order. Alexander's early poetry depends on, as often as it reveals, the interstices of memory, history, and ontology; for example, The Bird's Bright Ring juxtaposes images of blood, salt, and native flora and fauna with fragmented commentary on the sociopolitical effects of British rule in India. Although Alexander's verse generally favors Indian themes and imagery, feminist issues comprise the majority of her work, including her scholarly studies, and female narrators and characters dominate both her poetry and fiction. I Root My Name, for instance, intimates the painful experiences of women, while "A Mirror's Grace," a poem appearing in Without Place, recounts Cleopatra's struggle to resist slipping into the margins of patriarchal linguistics. House of a Thousand Doors centers on memories and dreams of Alexander's grandmother, whom the poet has described as "a power permitting me to speak in an alien landscape." The Storm contemplates the feminist ideal of recreating and rewriting a "pure" female self-identity from fragmentary matrilineal memories. In Night-Scene, the Garden, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and sisters figure prominently in the narrator's memory, which symbolizes a kind of "mother tongue" that encourages the poet to create a "new" self. The poetry of River and Bridge explores similar personal and feminist themes, focusing primarily on coping with cultural displacement, but other poems address myriad forms of violence and protest bondage of all sorts, ranging from racial and sexual to economic and religious. Like her poetry, Alexander's fiction carries autobiographical overtones. Centered on literature's relation to life and women's role as healer of communal ills, Nampally Road relates the story of a woman writer who returns to her native India following her college education abroad. She plans to create literary order out of India's tumultuous past by writing a book about it, but instead she becomes involved in the resurgent political violence that surrounds her and reluctantly learns that she can do little to stop the suffering. Set in contemporary New York, Manhattan Music traces a female immigrant's gradual recovery of her self-identity through a series of interracial, multicultural relationships and intellectual associations.

Critical Reception

Critics often have recognized Alexander's poetry for articulating some of the linguistic dilemmas confronting native writers of formerly British-administered colonies, noting that her imagery and formal structures, though reminiscent of European Romanticism and Modernism, are inflected by complex Indian rhythms, dense syntax, and South-Asian mythology. Consequently, Alexander has engaged the attention of postcolonial literary scholars. Ben Downing has characterized her poetic work thus: "Attracted to both the 'hierarchical unity' of Indian tradition and a modern, Western poetics of rupture, Alexander is faced with the difficult necessity of mediating between them." Alexander's fiction also has received a similar critical response, evinced by John Oliver Perry, who has called Nampally Road a "major contribution to South Asian-American literature far exceeding, say, Bharati Mukherjee's novels in cultural richness, psychological complexity, and sociopolitical—not to mention feminist—sophistication." Shilpa Davé, likewise comparing the significance of Alexander's fiction to that of Mukherjee's, concluded that Nampally Road represents more than "a narrative of minority victimage, and instead offers a reasonable strategy to incorporate the identity with the past by questioning the relationship between history and our cultural inheritance." Critics also have read Alexander's impulse to question her identity for signs of emergent feminism, responding particularly to her experiences as a woman in both an occidental and oriental context. "Alexander treats her writing as a search for a homeland, which is less physical than psychological, in particular her poetry, as a means of making sense of her multiple cultural, geographical and psychological positionalities," according to Helen Grice, adding that "it is [Alexander's] very ethnicity, gender, and exilic status that make her the person she is, and that it is partly the fault lines that exist between these identities that define her."

Principal Works

The Bird's Bright Ring (poetry) 1976
I Root My Name (poetry) 1977
Without Place (poetry) 1978
The Poetic Self: Towards a Phenomenology of Romanticism (criticism) 1979
Stone Roots (poetry) 1980
House of a Thousand Doors (poetry) 1988
Night-Scene, the Garden (poetry) 1989
The Storm: A Poem in Five Parts (poetry) 1989
Women in Romanticism: Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Shelley (criticism) 1989
Nampally Road (novel) 1991
Fault Lines (autobiography) 1993
River and Bridge (poetry) 1995
The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial Experience (criticism) 1996
Manhattan Music (novel) 1997

Criticism

John Oliver Perry (essay date Winter-Spring 1986)

SOURCE: "Exiled by a Woman's Body: Substantial Phenomena in Meena Alexander's Poetry," in Journal of South Asian Literature, Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter-Spring, 1986, pp. 125-32.

[In the following essay, Perry examines various manifestations of "exile" in Alexander's poetry, especially in relation to gender, language, and politics.]

[If the exile's] body cannot appropriate its given landscape,… the substantial body dwindles into phantasm…. Language … degenerates into a dead script when the bodily power of a people no longer instills it with particularity, no longer appropriates it in the expression of a emergent selfhood…. In the battle between...

