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 largest and best. Her poems, often reaching beyond a page of narrow lines, have weight and extension individually and accumulate their feelings and significances collectively to build a full body of consciousness. If her just-issued book, House of a Thousand Doors (1986), is brought into the wider ken of other women—and one would hope, poets of every sort—also struggling to find their audience and language and subject in India, they will discover a thoroughly defined and exemplary artistry, undeniably contemporary in its increasingly simplified rhetoric and complex developing poetic. Meena Alexander could then very well become an emblem in whose sign others may inscribe their living wholes of experience, no matter how much their cultural condition threatens to make them aliens in their own land, in their own body, in the language they are appropriating.
This most recent work is much more convincing in every way than the flailing exploratory wordsmithing of her first two thin Writer's Workshop books, Bird's Bright Ring (1976) and Without Place (1977), or the eighteen still craftily obscure poems of flame and pain, blood, and vein, I Root My Name (1977). As if to prove the continuity of her work, she reprints five of those poems in this last hefty, partly prose volume with forty other poems, all but a dozen previously published in a wide range of journals in India and abroad. From the more mature Stone Roots (1980) she reprints only two small poems and a ten stanza dialogue, still somewhat contorted in syntax and symbolism and somehow related to a previously published play about a woman facing a wall, In the Middle Earth (1977). In fact, the 1980 book, from a highly regarded commercial press, already engages the forces and values, both social and esthetic, that make Alexander's whole body of work probably the most promising, and, except for Kamala Das', the most fully achieved by any contemporary South Asian woman poet.
Though literally, if not legally, an immigrant now in New York, the "roots" of which she writes are inescapably Keralan, Malayalam, Syrian Christian—not vaguely "pan-Indian"—that common fate of those exiled by the dead script of English and by spending most of their formative years in the shifting life of an Indian administrative family at home and abroad. Without disingenuously complaining of historically...
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enforced social and personal and esthetic alienations, she probes the actualities of her given and constantly changing situations and their relationships to other equally shifting conditions of living, past and present. Her complex personal being feels convincingly exiled not only geographically, linguistically, and phenomenologically, but by the politics of her sexuality with its marginalized gender identity, by her generational modernity with its morally ambiguous liberal-liberated outlook, and by her inescapable neo-colonial elitism with its guilty and hungry relationship to the so-called impoverished, underdeveloped Third World. All of these potentially abstract, inert conditions she compels into poetry. Not limiting her sphere of importance to feminist poetry, one can say that, except for two or three male poets, Meena Alexander has produced the most substantial poetry yet to appear in the genre of Indo-English poetry—if that is a proper term here.
Before this achievement can be placed, however, it is crucial to establish its material origins and its conditions of composition, which are not immediately those of India. Despite overtly declaring in both interviews and several specific poems her allegiance to Jayanta Mahapatra as poetic guru, and despite, indeed, a few painfilled gestures from that fine poet's darkly inward-curling, Orissan movements, Meena Alexander says she began writing poetry with Arabic speakers in Khartoum, where her father, a meteorologist, was stationed. She reports that her first efforts were in French, translated into Arabic for her circle of university friends there. Born in Allahabad, she had done some early schooling in St. Mary's, Poona. Then, continuing to spend part of each year with her maternal grandfather and paternal grandparents in Central Travancore, Kerala, she moved through two English-medium schools to the university in Khartoum; she then completed her formal education with a Ph.D. in English at Nottingham (the scene, with allusions to D. H. Lawrence, of some not inconsequential poems in Stone Roots). She also credits Brian Cox, editor of Critical Quarterly, with encouraging her poetic efforts in struggling Delhi-Hyderabad years of 1974 to 1979 or so, when as an appreciative "outsider," he told her of Jayanta Mahapatra's very relevantly indigenous and by then quite sophisticated achievements in Indo-English poetry that had also appeared in CQ.
That her Ph.D. dissertation developed into The Poetic Self: Toward a Phenomenology of Romanticism (1979) gives an indication of philosophical strengths that shape both her experiential material and her approach to it, as to poetry itself. For her artistic development reflects her highly intellectualized awareness of historical and literary continuities from Romanticism to post-symbolist esthetics, including, of course, the verbal strugglings and sensory-esthetic derangements of Mallarmé and extending to Marx and Heidegger similar tributes of interpretive incorporation.
So, unlike her ostensible guru, an Orissan college physics teacher who, until recently, has almost continuously lived in his native town, she has been thoroughly trained abroad for international (i.e., Eurocentric) post-modern writing, and, indeed, like several Indian poets in English, she makes teaching English Literature a scholarly, self-defining, relatively liberating profession. After lecturing posts in Delhi and Hyderabad from 1974 to 1979, she came with her American husband, the historian David Lelyveld, to New York City and teaches particularly Romantic poetry at Fordham University there. Thus she has available most of the professional and social and linguistic supports that American poets enjoy for developing their talents. To that extent, then, she cannot be grouped with poets in India who must write in relative isolation not only from this highly productive cultural garden (or is it an artificial greenhouse?) but also from a dominant English-using circumambience, an audience committed and, on the whole, limited to English and, except for translations, committed to the Amero-English culture which that language, even in its Indo-English variants, inherently embodies. Though obviously living abroad (i.e., self-exiled from India) she and her family of origin and her present family use English predominantly (if sometimes in mixed ways) inside as well as outside the home. Meena Alexander can speak—besides Hindi, French, and Arabic—her mother tongue, Malayalam, but she has not learned that alphabet, and so preserves it in her experience as an oral, never a written or readable, form and medium. That conscious Romantic preservation of innocent childhood vision along with the cultivation of English for capturing a particular Indian family's heritage (as so well exemplified by A. K. Ramanujan) could well extort a cost in nostalgic sentiment, the contradictions of disjunctive cultural revivalism (shown by R. Parthasarathy), and the strains and confusions of alienation from any coherent culture, of which Shiv K. Kumar (her sometime fairly irrelevant poetry friend in Hyderabad) often complains.
Most readers of Indo-English poetry will be alert to those hazards of modern esthetic alienation and the inherent ideology of English, and admittedly such lowered expectations can be met in Alexander, especially in her earlier books, which tend toward mannered modernist-symbolist rhetoric built on highly repetitive patterning of words and sounds with highly ambiguous syntax. While complaining obscurely of being "Without Place" they seem without compelling style or independent thought and feeling. Developing toward a simpler, more direct syntax, symbolism and rhetoric, the early "horrible involved poem," she has explained, was "… my maiden attempt to pose the problem. It is an attempt to overcome the rhetoric of false problems which are posed…. How can you write authentic poetry in India with English?"
In short, in Delhi and Hyderabad she muddled initially with the conventional questions of modern-modish Indo-English criticism until she found her own body of material.
Poetry is place. Reach out and touch your fingemails, your skin weep, weep at sightless wings that dare your quivering body through vacuities it cannot image cannot name to a century in her ivory season— frail mastodon with cracking tusks out of whose sinking hooves spring long-toothed lilies flaring mud. —Part 2, section II, "She Sings to Herself," from "Songs Without Place" in Without Place (1977).
Indeed, she is capable of this bald rhetoric even in a passage from a fine recent poem like "My Grandmother's Mirror":
Shall I rinse you to an image the moon can covet? You wince in my eyes. Come to me sister: my figures cut in a rocking glass pitch, then double themselves, tragic concupiscence that heals nothing.
But, on the whole, the later poetic performance manages to be convincing that its exile status comes from more substantial and particular problems than the inevitable modern one of trying to create a personal identity in poetry. She experiences exile as challenging not simply because of her family and educational and linguistic history, but also because of her elite class and female status. For the latter two conditions of her social being, even more than the former alien emigrant history, deprive her of direct access to the dominant experience of her patriarchal motherland. Yet she does not meekly accept writing from the margins of power, but makes them the frontiers of a feminist and holistic struggle for integration.
