Identity and displacement are two of the powerful themes in this gorgeously written memoir by acclaimed poet, scholar, and author Meena Alexander. Born in India to Indian civil servants, Alexander lived in cities across her home country, as well as in Sudan, England, and the United States. In Fault Lines, she tells of her attempts to navigate the class system in India and abroad, as well as the conflict between her personal ambition and the expectations placed on her by Indian tradition. In this examination of what it means to identify with a particular people, Alexander uncovers a childhood trauma that she had nearly forgotten.
Focusing on the concept of “other” as she raises her own children in New York City, Alexander makes an impassioned and poetic call to find common ground among the “fault lines” that divide us.
“An enchanting, beautifully written memoir.” —Library Journal
“Alexander’s writing is imbued with a poetic grace shot through with an inner violence, like a shimmering two-toned silk.” —Ms.
About the Author
An award-winning poet and scholar, Meena Alexander teaches in the PhD program in English at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and the MFA program at Hunter College. She was born in India and raised there as well as in Sudan. Earning a BA in English and French from Khartoum University and a PhD in English studies from Nottingham University, Alexander has concentrated much of her work on migration, its impact on subjectivity, and the violence that often compels people to cross borders. She is the editor of Indian Love Poems and the author of The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial Experience , Stone Roots , House of a Thousand Doors , River and Bridge , and Illiterate Heart (winner of the PEN Open Book Award).
Read an Excerpt
What would it mean for one such as I to pick up a mirror and try to see her face in it?
Night after night, I asked myself that question. What might it mean to look at myself straight, see myself? How many different gazes would that need? And what to do with the crookedness of flesh, thrown back at the eyes? The more I thought about it, the less sense any of it seemed to make. My voice splintered in my ears into a cacophony: whispering cadences, shouts, moans, the quick delight of bodily pleasure, all rising up as if the condition of being fractured had freed the selves jammed into my skin, multiple beings locked into the journeys of one body.
And what of all the cities and small towns and villages I have lived in since birth: Allahabad, Tiruvella, Kozencheri, Pune, Delhi, Hyderabad, all within the boundaries of India; Khartoum in the Sudan; Nottingham in Britain; and now this island of Manhattan? How should I spell out these fragments of a broken geography?
And what of all the languages compacted in my brain: Malayalam, my mother tongue, the language of first speech; Hindi, which I learnt as a child; Arabic from my years in the Sudan — odd shards survive; French; English? How would I map all this in a book of days? After all, my life did not fall into the narratives I had been taught to honor, tales that closed back on themselves, as a snake might, swallowing its own ending: birth, an appropriate education — not too much, not too little — an arranged marriage to a man of suitable birth and background, somewhere within the boundaries of India.
Sometimes in my fantasies, the kind that hit you in broad daylight, riding the subway, I have imagined being a dutiful wife, my life perfect as a bud opening in the cool monsoon winds, then blossoming on its stalk on the gulmohar tree, petals dark red, falling onto rich soil outside my mother's house in Tiruvella. In the inner life coiled within me, I have sometimes longed to be a bud on a tree, blooming in due season, the tree trunk well rooted in a sweet, perpetual place. But everything I think of is filled with ghosts, even this longing. This imagined past — what never was — is a choke hold.
I sit here writing, for I know that time does not come fluid and whole into my trembling hands. All that is here comes piecemeal, though sometimes the joints have fallen into place miraculously, as if the heavens had opened and mango trees fruited in the rough asphalt of upper Broadway.
But questions persist: Where did I come from? How did I become what I am? How shall I start to write myself, configure my "I" as Other, image this life I lead, here, now, in America? What could I ever be but a mass of faults, a fault mass?
I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary. It went like this:
Fault: Deficiency, lack, want of something ... Default, failing, neglect. A defect, imperfection, blameable quality or feature: a. in moral character, b. in physical or intellectual constitution, appearance, structure or workmanship. From geology or mining: a dislocation or break in the strata or vein. Examples: "Every coal field is ... split asunder, and broken into tiny fragments by faults." (Anstead, Ancient World, 1847) "There are several kinds of fault e.g., faults of Dislocation; of Denudation; of Upheaval; etc." (Greasley, Glossary of Terms in Coal Mining, 1883) "Fragments of the adjoining rocks mashed and jumbled together, in some cases bound into a solid mass called fault-stuff or fault-rock." (Green, Physical Geography, 1877)
That's it, I thought. That's all I am, a woman cracked by multiple migrations. Uprooted so many times she can connect nothing with nothing. Her words are all askew. And so I tormented myself on summer nights, and in the chill wind of autumn, tossing back and forth, worrying myself sick. Till my mind slipped back to my mother — amma — she who gave birth to me, and to amma's amma, my veliammechi, grandmother Kunju, drawing me back into the darkness of the Tiruvella house with its cool bedrooms and coiled verandas: the shelter of memory.
