Mary Elizabeth Alexander was born in Allahabad, India, on February 17, 1951. Although christened Mary Elizabeth, she has been called "Meena" since birth, and, in her fifteenth year, she officially changed her name to Meena. Not so much an act of defiance as one of liberation, Alexander writes: "I felt I had changed my name to what I already was, some truer self, stripped free of the colonial burden" in her autobiography, Fault Lines (74). Representing her own multi-lingual nature, "Meena" meanings in 'fish' in Sanskrit , 'jewelling' in Urdu, and 'port' in Arabic. Alexander and her family lived in Allahabad, yet returned every summer to Kerala where her mother's parents resided.
In 1956, the Sudan gained independence and asked other Third World countries for assistance in establishing its government. Alexander's father applied for a job with the Sudanese government and the family relocated to Khartoum. From age five to eighteen, Alexander traversed the waters between the Sudan and India, between Khartoum and Kerala, and between her immediate family and her grandparents. Once she was eighteen and had received her degree from Khartoum University, Alexander left her Sudanese home for Nottingham University in Britain. It was here that she earned her Ph.D., but her tie with India was not broken. She returned to Pune to her grandparents, and ended up working at Delhi University, Central Institute of Hyderabad, and Hyderabad University.
It was in Hyderabad that Alexander met her husband, David Lelyveld. In 1979, the two moved to New York City, where they still live with their two children: Adam Kuravilla Lelyveld (b. 1980) and Svati Maraiam Lelyveld (b. 1986). Alexander is currently a professor at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and still takes trips back to Kerala annually.
Meena Alexander's literary career began early, at the tender age of ten, when she began writing poetry, and while her poetry might be her best-known work, her works span a variety of literary genres. Her first book, a single lengthy poem, entitled The Bird's Bright Wing, was published in 1976 in Calcutta.
Since then, Alexander has published seven volumes of poetry, including River and Bridge; two novels: Nampally Road (1991) and Manhattan Music (1997); a collection of both prose and poetry, The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial Experience; a study on Romanticism: Women in Romanticism: Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Shelley; and her autobiography, Fault Lines.
Establishing Identity in Fault Lines
Fault Lines is Alexander's autobiography. Not only an unraveling of her past, the book also highlights themes that occur in Alexander's poetry . As a result of her family's relocations as a youth, Alexander struggles in Fault Lines to forge a sense of identity, despite a past full of moves and changes. Thus, this work revolves around the theme of establishing one's self, an identity independent of one's surroundings. In her autobiography she writes: "I am, a woman cracked my multiple migrations. Uprooted so many times she can connect nothing with nothing" (3). In fact, the title itself suggests a questioning of lines, boundaries, definitions of oneself. As Alexander writes, "I am a poet writing in America. But American poet?...An Asian-American poet then?...Poet tout court?...A woman poet, a woman poet of color, a South Indian woman who makes up lines in English...A Third World woman poet...?" (193). Alexander searches for her own identity and self-creation amidst a world that strives to define, identify, and label people. These definitions of race and nationality prove difficult to defy.
The tension surrounding self-identification emerges in a scene where Alexander's son, Adam, encounters a man who asks him: "What are you?" Adam, of mixed heritage, chooses to identify himself as neither American nor Indian, but, rather, a Jedi knight (172). Alexander asks: "What did my first-born wish for himself? Some nothingness, some transitory zone where dreams roamed, a border country without passport or language?" (172). Even choosing a cultural identification has its boundaries and borders by which to abide.
Early in her youth, Alexander's mother tells her she must never take a job; that her work is to raise her children (14). Alexander's choices obviously took her in a direction different from that which her mother had taught her, choosing both a career and a family. Thus, the process of self-creation for Alexander has numerous facets: creating an identity despite a patchwork past; fighting against definitions demanded by greater society; and, also, fighting against traditions and definitions enforced within the community.