Culture, unlike biology, should allow us to seek liberation from cruel and uncomfortable practices. But instead culture wraps us in a suffocating embrace. … re cultures discrete or bounded? …Who defines the boundaries of culture or allows for change? Do cultures leak into each other? Can a person from one culture critique another culture? (Prashad xi)
Vijay Prashad, addressing the racial tension between Asian-Americans and African-Americans in Los Angeles, argues for a new kind of thinking about the merging and clashing of cultures in America and the rest of the world. Multiculturalism, broadly put, attempts to preserve and respect the differing originating (or diverging) cultures within a unified society, such as the United States. Polyculturalism asserts that it is “grounded in anti-racism rather than diversity” (xi), and “assumes that people live coherent lives that are made up of a host of lineages” (xii). The difference is one of perception and of practice. While respecting differing cultures, polyculturalism does not necessarily embrace the negatives associated with each culture (homophobia, sexism, classism, workforce cruelty, racism, etc.). Rather, it discovers and seeks to understand the common threads of culture running through all heritages. It also asserts that racial or cultural purity of any kind is illusory, and ultimately divisive.
Meena Alexander’s memoir of her own life, Fault Lines, exemplifies how one person can have many different influences and cultures within one lifetime. The fact that the author struggles with identity and tries to “map out a provisional self” (Alexander 196), overcome by the feelings of memory and loss in her own life, makes a strong case for accepting a polycultural rather than multicultural viewpoint. Her ultimate decision, however, is unclear. Thus, this essay will instead focus on the process of her creation and definition of self during a life spent on four different continents.
A brief sketch of Dr. Alexander’s life would read as follows. She was born in Allahabad, in the north of India. Her maternal grandparents lived in Kerala state, in a house in Tiruvella, to which she returned for part of every year and felt at home. In Meena’s early childhood, her father accepted a position in Khartoum, in the newly-independent North African country of Sudan. She lived there with her parents and eventually her younger sisters for most of the year, spending time each year in Tiruvella. In her teens, Meena graduated from Khartoum University and decided to pursue a Ph.D. from Nottingham University, England. After her graduation, she returned to India to her parents’ new home in Pune and took a job in Delhi. There she met an American Jewish man named David Lelyveld–an Indian historian–and within three weeks they decided to marry.
The couple went to Paris; during her pregnancy with their first child, Meena had a difficult bout of malaria. They came to New York, where Meena met her husband’s family, and the couple and their son tried to live together in Minnesota, where David was employed. Meena found Minnesota to be stifling. She moved back to New York and David commuted. Meena and David’s second child was born in New York.
Today, Meena is a professor of English at Hunter College in New York City. She speaks Malayalam (the language spoken in the Indian state of Kerala), Hindi, Arabic, French, and English.
The facts alone are fascinating. Significant portions of this woman’s life have been lived on four different continents, in vastly different cultures–and much of it during the volatile 1960s and 1970s. In addition, her Indian family of educated people and landowners raised her in a culture of privilege and conservatism. The difference between Meena’s Tiruvella 1950s childhood, her teens in the rapidly changing culture of 1960s Khartoum, her student and first-job days in 1970s England and Delhi, and her 1990s New York life could not be much more different. For example, in Tiruvella there were servants, a five-acre garden, and “old religious center, seminary, graveyards, and churches of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church” (Alexander 7). The Syrian Christian church was a source of great pride and inspiration to her grandparents and parents, and Meena grew up within an entirely Christian Indian traditional culture.
Her Khartoum days were also bounded within privilege and religious education, but also unsettled and redefined by cultural change. Civil unrest, political movements, and reconceptions of feminism all punctuated Meena’s days. In fact, before she graduated from the University at age eighteen, she participated in student protests.
In England, Meena lived a typical student’s life. Yet she encountered a different kind of socialization than she was used to–romance. Some men wanted to date her; others, to marry her. The strong passion and individualistic nature of romantic liaisons differed markedly from her former culture, with its arranged marriages and sheltered girls. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she experienced in England such culture shock that she had a “nervous breakdown” (141).
Meanwhile, the secular, urban world of New York life is as removed from her Tiruvella roots as much as can be imagined. There, Meena is a minority, rather than a member of a privileged class. In addition, her ethnicity and femininity make her feel that “In Manhattan, I am a fissured thing, a body crossed by fault lines” (182). Her fragmentation is not only “of a broken geography”(2) of her itinerant life so far, but is in her soul.
She does not feel at home in New York, but neither does she feel at home completely in India, where her aged parents go to live in her mother’s family house in Tiruvella at the memoir’s close. She writes, “In contemporary India, where ancient cultures, hierarchical and exclusive, exist in a tension with a rapidly changing society, the place prescribed for women becomes a fault line, a site of potential rupture” (Truth Tales 11). Similarly, she asks of her adopted country, “What does it mean to be UnWhite in America?”, where she can be insulted with a racial and sexual epithet while walking down a Minneapolis street with her infant son (Alexander 169). Where is she at home if both worlds are closed to her, and both make her feel alienated?
The fact that Meena lived in “exile” most of her life may contribute to her feelings of alienation. Although she spent much of her time in Tiruvella, where her beloved grandfather lived, she did not live there permanently at any time. Thus, whenever she left, she carried the feeling of exile with her. In a sense, Meena’s family was a tiny colony of Tiruvella living in Allahabad, Khartoum, and then in Pune, always away from their Kerala roots and always remembering and returning to it. Colonial cultures are often conservative and nostalgic; thus, this mini-familial colonialism may have contributed to Meena’s feelings of fragmentation and “fissures”.
