Winter 1998, Volume 15.1
In a Field of Dreams: Conversations with Meena Alexander
Meena Alexander is a prolific writer. Her poetry publications include Stone Roots (l980), House of a Thousand Doors (l988) and two long poems: The Storm, A Poem in Five Parts (l989) and Night-Scene, The Garden (l992)). Her new volume of poems is River and Bridge (1995).
Her prose writings include The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial Experience, essays and poems (1996), Fault Lines, a memoir (1993), Nampally Road (1991), and a new novel Manhattan Music (1997)
She is the author of The Poetic Self: Towards a Phenomenology of Romanticism (1979) and Women in Romanticism: Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Shelley (l989).
Her poems and prose writings have been widely published in magazines in the USA, UK, and India. Her work is also included in anthologies such as Making Waves: Writing by Asian Women (l989), Contemporary Indian Poetry (l990), Love Poems by Women (l990), Modern Indian Poetry in English (1991), Charlie Chan is Dead: Contemporary Asian-American Fiction (1993), The Oxford Anthology of Modern Indian Poetry (1995), Penguin New Writing in India (1996), Sister to Sister (1996), Written by Herself (vol.II) ed. Jill Ker Conway (1996), and in the CD Rom series: American Journey. Selected poems and prose writings have been translated into Malayalam, Hindi, Arabic, French, Italian, Spanish, and German.
Meena Alexander and I used email, regular mail, the telephone and face to face conversations for the following interview. I have included some of the questions and answers from a tape-recorded session with Meena Alexander arranged for conference participants who attended the University of Wisconsin South Asian Studies Conference, October 1996.
The interview process began with an email message from Meena which read, "Dear Roshni, The question of 'how' looms. How as form. Prose vs. poetry; prose into poetry, the lines flexible. Also childhood, old age. What kind of art do I produce not having had a childhood here? Surely memory is very different then, pierced by displacement. I would like to write some pieces in a child's voice. Can I? I'll have to try before I know."
During a telephone conversation that followed the above message, I told Meena that when I first began to think about this interview, I was determined that I not begin with biographical questions. Where are you from? Who has influenced you? I asked her, "What would be your first questions to yourself?"
Meena laughed and said, "I would begin with three questions: Where are you from? Why do you write? Who are you?"
Roshni: Where are you from? And where would you like to go? I mean the "where" in both time and space and in the matter of your life, your work, the language you chose, the craft you use to form that language into literature, the influences on you, your influence on others.
Meena: These questions are hard, but they give me a wonderful chance to think carefully about what I'm up to, if one is ever up to anything as opposed to being driven from within by emotions, images, even voices that work themselves into being with their own rhythm and emotion.
Where are you from? It's a question that has haunted me. Sometimes I think I come out of my mother, and out of her mother, and out of her mother before that. And in the female lineage is a great sense of comfort. A comfort in that these boundaries of the flesh have been there, well before my consciousness. But there is also the poignancy of that thought that fills me. The radical instability thrust on us as creatures of the flesh. I have written a poem called "Migrant Music," in which I imagine seeing my father's father, muscles squat, standing on the cliffs of New Jersey that see across the river. And he is calling, calling my name. So something of the ancestral self gets reworked, drawn out, comes home, here in America to haunt us.
On a slightly different track, there is a surreal element to that question which I have tried to touch in two recent poems, 'Muse' and 'Muse 2.'
'Muse 2' begins,
'Our language is in ruins.
No - not Something,' she whispers to me
'not About or Here.'
The poem ends,
When she turns it is etched on her:
words, sentences, maps,
her skin burns bright:
I think to myself why does her skin 'burn bright'? I think it burns because she bears the answer to the question Where do I come from? quite literally on her body. And somehow I think this is the fate of immigrants.
To continue. Where am I now? I am searching where to go, and I'm not terribly sure. I feel a bit like one of those water diviners who would come to our house in Kerala, during the dry spell, forked stick in hand, waiting for the stick to tremble, point out underground water.
After completing the novel Manhattan Music, the volume Shock of Arrival and getting the final order of the poems for the North American edition of River and Bridge what next?
