9/11 Rewrite: Memoir in a Time of Violence (2003)
PBS piece by Laura Jackson

At the time of 9/11, Meena Alexander was living and teaching in New York City and beginning to revise her memoir, Fault Lines, first published in 1993. Because of the events of 9/11, Alexander’s Fault Lines became a double memoir: the writer, forced by a violent present to revisit a violent past, had to reconfigure her identity from fragments of discovered truth. Her willingness to articulate and share these painful discoveries and her ability to imagine connections between past and present where none had seemed to exist before became her gift to the world. This radio piece contains professional readings from “Lyric in a Time of Violence,” an important essay in Alexander’s revised work. It also features conversations with the author and with Zohra, one of her students who, exiled at an early age from Afghanistan, had an understandably strong reaction both to the events of 9/11 and to Alexander’s account of them.

— Jackson, Laura. “9/11 Rewrite: Memoir in a Time of Violence.” PRX.org. n.d. Audio Recording. http://www.prx.org/pieces/963-9-11-rewrite-memoir-in-a-time-of-violence#description


At the time of 9/11, 2001, Meena Alexander was living and teaching in New York City and beginning to revise her memoir, Fault Lines, first published in 1993. The events of that day were to become a shaping force in this retelling of her life’s story. Deepa Purodit reads from “Lyric in a Time of Violence,” one essay in that revised work.

The sky is very blue on the morning of September 11, utterly bright and
clear, one of those September mornings when it feels as if light might flow through
your body.
Then the phone rings sharply. Once, twice.
“Turn on the TV. Mom. Right now.”
Adam’s voice is pierced with some emotion I cannot identify. At his insistence, I
turn on the TV.
The twin towers fill the screen. They are something I have taken for
granted, those twin towers I see from Fifth Avenue when I go to work.
Now on the screen I see a tower with a ball of fire exploding through it.
Throughout the day, students send me emails. Zohra from Afghanistan, who has spent bits and pieces of her childhood in other countries.
“Like typical New Yorkers,” she says, “we try to be brave.”
But after hearing that the Pentagon was hit there was panic at the
Graduate Center. Zohra tells me all this with great calm. In the company of others she decided to walk home to Brooklyn.
I pick up my papers and prepare to go to the university. I need to make
a space to think and feel and grieve with my students. The timing of this week’s
reading seems uncanny: the topics are trauma, memory, war.
What does it mean to fashion a self in the face of a violent world? I try
to pack the truth of my life into what I will tell my students. Slowly I make my way
to work.

One of Alexander’s students, Zohra, exiled from her native Afghanistan at an early age, had an understandably strong reaction both to the events of 9/11 and to Meena’s account of them in “Lyric in a Time of Violence.”

When I read Meena’s “Lyric in a Time of Violence” it helped me become articulate about that moment because I was there, on Fifth Avenue, and, you know, we were watching it. And that moment for me, as a refugee, was the only time I experienced war.

9/11 was not the first traumatic event in Meena Alexander’s life. As a child, her parents took her from her native Kerala, in Southern India, to Sudan where a civil war raged for years. Living between cultures and on cultural fault lines became a way of life for her, and her writing emerged as a significant way to join these fragments into life-giving metaphors.

I turned five on that steamer so I think of my fifth birthday on the Indian Ocean as this amazing moment for me, which is a little scary and exciting. And things that I write, you know, poems and bits of prose all stem from this desire to make sense of a fluid existence. There are national borders, there are linguistic borders, there are crossings that are often difficult to make, and I think of the poem as the place where I can bring all of these things together if only very briefly.

Once again, Meena Alexander’s student, Zohra.

As migrant people, as exiles we need to be able to do that, to be very fluid, and I think that’s what appeals to me most about her writing. When you’re from a place that’s been completely destroyed, I mean, that’s what happened to Afghanistan after thirty years of war, that’s the only thing you really want to write about.

Because of the events of 9/11, Alexander’s rewritten Fault Lines became a double memoir. The writer, forced by a violent present to re-visit a violent past, had to reconfigure her identity from fragments of discovered truth.

I would often walk down to ground zero as a very personal kind of pilgrimage because I think of it as a site where thousands have lost their lives, and going through that whole experience in some strange way cast me back onto other borders of difficulty and violence that I’d experienced in my life in India in my childhood.

Deepa Purodit reads from Alexander’s essay, “Lyric in a Time of Violence.”

I do not know what else to say just now.
The devastation is enormous, mounds of rubble and metal and glass
and innocent lives blown to tiny bits. It rains and the leaves are very green. Elsewhere by Ground Zero rain mixes with ash and makes the rescue work very difficult. This is our floating life, this peril, this sweet island with its southern tip burning.

I have this very central image of being a child on the boat that took me from India to North Africa. And I have this line, “When I was a child, I saw the sea burn.” This was during the Suez Canal trouble and there were tankers which were set afire. These two parts of my life just kind of came together in an instant of imagination. I think that opened something up.

Deepa Purodit again reads from Meena Alexander’s memoir where she describes what compelled her to re-write her life’s story.

