Meena Alexander

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Meena Alexander
Alexander at Hyderabad Literary Festival, 2016
Alexander at Hyderabad Literary Festival, 2016
Born(1951-02-17)17 February 1951
Allahabad, India
Died21 November 2018(2018-11-21) (aged 67)
New York
OccupationAuthor, poet, translator
EducationDoctorate in English Literature
Alma materUniversity of Nottingham
Notable worksIlliterate Heart; Raw Silk
Notable awardsImbongi Yesizwe International Poetry Award (South Africa), PEN Open Book Prize

Meena Alexander (17 February 1951 – 21 November 2018)[1] was an Indian poet, scholar, and writer.[2] Born in Allahabad, India, and raised in India and Sudan, Alexander lived and worked in New York City, where she was Distinguished Professor of English at Hunter College and at the CUNY Graduate Center in the PhD program in English.[3][4]


Meena Alexander, described as "undoubtedly one of the finest poets of contemporary times" by The Statesman was born into a Syrian Christian family from Kerala, South India.[5][6][7] She lived in Allahabad and Kerala until she was almost five when her father's work—as a scientist for the Indian government—took the family to Khartoum in newly independent Sudan.[4] She attended the Unity High School there and after graduating in 1964,[8] when she was only thirteen, Alexander enrolled in Khartoum University, where she studied English and French literature. There she wrote her first poems, which were translated into Arabic and published in a local newspaper. After graduating with a Bachelor's degree Honors from Khartoum University in 1969, she moved to England and began doctoral study at the University of Nottingham. She earned a PhD in English in 1973 — at the age of 22 — with a dissertation in Romantic literature that she would later develop and publish as The Poetic Self.[4] She then moved to India and taught at several universities, including the University of Delhi and the University of Hyderabad.[9] During the five years she lived in India she published her first three books of poetry: The Bird's Bright Ring (1976), I Root My Name (1977), and Without Place (1978). In 1979 she was a visiting fellow at the University of Paris-Sorbonne. The following year she moved to New York City and became an assistant professor at Fordham University, where she remained until 1987 when she became an assistant professor in the English Department at Hunter College, the City University of New York (CUNY).[4] Two years later she joined the graduate faculty of the PhD program in English at the CUNY Graduate Center. In 1992 she was made full professor of English and Women's Studies. She was appointed Distinguished Professor of English in 1999 and continued to teach in the PhD program at the Graduate Center and the MFA program at Hunter College. Over the years she also taught poetry in the Writing Division in the School of the Arts at Columbia University.[9] Since moving to New York, Alexander was a prolific author, publishing six more volumes of poetry, two books of literary criticism, two books of lyric essays, two novels, and a memoir. She was married to David Lelyveld, the historian and brother of journalist and author Joseph Lelyveld, and had two children.

Alexander is known for lyric poetry that deals with migration, its impact on the subjectivity of the writer, and the violent events that sometimes compel people to cross borders.[10] Though confronting such stark and difficult issues, her writing is sensual, polyglot, and maintains a generous spirit.[3] About her work, Maxine Hong Kingston said: "Meena Alexander sings of countries, foreign and familiar, places where the heart and spirit live, and places for which one needs a passport and visas. Her voice guides us far away and back home. The reader sees her visions and remembers and is uplifted."[3] Alexander was influenced and mentored by the Indian poets Jayanta Mahapatra and Kamala Das, as well as the American poets Adrienne Rich and Galway Kinnell.

Among her best-known works are the volumes of poetry Illiterate Heart (2002) and Raw Silk (2004).[10] Her latest volume of poetry is Atmospheric Embroidery (2015).[11] She edited a volume of poems in the Everyman Series, Indian Love Poems (2005), and published a volume of essays and poems on the themes of migration and memory called The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial Experience (2006). In 1993 Alexander published her autobiographical memoir, Fault Lines (significantly revised in 2003 to incorporate new material).[12] She published two novels, Nampally Road (1991)—which was a Village Voice Literary Supplement Editor's Choice—and Manhattan Music (1997), and two academic studies, The Poetic Self (1979) and Women in Romanticism (1989). Fault Lines was chosen by Publishers Weekly as one of the best books of the year in 1993. Illiterate Heart won the 2002 PEN Open Book Award.[10]