(The entire section is 3736 words.)

John Oliver Perry (review date Winter 1989)

SOURCE: A review of House of a Thousand Doors, in World Literature Today, Vol. 63, No. 1, Winter, 1989, p. 163.

[In the following review, Perry sketches the thematic concerns and associated characters of House of a Thousand Doors.]

In a 1986 essay on Meena Alexander for the Journal of South Asian Literature, "Exiled by a Woman's Body," I praised the then-forthcoming volume House of a Thousand Doors and characterized the author as a substantially developed South Asian immigrant writer. Unhappily in the interim, despite publication of many of the collection's poems and brief poetic prose pieces in over a dozen different, often internationally known...

(The entire section is 628 words.)

Ben Downing (review date April 1990)

SOURCE: A review of The Storm, in Village Voice Literary Supplement, No. 84, April, 1990, p. 9.

[In the following review, Downing outlines the structure of The Storm, centering on the thematic significance of ritual.]

In her introduction, Meena Alexander compares The Storm to "the stiff palmyra fans grandmother had hung to the wall" during Alexander's early childhood in Kerala, South India. The autobiographical poem, by invoking "the poise of a ritualised order," serves as an artifact that rescues the ancestral memory of its creator from oblivion. Elaborating the analogy, Alexander cautions that such recoveries can only be momentary, incomplete:...

(The entire section is 718 words.)

John Oliver Perry (review date Spring 1991)

SOURCE: A review of Nampally Road, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 364-65.

[In the following review, Perry considers the narrative implications of the feminist sociopolitical perspective of Nampally Road.]

Based, naturally, on her own experience, Nampally Road, the first novel by Meena Alexander, India's foremost woman poet in English, for the past decade living in America, was begun in 1979, while she still lived and taught in Hyderabad. Her heroine Mira, who, like Meena, had just spent four years earning a Ph.D. dealing with Wordsworth at Nottingham University, now finds herself trying to understand her relationship as a...

(The entire section is 791 words.)

Nina Mehta (review date Fall 1991)

SOURCE: "Teaching the Sylvan Swami," in Belles Lettres, Vol. 7, No. 1, Fall, 1991, p. 46.

[In the following review, Mehta praises the ironic tone and confident narration of Nampally Road.]

When the priest, the butcher, the psychiatrist, and the candlestick maker can't explain and organize the world teeming around us, there's always the poet. Or so Mira Kannadical thinks. After four years of graduate school in England, Mira has found her guru: Wordsworth. She'll return to India, teach a course on her sylvan swami at a local college in Hyderabad and write poetry that will "stitch it all together: my birth in India a few years after national independence, my colonial...

(The entire section is 720 words.)

Nicola Trott (review date November 1992)

SOURCE: A review of Women in Romanticism, in Review of English Studies, Vol. 43, No. 172, November, 1992, pp. 569-71.

[In the following excerpt, Trott examines the methodology and themes of Women in Romanticism, noting the defects and strengths of Alexander's views.]

Meena Alexander takes Wollstonecraft to be a woman in Romanticism, rather than a precursor. Her book [Women in Romanticism] is most keenly aware, though, of the ways in which the term needs to be redefined if women writers are to have a place of their own within the Romantic estate. The three women in question—Wollstonecraft, Wordsworth, and Shelley, two tragically...

(The entire section is 580 words.)

Bruce King (review date Spring 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Night-Scene, the Garden, in World Literature Today, Vol. 67, No. 2, Spring, 1993, p. 444.

[In the following review, King situates the themes, structure, and voice of Night-Scene, the Garden in the context of Alexander's other poetry collections.]

A Syrian Christian Indian, Meena Alexander attended university in the Sudan, wrote her first poetry in French, wrote a British doctoral dissertation on German phenomenology, then returned to India, where she published three books of poetry before marrying an American. She now teaches English literature in New York. Someone for whom poetry is more a process—usually consisting of intensely...

(The entire section is 491 words.)

Maria Couto (review date 7 April 1993)

SOURCE: "Voices of Empire," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4697, April 7, 1993, p. 22.

[In the following review, Couto traces the influence and thematic significance of colonialism in Fault Lines.]

Both these books—one a memoir [Fault Lines by Meena Alexander], the other a vivid and enthralling playback of voices [Unbecoming Daughters of the Empire by Shirley Chew and Anna Rutherford, eds.]—unfold private lives stamped by Empire and shaped by emerging forces of independence and nationalism. Meena Alexander, an Indian poet, novelist and academic now based in New York, makes clear that the geographical and cultural disruptions in her life compel her...

