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."
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).
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.
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."
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
(The entire section is 76 words.)
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 body and the spirit the outworn script of English as we find it here must be made to open its maw and swallow, swallow huge chaosses, the chaosses of uninterpreted actuality.
—Meena Alexander, "Exiled by a Dead Script!" (1977)
Within the developing group of South Asian women struggling with the paradoxes of writing poetry in English, Meena Alexander rises as a solid phenomenon, neither fleeting shade nor faint aroma, but pungent, sure, fully extended in time and space and motion. At age thirty-five, in the middle of the journey of her life, she has, unlike most other poets in India, already produced a substantial amount of poetry: five books in nine years, the last by far the...
(The entire section is 3736 words.)
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 journals, the volume has not been widely available to inspire—as could be expected—other Indian women writers. They will find here a richly imaged, sensuously imagined voice that extends the range of Indian English poetry far beyond the ironic parameters of the Bombay poets headed by Nissim Ezekiel. Only Kamala Das, a 1986 Sahitya Akademi Award winner, offers another, rather older, more rebellious, somewhat confessional, but paradoxically restrained feminist model, one that the younger Alexander has recently come to admire. For one thing, they share the matrilineal heritage of Travancore in Kerala, and Das's mother, the Malayalam poet Balamani-amma, was a close friend of Alexander's Syrian Christian grandmother, a repeated inspirational...
(The entire section is 628 words.)
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 severe formal folds in the fan meant that at any one point you only saw several bits of the surface, and those too, only for an instant as any one part fell into its fragmentary concatenation." Alexander's skepticism is not unwarranted given the uprootedness of her youth, with its numerous exiles in the West. 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. It seems, therefore, almost inevitable that she would consider a stroboscopic "bits-and-pieces narrative" to be "the only sort my life can fall into."
Happily, Alexander's life slips into some pretty attractive narrative containers. This...
(The entire section is 718 words.)
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 foreign-returned academic to the ongoing social struggles in India. The classes and college where she teaches—in Sarojini Naidu's old "Golden Threshhold" home—get only one full-fledged scene of their own, but there are abundant descriptions of the nearby streets, monuments (especially the physically isolated and totally ignored Gandhi statue), and public buildings: cafés; "hotel" rooming houses; a sad Divine Life/Hare Krishna temple largely for foreign devotees; a one-room clinic, where Mira's protector-landlady-doctor, called "Little Mother," ministers to India's many miserable, wounded, and ill destitutes. Most of the novel is set in Little Mother's house with its courtyard, roof terrace, overarching pipal tree, and blaring Sagar Cinema...
(The entire section is 791 words.)
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 education, my rebellion against the arranged marriage my mother had in mind for me, my years of research in England."
Nampally Road is Meena Alexander's first novel. It is an absorbing, lyrical story about a twenty-five-year-old who tentatively realizes that her poetic vision cannot accommodate the grim reality and chaos of daily life in Hyderabad. Like Mira, Alexander was born in India in 1951. Like her protagonist, she examines literature's ability to reveal and heal the dislocations that fracture life in a posteolonial, riot-riven land. Like Mira, Alexander is a poet, although unlike Mira she has three elegant collections of verse to her credit.
In 1976, when Mira arrives in Hyderabad, Indira...
(The entire section is 720 words.)
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 blood-related, one the sibling of the chief Romantic poet—work surprisingly well together. Alexander exploits their sharp dissimilarities, and sees them partly in terms of historical change, but there are unusual links made, too, as for example between Dorothy Wordsworth, Mary Shelley, and the Lucy poems.
Although she erects a conceptual framework around the ideas of self and subjectivity, the body and maternity, knowledge and power, Alexander's method is essentially biographical. The undogmatic stance is most effective where Dorothy is concerned, and the book might readily have been a monograph. Theoretical feminists will no doubt find the approach tame, even timid; of Dorothy's position in Tintern Abbey, for instance,...
(The entire section is 580 words.)
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 personal, somewhat obscure lyric sequences—than a set of polished artifacts, she early took up a body of basic symbols which recur throughout her verse, symbols which act as images for parts of the self and its desires as well as for the external world. A continual exile moving between countries and cultures, a student of philosophy, she is concerned with the construction of the self and its relationship to memory, history, actuality, and notions of identity, all the while aware that the discovery of the self through the act of writing is equally imaginative and based as much on wishes, false memory, and fantasy as on fact. If some passages of her poems appear facile in sentiment and underworked, others are intense and complex....
(The entire section is 491 words.)
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 to write. She is inspired by a childhood and adolescence full of the contradictions of a feudal Syrian Christian ethos: her grandfather was a theologian and nationalist, her father, a civil servant who had been educated at Imperial College, London, a royalist at heart yet devoted to the secular ideals proclaimed by an independent India. This was a family which valued the social gospel of uplift for the poor but did not question its own privilege, or the system of values familiar to the educated elite in the subcontinent.
