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Fault lines, by Meena Alexander.

February 10, 2013

Fault lines, by Meena Alexander. The Feminist Press at CUNY (2003), Edition: Second Edition, Paperback, 336 pages.  (The Cross-Cultural Memoir Series)


A richly descriptive memoir of growing up in southwest India and Sudan and then coming to the United States written by a poet who sharply feels the gulf between where she grew up and where she is now.

Meena Alexander is a poet and a college professor. She writes prose full of the imaginary and sensation of poetry. At the same time, she is part of post-colonial conversations about the meaning of being uprooted and living in a culture that is not her own. Her opening chapters are full of references to how broken and divided she feels her life has been and the difficulty in creating a consistent narrative of it. She recounts the various cities where she has lived and the various languages she has learned only to lament that her life did not follow the narrative she had been raised to expect as a daughter of a respected and traditional South Indian family. Instead, she tells us her memoir is “Writing in search of a homeland.” Coming to America as a bride, she felt herself to be a “fault line” between the old and the new. Yet her memoir is a coherent and basically chronological one—with some flashbacks along the way. She herself gives her memoir continuity, if only a created one.

For Alexander the compounds of both her grandparents in Kerala, India are the nadu, or home. Here is the “dark soil of self” binding who she is “always with a particular ancestral site.” She starts her story with accounts of her ancestors, especially her mother’s mother, who died before Alexander was born, and her mother’s father, who was a leader of the Mar Thoma Syrian Christians in the region and a strong advocate of Indian independence. He is the one to whom she bonded most closely as a small child.

“Through his life he drew me back into an India that could only be history to me, a life of struggle and yearning, travels and disasters in foreign lands, a restless idealism that really believed the earth could be transformed.”

She realized, however, that there was a disjuncture.

I loved him more than I have ever loved anyone in my life….Still I sensed that the very things he taught me about—love and equality and the sameness of all human beings in God’s sight—were what our life in Tiruvella did not have and could not brook.

Alexander herself was not born in Kerala, however, but further north in Allahabad where her father held a civil service position. She spent months visiting her grandparents, however, and would continue to do so throughout her childhood. When she was five, she and her parents were transferred to Khartoum. Leaving her grandfather, she still feels “my life split.” The voyage across Arabian Sea was disorienting. Alexander tells of feeling she “had no name, no nature” and that the ocean was “endless.” The desert city of Khartoum was also alien, although the family remained there till she graduated from high school. Among the problems she faced there was the demand that she learn English, not as one language among several, but as the authoritative one. When school friends faced clitorectomies, she learned fears including the danger of having a female body. With others she protested colonialism and the abuses of the Sudanese government. And she began to write poetry, finding in English, the colonial language, the power to define herself.

Sometimes I think of the English language as a pale skin that has covered up my flesh…I have to tear that fine skin, to speak out my discrepant Otherness…. Sometimes I think I have to write myself into being. Write in order not to be erased.

When her parents returned to India, Alexander went to England to continue her education. Eventually she earned her Ph.D., but she was torn by her sense of being an outsider, always the wrong gender and the wrong race. She returned to India where she taught and continued to be involved in the protest movements of the 1960s, including feminism and postcolonialism. She met and married an American scholar doing research in India, and came with him to the United States. Again the “border crossing” was difficult.

America was not a new homeland for Alexander. Her sense of being an outsider continued. Although her husband taught in Minneapolis, she felt she stood out there “like a big, black thumb.” She chose to live and teach in New York City and to raise their children there. Her sense of herself as fractured intensified as she found a voice in her poetry.

I think it is the pain of no one knowing my name that drives me to write. That and the sense that I am living in a place where I have no history. Where all I have is surface and what is not is reducible to crude postcard dangled round the neck… In Manhattan I am a fissured thing, a body crossed by fault lines. Where is my past? What is my past to me, here, now at the edge of Broadway? Is America a place with no past?

And yet, Alexander’s narrative has a beauty and a joy in it that transcends the pain and violence that she has known.

I highly recommend Fault Lines, to those interested in India, in what it means to be an immigrant, and what it means to be a woman. This book is part of the Cross-Cultural Memoir Series published by Feminist Press which I also recommend as a wonderful way to learn about women from a variety of backgrounds.

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