Interview: Meena Alexander

By Maxey, Ruth | MELUS, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Interview: Meena Alexander


Maxey, Ruth, MELUS


Meena Alexander was born in Allahabad, India, in 1951 and was brought up in India and Sudan, where she attended the University of Khartoum. After receiving her PhD at Nottingham University in England, she returned to India, lecturing in Delhi and Hyderabad, before moving with her husband, David Lelyveld, to the United States, where their two children were born. She now lives in New York City, where she is a Distinguished Professor of English at Hunter College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York.

Alexander has published eight volumes of poetry, which include Illiterate Heart (2002) and Raw Silk (2004). She has also written two novels, Nampally Road (1991) and Manhattan Music (1997); and a book of essays and poems, The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial Experience (1996), as well as two books of academic scholarship.

Alexander's memoir, Fault Lines, first appeared in 1993. A revised edition, published in 2003, examines the aftermath of the tragic events of 9/11, and uncovers a long-suppressed trauma from her early life: the sexual abuse she suffered from her maternal grandfather, whom she had depicted as a loving and enabling presence in the earlier version of the autobiography.

Arising from her multiple migrations, Alexander's oeuvre explores immigrant identity formation; issues of home and dislocation, especially as a result of war; the impact of multilingualism on literary production; the woman writer's growing to feminist consciousness within a postcolonial, patriarchal society; and her ongoing negotiation of a racialized, gendered experience of American life.

Alexander's writing has received critical acclaim: Fault Lines, now widely taught at university level, was chosen as one of Publishers Weekly's Best Books of 1993, while Illiterate Heart won a 2002 PEN Open Book Award. Academic critiques of Alexander's work have exposed its central concern with the relationships among language, education, and imperialism (Dave, Gairola); her open-ended approach to notions of home and identity (Stefanidou); and her complex, sophisticated conception of India (Grewal). Other commentators have discussed her position vis-a-vis questions of class, applauding her sensitive treatment of the poor and dispossessed in India and the US (Katrak), while also interrogating her own privileged background (Perry, Dayal).

I wanted to find out how Alexander viewed the movements among genres in her writing and to question her about the importance of artistic labelling; her relationship to the South Asian literary diaspora; her current attitude to issues of home, nationhood, and place; and her wider concerns and plans as a writer today. I also wanted to discuss how one might read the later Fault Lines in relation to the earlier version.

When I asked Alexander if I could interview her, she welcomed the opportunity to discuss her work to date and was generous with her time. She told me in the course of our meetings, which took place at the Graduate Center, City University of New York on 25 and 28 February 2005, that I had caught her at "a very interesting moment": working on a new collection of poems and a volume of notes and essays on poetry, migration, and memory, she was also in the midst of participating in the inauguration of a major new exhibition of South Asian American art, "Fatal Love." South Asian American Art Now" at Queens Museum of Art in New York, which ran from February to June 2005.

Ruth Maxey: You have written poetry, autobiography, fiction, and essays. How do you feel about these different genres?

Meena Alexander: I'm currently working on a book of essays and poems and I find it's very satisfying, comforting to write essays. It's more solid [than poetry], you're speaking a language that seems more accessible. It may not be, but it seems to be. You're setting yourself in connection with other writers or looking at some theory of language. …

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