(The entire section is 682 words.)

Lauren Glen Dunlap (review date Summer 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Fault Lines, in Belles Lettres, Vol. 8, No. 4, Summer, 1993, p. 43.

[In the following review, Dunlap notes the stylistic features of Fault Lines.]

Like Daly and Behar, poet Meena Alexander employs images of weaving and crossing borders in Fault Lines. A dizzying multiplicity of threads and borders distinguishes this memoir by an Indian woman who has lived many places and speaks many languages. There is a litany of cities within India: Khartoum, where she entered university at age 13; Nottingham, where she began her doctorate at 18; and that city where she currently lives, "where the whole world swarms," New York. And the languages:...

(The entire section is 387 words.)

Shilpa Davé (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "The Doors to Home and History: Post-Colonial Identities in Meena Alexander and Bharati Mukherjee," in Amerasia Journal, Vol. 19, No. 3, 1993, pp. 103-13.

[In the following essay, Davé compares the narrative strategies of Bharati Mukherjee's Middleman and Other Stories and Alexander's Nampally Road, concentrating on their different approaches to and uses of Western stereotyped definitions of cultural identity.]

The very practice of remembering and rewriting leads to the formation of politicized consciousness and self-identity. Writing often becomes the context through which new political identities are forged. It becomes a...

(The entire section is 4272 words.)

Susheela N. Rao (review date Autumn 1994)

SOURCE: A review of Fault Lines, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 4, Autumn, 1994, p. 883.

[In the following review, Rao emphasizes the variety of cultural experiences related in Fault Lines.]

Traditionally, Indian writers have fought shy of talking about themselves, and of the great classical writers of India like Kalidasa we know very little. Under the increasing impact of the West, however, more and more Indian writers, mostly Indo-Anglian writers, have been recording their life histories. Autobiographies and memoirs of Indian writers who write in English have now become a familiar and accepted fact of twentieth-century India, and the age at which they...

(The entire section is 441 words.)

Helena Grice (review date 1996)

SOURCE: A review of Fault Lines, in Amerasia Journal, Vol. 22, No. 2, 1996, pp. 164-66.

[In the following review, Grice offers a thematic and stylistic overview of Fault Lines in terms of an evolving, multi-ethnic, autobiographical tradition among women of the diaspora.]

Meena Alexander's Fault Lines locates itself in that in-between generic territory already occupied by another Asian American woman, Maxine Hong Kingston. Both subtitled "memoirs," The Woman Warrior and Fault Lines, are situated in the literal no-man's land of women's autobiographical writings of the diaspora experience. The similarities extend beyond the subtitle....

(The entire section is 860 words.)

Tammie Bob (review date 25 May 1997)

SOURCE: "Three Indian American Writers Examine Cultural Conflict and Identity," in Chicago Tribune Books, May 25, 1997, pp. 1, 9.

[In the following excerpt, Bob highlights postcolonial identity issues explored in Manhattan Music.]

The issues of identity and cultural displacement are the core of Meena Alexander's novel Manhattan Music. She has assembled a large, urbane and angst-ridden international cast of artists, poets, business figures and academics, all partly shaped by terror and violence. The central figure, Sandhya Rosenblum, has come to America as the wife of a Jewish man and lost herself in the process. She drifts into an affair with an Egyptian...

(The entire section is 478 words.)

John Oliver Perry (review date Autumn 1997)

SOURCE: A review of River and Bridge, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 4, Autumn, 1997, pp. 867-8.

[In the following review, Perry considers the principal themes, motifs, and style of River and Bridge.]

To indicate how difficult book publication is even for important Indian English poets, it may be noted that River and Bridge was substantially ready in 1988 or at least 1990, the manuscript then opening with an India-referring title poem used later for the fine closing note: "Deer Park at Sarnath," which thoughtfully, not at all sadly, ends, "There is no grief like this, / the origin of landscape is memory." Then in 1995 Rupa in New Delhi published...

(The entire section is 1060 words.)

Susheela N. Rao (review date Spring 1998)

SOURCE: A review of Manhattan Music, in World Literature Today, Vol. 72, No. 2, Spring, 1998, pp. 456-7.

[In the following review, Rao admires the narrative technique of Manhattan Music.]

What purports to be the lives and living thoughts and feelings, and problems and promises of a more recent immigrant group—namely, Indians from India living in the New York/New Jersey area—is orchestrated in the novel Manhattan Music by a successful Indian immigrant, who, herself having been exposed to a number of places and countries outside her own home in Kerala in the southern part of India, shows a sensitive awareness of the state of the immigrants. In this...

(The entire section is 503 words.)