The first section of poems in her solidly constructed, but many-faceted House of a Thousand Doors is mostly about her beloved, housebound patrilineal grandmother, who spent important contemplative time by the wellside in the lower garden. These are followed by partly imaginary letters of the Gandhian political activist maternal grandmother, whom she never knew and whose good friend was another female national activist, Balamaniamma (mother of Kamala Das)—"numb in the fiftieth year of her life, with the loneliness that can come from living in a woman's body, 'It is a house, a poverty, my flesh is a history,' she murmurs." (It is this woman who is the putative writer of five short prose "Tales of the Emperor" that concluded this volume.) Later poems in the book deal with her relatively innocent, even naive mother's death—"Narcissus Never Knew Her"—with her own travails as mother, wife and woman in New York City, and with her attempts to return to, to appropriate a shape for her present identity, her family past on both male and female sides, and their Keralan place, as in "Poem by the Wellside":
Body, you're a stranger here I dare not touch the scars of stippled flesh milk left when it fled, a dry worn belly, palms filled with dark water.
(Palms, by the way, are a curiously persistent image from the very first books; perhaps not irrelevantly both the royal palm tree and the hand-palm are political polling signs for the Congress Party.)
To appreciate fully the non-strident, accepting quality of Alexander's feminist focus, it is important to know that Kerala uniquely maintains an archaic form of matrilineal family trees, giving extraordinary status to the female line. That she comes from Syrian Christian stock as well, a fact which accounts for her Anglicized patronymic, compounds her felt separation from her impoverished sisters, also culturally deprived by their extreme economic and sexual marginality which exposes them to terrible abuses:
Her life and mine are twinned blades on a butcher knife raised at dream point. ("She and I")
Despite appropriate expressions of outrage and despair at lower caste and outcaste female deprivation—including a powerful prose account of an out-of-state woman raped at a Hyderabad police station—she more often subtly interweaves into more immediate personal memories the feminist position she is centrally developing, of being metaphorically exiled from significant life by her female body, as in this passage of praise and horror about her grandfather as a magnificent, typically oppressive landlord.
I saw his stiff gold turban ivory cane, fit to crack a bullock's back, his cushioned chair with three foot arms drawn to the verandah's edge. Three deep in the sand they squatted there restless women, stiff with dirt. He screwed a silver eyeglass tight set tobacco to his lips then turned and spat past the overseer's shirt a woman's left knee scarred with dirt.
This is from a pared-down version of a powerful five-page poem, "Homeward, to Jayanta and Runu Mahapatra," that first appeared in the Summer 1983 Toronto South Asian Review. It is a complex evocation of inherited class guilt and deep personal trauma at the death of her grandfather, who, after all, was crucial in encouraging her intellectual development. The predominant emotion actually is not Judaeo-Christian guilt so much as tribal, family, or caste shame alongside awe at the grandfather, all framed by gratitude for the support in making this confession given by her listeners, the dedicatees, in their cosy home in Tinkonia Bagicha, Cuttack. As, in effect, foster father and mother, the Mahapatras help her to "close the wound" of exile years in America and, more important, to own up to the horrible guilty separation she once unquestioningly enjoyed from her even more oppressed sisters. During her birthing pains in New York these women come in dream to deliver her. Cut from the book version, the poem's final threat of violent retribution, though in the key of protest rather than appropriation, deserves reprinting:
You come armed with ten thousand sickles, crossed knives, you come under the shelter of flags coloured with blood. Joined with you We uncoil from flesh, station and name. Like fern leaves etched on a garden slope we rise from the mercy of dark water.
The allusive, densely metaphorical, almost vegetative manner of the final two lines more closely exemplifies Alexander's usual style than the previous pretesting—or the more traditional image that now is left to conclude this major poem:
I hear the rumour of armies. The armies of the night are gathering.
In general Meena Alexander's poems do not suffer from either lack of conciseness or over-directness verging on cliché. In fact, the casual reader may be troubled by the contrary difficulties, of densely compacted allusion and images together with hyper-sophisticated phenomenological observations:
when heat warps the pupil twisting the eye's dark trick of overture so fine, vision is undeceived. ("Narcissus Never Knew Her")
Such intensely private complexes of sensations and ideas may at first seem dubiously authentic. Implied analogies proliferate readily between various "exiles," especially those from using, perforce, the English language and from living an intelligent, independent existence within a woman's body far from the territory and protection of her family's "house." After we get the whole idea we may wonder whether it is largely a theoretical or poetic ploy; that is, is it mere rhetoric or philosophizing or personal excuse-making without a social and historical and experiential basis that works itself out honestly in the poems as written. She might, I think improperly, be accused of not just being overly ambitious in ideas, but of being intellectually defensive about precisely those forces of alienation because of gender, caste and class, colonialism. English higher education, liberal modernity abandoning oppressive tradition and the like, that she apparently is deploring.
But to read her as sending messages, propagandizing for feminism, anticolonialism, or even some merely philosophical stance is to ignore the precise effects which she achieves, not unlike those of John Ashbery. Seeking to appropriate poetically the particularity of her consciousness in all its phenomenal being, she abjures finding or creating any general truths in poems or, indeed, in living; and not in poems because not in life (as opposed to the Wallace Stevens estheticist strategy and without quite taking up the William Carlos Williams imagist gambit of "no ideas but in things."). Recognizing the challenges of writing postmodern poetry in English and of dealing in that mode with recent experience in India (though the House of a Thousand Doors also opens up her New York City alienations), Meena Alexander has had to give up the role that most Third World writers recognize: very simply, to teach, to bring appropriate ideas, questions, challenges, and supportive attitudes to the still largely traditional and pre-literate masses of people, and moreover, to do so in the languages and forms they understand. In desperation about their cultural isolation many poets have retreated to estheticism or attempted to interpret "India," that figment of post-colonial imagination, to an international audience. Though living abroad, Meena Alexander has not entirely abandoned a revolutionary stance—or is it only rebellious?—that she early undertook under Frantz Fanon's banner: "a man who could never forget the often retching [i.e., vomitously wrenching?] instability of an art which truly emerges from and through oppression" ("Exiled by a Dead Script!" in C. Kulshestra, ed., Contemporary Indian English Verse, An Evaluation, 1980). What makes Meena Alexander's poetry authentically of our time and global in significance is her achieving a thoroughgoing sense of oppression throughout contemporary existence, whether in exile in America or in the so-called Third World, whether in a male or female body, a marginalized perspective which she knows must be broken until each of us is in her or his own first world. Since that ideal state, that ending is not available to concrete thought, cannot now even be substantially imagined, instead, we can meet in her poetry, given sufficient effort on our part, a substantial history of our contemporary living as:
"A Time of Difficulty" Why is my mind so nearly blown away, the far quarter its rooftops distinct, square-jawed, alike though in the half mist that covers our city, doorways leading to broken stairwells, the prostitute's cry. The grandmother kneels in darkness the cracks in her kitchen wall sucking in chaos almost neatly Are those children then thumbing marbles, the glass smooth as flesh? Our minaret is bent, blue once, lacquered over in glory the subtle tiles riveting the sky, the sun unleashed to us. The mist is a lack there are soldiers in the mist one hobbles a little holding his foot, he sways against the stones The uniforms are drab with sweat, with dust from the uncovered graves we have cast outside our walls dug with our own hands to keep the blackness apart from day from light in which the children play their marbles shining as stars in a sky milky with cloud Slight holes pock the ground a marble flips, then vanishes; one cries out, a male child his voice astounding the soldiers. Violence is ill use of small orders; a voice shot free of the clatter of guns must hurt. Our precise settlements are blown as chaff from rice as dross from cotton the mattress mender heaps onto my doorsteps, an ancient man bent almost double, eyes gleaming with a cataract growth: his metal hooks glints, untangling, refurbishing our bedding. It was harvested not far from here a freckled stuff that in this winter light simmers and seethes spreading its unbreathable aura till all I see from my narrow chink is swept into it, mist sky and stone an excess I cannot word, a livelihood in a time of difficulty. Are the soldiers still tramping through? I cannot see. Are the graves drinking us? The walls still hold, I think a stocky tale bereft, the crannies widening. The children must have raced to another alley to unseen doorways, polished thresholds, hands with damp rags still labouring. Will the scorpions hold their sting?