Her poems have been set to music. Impossible Grace was the lyric base of the First Al Quds Music Award, with music composed by Stefan Heckel and sung by baritone Christian von Oldenburg (Ffirst performed in Jerusalem).[13] `Acqua Alta' was set to music by the composer Jan Sandstrom and performed by the Serikon Music Group and the Swedish Radio Choir (first performed in Stockholm)

Alexander read at Poetry International (London), Struga Poetry Evenings, Poetry Africa, Calabash Festival, Harbor Front Festival, Sahitya Akademi (India) and other international gatherings.[14] She received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, Fulbright Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Arts Council England, National Endowment for the Humanities, American Council of Learned Societies, National Council for Research on Women, New York State Council on the Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, Ledig-Rowohlt Foundation. She was in residence at the MacDowell Colony and held the Martha Walsh Pulver residency for a poet at Yaddo. She was a Visiting Fellow at the Sorbonne (Paris IV), Frances Wayland Collegium Lecturer at Brown University, Writer in Residence at the Center for American Culture Studies at Columbia University, University Grants Commission Fellow at Kerala University, and Writer in Residence at the National University of Singapore. In 1998 she was a Member of the Jury for the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. She served as an Elector, American Poets' Corner, at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, New York.[14] She was the recipient of the 2009 Literary Excellence Award from the South Asian Literary Association (an organization allied to the Modern Languages Association) for contributions to American literature.[15] In 2014, Meena Alexander was named a National Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, India. In the summer of 2016 she was a Poet in Residence at the Ghetto Nuovo/ Beit Venezia as part of the 500th anniversary celebrations of the Jewish Ghetto. Her cycle of poems inspired by the 17th-century poet Sarra Copia Sulam was published in the volume Poems for Sarra/ Poesie per Sara (Poems by Meena Alexander, Rita Dove, Esther Schor, Venezia: Damocle, 2018)

Her book Poetics of Dislocation was published in 2009 by the University of Michigan Press as part of its Poets on Poetry Series. Also in 2009 Cambridge Scholars Publishing brought out an anthology of scholarship on her work titled Passage to Manhattan: Critical Essays on Meena Alexander.

The poems in her book Birthplace with Buried Stones "convey the fragmented experience of the traveler, for whom home is both nowhere and everywhere".[16]

Of the poems in her book Atmospheric Embroidery A. E. Stallings writes: "Alexander’s language is precise, her syntax is pellucid, and her poems address all of the senses, offering a simultaneous richness and simplicity." Vijay Seshadri writes: "The beautiful paradox of Meena Alexander’s art has always been found in the distillation of her epic human and spiritual experience into a pure and exquisite lyricism. That paradox and that lyricism are on triumphant display in this book."[17]

Of her anthology Name Me A Word: Indian Writers Reflect on Writing Simon Gikandi writes: "Name Me A Word is an indispensable guide for readers of Indian writing, animating the powerful impulses of the country's famous writers and introducing the multiple voices that gone into the making of the most important literature of our time."[18]

She died in New York on 21 November 2018, at the age of 67, from undisclosed causes,[19][1] although according to her husband she died of endometrial serous cancer.[20]



  • Alexander, Meena (1980). Stone roots. New Delhi.
  • Stone Roots (New Delhi) (1980)
  • House of a Thousand Doors (1988)
  • The Storm: A Poem in Five Parts (Short Work Series) (1989)
  • Night-Scene: The Garden (Short Work Series) (1992)
  • River and Bridge (1995/ 1996)
  • Illiterate Heart (2002)
  • Raw Silk (2004)
  • Quickly Changing River (2008)
  • Birthplace with Buried Stones (2013)
  • Atmospheric Embroidery (2018)



Criticism, essays and other contributions[edit]

Critical studies and reviews of Alexander's work[edit]