But the house of memory is fragile; made up in the mind's space. Even what I remember best, I am forced to admit, is what has flashed up for me in the face of present danger, at the tail end of the century, where everything is to be elaborated, spelt out, precariously reconstructed. And there is little sanctity, even in remembrance.
What I have forgotten is what I have written: a rag of words wrapped around a shard of recollection. A book with torn ends visible. Writing in search of a homeland.
"What are you writing about?" Roshni asked me just the other day. We were speaking on the phone as we so often do, sharing bits of our lives.
"About being born into a female body; about the difficulty of living in space."
"Space?" she asked quizzically.
"Really: living without fixed ground rules, moving about so much; giving birth, all that stuff," I replied shamelessly and laughed into the telephone. I could hear her breathing on the other end, all the way from Sonoma County, California; dear Roshni who has lived in Bombay, Karachi, Beirut, Oaxaca, and Boston. And then her gentle laughter.CHAPTER 2
Mirror of Ink
Multiple birth dates ripple, sing inside me, as if a long stretch of silk were passing through my fingers. I think of the lives I have known for forty years, the lives unknown, the shining geographies that feed into the substance of any possible story I might have. As I make up a katha, a story of my life, the lives before me, around me, weave into a net without which I would drop ceaselessly. They keep me within range of difficult truths, the exhilarating dangers of memory.
Kuruchiethu Kuruvilla Kuruvilla, my maternal grandfather, was born in 1881 in Eraviperoor in the princely state of Travancore in India. Three years later in 1884, in his father's ancestral home in Kozencheri just eight miles away, my paternal grandfather, my Kozencheri veliappechan, Kannadical Koruth Alexander was born. In 1892, in the town of Kottayam, twenty-six miles from Kozencheri, my grandmother Mariamma, Kannadical Mariamma was born. She was eight years younger than my Kozencheri veliappechan.
Grandmother Kunju, Elizabeth Kuruvilla, the youngest of my four grandparents, was born in 1894. That made her thirteen years younger than her husband K. K. Kuruvilla, my maternal grandfather, whom I called Ilya. As a small child my tongue could not get around the long syllables of veliappechan, which is grandfather in Malayalam, and the short name stuck. He was not a man overly fond of formalities and so remained Ilya to me.
Grandmother Kunju was the only one of my grandparents to be born outside the princely state of Travancore. She was born in Calicut, quite far to the north, where her father was working at the time. Calicut was in the old Madras presidency established by the British. As a child of seven I learnt that Calicut was where Vasco da Gama first struck land in his quest for India, and that knowledge shimmered, shot through the awareness of where my missing grandmother was born. I call her missing, for she died a month short of her fiftieth birthday, three years before Indian independence, which was also the year of my parents' marriage, seven years before my birth.
Appa was born in 1921 in the ancestral home of Kozencheri. He was baptized George Alexander. In deference to the tug to Anglicize, his family name, Kannadical, was not officially used. Appa was the third child in a family of four children and the only son. Amma was born in 1927 in Tiruvella. She was the only child of her parents. A similar naming pattern held for her. She was baptized Mary and was first was known as Mary Kuruvilla and then after her marriage as Mary Alexander.
The first child of my parents, the eldest of three sisters, I was born in 1951 in Allahabad, in the north where my father was working, in a newly independent India. My sister Anna was born in 1956 and my sister Elsa in 1961. Amma returned to her home in Tiruvella each time to give birth.
In 1956 my father, who worked for the Indian government, had been "seconded" abroad to work in the newly independent Republic of the Sudan. My mother and I followed him in February of that year. I turned five on the Arabian Sea, my first ocean crossing. For the next thirteen years my childhood crisscrossed the continents. Amma would return to her home in Tiruvella, sometimes for six months of the year. The other six months were spent in Khartoum. In 1969, when I was eighteen, I graduated from Khartoum University and went to Britain as a student. I lived there for four years while I was completing my studies. In 1973 I returned to India to Delhi and Hyderabad. In 1979, just married, I left for the United States and have lived in New York City ever since.