Let me conclude by resuming how this fine poem embodies in a clearly flowing meditation so many feminist issues—the Blakean prostitute's cry among broken stairwells, the grandmother dealing almost neatly with impending chaos, the children's game played without the security of religion, among darkly threatening forces and open wounds only barely held out, the male child's potential for violence "astounding the soldiers"; then a rare generalization:
Violence is ill use of small orders; a voice shot free of the clatter of guns must hurt. Our precise settlements are blown as chaff from rice as dross from cotton
Yet rather than a female sifting rice, an ancient male figure "refurbishing our bedding" is expanded into the large concluding symbol of wholeness in living; it is his inclusive activity with cotton that protects as much as can be against the tramping soldiers, the open graves, the widening cracks, the children playing among laboring women, the potential for catastrophe.
Does the poem end with an allusion to Nissim Ezekiel's poetically famous mother, surviving a scorpion's sting to comment: "Thank God the scorpion picked on me / and spared my children"? That would suggest another stage of appropriation still to be achieved for Indian poets in English, that of constituting their own tradition of a truly Indian Poetry, one that will have to be regionally and perhaps religiously, at least attitudinally pluralistic and open. Though she is an immigrant making only sporadic physical returns to India, Meena Alexander has built her "stone roots" and contributed a solid body of work for that long-desired, ever-developing contemporary indigenous tradition. Within her latest poems she has embodied the full particularity of her many senses of exile into a substantial vision of struggling beyond suffering or mere survival toward a dynamic of integration; it is a process inevitably dangerous and destructive in its dialectical play, but solidly phenomenal, respectfully aware of male orbits and profoundly female, thoroughly achieving as poetic work that others, we can hope, will surely learn from.
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 resource throughout House of a Thousand Doors.
Alexander frequently visits her family in Kerala, in poetry as in life, but the poetic visitations are commonly at a distance, often as if from New York, her present residence. In the last, long, exceptionally fine poem "Homeward," "I take my turn, closing the wound of America" in the company of her main poetic mentor, Jayanta Mahapatra and wife Runu in their Cuttack (Orissa) home. The main figure here is an oppressive grandfather, a powerful Travancore landlord, dying in fear and excrement yet earning pity and the hope of grace so that in the end his complex guilts and inevitable punishment too are shared. Elsewhere and widely: anxious wariness, perhaps about childhood confusions, unknown resentments, angers, emotional surprises unharbored reluctantly but repeatedly by other family members—sensitive grandmothers, aunts, and mother as well as her American lover-husband and multicultural male child Adam Kiruvella Lelyveld. Thick complexes of feelings are engendered through dramatic imaginative encounters with other local Kerala figures: poor dark women praying, stooping plantation workers, a mattress mender, beggars, a stranger in Hyderabad raped by police, children playing marbles, fleeting goddesses, a girlhood playmate. Naturally, in a more Mahapatran way, the poetry is generated also in and by local Kerala scenes: garden wells, stony landscapes, thorny and fruited trees, silted marshes and paddy fields, boiling brilliant rivers.
Occasionally New York City streets and snows and buildings interact with ghostly Indian awarenesses—or indeed Alexandrian, for Egypt too was an early home for the Alexander family. Ever entwined with these phenomena, mediating their broken shapes, is the haplessly feeling consciousness of a fearing body, the impotent source of unwilled sensations, disturbed and empty desires, cautious affirmations. The poems are substantial, phenomenal, thus eminently feminist and deeply humane, resistant as they should be to other language—or to brief sampling. Nevertheless, here is the next-to-last section from "Grandmother's Mirror":
Wind skims the river moonlight mottles the guava bark tonight, for the first time I feel our childhoods would not amount to much in any one else's almanac. Ash pits where hen feathers quiver Bibles filled with darkness our dates inscribed inside like welts on grandmother's palm where boiling oil dropped. Odds and ends: worry beads smooth as olives a starched scarf printed with sun and stars, an ayah who polished chairs, bedstead, spitting bowls with her flesh then strolled backwards still waving, into water. Three days they searched in the black stuff the Pamba river throws up and didn't find her.
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 is especially true of the first section, entitled "After the First House," which looks through a child's eyes at the systematic dismantling of her grandfather's home, "as if it were a burial." (At this point a certain resemblance to another poem about the shoring of fragments against one's ruin—which also bears a vaguely apocalyptic title, broken into five parts and beginning with a figurative burial—comes to mind. Hmmm.) "[S]ensing her flesh as sheer fall," the girl channels her confusion into a premature awareness of fecundity—"I saw wild ants / mating in heaps"—and of generation—"the centuries swarm through me." Later, she dreams of the house as a desacralized temple, and here Alexander's careful listing of "precious sediments" achieves a splendid, incantatory power:
rosewood slit and furrowed turning in soil, teak, struck from the alcoves where the icons hung bent into waves
Despite Alexander's request to "[l]et me sing my song / even the crude parts of it," the second part—called "The Travellers"—is far less effective, relying as it does upon the didactic repetition of terms like "blood," "torment," and "tears" for emotional impact. To Alexander, the miseries of a family living in and out of airports, and those of the war-torn country it left behind, are apparently of a roughly equal magnitude; she speaks of her family's displacement as if it were a diaspora of epic proportions. Our sympathy is not only appealed to—it is demanded. But immigration also brings moments of bittersweet humor:
Who can spell out the supreme ceremony of tea tins wedged under the frozen food counter?
Ritual redeems—this, at bottom, is what The Storm has to say. First, however, Alexander must weather a disturbance that—not surprisingly—turns out to be personal rather than meteorological in nature. After a half-successful attempt to align her own life with the Ramayana in "Sita's Story," she comes face-to-face with the "bleak / vertiginous source" of her craft. The poem folds back upon itself, retrograde, questioning its own authority. How will she uphold the legends from which her land arises? (In a fascinating endnote, Alexander explains that Kerala is said to emerge from the spot in the ocean where the matricidal Parasurama flung away his bloodied ax.) Finally, she arrives at the climactic realization in "The Storm" that "these ceremonial motions / of the damned / healed us of ourselves / all exile ended."
Having tethered The Storm to the fixity of ritualization, Alexander finds in "Aftermath" all her elements "clarifying as line after line / unpacks into sight." In the crucible of art, the self that reflects, agonizes, assembles, comes to terms with the earlier self that merely experienced. Suddenly fragments are less sharp at the edges, narrative no longer desultory. The poem that is resolved in itself rings with a specific grace:
With the bleached mesh of root exposed after rainfall my bitten self cast back into its intimate wreckage each jot poised, apart, particular lovely and rare. The end of life delved back into the heart of it all.
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 hall next door, much frequented by their maidservant and her crass friend from across the way, Laura Ribaldo, who ultimately leaves Hyderabad for the supposedly rich consumer life of Calgary.
The issues raised by the action are complex and multiple, interweaving feminist with other political and social concerns. Mira, said to be resisting an arranged marriage by her mother in Kerala, freely, almost insignificantly, "takes off her sari for" Ramu, her intellectual companion and political conscience. The latter is deeply involved in Leftist-oriented struggles against a tyrannical chief minister of the state modeling his rule on that of the "iron-fisted lady," Indira Gandhi, during the 1975–77 Emergency. Margaret Thatcher also comes in for a brief bashing; so putting women in high political position does not seem a viable alternative to vicious male violence. What occurs as presumably "revolutionary" violence is, first, the burning down of a police station, a spontaneous response by a mob in revenge for police-army attacks on peaceful labor-union demonstrations and most immediately for the beating and gang rape by police of a "detainee," Rameeza Be, and the murder of her husband. Those like Ramu attempting to organize the downtrodden plan the next response carefully and direct the violence against the image of the corrupt leader himself, Limca Gowda, by burning down during his birthday celebration his elaborately erected cardboard city and VIP pavilion. Mira, having twice been brought by Ramu from Little Mother's house to see the scarcely surviving rape victim, first in the burning police station, then in a "safe house," remains largely an aghast, confused, and grief-stricken spectator. In the conclusion she leaves the carnage of the Chief Minister's celebration to find that Rameeza Be is at Little Mother's and is now ready to be nursed back to human life and touching.
