- Remembering Meena Alexander
Whether they spring from memory, history, that which lives in the world, or that which lives chiefly in the imagination, the poems … lead us into the presence of stark, unmitigated, uncontestable beauty—a beauty capable of swallowing us whole.—Tracy K. Smith, review of Birthplace with Buried Stones by Meena Alexander
In March 2017 I had the privilege to read with Meena Alexander and other CUNY (City University of New York) poets for "Women's Words: Solidarity in Struggle," an event organized by our faculty union PSC-CUNY. Meena, Kimiko Hahn, and I shared a table on one side of the podium. Before we began, Meena spilled her cup of coffee and I jumped to find paper towels to wipe the spill. She thanked me and whispered that she was not herself since the chemo. I would not have suspected she was ill. In that golden, afternoon light, she was radiant like her poems. We exchanged a few emails following the reading, to make plans to meet and discuss the intersections in our lives.
I reminded her that we met twenty years ago for tea at her apartment. I was invited by her niece, the artist Ayisha Abraham. I was a thirtysomething, independent filmmaker, and thrilled to meet an Indian woman poet, scholar, and literature professor. Years later, I would switch from producing films to writing and teaching. Years later, I find myself, an Indian, immigrant, woman poet, indebted to Alexander. Her art and scholarship [End Page 279] on dislocation/migration/postcolonial aesthetics and identity flowed into the stream of discourse on voices from the South Asian diaspora. Alexander's experience spoke to me of a sisterhood of the tongues we shared, since I made a similar journey in childhood from being born in India, raised in Kuwait, and later immigrating to the U.S., surrounded by Arabic, Hindi, and English.
It was a shock to discover that she died this past November at sixty-seven, because my strongest impression of Meena Alexander in the handful of times I met her or heard her speak at conferences and readings was her keen appetite, ambition, and curiosity. And I naively believed these traits would keep her with us for many more years.
The poems are a sustained elegy for homelessness, for the displacement at the heart of human life.—Eavan Boland, review of Quickly Changing River by Meena Alexander
In my class Reading/Writing the Asian American Diaspora, I teach several essays from Fault Lines, Alexander's memoir published in 1993. These essays document the details of Alexander's exterior journey but not in a linear narrative. Instead they are woven into meditations on spatiality, geography, and temporality created by the experience of dislocation and migration. The intriguing outline of her exterior journey—born in Allahabad, India; moved with her family at age five to Khartoum, Sudan; studied at the University of Khartoum; earned a PhD at the University of Nottingham in England; returned to India to work until she met her future husband, historian David Lelyveld; immigrated to the U.S., settled in New York City, and raised two children—are linked together by the lyrical interiority of memory, landscape, and loss. Her first and one of the more important losses alluded to is the childhood home in Tiruvalla, a small town in Kerala on the west coast of India. Here the beloved grandfather, relatives, servants, land, and trees are the anchors of memory. Here is the home of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church, in which Alexander's family plays a prominent role. When she arrived in New York City, she writes in "Mirror of Ink," [End Page 280]
My two worlds, present and past, were torn apart, and I was the fault line, the crack that marked the dislocation.(Alexander 1993, 15)
This is Alexander's invention and contribution to the way in which loss of home and country split the migrant/immigrant. Fault lines mark dislocation, but also warn of greater impending disasters.
In the same essay, Alexander reinvented herself:
I wanted to be more than a tympanum, a pale, vibrating thing that marked out the boundaries between worlds...