My grandfather Kuruvilla was two months short of seventy when I was born. A century short of a single year separates his birth from that of my son, his namesake Adam Kuruvilla Lelyveld, who was born in New York City in 1980. My daughter Svati Mariam Lelyveld, whose middle name comes from that of her great-grandmother Mariamma, was born in New York City in 1986.
Ever since I can remember, amma and I have been raveled together in net after net of time. What was pulled apart at my birth has tensed and knotted up. Without her, I would not be, not even in someone else's memory. I would be a stitch with no time, capless, gloveless, sans eyes sans nose sans the lot. Lacking her I cannot picture what I might be. It mists over, a mirror with no back where everything streams in : gooseberry bushes filled with sunlight, glossy branches of the mango tree, sharp blades of the green bamboo where serpents roost.
To enter that mist, I put out both hands as far as they will reach. My right hand reaches through the mirror with no back, into a ghostly past, a ceaseless atmosphere that shimmers in me even as I live and move. Within it I feel the warmth of the sun in Tiruvella. I smell the fragrance of new mango leaves.
But my left hand stretches into the present. With it I feel out a space for my living body. I touch rough bricks where the pigeon perched just an instant ago, on the wall at the corner of 113th Street and Broadway in Manhattan — Turtle Island as it once was in a sacred geography.
Moving west, both arms outstretched, I stand against the park wall, at Riverside Drive. The wind from the Hudson River whistles through my body. Thank God, I think, for two arms to bend and stretch, to make a try at living as what we are: crooked creatures that time blows through.
Tiruvella, where amma's house stands, is a small town in Kerala on the west coast of India. There one finds the old religious centers, seminary, graveyards, and churches of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church. Syrian Christian families have house names and Kuruchiethu is the house name amma was born into, my grandfather K. K. Kuruvilla's family name. The old lands are in Niranum where the Kuruchiethu clan, once so powerful, had established its own private church. My grandfather, who was born in 1881, settled, as a grown man, a little distance away in Tiruvella. Buying lands near his wife's paternal home, he built a house with a gracious courtyard and tiled roofs, whitewashed walls and ceilings set with beams of rosewood. The doors and windows of the house were cut in teak, quartered in the fashion of the Dutch who first came to the coast in the mid-century in search of pepper and other precious spices.
When I was a child, the scent of pepper filled my nostrils. When the green flesh around the seed turned crimson, I bit into the sweetness of thin flesh. My teeth grated on the fierce seed within. Yet I found it strange that centuries ago Europeans had killed our people for this bitter prize. Still a child, I learnt of how the Portuguese — Vasco da Gama and his crew — set fire to an entire ship, all souls on board, as a sign to the Indian princes not to oppose them. Later, well established on shore, the Portuguese conducted an inquisition on the Syrian Christians, torturing believers because they thought them heretics, burning ancient church records inscribed on palmyra leaf, defacing the copper plates.
I learnt about the British and how, in order to consolidate their rule over India, they shot hundreds of unarmed men, women, and children who had congregated for a meeting in Jalianawalabagh; how finally they were forced to leave the country because of the massive nonviolent protests of Gandhi and his satyagrahis. Sometimes in my childhood dreams I saw the whole nation filled with men and women and even little girls and boys dressed in the colors of ripe pepper seeds, arms raised, singing
Go away, go away Britishers or your lips will sting your tongues will ring with pain.
No one can swallow us whole!
Under their red garments, some made of coarse cotton of the cheapest sort, others woven of fine, rich silks, how fierce the people were, just like hot peppers.
From the veranda of the Tiruvella house I had seen men pick the ripe peppers and toss them into baskets and then pour the harvest onto the sandy courtyard till it made a crimson carpet. In my dreams, it was as if that carpet had come alive, filled with people, raising their arms aloft, singing. And high above them was the clear blue of the Kerala sky.
I think of the Tiruvella house, the courtyard, the clear blue of the premonsoon sky, as filled with the spirit of my grandfather. It is where I trace my beginning. Even now, in New York City, I dream of the sparrow and the coil crying together in the guava tree, the blunt knocks of the woodpecker's beak on the day of my grandfather's death. I see the dry holes under the frangipani tree where the cobras crawled, seeking refuge from the terrible heat of noonday.