Whether, as Ramu once suggests, Mira, as a writer testifying to oppression, exempts herself from participating in revolutionary planning and action, or whether this exemption stems from her bourgeois antipathy toward violence or from her unresolved socially defined gender roles (as another "Little Mother," as an esthete-academic steeped in Wordsworthian irrelevancies, as her lover's mistress), is not determined. She sees her self as divided, escaping commitment by leaping "from one woman's body to another." The action closes before these issues are fully faced by Mira or the author, who, as her poetry reveals, still in 1988, when she finished the novel, married to an American academic, mother of two children, on the verge of tenure and prestigious positions at two universities, was all the more uncertain of her own social obligations to the oppressed—in India, in the Third World, in New York City.
Police gang-rape scandals are an apparently permanent feature of contemporary Indian political and social life, as are the oppressive personality cults and tyrannical behavior of local and national politicians with their elite guards, but neither India nor the Third World has any monopoly on such atrocities. So in all three cultural venues both bourgeois and revolutionary socialist feminists will find Meena Alexander's subtle, deeply evocative, often poetic novel touching their own wounds from generally less violent but surely politically analogous ravages of body and spirit. A major contribution to South Asian-American fiction far exceeding, say, Bharati Mukherjee's novels in cultural richness, psychological complexity, and sociopolitical—not to mention feminist—sophistication, Alexander's first novel one can suppose represents her renewed initiative toward more socially focused writing about contemporary life, in America as well as India, from a self-exiled multicultural Indian woman's perspective.
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 Gandhi's national state of emergency is in full force: Civil liberties have been suspended, and lives are frustrated by new rules and dogmas. Taxes and tempers are on the rise. Mira and Ramu, a fellow instructor at Sona Nivas College, see a peaceful demonstration by a group of orange sellers violently suppressed by the local militia. A woman is gang raped, beaten, and imprisoned by a pack of policemen. Riots erupt and, just as quickly, subside. Against this tumultuous background, officials busy themselves readying Hyderabad for the gala birthday celebrations of Limca Gowda, the city's imperious Chief Minister.
Mira continues her lectures on Wordsworth, but begins to see herself as "a trickster at a fair who swallows pins and plates and apple and struggles to make them all rise up, whole and clean from her guts." A student challenges her by suggesting that Limca Gowda's public relations films are not such a far cry from the sententious poems of the Wye Valley poet.
Mira tries to write poetry, but can't: "The lines sucked in chunks of the world, but then collapsed in on themselves." Wordsworth, she remembers, "hated crowds." He wrote in a state of grace: tranquil solitude. He was able to separate his "inner" and "outer" world. Unable to distance herself from her surroundings, afraid that her poetic impulse is self-indulgent, Mira casts about for a new pundit. Should she follow the example of Ramu, her social activist lover? Durgabai, the selfless doctor with whom she stays? Swami Chari, who promises that nothing exists except Brahmin? In the end, Mira forges her own makeshift world view—one that's still a bit sentimental, but that at least sees individuals where once were "witnesses."
The dialogue in Nampally Road sometimes veers toward the bombastic. "The best I can do," Mira explains to Ramu when he tells her she's too quixotic, "is leapfrog over the cracks in the earth, over the black fissures. From one woman's body into another. From this Mira that you know into Little Mother, into Rameeza, into Rosamma, into that woman in the truck on the way to the Public Gardens. A severed head, a heart, a nostril with a breathing hole, a breast, a bloodied womb. What are we?" Ramu may think Mira is histrionic, but he resorts to lofty pronouncements just as frequently: "We shall live in the streets, my love. Like beggars, like birds!"
Alexander is at her most sophisticated when her tone is ironic—when she describes the political machinations of Limca Gowda, the pending birthday festivities, the history of Hyderabad, or Indira Gandhi, "our khaki-clad, iron-fisted Prime Minister … of the immaculate lineage and Swiss schooling, who on her New York trips made small type in the Times by buying her mascara from Bergdorf's."
Mira maneuvers through a welter of demonstrations, riots, and relationships in Nampally Road. And while she struggles to find a voice that can encompass the disorienting events in her life, at least we can rest assured that Meena Alexander has found hers.
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, Alexander writes:
While it is difficult to doubt the acute, pained love the poet bears for his sister, it is equally difficult from a feminist perspective not to acknowledge the sister's symbolic presence as subservient to both genius and desire, gaining power precisely insofar as she is gathered into his vision.
In general, the tone of the book is uneven; this measured justness elsewhere lapses into the gauche, and the introductory quality of the 'Women Writers' imprint militates against Alexander's thematic sophistication. Her theme is the problematic relation of women writers to the central and centralizing assumptions of Romanticism, as it is masculinely defined. Women are seen as tangential to and displaced by the male formulations of the period, including the myths of their own nature, and indeed of Nature per se. At the same time, Alexander's project is to relocate these myths in such way that it becomes possible to think in specific terms of a 'Romantic Feminine'. The placing of women in Romanticism also generates a series of qualifying insights into its male practitioners:
It seems to me that it can only render our reading of Wordsworth more complex, more true, to point out that the centrality of the ego he forged through his astonishing rituals of perception was perfectly in tune with the societal permissions granted the male.
There does remain the distinct problem, never really taken up by Alexander, of identifying essentialist 'male' and 'female' Romanticisms. On a practical level, however, the book rarely deals in crass oppositions. Alexander displays an awareness of difference among the male Romantics, as well as a desire to see the female in terms of their masculine others and brothers, as the case may be. A wide range of works are examined within a slim volume and with varying success, but the effect is not usually superficial. It is of Dorothy that Alexander has most scholarly expertise, and disappointing, therefore, that the texts themselves, even where relatively unknown or available only in manuscript, are under-quoted. But though at times I found myself impatient with the 'bite-size' sections, with the lack of quotation and alarming distaste for commas, the book offers an enlarged and enhanced view of Romanticism with many suggestions to pursue.
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 ten-part Night-Scene, the Garden is a poetic sequence in several voices and has been performed on-stage. It is less obscure than Alexander's early poetry, and some of its apparently unpoetic lines are strong in speech rhythms. Its focus is mostly on family and local events associated with Alexander's maternal home in Kerala, southern India, and with her relationship to the past and to her mother. Attention is also given to the father, a grandmother, the fate of several women, the illegal possession of the house by others, its repossession, and its subsequent history as the land is divided among the family. Among the many themes, however, the most significant is a childhood experience in a garden, when Alexander felt she could only possess the world through being a poet—which looks forward to her creation of herself through writing, a process realized by Night-Scene. If Alexander is in the tradition of southern Indian poets who often reveal a nostalgia for close family ties and in the tradition of Kerala women poets who in writing of the houses of their mothers and grandmothers affirm the matrilineal rights distinctive of that society, she is also very much a product of a Western literary education. T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets is present in some phrasing, rhyming, and construction, but more influentially in the general model of the significance of the garden scene, the various voices and characters, the use of the past, the meditational mode (if more intense and dramatic here), and the way places become a starting point for various experiences that the poem shapes into a comprehensive vision.
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 upheavals inflicted on the family by the claims of her father's professional life, annual homecomings which sometimes stretched to six months—from Khartoum to the village in Kerala, from English and Arabic to Malayalam, her mother tongue, from desert spaces in the Sudan to the shades of the vast ancestral house and the five-acre garden—drew the child Meena into a sensuous world where her grandfather led her "from sound to sound, from sight to sight, a consonance of sense, a shimmering thing that wrapped us both".
Alexander's deep bond with her maternal grandfather, and her honest appraisal of the histories of the women in her family, underline the intensity of her reflections, as they do another brilliant evocation, Sara Suleri's Meatless Days, which re-creates her family and society in Pakistan. Both writers are torn by the conflicting demands of the life of the mind and the traditional requirements of femininity. Informing it all is an ancient matrilineal tradition, a fairly widespread grasp of the English language alongside a rich literary heritage in the mother tongue, and a history of Christianity in India which did not come with the Empire but is as old as Thomas the Apostle. Exploring all these factors might have made for a clearer picture of Alexander's complex background. In the event, the episodic form of Fault Lines is reminiscent of Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family, his poetic account of growing up in Sri Lanka. Ondaatje joyfully celebrates what Edward Said calls "the reality of hybridity", while Meena Alexander, with the old nostalgias, the talk of wholeness and innocence gone, seeks space for ethnicity to struggle towards social justice and human dignity.
