Meena Alexander was born in Allahabad, India, on February 17, 1951. She was raised in both India and the Sudan. She received a bachelor’s degree in French and English from Khartoum University and a doctorate degree in English from Nottingham University in England.
Alexander’s collections of poetry include Atmospheric Embroidery (TriQuarterly Books, 2018); Birthplace with Buried Stones (TriQuarterly Books, 2013); Quickly Changing River (TriQuarterly Books, 2008); Raw Silk (TriQuarterly Books, 2004); and Illiterate Heart (TriQuarterly Books, 2002), the winner of a 2002 PEN Open Book Award. Her ninth collection, In Praise of Fragments, was published posthumously by Nightboat Books in February 2020. Alexander’s work has been widely anthologized and translated into various languages, including Malayalam, Hindi, Arabic, Italian, Spanish, French, German, and Swedish. Even her first published poems were acts of translation: written in English when she was a teenager, they were published in a Sudanese newspaper and translated into Arabic. Her verse has also been set to music, most recently “Acqua Alta” by the Swedish composer Jan Sandström.
Polyglot and sensual, Alexander’s work has been influenced by the Indian poets Jayanta Mahapatra and Kamala Das, as well as the American poets Adrienne Rich and Galway Kinnell. Alexander’s poems frequently confront the difficult issues of exile and identity, while still maintaining a generous spirit. About her work, Maxine Hong Kingston has 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.
Alexander was also the editor of Indian Love Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), and the author of the novels Manhattan Music (Mercury House, 1997) and Nampally Road (Mercury House, 1991). She also penned The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial Experience (South End Press, 1996), a volume of poems and essays. Her works of criticism include Poetics of Dislocation (University of Michigan Press, 2009); Women in Romanticism: Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Shelley (Barnes & Noble Books, 1989); and The Poetic Self: Towards a Phenomenology of Romanticism (Humanities Press, Inc., 1980). Her memoir, Fault Lines, was reissued for the third time by the Feminist Press in 2003.
Alexander has received awards and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Fulbright Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Arts Council of England, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Council for Research on Women, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the New York Foundation for the Arts.
Alexander has taught at the University of Hyderabad, Fordham University, and Columbia University’s Writing Program. In 2014, she was named a National Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study. She was a distinguished professor of English at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY).
Meena Alexander died in Manhattan, New York, on November 21, 2018.