  • Passage to Manhattan: Critical Essays on Meena Alexander. Lopamudra Basu and Cynthia Leenerts (eds). Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009.
  • Ali, Zainab, and Dharini Rashish. "Meena Alexander." In Words Matter: Conversations with Asian American Writers. Ed. King-Kok Cheung. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, with UCLA Asian American Studies Center; 2000. 69–91.
  • Maan, Ajit K. "Fault Lines." In Internarrative Identity. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1999. 19–38.
  • Nanda, Aparajita. "Of a 'Voice' and 'Bodies': A Postcolonial Critique of Meena Alexander's Nampally Road. In Merete Falck Borch, Eva Rask, And Bruce Clunies Ross (eds), Bodies and Voices: the Force-Field of Representation and Discourse in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies. New York and Amsterdam: Rodopi Press, 2008. 119–125.
  • Poddar, Prem. "Questions of Location: A Conversation with Meena Alexander." HIMAL South Asia 14.1 (January 2001). ([1][permanent dead link]).
  • Ponzanesi, Sandra. "The Shock of Arrival: Meena Alexander, Fault Lines." In Paradoxes of Postcolonial Culture: Contemporary Women Writers of the Indian and Afro-Italian Diaspora. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005. 51–64.
  • Pope, Jacquelyn. "Raw Silk by Meena Alexander." Harvard Review 28 (Spring 2005) ([2]).
  • Shankar, Lavina Dhingra. "Postcolonial Diasporics 'Writing in Search of a Homeland': Meena Alexander's Manhattan Music, Fault Lines, and The Shock of Arrival." LIT 12 (2001): 285–312.
  • Tabios, Eileen. "Gold Horizon: Interview with Meena Alexander." In Black Lightning: Poetry in Progress. Ed. Eileen Tabios. New York: Asian American Writers Workshop, 1998. 196––226.
  • Young, Jeffrey. "Creating a Life through Literature." Chronicle of Higher Education (14 March 1997): B8.

Appearances in the following poetry Anthologies[edit]

List of poems
Title Year First published Reprinted/collected
"Lady Dufferin's Terrace" 2011 Alexander, Meena (5 September 2011). "Lady Dufferin's Terrace". The New Yorker.
"Kochi by the sea" 2018 Alexander, Meena (12–19 February 2018). "Kochi by the sea". The New Yorker. 94 (1): 44–45.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Staff, Scroll. "Poet, essayist Meena Alexander dies at 67". Retrieved 24 November 2018.
  2. ^ "Home - Meena Alexander". Meena Alexander. Retrieved 24 November 2018.
  3. ^ a b c Alexander, Meena (19 March 2002). "Meena Alexander". Meena Alexander. Retrieved 24 November 2018.
  4. ^ a b c d "Profile: Poet Meena Alexander". The City University of New York. Winter 2009. Retrieved 24 November 2018.
  5. ^ "'Writing a poem is itself an act of hope' - The Statesman". 19 August 2015. Retrieved 24 November 2018.
  6. ^ Ponzanesi, Sandra. "Alexander, Meena." In Lorna Sage, Germaine Greer, and Elaine Showalter (eds), Cambridge Guide to Women's Writings in English. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge, 1999. 10. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 28 February 2010.
  7. ^ "English PhD Program, The Graduate Center, CUNY". Retrieved 24 November 2018.
  8. ^ "Alexander, Meena – Contemporary Poets". Thomson Learning. 2001. Retrieved 29 June 2016.
  9. ^ a b "Meena Alexander." Gale Online Encyclopedia. Detroit: Gale, 2010. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. 28 Feb. 2010.
  10. ^ a b c Guggenheim Foundation Fellows Archived 11 February 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ "Atmospheric Embroidery - Meena Alexander". 15 March 2018. Retrieved 24 November 2018.
  12. ^ "Meena Alexander - Meena Alexander Biography - Poem Hunter". Retrieved 24 November 2018.
  13. ^ "Poet Meena Alexander dies at 67 in New York". News India Times. Retrieved 5 May 2019.
  14. ^ a b "CUNY Faculty Bio". Retrieved 24 November 2018.[permanent dead link]
  15. ^ Recognitions – Creative Writing at CUNY Archived 16 March 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  16. ^ "Birthplace with Buried Stones - Meena Alexander". 11 June 2013. Retrieved 24 November 2018.
  17. ^ "Atmospheric Embroidery". Northwestern University Press. Retrieved 24 November 2018.
  18. ^ "Name Me a Word: Indian Writers Reflect on Writing". Yale University Press. 24 July 2018. Retrieved 24 November 2018 – via Amazon.
  19. ^ "'Memory is all you have'". The Indian Express. 23 November 2018. Retrieved 26 November 2018.
  20. ^ "Meena Alexander, Poet Who Wrote of Dislocation, Dies at 67". The New York Times. Retrieved 22 December 2018.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]