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."