The Migratory Memory of Meena Alexander

For the Indian American poet, one language was never enough. Yet her words never fail us.

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Meena Alexander attends a dinner at The Norman Mailer House on June 2, 2011 in New York City (Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for The Norman Mailer Center)

Serena Alagappan


May 29, 2024


8 min

Just before she turned 5, Meena Alexander left India for the first time. “That first ocean crossing obsesses me. I think of it as a figuration of death. Losing sense, being blotted out, thrown irretrievably across a border,” Alexander wrote in her 2003 memoir Fault Lines. Alexander was devastated to leave and sat “mute, wordless” on the ship. She resented her mother for taking her away. But later in the journey, she woke from a nightmare, sweating and crying, and her mother comforted her with a glass of cold water. Alexander sensed vaguely in this memory something she found difficult to put into words: “amma and I, mother and child, were crossing into another life.” 

Studies show that our memories are malleable. No one knows this better than multilingual writer Meena Alexander, who can turn murky recollections into hypnotic, painful, and dynamic verse and prose. Throughout her life, she remained frustrated with the limitations of language. Yet, this very frustration led to some of the most provocative writing on the trials of departure, resettlement, and longing for one’s homeland.

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