There are poems on the drawing board, there are bits and pieces of prose I've been working on, but deeper, under all that I know there is some deep dark turn I need to make. Some underground water I must draw into the river of words, so that the richness, the complexity will grow, so the 'self' and what an odd word that is can keep flowing. And when I say 'self' in that way, I hardly mean the 'I.'
Where would I like to go? I would love to give form to some of the shorter pieces I have. Give flesh to some of these fitful people in my head, living breathing, full of hope about their lives. And in doing that, I would like to draw together India and America, flesh and blood and spirit.
But beyond that, I would love in some way to reach back into my ancestral past in Kerala, and bring it forward, all the way into the American present. Can I do this? I hardly know, but if I don't try, I never will. As a writer, one never knows what will breathe and grow warm, take on life, and what will fall away. One dares to hope though.
I am in a hard place right now. I have a very sharp sense of severance in my own life. In the fact of the children growing up, in the completion of three works (Manhattan Music, The Shock of Arrival and The River and the Bridge). This feeling is coupled with an extraordinary sense of return to moments in my childhood and adolescence, moments which perhaps have formed me more deeply than I can guess. And how should this be put into the framework of a narrative? How should this life be worded through letters? And the other part of the severance, is that I feel I am cut off in some way from the landscape of India and need to turn to what is directly around me, enter into it, plunge into it hard, as if into an inimical element, yet lacking which one could not breathe.
Poets who have influenced me? Somehow four names spring to mind, two Indian, two American, all part of this world I inhabit. I think of Jayanta Mahapatra and Kamala Das in India and in the United States, Galway Kinnell and Adrienne Rich. Novelists who have influenced me? Nawal el Sadaawi, Anita Desai, Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, Assia Djebar. And of course there are other writers I admire. We draw on what we love.
Roshni: I have noticed a constant pattern of a spiral or a mandala in your works. At the center is an intense self reflection. And from that center there is an extraordinary expansion of concern for other people. These aspects in your works came to my mind, when I read the second question you said you would ask yourself. Why do you write?
Meena: I've been mulling over the question. Yesterday I stood up on stage, at the Cornelia Street Cafe, and gave a reading for a benefit for the Community Workshop run by the Writers Union. The other reader from 'outside' was Katha Pollit. There were women there, from the workshops held in shelters, as well as the 'teachers' of writing, often young writers. I read from Fault Lines as well as from The Shock of Arrival. I was conscious as I was reading the pieces of prose or the poems, that I was holding up the segment of some rare flesh. I felt I was peeling it. And I wanted the listeners to hear, taste, in the hope that something akin to knowledge, some special sense would pass between us. I think when I write, it is much like that, only the inverse, and in a very highly charged field. I write to clarify, to bring to the light, to make known, first of all to myself, and so ultimatelyor that's the hopeto others, that density, that chaos even of the emotional life.
I write quite honestly because I have to. It's what I know to do. But also because I hope that through writing I can tell the truth, speak the truth in all its veiled complexities. It's also a way of living intensely, bringing together memories, thoughts, dreams, sensations, a vividness at the heart. Also I write because I don't know. And I mean that quite literally. As human beings there is so much that cannot enter our consciousness, but hovers somewhere, around it. And writing is a way of making present.
Roshni: Your works are read and discussed in many parts of the world. Could you talk about some of your audiences? Do you have a specific audience in mind when you write?
Meena: There is a little story I wanted to tell you. .There's a part in Fault Lines which I often read out. It is from the 'Khartoum Journal' chapter. Two short paragraphs about the well in Kerala and about the 'well jumped women.' I was in England, giving a reading in Leicester, in a library. A group of older women was there. They were mostly illiterate in English these old women, tired, but fairly spirited. The man who was to translate my work was dressed in this shiny three piece suithe was not the usual translator and he was most suspicious of writers. He was clearly reluctant to translate. I read my poem, 'Blood Line,' and it was like pulling teeth his rendering of it. The women were interested though, and I tried to give a line or two in bad Hindi. Then came the bit from Fault Lines. I began by saying that when I was a little girl in Kerala I was told not to go near wells. That gradually I realized that something could happen to girls. It was whispered that so and so's daughter fell in. And what was more, she was pregnant. I was fascinated. I tried to stare into the well that was sixty feet down and I only saw my own face. I sensed that some magical power lifted these women, threw them in, without hands or feet acting out their will. Later, it became a cause of shame, grief. Then an anger as I thought, why should women jump into wells, why not over wells? Well jumped women, I thought, and the phrase took hold of my mind and I wrote this piece. I read it out. The women were interested and they started a little discussion on the high rate of suicide among Indian women in Leicester. The translator was getting nervous. He hadn't started yet. He tugged at his tie. In a loud voice he faced me. 'You know something? I will not translate that.' I waited for him to go on. 'If those women did something shameful, they should die.' I faced him hard, silent for a moment. A group of women staring at him. It's that I am fighting I thought to myself. Aloud I said to him 'Do you really believe that?' He nodded.