I began this writing in New York City in the months immediately after
September 11, 2001. The destruction visited on the island where I make my home,
tore open the skin of memory, made me start to write again. But to close this book I had to go back to India. I had to return to the house of childhood — a buried childhood which, in my own way, I have tried to recover.
But what of the book Fault Lines I wrote a decade ago? My aim is not to
cross out what I first wrote but to deepen that writing, dig under it, even to the
point of overturning one of the most cherished figures I created.

I was in touch with things in my own childhood that were traumatic and I had been unable to remember. There was this sexual violence that I experienced as a child from someone whom I loved very much, who was my matenal grandfather, who also, you know, taught me to love books. And I managed to just deal with these flashes of knowledge. It other words, it kind of gelled for me being cast back on memory in violent present.

Exploring this forgotten and painful past was very much a part of Meena Alexander’s post-9/11 writing. Her willingness to articulate and share these discoveries and her ability to imagine connections where none had seemed to exist before became her gift to the world. The very title of the memoir, Fault Lines, describes a way of confronting and understanding breaks in the surface of political and personal realities.

I had visited St. Andres Fault and I was fascinated by this idea of a fault. And, you know, the geological plates that crash together and continents that come together and then split apart. And in order to survive I had to sort of leap over these cracks and make a whole life as it were.

The title itself is Fault Lines and it’s about the many fractured worlds inside her, this idea of being fragmented and split apart. I think that’s what appealed to me most because there was nothing wrong with having so many fragmented places. And, you know, I was born in Afghanistan; I learned to walk in Iran; we lived in Saudi Arabia for a while; and then we came to America. And I felt very connected to her because of these many worlds that I had occupied as well. That’s what first resonated for me in her work.

Two of the worlds important to Meena Alexander’s work are the private and public worlds, one allowing for the freedom of discovery and the other generosity.

It’s very very important to have a secret place to write, and it is for me. Sometimes now in Manhatten I sit in a caf? and just sit there at a table and write. And it’s wonderful because I’m totally anonymous. I think that’s one piece of it, and the other piece is to have something published or even to read it to friends. It feels very important because I feel then that it’s in the world. I mean maybe if I were a magnificent cook I would just cook a feast for my friends. But I’m not a magnificent cook; I’m an OK cook when I try. But one needs to spread out the table and share, and that’s what writing and publishing a book or a cycle of poems is all about.

Once again Deepa Purodit reads from “Lyric in a Time of Violence.” This passage includes both poetry and prose.

It was the sort of gathering to which I would wear a sari without thinking
twice, but now something nagged at me. A friend of mine called from Boston.
She told me how a man had yelled and spat at her. there was a pall of suspicion
extending over Arabs and beyond to South Asians, brown people who looked like they could be Arabs.
I rolled up my sari in a manner that would not crease it, set it carefully
in a plastic bag. In the fourth floor ladies’ room I slipped out of my slacks and put
on my sari. I watched the silk fall to the tiled floor and stared at my face in the
How dark I looked, unmistakably Indian. I needed to think through my
I had written my poems quickly, to survive. But after writing there came
a time of fragmentation, being torn apart in so many directions: the fear on this
island, the condition of our lives, not knowing what could strike next.
I heard Kabir, the medieval poet saint who I love, singing to me in secret. He was giving me courage to live my life.

Kabir Sings in a City of Burning Towers

What a shame
They scared you so
You plucked your sari off,
Crushed it into a ball

Then spread it
On the toilet floor.
Sparks from the towers
Fled through the weave of silk.

With your black hair
And sun dark skin
You’re just a child of earth.
Kabir the weaver sings:

O men and dogs
In times of grief
Our rolling earth
Grows small.

When she gave it to me, the revised memoir, and I read the last section, I was incredibly moved. It really pierced through something that was solid in side of me, and it allowed all of these things to come out that I hadn’t really thought about or talked about. It’s the honesty of her writing that allows me to access a voice that can respond to her.

It seems to me that in its rhythms the poem, the artwork, can incorporate scansion of the actual, the broken steps, the pauses, the blunt silences, the brutal explosions. So that what is pieced together is a work that exists as an object in the world but also, allows the world entry.

Meena Alexander’s revised memoir, Fault Lines, was published in 2003 by The Feminist Press. A recent book of poetry, Raw Silk, is forthcoming from Triquarterly. Her student, Zohra, is completing an anthology of Afghani-American writings and art, entitled Drop by Drop We Make a River: Afghani-American Writings of War, Exile, and Return.

“9/11 Rewrite: Memoir in a Time of Violence” was produced by Laura Jackson and Betsy Morgan. Our narrator was Eileen Brady. Music was from Masters of Indian Classical Music, produced by ARC Music. This program was engineered by Mike Simmons from Mars Audio. For information on this piece and others in the series, “The Power of Writing,” e-mail the producers at .

9/11 Rewrite: Memoir in a Time of Violence (2003) | 2003 | Interviews, Links, Other Resources
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