The English language and colonial history link the contributors to Shirley Chew and Anna Rutherford's Unbecoming Daughters of the Empire, an account of growing up in the colonies and in Britain which reveals how colonial power in India and Africa meant loss of the mother tongue, loss of self-esteem, struggle and violence. In Australia, the inequality was largely that between Protestant and Catholic. There is hardly a glimpse of the fatal shore. Some writers, Margaret Atwood among them, contribute excerpts from fiction.
The focus on school life, interesting and moving as it is, prevents the essayists from confronting the cultural complexities produced by colonial education, a phenomenon aptly likened to schizophrenia by the Indian novelist Nayantara Sahgal, who does grapple with the issues. The niece of Jawaharlal Nehru, Sahgal grew up thinking that going to gaol was a career. The Ghanaian novelist Ama Ata Aidoo writes of her grandfather who was tortured to death. The counter-testimony is provided by Marina Warner, who confronts with sensitivity her planter ancestors' complicity in the enterprise of empire. Her exploration goes far deeper than partying on Victoria Day.
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 lives I have known for forty years, the lives unknown, the shining geographies that feed into the substance of any possible story I might have. As I make up a katha, a story of my life, the lives before me, around me, weave into a net without which I would drop ceaselessly. They keep me within range of difficult truths, the exhilarating dangers of memory.
The memoir's consideration of poetic voice, and how it touches on ethnicity and on social injustice, ends with a garden that is a palimpsest. Back with her family for what may be the last time before her father's death, Alexander steals out to the old incense tree in her mother's garden, kneeling to touch her cheek to its roots, taste the raw earth. And beneath the scene in Tiruvella is that still more ancient garden where there is peace erased—but still barely visible, if only for a few moments, in a moonlit garden, back home … far from home.
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 American dream, Indian history is usually marked by what the British did for India and how Western technology and education brought India into the twentieth century. In "Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism," Gayatri Spivak notes that modern-day writers fall prey to the ever present shadow of imperialism as "attempts to construct the 'Third World Woman' [or person] as a signifier remind us that the hegemonic definition is itself caught up within the history of imperialism." She argues that the imperial narrative overdetermines the re-written post-colonial text in which the "new" narrative is always read in the context of the "primary" text. Thus the written works of immigrant Indian authors or Indian Americans have deep roots in imperialism. The commentary being made on India or immigrant cultures by authors such as Bharati Mukherjee and Meena Alexander is consistently influenced by a history dependent upon Western tradition; in particular, a Western culture that is idealized and where success is measured by assimilation of Western ideals and strategies.
However, Audre Lorde warns that "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never be able to bring about genuine change." And it is Lorde's words that differentiate Mukherjee's and Alexander's approaches towards post-colonial Asian American literature.
I would like to argue that both Bharati Mukherjee and Mcena Alexander in their respective works, Middleman and Other Stories, and Nampally Road, inherit and utilize the traditions of Western education and writing in an attempt to resist imposed stereotypical definitions of different cultures by the West. However, the methods they employ differ. Bharati Mukherjee uses the master's tools of Western narratives to critique immigrant life in the United States, but she does not propose any active processes of change. Instead she becomes a passive recorder of these events and eventually her characters are co-opted by the American dream. Alexander, on the other hand, questions her identity in relation to the past by addressing both her relationship and her main character's to cultural history and to writing itself.
Mukherjee's The Middleman and Other Stories, is a panorama of characters who adopt, if not always by conscious choice, Western ideals over the tenets of their own cultural heritage. Two stories that take these post-colonial positions are "Buried Lives" and "Orbiting." "Buried Lives" focuses on the travails of a Sri Lankan school teacher who attempts to illegally immigrate to Canada via Germany. The protagonist, Mr. Venkatesan, is a forty-nine-year old Catholic boys' school teacher who decides to leave Sri Lanka and find refuge in the Western frontier. His identity becomes an invention of his Western teachings, and when he no longer has his school teacher's English lesson plans to guide him, he takes his cues from English novels and Canadian tourist brochures and seeks his fortune in the West. The story "Orbiting," on the other hand, occurs in America and focuses on an Italian American woman surrounded by cultural diversity. The title indicates the position of the narrator as well as the people around her who move "in orbit" around the dominant society. All aspects of foreign culture are judged against the backdrop of white American society. Mukherjee shows that the influence of dominant culture upon identity is not limited only to immigrants but to different pockets of American culture such as the Amish. American culture, like British imperialism, interprets and develops a portrait of the "Other" that manufactures cultural identities as static roles.
Mr. Venkatesan's identity is one of the buried lives referred to in the title, "Buried Lives," and also refers to Matthew Arnold's poem, "The Buried Life," which discusses the wish to act upon pent-up desires. Mr. Venkatesan is buried under colon al influences and the mentality of the British Raj forty years after the independence of Sri Lanka. He measures his own life with the West as the standard of comparison. He desires to study in Oxford where "[h]e'd have studied Law. Maybe he'd have married an English girl and loitered abroad." Marriage to the English would give him access to the power of the British. By possessing a white wife, he would become British. And so, even though Mr. Venkatesan disapproves of activists with "family responsibilities sticking their heads between billy clubs as though they were still fighting the British," he is still obsessed with the British. But instead of fighting them, he seeks to emulate his masters. He participates in the British imperial project to create the domesticated native; a subject who forgoes his/her culture in favor of a superior culture.
He attempts to lay claim to British culture by applying to graduate schools in the West. He pleads in his statement of purpose to be allowed to become one of the English:
I live my life through their imagined lives. And Hath not a Tamil eyes, heart, ears, nose, throat, to adapt the words of the greatest Briton. Yes, I am a Tamil. If you prick me, do I not bleed? If you tickle me, do I not laugh? Then, if I dream, will you not give me a chance, respected Sir, as only you can?
Venkatesan is a passive figure that cannot act but instead desires to be acted on. He longs for the adventure and the knowledge as only the West can provide. Mukherjee is obviously exaggerating this characteristic by including the letter. Yet what is she endorsing in her writing? Her characters give up their homeland like Venkatesan to pursue adventure and the promises of the West. By doing so, they sacrifice their own identity in favor of the manufactured idealism found in books and travel brochures.
Venkatesan does not end up in America or Britain, instead he remains in Hamburg. The presence of the Germans is particularly interesting because the country is like a middle ground for Asians of Indian descent. At the end of the story, Venkatesan can become a German citizen and thus transform himself into a member of the European community, but the antagonism displayed by the blond German foreshadows his unwelcome reception. The details associated with Venkatesan's colonial subject position draw attention to Mukherjee's sensitivity to identities that are manipulated by Western culture. Yet she does not explore the loss and sacrifice involved in the choices of her characters. Is this ending really a happy one? A shotgun marriage to a naturalized German madam does not seem very promising.
Venkatesan's future stems from a past dominated by the notion that "West is best" and he seems ready to act in any way that will ensure him a place in the West. If Mukherjee is commenting on how Indians and Sri Lankans are influenced by the colonial past, she does not offer any resolutions or any attempt to change the status quo. Instead she highlights the problems, and as a result she falls into the post-colonial trap. In an interview, Mukherjee says, "For me, America is an idea, an abstract entity. America is a frontier that needs constant pushing." In her fiction, the gritty realities are just as important as the dreams of her characters, but in her interviews, the realities take backstage to the "frontier of opportunities" provided by America. Why not offer up a strategy to push post-colonial identities beyond the shadow of imperialism and orientalism?
