Monday, January 22, 2007

In Conversation with Meena Alexander

Ahmede: You were born to a family of f Syrian Christians in India as Mary Elizabeth Alexander. You have later changed your name to Menna Alexander. Please allow me to quote from your autobiography Fault Lines: "I felt I had changed my name to what I already was, some truer self, stripped free of the colonial burden". Will you please share this liberating experience with us?

Meena Alexander: Meena was the name that I was called at home and all my friends called me that too. It was my pet name in the way that often in India we have such names, but of course it was a real name not a made up one. The year that I was born many girl children were named Meena, after the famous film actress. In my case it was the name of the sister of my father’s best friend. I was only called Mary in school and I found that quite irritating, so I returned to myself, or so I felt, in losing that other name which felt not mine really and of course there was the colonial burden, in the sense that my grandmother after whom I was named was Mariamma, which is the Malayalam of Mary, and I should have been that really , formally. I wrote poems under the name Meena and published them and once that happened I felt it was truly my name. Those first poems were published in Arabic translation in the Khartoum newspapers. I lived in Sudan in those days, my father was seconded there by the Indian government and I went to school and university in Khartoum and so many of my close friends were Sudanese. I grew up with the sounds of muezzin calling from the mosques, and the taste of dates in my mouth. I grew up by the Nile river. I was born by a great river, the Ganga in Allhabad, and I grew up by the Nile.

Ahmede: The unsettled issues of our colonial past still haunt the region. How do you see modern Post-colonial South Asia?

Meena Alexander: There is such enormous energy in promise in South Asia now, but it does coexist with some of our old ills and pains, poverty and oppression. Certainly though the power of democratic freedoms is crucial, part of one’s cultural citizenship. Then too, the diaspora has such a pull, so many of us have forged our lives in the routes that take us to other places, other cultures.

Ahmede: What is your reading of South Asian fiction? Does this really exist as a genre/movement?

Meena Alexander: Certainly there is wonderful, groundbreaking South Asia fiction, new selves, in a changing world. And poetry too, as a poet I most often read poetry.

Ahmede: Another quote from your autobiography: "There is a violence in the very language, American English, that we have to face, even as we work to make it ours, decolonize it so that it will express the truth of bodies beaten and banned. After all, for such as we are the territories are not free.You write in a language that has once been forced on your people; what role do you think English is playing in South Asia today?

Meena Alexander: I do think that now, for all intents and purposes English is an Indian language and is put to powerful use as such. And yet of course it is important to realise that it is the language of an elite. So many of us speak in our mother tongues, Malayalam, Hindi, Bengali and so forth and also write in English. I do not think that one crosses out the other. And certainly I am deeply aware of great river of Indian literature into which so many streams of language flow.

Ahmede:What is your interpretation of rising religious fanaticism across the globe?

Meena Alexander: Religious fanaticism makes me fearful.I see it all around me, in many religious. It comes perhaps from a need for identity, comes from an anxiety of origin. I do feel religious fanaticism is a distortion of true religion, a suborning of it. A use of religion if you will for political ends.

Ahmede: A woman in her life plays the roles of a daughter, a wife and a mother. Many believe this role-playing is an impediment to the establishment of a woman's role as a human being. Do you think personal and social relationships are a barrier to women's freedom?

Meena Alexander:I do not think one can be a full human being without these multiple relation ships, and that of course is not the same as certain requirements of a role. If I have to make dinner for my husband and children each evening, I may not also have the energy to write my poem. I may want to make dinner for them, or I may not. But in any case, to find time for the poem, is a hard thing. When my children were small had to wake up very early in the morning before any one else did, so I could sit in the quiet, in the dark, to write.

Ahmede: Coming from South Asia, how free do you think as a writer and a woman?

Meena Alexander:The question of freedom is a hard one. But of course it lies at the core of our lives. I am putting below a poem I wrote called `Rites of Sense’. It was published in my book Illiterate Heart which came out in 2002.

from Meena Alexander, Illiterate Heart (TriQuarterly Books/ Northwestern University Press, 2002)

Rites of Sense

In twilight as she lies on a mat
I rub my mother's feet with jasmine oil
touch callouses under skin,
joints upholding that fraught original thing--
bone, gristle skin, all that makes her mine.
All day she swabbed urine from the floor,
father's legs so weak he clung to the rosewood bed.
She rinsed soiled cloths, hung them out to dry
on a coir rope by a vine, its passion fruit
clumsy with age, dangling.

She lies on a mat, a poor thing beached,
belly slack, soles crossed, sari damp and white.
I kneel in darkness at her side,
her oldest child returned for a few weeks
at summer's height.
She murmurs my name
asks in Malayalam Why is light so hot?

Beyond her spine I catch a candle glisten.
The door's a frame for something
I'm too scared to name:
a child, against a white wall,
hands jammed to her teeth, lips torn
breath staggering its hoarse silence.

All night my voice laced through dreams
tiny eyelets for the smoke
Amma, I am burning!
I'm a voice slit from sound,
just snitches of blood, loopholes of sweat,
a sack of flesh you shut me in.

What words of passage to that unlit place?
What rites of sense?

Amma, I am dreaming myself into your body.
It is the end of everything.
Your pillow stained with white
tosses as a wave might
on our southern shore.

Will you lay your cheek against mine?
Bless my bent head?

You washed me once, gave me suck,
made me live in your father's house
taught me to wake at dawn,
sweep the threshold clean of blood red leaves.
Showed me a patch of earth dug with your hands
where sweet beans grow coiled and raw.

Taught me to fire a copper pan,
starch and fold a sari, raise a rusty needle,

stitch my woman's breath
into the mute amazement of sentences.