Several times through the memoir, moments of Meena’s profound alienation are exposed. The two most significant were her “nervous breakdown” in England, and her severe bout of malaria in Paris during her first pregnancy. At Nottingham University, she felt that she “unraveled” (141), and for months she was unable to work or even to concentrate enough to read. The physical separation from both the India of her childhood, and the North Africa of her growing up, manifested itself with her brain shutting down for a period, perhaps so that she could readjust to her new English surroundings. Later, while pregnant with her son Adam, she came down with a severe case of malaria. The physical, geographical, and cultural changes she was experiencing were being played out by the illnesses of her body, which “speak[s] out [her] discrepant otherness”. There seems to be no home for her, no place that she can be Indian, be female, or even be American. In the words of A. Robert Lee, the memoir thus “carries the almost perfect multicultural insignia. She could not be more explicit about her will to have her own divides meet, to join her past with her present” (Lee 60).
But is multiculturalism–the acknowledgement of many cultures’ influence on her own life–what tore her apart? Would a different perspective, that of polyculturalism and the acceptance of cultures as not separate but merely variations, have given her more peace?
There are some inklings in the memoir that point to that process perhaps occurring. Meena connects the places of her childhood and young adulthood through geographically divergent metaphors. She sees the colors of a Sudanese dove in the sunlit roof tiles on a New York morning (165), and she compares the beggars in the subway to the poor in her native India. A synthesis begins to occur as Meena slowly adjusts to living in America, but it is not the kind of assimilation that Americans usually assume. As she writes,
“Ethnicity for such as I am comes into being as a pressure, a violence from within that resists such fracturing. It is and is not fictive. It rests on the unknown that seizes you from behind, in darkness. In place of the hierarchy and authority and decorum that I learnt as an Indian woman, in place of purity and pollution, right hand for this, left hand for that, we have an ethnicity that breeds in the perpetual present, and will never be wholly spelt out. (202)
Thus, Meena finds that her Indianness, her roots in the soil of Kerala, with its fissures in the laterite, will indeed sustain her. She no longer needs to be torn apart by the multiplicity of America or by the frenetic pace and ethnic merging of New York.
Thus, the house in Tiruvella becomes her anchor, and “…because it was, I am whole and entire. I do not need to think in order to be. I was a child there, and here I am, and though I cannot findthe river that brought me here, yet I am because that was. And this stubborn, shining thing persisted for me. It has done so for so many years.” (197)
Does this mean that she has a polycultural rather than multicultural bent? Or is this a radical form of multiculturalism, which asserts that the Indianness in her, her “dark female body,” must be preserved and asserted above any Americanness she possesses–even though her children will grow up in America?
Meena’s book is too complex for such a one-sided assertion. There are parts of American life that she embraces, particularly her ability to publish through The Feminist Press and publicly examine issues of both ethnic and sexual oppression. Thus, she has found certain aspects of America to be beneficial, in spite of the difficulties of living her “fragmented” life and learning how to be an Indian woman in modern America.
One of the precepts of polyculturalism is the rejection of the (perceived) negative aspects of traditional cultures. Meena embraces that, writing feminist criticism and condemning ethnic and racial oppression in the places she has lived in India, Africa, and the United States (“The struggle for social justice, for human dignity, is in each of us,” she writes ). This rejection of old stereotypes seems to have given the author some of the answers she needs to live in this society. She sees it as larger than individual experience, one that “transcends individualism” (203), and it becomes a larger project by which the injustices of society can be addressed and redressed.
Simply because a human being travels far and widely does not mean that the center of that person’s being must be fragmented. In our society, a multi-lingual and well-traveled person is considered well-rounded and, perhaps, more well-informed about the world than someone who has only traveled minimally. “Travel broadens the mind” goes the axiom. Yet is living in a culture other than your own, which used to be called “exile”, the same as travel? Fault Lines shows us some of the dangers of a too-itinerant life. Though Meena may have extensive knowledge of other cultures and places, especially through her acquisition of languages other than her native Malayalam, what price for this knowledge and experience has she paid? Has the difficulty of change been worth the knowledge and the understanding of the wider world? Would not a more centered person, with a less direct knowledge of the far-flung reaches of the globe, be a better result than the anguish and actual physical breakdowns of the exiled Indian woman in Europe and America?
As Meena asserts, the goal is greater than the individual. The cultural understanding her work and writing has brought to American academia and readers of her works, for example, may have been worth the difficulties of her own experience. Furthermore, it appears, at the end of her memoir, that the center of her identity has been reclaimed. She has learned to accept being different in New York. The process is ongoing, and not yet complete, but it appears that there is hope. “Can I become just what I want? So is this the land of opportunity, the America of dreams?”, she writes. The answer is ambiguous, but the reader feels she is not sarcastic or facetious in this question.
This change is foreshadowed in the beginning of the memoir as she recalls the house in Tiruvella. It is as if she can now hold on to the memories and identity of her past without a constant feeling of loss. “The constancies of my life, the hands I held onto, the rooms or gardens I played in, ripple in memory, and sometimes it is as if the forgotten earth returns,” she writes (53). The reader feels that Tiruvella can live inside the author, and sustain her in the alien culture in which she lives today, without requiring her to fully surrender to either.