I think when I write, my audience is a hope carried in the heart. In fact, one might almost say I write to bring that audience into existence, the reader, so necessary to the writer. But no, I don't have a very specific, defined group of persons in mind, perhaps for fear that it might censure me.
Roshni: In a recent interview you point out that as a genre autobiography is very European and that "this focus on the self is very peculiar to the culture of North America, and generally, so is the desire to create 'autobiography.' A constant attempt to vivify what one thinks of as identity by redefining one's self is a very American project." I agree with this. And then I wait for a discussion of what is autobiography in Indian terms, what would be the focus on the self in Indian terms. That discussion does not take place in the interview but I do see it in the way you present multiple autobiographies in your works. The circular patterns, the use of stories within stories, the flexibility in how you present time and space in your narrative (poetry and prose), reminds me of Bana's Kadambari, which seems to haunt both of us. I see your concerns with emotions, ideas, poetry and landscapes, rather than with facts, dates, logically moving episodes as being within the tradition of self-narratives that exist in Meerabai's bhajans, in Amrita Pritam's Postage Stamp, Mahatma Gandhi's Search for Truth, even the autobiography that lies behind Gautama Buddha's first sermon and Gulbadan's biography of Humayun. It reflects the focus on the self which is best exemplified for me in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra. The constant looking at one's self not in the mirror but into one's breath, one's flow of blood, one's skeleton structure so that one can re-create and maybe even redefine one's self.
Meena: Your eloquent description of the self under the skin is something I would love to talk about. It's early, the sun shines outside. Yesterday we went to the country and David and I spent a short time just cleaning the old weeds out of our pond that was so flooded with water. Old reeds that I fished out with little Svati's wooden rake. And the reeds hung there, shining. It's all flowing in me, this new work that I must make. I am writing in the revisions for Manhattan Music. Sandhya, the main character, is a woman with a fragility at the heart of her and no defining purpose or quest. Yet she must live. And passion moves her deeply, to the brink of destruction. Why did I speak of her? Because I am loosening my heart, to make a new book. And you asked earlier about the struggle against injustice that you thought was there from my earliest work. There is something about this also in Manhattan Music. Sandhya's passion is broken into the world, and the violence of the world enters into her, through this passion. As in my poem, 'Estrangement becomes the mark of the eagle.'
Sometimes I think that at the heart of what I write is a struggle to define the self. And for people like us, Indian-Americans, that self is complex, multiple, fissured. Yet the delights that move are so simple really. I have no picture of the heart, the soul, except a rich fruit. Skin and all it is fit to eat. There were monkeys at the edge of my childhood garden, eating passion fruit, green globes that hung on the vine.
Roshni: A few weeks ago you emailed me a dream you had about your grandmother. And of course I thought of the grandmothers who are constantly present in your works and the grandmother kneeling at a thousand doors requesting entrance in House of a Thousand Doors. And then you sent me the poem, "Gold Horizon." It is an amazing poem. It is "rougher" in texture of language and narrative than any of your other works. It reads as if you have suspended your usual meticulous use of language in an attempt to find a more oral literary style. I wonder how much of finding that angel with her feet cut off in 'Gold Horizon' is yourself as you merge with the voices of your grandmothers? Going beyond the definitions of European Romantic gesture and imagination, beyond the debates about post-colonialism, literary and socio-economic theories and into the very bones of your physical ancestors and the physical landscapes of your life?
