Meena Alexander (born February 17, 1951), poet, essayist, novelist, and scholar, died in New York City on November 21 after a courageous battle with cancer. She was Distinguished Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Alexander was one of the most accomplished poets of postcolonial India. She remained deeply connected in her writing to her Indian and particularly Kerala roots, while representing a cosmopolitan sensibility, one that had been nurtured in India, Sudan, England, and her final home since 1980s, the island of Manhattan.
Unlike many writers of the Indian diaspora, who primarily worked in the genre of fiction and achieved mainstream and popular recognition, Alexander continued as a practitioner of the lyric and advocated ardently for its place in the public sphere. Poetry and the lyric form, in particular, not being susceptible to commercial interests, afforded Alexander a unique opportunity to disrupt formulaic expectations of postcolonial literature as exotic cultural novelty for a western metropolitan readership.
She plumbed the depths of bodily trauma and memory in her lyrics, essays, and memoirs. Yet her work ranged from these deeply personal experiences to issues of global trauma and violence. She remained committed to a vision of gender, religious, and racial justice and used the symbolic form of poetry to envision cultural hybridity in India and the United States.
Alexander was born in Allahabad, India to a Syrian Christian family. Her life and literary oeuvre, marked by multiple migrations, began with her childhood journey across the Indian Ocean to Sudan, where her father, George Alexander, a meteorologist for the Indian government, went to work. It was in Khartoum, Sudan that Alexander first started writing poetry – her earliest poems were translated and published in Arabic translation in a local newspaper, when she attended Kartoum University in Sudan at the age of thirteen. Her early life was imbued with multiple fragmentary languages – the Malayalam of her ancestral home in Tiruvella, Kerala, Hindi and Sanskrit in Allahabad, English across India, and French and Arabic in Khartoum.
At age fifteen, she changed her birth name of Mary Elizabeth to Meena, the name she published all her work under. In her memoir Fault Lines, Alexander wrote that “Meena” means fish in Sanskrit and enamel jeweling in Urdu. It had been her home name and it was the name under which she wished “to appear”.
At age eighteen, she crossed borders for a PhD at Nottingham University in England, returning to India afterwards to teach at Miranda House, University of Delhi, and the Central Institute of English in Hyderabad, from 1975 to 1977, the years of the Emergency under Indira Gandhi. It was in Hyderabad that she met American historian of South Asia, David Lelyveld, in 1979 and married him. She moved to the United States soon after and began her academic life in the US. She made New York City her home since the 1980s, and she raised her two children Adam and Svati.
A diverse oeuvre
Alexander’s first poetry was published in India by the Calcutta Writers Workshop. In the US, her first book of poetry, House of Thousand Doors, came out in 1988, followed by River and Bridge (1996), The Shock of Arrival: Reflections of Postcolonial Experience (an anthology containing lyrical essays and poetry), Illiterate Heart, Raw Silk, Quickly Changing River, Birthplace of Buried Stone, and the latest collection Atmospheric Embroidery (2018). Alexander also published two novels – Nampally Road in 1992 and Manhattan Music in 2000. Among her works of prose, it is her memoir Fault Lines, published by the Feminist Press of the City University of New York, first in 1993 and then in revised form in 2003 that has received the most sustained attention.
Alexander’s scholarly works include The Poetic Self: Towards a Phenomenology of Romanticism (1979) and Women in Romanticism: Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley and Dorothy Woodsworth (1989). She was deeply influenced by the British Romantic poets whom she studied in her youth, but she struggled to accommodate this aesthetic into the development of her own poetic voice. In many of her poems, she returns to the theme of the burdens imposed by colonial language and pedagogy in the representation of her experiences as a female postcolonial poet. She captures this alienation between her intellectual legacy of British modernism and her lived realities in the poem “Illiterate Heart”:
Nineteen years old, I crouched
on the damp floor where grandfather’s
library used to be, thumbed through Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
thinking, Why should they imagine no one else
has such rivers in their lives?
I was Marlowe and Kurtz and still more— “Illiterate Heart”
a black woman just visible at the shore.
As the poem progresses, she documents her rejection of the script of her mother tongue of Malayalam, choosing to write in English, while still being influenced by her mother tongue’s lyrical cadences:
Uproar of sense, harsh tutelage:
aana (elephant), amma (tortoise)
A child mouthing words
to flee family
I will never enter that house, I swore— “Illiterate Heart”
I’ll never be locked in a cage of script
Alexander’s practice of melding fragments of various languages in her poems reflected a commitment to cultural syncretism in India and in the US. In an essay in The Shock of Arrival, she celebrates women writers like Toru Dutt, Lalithambika Antherjanam, and Sarojini Naidu as influential in her work. Simultaneously, she acknowledges the debt of American minority writers like Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Gloria Anzaldua and Leslie Marmon Silko, who influenced her own writing. She also acknowledges postcolonial writers outside of South Asia who have shaped her as a writer. These include Assia Djebar, Edouard Glissant, Nawal El Sadaawi, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o among others.
Dreams and reflections
Alexander constantly grappled with what it meant to write poetry at the present time and attempted to answer it in many poems and essays. When I interviewed her in 2001, soon after 9/11, she reflected: “The lyric poem is a place of extreme silence, which is protected from the world. To make a lyric poem you have to enter into a dream state. Yet at the same time by virtue of that disconnect, it becomes a very intense place to reflect on the world.”
In an address to the Yale Political Union in 2013, she continued to reflect on this question when she said, “Poetry takes as its purview what is deeply felt and is essentially unsayable; that is the paradox on which the poem necessarily turns.” In attempting to give voice to the unsayable, Alexander’s poems and lyric essays touch on buried memories of personal trauma and also bear witness to unspeakable acts of public violence. Whether it is the poem “Spring Already”, where she mourns the death of West African immigrant Amadou Diallo due to police brutality (a poem she first read at a rally Desis for Diallo in Jackson Heights, New York City), or poems lamenting the violence on Muslims in Gujarat, in poems like “In Naroda Patiya” in her collection Raw Silk, Alexander uses the lyric to witness, record, mourn and protest.
More recently, in 2017, she published a poem titled “Refuge” in the Bennington Review, in which she assumes the persona of Sarra Copia Sulam, a seventeenth-century female poet of Venice to lament the death of Turkish refugee child Aylan Kurdi, whose photograph on a rocky beach drew global attention to the Syrian refugee crisis.
Clinging to the fins of a dolphin
I have swum to Lampedusa and back
Do you know that
I have kissed the eyes of the child
Who fell off a fishing boat
Who barely floated, who swallowed
Sand and could not breathe.
Alexander earned numerous awards during her prolific career. Notable among these is the 2009 Distinguished Achievement Award in Literature, conferred by the South Asian Literary Association, an allied organisation of the Modern Language Association. She was the Poet in Residence in Venice in 2016, which marked the 500th anniversary of the Ghetto Nuovo. In 2014, she was named a Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study. Her death has submerged fellow poets, postcolonial scholars, and numerous students in grief. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who wrote the preface to the 2003 edition of Fault Lines, reflected on her life:
“And what a life! Among the numerous global literary allusions that litter the pages of Fault Lines is the figure of Walt Whitman. Like him, she is a poet who contains multitudes, and not surprisingly the word multiple is among the most potent that frequent these pages.”— Ngugi wa Thiong’o in the Preface to “Fault Lines”
These words seem to be imbued with the power of prophecy. Alexander’s words, like Whitman’s, are destined to outlast her mortal life.
Lopamudra Basu is Professor of English at University of Wisconsin-Stout. She is co-editor of the anthology Passage to Manhattan: Critical Essays on Meena Alexander (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009).