Like Venkatesan, the characters in "Orbiting" attempt to establish roots and lay claim to American culture. As a second generation Italian American who works within the traditions of the dominant culture, Renata adopts Thanksgiving as a ritual holiday for her family. The cultural icons of the holiday are fleshed out during the story. The gathering of the family is part of tradition as well as the incorporation of new ideas from both Ro and Renata. The turkey in the Frigidaire, carved by an Afghan dagger, accompanied by traditional Italian crostolis marks an infusion of multiculturalism into the celebration of an American holiday as each character seeks to set him/herself as a part of American culture. For example, Renata's father prides himself that he was a fetus in his mother's womb when his parents came to America. Although he claims he feels grounded in the United States, he continually tries to justify his roots by watching sports and drinking liquor, imitating the stereotypical American male he sees on television. Renata's mother, on the other hand, attempts to "find herself" by taking college classes to develop outside of her lower class immigrant identity. Western education is her ticket to acceptance in America.
This dissatisfaction with identity extends to their daughters who change their names. Renata becomes Rindy and Carla becomes Cindi. American culture shapes their identities but in this case, they also choose to make these changes. These fictionalized names becomes a construct for an acceptable ethnicity. The family has an uncomfortable sense of ambiguity about where they fit into society. The adoption of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner becomes an attempt to define themselves as a unified entity in terms of the dominant culture.
The three outsiders who are invited to share in the family ritual comment on American culture by their position as "other." Brent is Cindi's husband, and, as the son of the member of an Amish community, struggles to break out of the stereotype associated with the Amish. He changes his name from Schwartzendruber to Schwartz. Brent is similar to and a more extreme version of Venkatesan, in his desire to be American. Moreover, Brent constructs himself to fit into "normal" definitions of the American male. Yet Cindi comments, "Poor Brent. He feels so divided. He shouldn't have to take sides." Brent adopts the persona of a successful businessman who drinks hard, follows sports, and dresses well. But according to Renata, Brent seems falsely constructed compared to the distinct difference of Roashan. In Ro, Renata wants to fuse his comforting foreignness and the encompassing dominant society into one:
I shall teach him how to walk like an American, how to dress like Brent but better, how to fill up a room as Dad does instead of melting and blending but sticking out in the Afghan way. In spite of the funny way he holds himself and the funny way he moves his head from side to side … Ro is Clint Eastwood, scarred hero and survivor.
She drapes him in the dominant culture blanket even though she herself is not a fully assimilated American. In order for Renata to fully relate to Ro, she must create a fictional identity for him. However, in this light, an invented identity does not necessarily function in a negative sense. Instead, she attempts to change the boundaries of his relation to the dominant culture. The only problem stems from the fact that she should be concentrating on her marginalized identity. By projecting onto Ro, she is as guilty as the pervading culture, of shaping him into an idealized version of the immigrant. Ro thus becomes subject to Renata's appropriation of his Third World identity.
Mukherjee's stories center around the pervasiveness of the dominant culture in immigrant society. She concludes that the influence of Western society cannot be mitigated, and some sort of assimilation must occur. Her solutions take drastic turns, many times requiring a permanent sacrifice upon the part of her characters. On the other hand, the America portrayed makes room for different cultures, ideals, and individuals within the system which expands the horizons of American culture. The disturbing aspect in Mukherjee's stories is that in order to be culturally accepted in the United States, the "old" culture must be left behind. Mukherjee depicts a world of opportunity but also one that demands a price—in a compromise of identity.
Mukherjee's viewpoint may not always appease critics such as myself, but her words are a launching pad from which cultural definitions may be questioned and modified to offer some practical strategies for transforming identity.
The protagonist of Meena Alexander's Nampally Road, Mira Kannadical, struggles to relate her Western education to the political unrest taking place around her in Hyderabad. The narrator and her friends recognize the artificial constructs of the nation and the government and reconstruct their surroundings through their collective vision. The story concentrates on the development of cultural identity as a stabilizing force. The narrator is a writer and teacher who attempts to negotiate her Indian identity with her Western education upon her return to a politically unstable India. During her first weeks back, Mira is caught up in the violence around her: the protest of the gang rape of a young woman, Rameeza, and the murder of Rameeza's husband by the chief minister's corrupt policemen. Mira is unsure where she and her ideas fit in a community that demonstrates and riots against the local government. The circumstances of this novel are similar to Mukherjee's story "Buried Lives," however, instead of fleeing India, Mira strives to express a fluid view of culture through her attempts to write and teach in India amidst the constant political protests. The incisive presence of Mira permeates the novel, piecing together the images and people around her.
Identity is measured through language in this novel. As the novel occurs in India, Mira becomes a member of the dominant society. And yet Indian culture has been modified by Western culture: the government communicates in English, Western schools are considered the best educational opportunities, and America is the land where success is possible. Instead of abandoning her cultural heritage and burying herself in her Western education, Mira seeks to relate her knowledge of Romanticism to the politically explosive situation in Hyderabad. Thus, the ideas she teaches and writes are affected by both Indian and English cultures and influence her expression.
From the onset, Mira's identity is etched in difference:
Though I tried I really could not write my story. I could not figure out a line or a theme for myself. The life that made sense was all around me in Little Mother and Ramu and the young students, the orange sellers and the violent and wretched, ourselves included. No one needed my writing. It could make no difference … I had no clear picture of what unified it all, what our history might mean. We were in it, all together, that's all I knew.
Her inability to write reflects her difficulty in reconciling the historical past and the present in a language of her own making. Trinh T. Minh-Ha, in Woman, Native, Other, states: "The structure is therefore not something given, entirely external to the person who structures, but a projection of that person's way of handling realities, her narratives." When Mira questions her use of form and vision she pushes at the boundaries of the traditional narratives available to her. The old narrative structures do not suit her so she tries to find her own answers by relating her class curriculum to a political rally.
Mira seeks connection through her knowledge of language. In the chapter entitled "Wordsworth in Hyderabad," she searches for a new vision with which to interpret her world. She focuses on the optical center with "lenses [that] are all kinds of color, pink, purple, blue, green, gray. See how we can transform the world?" Unlike Venkatesan in "Buried Lives," Mira is not satisfied with her British education. She desires a vision that can bring India and Romanticism together. Her vision is not singular but full of multiple images. Mira slowly recognizes the layered aspects of her identity. The gaze, be it of the reader or the writer, frames a response to the world as an object. This idea fits in with Mira's definition of Romanticism as "the belief in self, the sense that the object has value insofar as it is lit by the gaze." Her attempt to unify the optical center, Wordsworth, the orange sellers, the rape of the imprisoned woman, and the board meeting, is interrupted by her political activist boyfriend, Ramu. The politics of the situation defy any type of coherence of the situation on her part. This lack of unity, however, does not leave the narrator hollow. Instead, an almost positive affirmation of these events unfold in her mind that returns to the "infinite[ly] layer[ed]" identity. Mira is attempting to see several visions through several pairs of eyes. Her gaze is influenced by her different identities as a woman, an Indian, a Western educated teacher, and a writer.
Mira begins to see a form outside of the colonial narrative and essentially out of the written word. Instead, dream speech and dream sharing becomes a way to communicate outside the colonized word. By examining the process of narrative, Mira begins to understand the influence of the West upon her innermost identity, her position as a writer. She realizes the way she writes becomes the mold she is constructed in, and that narrative, form, and identity are inter-related, not separate entities. Trinh T. Minh-Ha's suggestion: "It is … as if form and content stand apart; as if the structure can remain fixed, immutable, independent of and unaffected by the changes the narratives undergo; as if structure can only function as a standard mold with the old determinist schema of cause and product." Alexander challenges the polar definitions of form and content and attempts to unite them. By the end of the novel, Mira finds expression through a community of women; a dream language that is unique to Rameeza, Durgabai, and Mira. Alexander's solution is to discard the English written word, developed by the West and by men. Instead she embraces a communal dream language that allows the women to express themselves, and escape from the boundaries of Western definitions.
The failure of normal lines of communication is also seen in Rameeza, the woman who was raped by guards in the jail. Verbal language cannot express her pain and anguish and so she resorts to a simple drawing of multiple triangles to express herself. The process, however, is not so simple and serves as a physical metaphor for Mira's inability to write:
She [Rameeza] picked up the pencil in her fist, a woman unused to writing. But it wasn't just that. The skin had come off on the insides of her fingers, and a fist was better.