* * *
As a child growing up I knew that there were two spots where snakes loved to roost: in the dark welter of shoot and tender leaf at the base of the sixty-foot-high bamboo clump that stands at the back corner of the compound, and in the mound of earth under the frangipani tree whose thick clusters of white blossoms entice the new serpents out of their eggs as surely as music might, played on Lord Krishna's flute. The frangipani tree stands to the left of the compound, in front of the house, not far from the new railway line. The railway line is thirty-four years old but I still think of when it was being constructed, the metallic rails hoisted on the shoulders of working men, set over the wooden sleepers, secured across the fish plates.
I can see the first train that passed on the Tiruvella line. It was a clear, dry night and the stars made silvery tracks, maps of other worlds. I imagined another life, pierced by cold. Restless, gripped by excitement, I could not sleep. A train packed with passengers from Bangalore and Palghat seemed a metallic creature come from as distant a land as that of the stars. I knew the names of Mars and Venus, of the plow and the bear and Orion's belt, stars that my grandfather Ilya pointed out to me as he held me high on his shoulders in the cool night air.
At the first shrill hoot of the train whistle I leapt from under my covers, and grabbed Marya's hand. I pulled her out of the room with me, fretting in her grip till she was forced to free me from the woolly cardigan amma had insisted on, a protection for my chest from the cool night air.
There was a large group of us that night, amma, appa, assorted cousins and guests, servants, ayahs, and my tall, white-haired Ilya. The night before I had watched him shift his books around at the edge of his desk, rearranging a volume of Marx — was it published by the People's Publishing House in Moscow? — opening up his favorite chapter in Gandhi's Autobiography. Now he was ready in his khadi kurta and white dhoti, a shawl flung over his shoulders, set to race out with us. He held a palmyra torch straight in front of him and the sparks fell at his feet. Several of the sparks dashed into blackness, just a fraction of an inch away from my bare toes. One sizzled on the skin at my ankle and died away. I felt my hand held tight by Ilya as he ran. He was well over seventy but ran as a horse might in the king's army, or a giraffe, and I raced along with him, a young thing once removed from the original root, a heart-beat skipped. In the darkness he held onto my shoulders. I gripped the metal railings at the level crossing and watched the hot steel thing approach. It grunted and shoved forward and the sparks from the coal that belched in the dark funnel blew in fiery eddies that swirled into the sparks fleeing from our torches.
Chinna, my senior ayah, gasped with excitement. She sucked in her cheeks, blew out her breath. Aminey, her daughter, just my age, shivered in a thin dress next to the bars of the gate. Somewhere to my right, I thought I heard amma laugh, but it was just for an instant and then she fell silent. Thinking back I imagine her biting into her lower lip, pierced by a memory of grandmother Kunju's death.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Fault Lines"
Copyright © 2003 Meena Alexander.
Excerpted by permission of Feminist Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. Cover Page,
2. Title Page,
3. About the Cross-Cultural Memoir Series,
4. Second Title Page,
5. Copyright Page,
7. Contents Page,
8. Preface: Looking For Nadu,
9. I. Fault Lines Epigraph,
10. Chapter 1: Dark Mirror,
11. Chapter 2: Mirror of Ink,
12. Chapter 3: Katha,
13. Chapter 4: Kerala Childhood,
14. Chapter 5: Crossing Borders,
15. Chapter 6: Stone Eating Girl,
16. Chapter 7: Khartoum Journal,
17. Chapter 8: Language and Shame,
18. Chapter 9: Long Fall,
19. Chapter 10: Seasons of Birth,
20. Chapter 11: Transit Lounge,
21. Chapter 12: Rest Places or How Sense Fragments: Thoughts On Ethnicity and the Writing of Poetry,
22. Chapter 13: Narrow Gate,
23. II. Book of Childhood Epigraph,
24. Chapter 14: Dark Mirror,
25. Chapter 15: Notebook,
26. Chapter 16: Writing in Fragments,
27. Chapter 17: Khartoum Journal,
28. Chapter 18: Our First Dead,
29. Chapter 19: Home at the Edge of the World,
30. Chapter 20: Shadow Work,
31. Chapter 21: Lyric in a Time of Violence,
32. Chapter 22: Stone-Eating Girl,
33. Chapter 23: Dictionary of Desire,
34. Chapter 24: Book of Childhood,
35. Chapter 25: Indigo Ink,
37. About the Author,
38. About the Feminist Press,
39. Also Available from the Feminist Press,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
from jill kerr conwaychildhood ok but the whole thing was kind of disorganized like she wrote it as she thought of it.too much about the agony of displacement and writing poetry.