[Meena did not send me a written answer to this question, so I ask her again about the changes in her writing, the voices and dreams of her grand mothers as she and I walk close to the lake in Madison, Wisconsin on a beautiful, cold, clear day. in October 1996.]
Meena: I think it has taken me all this long to reach this point of finding these voices and I don't know if it will ever end.
Roshni: What do you think started your awareness of these voices, your deliberate use of these voices?
Meena: I think it comes after doing what I have already done. The earlier works leading into this new work. I think it is also the age I have reached. I started when I was sixteen and I think that as women writers we need to do this. To spend time in the body. I have had two children. I think that I have the right now to write their voices. The voices of the mothers and grandmothers. It is exciting but also very painful. Because it is like a voice that is coming from somewhere else.
[Meena stops walking and tries to express her emotion by moving her hands toward her throat.]
Roshni: Your description of the process of writing, especially writing in these new voices, is very physical. Does your throat hurt?
Meena: My God yes, it does hurt.
[We begin walking again. As we pass besides a rough-textured stone wall with peeling pink and green paint on it, Meena stops, touches the wall and runs her hand over the stones for a few minutes.]
Meena: It feels like this. It is this texture. Strong and rough. In my new works there are many images of music. The oudh, the tampura. It's an image as if taking the lining of the throat and cleaning it. Maybe music helps with that. My writing now is like a collage with music. And that is what we do when we lay it all out. The possibility of coming to speech.
Soon after this conversation, Meena and I walk into a room at the University of Wisconsin Conference Center where about seventeen people are waiting to hear her read and to ask her questions.
Question: You were invited by the Government of India to participate in the conference, The Muse and the Minorities, a few months ago in New Delhi. Could you please discuss your impressions of the conference?
Meena: This was an international conference set up by the Sahitya Akademi and the Minorities Commission. They had invited one hundred writers and artists from around the world. The idea of the conference arose after the destruction of the Babri Masjid. I reached Delhi at one o'clock in the morning on the 19th of September; I hadn't been back to Delhi for ten years. A friend came and took me off to the conference at 10 AM that same morning. The hall was packed. There were birds flying in and out and around the hall and there were quite a few big wigs on the podium. A gentleman who looked like Tagore was speaking about Indian novelists. And then I heard him say, "As the poet says," and as I stand there, I hear him quote the whole of my poem, 'Art of Pariahs.' He doesn't mention my name except to say, "As the poet says." I was very moved. This poem that I wrote in New York city, what meaning does it have in India that this gentleman, who looks like Tagore, wearing post—Tagore khaddi, reads it at this conference in New Delhi?
The conference itself I found very instructive and moving. What was under debate was the question of multiculturalism, which in India is a "new" word. People are thinking about it all the time. In the light of the idea of a secular society. After fifty years of independence what is happening in this society with all this ethnically based violence and what are we to make of this as a nation?
Then people at the conference were very interested in how I was treated as an Indian in the United States. They wanted to know about racism. The question of the Diaspora is also a big one in India. And that fascinated me. I had written an essay for the conference about going to a BJP meeting in New Jersey.
India is now a very complicated place not that it was ever simple but to live as a "minority" is not easy. Or even as a member of the Hindu majority. What does one make of all this? We had a tragedy. The Dalit writer Daya Pawar had a massive heart attack and died during the conference. His paper was read out after his death. It was very emotional and quite disturbing for us to hear the words he had written about the conditions in Bombay.
Going back to the focus of the conference and the discussions around ethnicity: my novel, Nampally Road, is fiction yet it is based on a real event, the gang rape of Rameeza Begum by the police in Hyderabad. One of the participants at this conference had written about this novel as the literature of outrage. At one point he asked, "Isn't she a Muslim woman?" That was very interesting for me because I had not thought about her specifically as a Muslim woman, but after Ayodhya, India has become so concerned with ethnic belonging that the fact that she is Muslim was very important for him.
I am telling this story because a book keeps on changing shape, it is metamorphic. We always see the world from where our body is located, even if we might deny this.
Question: You often speak of memory and attachment to memory and the recreation or the creation of one's ancestry. How do you do it in your works?
Meena: I have written a poem 'White Horseman Blues' which is in the Shock of Arrival. It is about language, about coming to America. I think this is the silk that is stitched through all my work. Memory as it recreates ancestry. Allowing the body to breathe, to live and move in time present. And of course this has a special valency for immigrants. In part, it's a surreal poem about the body.