Just as Rameeza improvises in her situation, Mira must also change some of her tools to effectively communicate her thoughts. Ramu tries to impose his own meaning upon the drawing as a model of the jailhouse in order to serve his own political agenda; but only Mira is able to interpret the lack of language as intense pain. The translation of Rameeza's pain is Mira's first success in articulating her own identity. By communicating the language of others, Mira begins to understand her own relationship to language. At the end of the novel, Rameeza's mouth is only partially healed, but her healing promises a new accessible language to the women in Mira's life: Durgabai and Rameeza.
The language that links them is dream imagery. Dreaming represents another plane of communication and identity. Mira recognizes this fact when she explains her position to her boyfriend Ramu:
Look, given the world as it is, there's nowhere people like us can be whole. The best I can do is leapfrog over the cracks in the earth, over the black fissures. From one woman's body into another. From this Mira that you know into Little Mother, into Rameeza, into Rosamma.
In the end, a community of women linked together by shared multiple visions serve as a metaphor for the layered identity, Mira becomes a fluid identity of three different women with three voices. They (the three women in the house and the multiple identities in Mira) reside together, expressing themselves as the situation dictates. This collective identity becomes the catalyst of Mira's writing in the future. Mira sees herself mirrored in the figure of Rameeza at the end of the novel: "As I moved forward the figure advanced. A woman. I knew her from my real life and from my dreams." This connection between worlds begins to break through Mira's writer's block. "She [Rameeza] edged closer to me. Her mouth was healing slowly." The image promises the restoration of language in time. Mira's identity can be drawn out of the collective woman that inspire her, and the language they return to her.
Mira's search for a universal language translates into a vision with multiple possibilities and opens up identity and culture to various influences, not just a monolithic Western culture. Meena Alexander depicts concepts of difference in her novel and supports pluralism as a means of reconciling an individual to a community. Although some may argue that dream imagery is not a realistic form of communication, I argue that dreams offer a hope of a change, a change to see a vision other than what is present. In a paper entitled "Real Places on How Sense Fragments—Thoughts on Ethnicity and the Making of Poetry," Alexander says "My job is to evoke it [her ideas], all of it, altogether. For that is what my ethnicity requires, that is what America with its hotshot present tense compels me to." Writing becomes a way of weaving her past and present into a presentable form that enacts her identity. Meena Alexander's questioning of her past and her writing opens up the definitions of imperialism, post-colonialism, and culture. The influence of environment or culture is integrated into the vision of individual with the intent, and in this novel, success, of modifying a world view. In essence, identity becomes multicultural instead of unicultural.
The major difference between Mukherjee and Alexander involves their individual approaches toward resolution of identity conflicts. Mukherjee's characters constantly chafe on the bit of the dominant society and thereby strain against the stereotyped definitions of identity. Their solution, however, often seems drastic; "murder" of or total disassociation from an individual's past life is necessary in order to be accepted by the dominant society. I believe that Meena Alexander's attitude is more achievable and healthier for "other" cultures. Instead of severing parts of their identities, Alexander's characters add to their identity with visions of Little Mother and Rameeza. Alexander portrays a collective identity to face the turmoil in the environment around her.
The lines of approach toward cultural identity, however, are not clear. There are moments in Alexander's and Mukherjee's fiction where each reverses positions and complicates any concrete establishment of identity. Alexander's collage of cultural icons and use of Gandhian myth is very similar to Mukherjee's tour of New York City in "A Wife's Tale." Alexander's descriptions sometimes function as passive commentary in a guided tour of Hyderabad. And Mukherjee's fiction remains powerful because of its lack of critical judgement upon the characters and situations in her stories. Mukherjee and Alexander do not necessarily present any answers but they do offer important alternative approaches in their fiction. I think, however, it is important to note Spivak's words in "Poststructuralism, Marginality, Post-coloniality, and Value":
In the field of ethno-cultural politics, the post-colonial teacher can help to develop this vigilance [awareness of societal appropriations of cultural identities] rather than to continue pathetically to dramatize victimage or assert a spurious identity. She says 'no' to the 'moral luck' of the culture of imperialism while recognizing that she must inhabit it, indeed invest it, to criticize it.
Though not discussing Alexander and Mukherjee directly, I believe Spivak identifies the difference between the two authors with pinpoint clarity. Mukherjee remains in the well cut groove of writing about identity conflicts and the exploitation of immigrant cultures, whereas Alexander recognizes her position within the culture and attempts to question herself. Meena Alexander works out a relationship between her writing and her identity that is influenced by the past but not overcome by it. The ability to recognize the powerful impact of the past upon her is one of the strengths of Meena Alexander's protagonist, Mira, in Nampally Road. Alexander deftly moves out of painting 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.
The ongoing processes that emerge from Alexander's and Mukherjee's fiction are just as important as the presence of their fiction. Their struggle to reconcile their Western education with their ethnicity is indeed a leap from the standard Western narratives. Out of their cultural inheritance, each author, in her separate way, contests the role of the Western colonized subject.
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 experiences as a child in Kerala (in the far southern part of India), in northern India, and later in Khartoum, Sudan, in Africa. Then her life in England is described, and that is followed by a description of her encounter with life in America. Naturally, she was exposed to all the different cultures and languages of these places. Some of the chapters in the book had been read earlier as papers before various groups.
Alexander claims that she began to write poetry even as a child (reminding us of Alexander Pope, who said he lisped in numbers, for the numbers came to him). In these papers there are reflections, reminiscences, self-inquiry, search for identity, and the author's struggle to find a proper expression for a soul trapped in a woman's body. The telling, though simple, is not a straight chronological one but is now and again interspersed with reminiscences of incidents stretching across time and territories, making the whole reading interesting. At times, however, one raises one's eyebrows, as when the author recounts the details of her first journey, made when she was only four months old. Generally speaking, though, Fault Lines is an excellent record of a sensitive young Indian woman writer whose poetic expression is the consummate product of colorful experiences with many cultures and countries.
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 "elite" world of Western academia, where she encounters institutional racism for the first time.
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. In his book, Design and Truth in Autobiography, Roy Pascal argues that autobiographical truth arises from the author's attempt to understand the self more completely and to discover the sources of meaning in one's life through the act of writing one's story. Alexander is engaged in a quest for her own autobiographical truth, from diverse sources of meaning. At the start of her narrative, Alexander notes how many different stories she might tell, and how her story is closely entwined with those of others in her life. It is this filial interconnectedness, as that in Kingston's 1976 work, that renders Alexander's memoir epistemologically interesting. For example, Alexander's emphasis on matrilineal connection can be seen in direct contrast to the individualist, self-aggrandizing tendency of more traditional autobiographical works.
In Fault Lines, there are frequent reminders of the subjective and selective nature of memory recall, and Alexander repeatedly highlights the limitations of memory and the ramifications of this for her narrative. Of her Grandmother Kunju we are told that Meena never knew her herself, but she reconstructs her through information she has gleaned from her relatives. Again, the similarity to The Woman Warrior is evident: like Kingston and her "no-name aunt," Alexander goes on a textual search for an elusive female relative. Grandmother Kunju's biography offers Meena an empowering version of female selfhood to live up to as an educated and well-traveled woman and activist in early twentieth-century India. In common with Kingston's imaginative reconstruction of her deceased aunt's story, what Meena does not know, she imagines, literally spinning a yarn of her grandmother's life for her reader. She writes: "I was filled with longing for an ancestral figure who would allow my mouth to open, permit me a voice…. I … made up a grandmother figure, part ghost, part flesh." Again, this theme of the female forebear's haunting the text can also be found in such other Asian American autobiographical fictions as Joy Kogawa's Obasan and Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior. Other female relatives who appear to have formative influence on Meena include her mother, Amma, and her maternal grandmother, Mariamma. Meena's mother, in particular, is accredited as a primary referent: "ever since I can remember, amma and I have been raveled together in net after net of time … without her, I would not be…." Thus, Fault Lines can be seen as part of an emergent autobiographical tradition, exploring not only life at the interstices of racial and gender liminality, but also acknowledging a substantial debt to the power, strength and influence of the various maternal presences in the daughter's life.