From this seedbed, Alexander's poetic narrative develops through her awareness of the growth of the Communist Party in India which successfully ran her home state of Kerala for many years. Despite the...
(The entire section is 682 words.)
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: Malayalam, Hindi, Arabic, English, French. Of many worlds and of no world, her life in pieces, Alexander confronts radical dislocation and female invisibility. She recounts her struggles to find her voice, artistically and sometimes literally, as she moves in a world where wisdom holds that "The first thing a girl should learn is when to keep her silence," where only boys are taught "to read maps, figure out the crossroads of the world." Alexander's voice is a treasure. Having introduced how the memoir was solicited as part of The Feminist Press's Cross-Cultural Memoir Series, she begins:
Multiple birth dates ripple, sing inside me, as if a long stretch of silk were passing through my fingers. I think of...
(The entire section is 387 words.)
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 space for struggle and contestation about reality itself. Chandra T. Mohanty, Cartographies of Silence: Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism
"How does history make us?" is a question posed in Meena Alexander's novel Nampally Road. This question is the basis for my examination of post-colonial inquiry and studies of identity in Asians of Indian descent. The past influences the present and thus Indian cultural heritage is inherently tied to British imperialism. While most people would not deny this relationship, post-Independence Indian writers are still often trapped in the position of a Western colonial subject. Be it Western education. American lifestyle, or the pursuit of the...
(The entire section is 4272 words.)
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 write their memoirs is decreasing, raising a question about the value of a work which does not record the fullness of one's life's achievements. The author of the present memoir wrote hers when she was about forty-two years old.
Meena Alexander is primarily a poet, though she has written a novel and some essays and is currently a professor of English at Hunter College in New York City. The title Fault Lines suggests the impact of her exposure to a number of languages and cultures beginning with her early childhood; it is also a key to her "desperate awareness of [her] femaleness, a sense of shame." She is, in her own words, "a woman cracked by multiple migrations."
Alexander records her...
(The entire section is 441 words.)
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. Like Kingston, too, Alexander traverses generic boundaries, incorporating poems, reminiscences and mini-treatises, so that the very texture of the text is fragmented, and these fragments cannot be pieced together perfectly. In her opening chapter, Alexander asks how she can spell out the fragments of such a broken geography as hers, how to represent the fault lines that exist between her disparate existence. Her solution is to write in fragments, resulting in a fractured narrative that mirrors Alexander's own life. Worlds and words alike are askew. She traces her history across multiple geographical locations (Sudan, England, New York), as well as differing cultural environments, moving from an India in postcolonial turmoil and rupture to the...
(The entire section is 860 words.)
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 post-doctoral scholar who is too numbed by the chaotic state of the world to provide her with real support. He explains this to her by drawing a comparison to Frankenstein's monster.
[I]mmigrants are like that. Our spiritual flesh scooped up from here and there. All our memories sizzling. But we need another. Another for the electricity. So we can live.
In contrast to Sandhya's helpless depression, her friend Draupati, an American-born performance artist (descent: mostly Indian, part African, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and a smattering of "low European"), is able to create meaning through her art, in which she represents and attempts to define the...
(The entire section is 478 words.)
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 a hardcover edition of River and Bridge without eleven of the forty-nine poems included in the 1996 TSAR edition. Both the Rupa and TSAR editions begin with "Relocation"—"Scraping it all back: // A species of composition / routine as crossing streets / or taking out the garbage / nothing to blow the mind"—clearly a poem for a hip American audience, and they both end with the same poem in the section, "San Andreas Fault," indicating again an American setting for this much-traveled, supposedly "unhoused" or diaspora poet. "Relocation" also alludes to the preeminently American W. C. Williams—"The road to the hospital / is contagious already," and "as Broadway thickens with bicycles" presents "the imagination ordering itself." So...
(The entire section is 1060 words.)
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 story we meet Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, Indians from East India and the West Indies and from Egypt. There is ample sexual stuff (including extramarital affairs) and racial tension. Sandhya, a Syrian Christian (Catholics in Kerala call themselves Syrian Christians and regard themselves as above all other Christians and do not marry outside their group), marries an American Jewish gentlemen and is not exactly happy with her married life, harried not by any domestic problem but by her own voluptuous fancies (something unthinkable in traditional India). Draupadi, an Indian immigrant from the West Indies, is the other important character who exercises some influence on Sandhya, while the male characters are of secondary importance....
(The entire section is 503 words.)
Clausen, Christopher. "Romanticism Left and Right." Sewanee Review 91, No. 4 (October 1983): 672-80.
Critiques Alexander's use of "subjectivity" theories in The Poetic Self, situating her book in a review of contemporaneous studies of Romanticism.
(The entire section is 60 words.)