Question: Do you see your body as a symbol? Do you see your body and language as a symbol of this creation and recreation of history?
Meena: Not my literal body. It is very important for me to say that when we talk of the body. There's something in my work which is not me. It is important to acknowledge that, especially if you are a woman writer and you are marginal. I think that the whole question of what you draw from to make up a world is important for a writer, for a woman writer. When I wrote Fault Lines, my mother was very much against the idea of a memoir by her daughter. Writing that book was a very personal recreation. At the time I started to compose it, I was about 37 years old and a writer in residence at Columbia. I would sit and write and people would come up to me and say, "Where are you from? What do you do?" When I started to answer them and started to write the memoir, I realized that I was writing against the grain as it were. There was no set rubric into which I could place my narrative. My narrative didn't have a place at that moment. It was a struggle and as always with me when something is difficult, I begin to write and it falls into place. It was a struggle to create a self that could live and move in this new world. A self however marginal.
Question: One always talks about the losses of living as an immigrant, of having left one's home. But what about the gains?
Meena: Interesting question and I am glad you asked it. One thing is that I feel the loss keenly and I write about it, but I think there is a gain. A wonderful exhilaration! Being in a place where I can see geographical complexities, the questions of border crossings. I am tempted to say that living here forces me to write and if I were living in India, I might not write. But that is not true. I would have written differently. I would have been a different kind of writer.
Right from childhood, because of my father's job, we were always moving back and forth. In a way, I always carry India in my heart. I have a character in my new novel, Manhattan Music, who says "my heart is a map of Kerala." His name is Warrier. He is a painter who lives in Paris.
As a child I would spend six months in India and six months in North Africa. I became used to that shifting. The character in Manhattan Music, the painter, has shifted places a lot. Perhaps he is no longer "Indian" because he doesn't know what is Indian anymore. It doesn't matter because he is a painter. Perhaps the same goes for me as a writer. My Kerala poems have been translated into Malayalam. So in Kerala, I am considered a Kerala writer who has gone West! These are the different kinds of complexities in which my life as a writer is enmeshed.
Question: There had been no rubric for us as South Asian American writers until you and other writers created a rubric for yourselves. Some of you have been able to get a certain exposure. We know that there are gatekeepers in publishers who are looking for minority writers. They pick and choose as to whom to publish, who will be marketable. How much do you think, your consciousness, your production, has been affected by your new position within this dynamic because you are now an established writer?
Meena: I really feel that I write stuff that is not easy to read. I think people read my work, but it is difficult because it is always politically a little bit edgy. I am very happy if even five people read what I write. I am not going to change. I am not going to exoticize what I write. I don't want to dilute it. My writing comes out of my vision. I would like to think that I can keep on writing what I need to rather than what people want me to write. The whole point of being a writer for me is to be able to lay out what comes to me, with all the complexity of language that I delight in. It means a great liberation the richness, the joy of the text of language. I love that.
Question: In your memoir and in other works you use the symbolism of a bridge to portray multi-movement and navigation. How much does your writing create an anchorage in a life that is constantly moving and in flux?
Meena: Motion. When I first moved to Hyderabad in 1975, I had that little moped and I loved going faster than anyone else. And all those signs in Telegu would go by and I couldn't read them. Devanagari I can read but others not keeping free of scripts, something to do with this constant motion and traveling. I remember that when we went from Khartoum to Bombay the minute we reached Bombay the part of my brain that had Arabic in it would completely disappear and I would have Hindi in it. But Malayalam and French never went. But Hindi and Arabic would overlay each other. In my writing it appears in some form. "Where does a language go when it is forgotten?" I ask in Fault Lines. Where can I as a woman be safe and write?
Question: Do you see the presence of the different landscapes, your visuality in your works as a statement of some sort?
Meena: I use poetry to answer questions I find difficult, including shifting scenes. I was on the subway, sitting in the last carriage. I was alone and I was scared. I spoke about this to a male friend of mine who is a writer. He said, "I would have loved it. I would have written while traveling in that isolated carriage." He didn't understand what I was