In addition to questioning her status as "Indian, Other," Alexander charts her experiences as a woman in both an occidental and oriental context. She interrogates issues and practices such as clitoridectomy, arranged marriage and education for women, through an exploration of her own emerging feminism. From her Khartoum journal entries: "If you want me to live as a woman, why educate me?" to her later recounting of more public oppression: "The trouble was what I was, quite literally: female, Indian," Alexander traces her path towards "a new baptism" of feminist consciousness. Alexander's final recognition is that it is her 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. As "a woman cracked by multiple migrations," Alexander's voice joins a growing choir of multiethnic female voices singing the diaspora story. Alexander's text is not as accomplished as The Woman Warrior; yet it is nevertheless an important contribution to the evolving new genre of women's autobiographical writing of the diaspora.
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 "Race-Ethnicity-Gender-CrossTalk thing."
That's what the book attempts to define, too, sometimes a little awkwardly. World events form a constant backdrop without affecting characters or plot. The Persian Gulf war begins, Rajiv Gandhi is assassinated, a bomb explodes in the World Trade Center, the Branch Davidians are incinerated. The characters respond with shock, or bemusement, or philosophical comments, as people do, but these events sometimes distract from the narrative, presented by various characters in fascinating mixes of present, past and dreamed experiences. When Sandhya's cousin, Jay, a globetrotting photographer, briefly encounters a deranged, bigoted Vietnam veteran, the madman's few lines of ravings make a more-pointed and poignant statement about the horrors of war and racism than handwringing recitals of atrocities and speculations about what the world is coming to.
The book suggests hope, through improved communication and technology, a global exchange of art, business, information and experience. Manhattan, the setting for most of the book, is used as a possible model for a polyglot, multicolored, CNN-informed society. "And mightn't one argue," someone says at a cocktail party, "that varied languages altered the structure of consciousness, made one better equipped for life in a world of multiple anchorages such as New York presented?" Sandhya's husband, a typically monolingual American, suggests it might be possible to live a worthwhile life with just one language. "Quite so," the speaker says, "but what of the … immigrant in Europe, in America? Who will learn their languages?" The speaker is writing a book on "post-colonial identity. New York City, of course, was the perfect place to put such a book together."
With Manhattan Music, Meena Alexander has written such a book.
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 initial note of migrancy is struck hard, as again in the very next, newly added poem, "Softly My Soul," with its allusions to "Liberty's torch" and George Washington laughing at "the gazelles on Fifth Avenue / tiny miniskirts hoisted to their thighs." But the improved TSAR version puts first what was Rupa's third section, "Blood Line," including the titular "River and Bridge."
The latter poem emphasizes once more the collection's key note: the separated shores of a dividing, life-giving natural flow of liquid energy are crossed by a single, thus comparatively feeble, human creative effort, a birth or rebirth, "a bridge that seizes crossing": "But Homer knew it and Vyasa too, black river / and bridge summon those whose stinging eyes / criss-cross red lights, metal implements, / battlefields: birth is always bloody."
Although it is often clearly feminine/female and occasionally hits a distinctly postcolonial/racial note, Meena Alexander's poetry as well as her prose predicates a distinctly nondualistic sense of herself as sheer energy—and, by extension, others of her sex and indeed the entire human species may be similarly understood. Many almost overt clues bring out of seclusion the still shy sexuality that she recognizes as empowering her creativity. Without denying the importance of her Syrian Christian heritage, she rejects Christian and Cartesian dualisms of mind and body in adopting an intensely personal and expressive English Romantic tradition, with a phenomenological assist from Heidegger. And yet there is something basic here from the Hindu culture as well that pervaded even her diaspora Indian background: a lurking image of the divine androgynous Siva as Destroyer and Preserver (as in Shelley's orientalized West Wind). The ur-goddess Shakti and/or Durga-Kali, imaging the frighteningly powerful female forces driving within all things, is traditionally also evident in Siva—or whatever the god whose name, shape, identity can be invoked for this world that is and is not, that we are of and not.
Again and again the force driving Alexander's poetry and the intense life she imagines arise in the blood of sexuality and passion, as in "Elephants in Heat." The rage encompasses beyond mere gender issues a multiplicity of protests against slavery of all sorts—sexual, racial, class- and caste-based, religious, or merely cultural—and against human viciousness, war, political murders, child and woman beatings, natural disasters, suicides, and other deaths by drowning. This last continuing and highly personal fear arises from the poet's childhood experiences with suicides of at least two of the family's servant girls, related or alluded to in several key poems here and earlier. Though a number of these poems are occasioned by external events in Iraq, South Africa, and India as well as Manhattan (the second section is "News of the World"), nevertheless the births of her children, interactions with her beloved (usually identifiable as her husband, quite poignantly in "The Unexceptional Drift of Things" and the new "Generation"), and especially memories of childhood terrors, deaths, and triumphs, provide primary motifs and materials.
Sometimes both the situation and the significance being wrung from it are rendered in oblique syntax and surrealistic or dream imagery; generally the poems remain at least elusive, unparaphrasable, yet a few social protests are relatively direct. The seven sections (seven pages) of the longest poem here ("Ashtamudi Lake," from part 3, "Mandala") center on a 1986 railroad-bridge disaster in her "home" state of Kerala; over one hundred persons were drowned. These drownings are taken personally, of course, by the poet-speaker retracing that journey, passing by the wrecked rusting train. Then an aborted sexual encounter of twelve years before is recalled, followed by three series of scenes drawn from the train's route or recalled from the past, both personal and historical (Vasco da Gama, Columbus). Although, ironically, it was burning rather than drowning that safety posters warned the train passengers against—using the Hindi word A-ag, Agni being the ancient Aryan, now Brahminical sacred flame—the poem's concluding section intensifies the poetic heat into fires of truth, of memories, of the family home being approached, of death seen as "a conquest."
Rubbing raw the nervous interstices of sense Desire's nuptial's lit in us no elsewhere here Only a house held by its own weight in the mind's space Its elegant portico of polished teak tilting in heat As we seize a door with an ivory knob and come upon flames.
Recalling her previous collection, House of a Thousand Doors (1988). "Landscape with Door," one of several highly evocative, evasive, private poems—"The iron rose / turns feverish as you stand / beside these trees that have no provenance"—ends with the river of heat localized: "Whole stanzas turn / bewildered, matches held / over torrents of fire. // Your hands / that touched me twice / unpack a square of paper // A child's drawing of a door, / a makeshift house / lacquered in flame." As throughout her writing, the high emotional energy in Meena Alexander's work draws on a kind of conflicted sexuality that has frightened and inspired her to sacramentalize her passions into poetry that will endure migrancy, mixed messages, the world's mire, memory's mendacity.
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 coda, consisting of four poems by Arjun Sankaramangalam, tries to bring the orchestrated music of Manhattan to a conclusion through sheer, unbridled fancy in its attempt to coalesce widely scattered events and things, even as the story does, and challenges critics to find in these pages reasoned imagination and imaginative reasoning.
One striking feature of the novel is its narrative technique. While an omniscient narrator reports all of Sandhya's thoughts and doings, assisted by the protagonist's flashbacks and remembrances of things past in India. Draupadi is given the prerogative of speaking for herself. For the epigraphs to the chapters the author uses quotations from a surprisingly wide variety of writers belonging to widely differing time periods, including Shakespeare, Kalidasa, Kafka, and Akka Mahadevi (a twelfth-century Kannada writer). She also shows a knowledge of Indian epic stories, held sacred by the Hindus and sedulously avoided by the more conservative Christians because of the taboo placed on exposure to other religions. There are occasional errors, such as the name "Sandhya" being construed to mean "those threshold hours before the sun rose or set, fragile zones of change before the clashing absolutes of light and dark took hold." In reality, this Sanskrit word means "the conjunction or meeting point of two time periods: night and morning, morning and afternoon, and afternoon and night." Before concluding, we should perhaps ask two questions. With all its Indic terms, baffling to non-Indians, to whom is the novel addressed? Second, granted that the sphere of writing is circumscribed by one's own experience, when do Indian immigrant writers begin to write of a wider experience and make an attempt to merge into the mainstream of American literature?