I covered a few events at this year's PEN World Voices festival, and when I arrived at a storytelling event sponsored by The Moth I was lucky enough to be seated next to the poet and author Meena Alexander. She was among those blogging about the event for PEN itself.
We talked about an extensive trip she had recently taken, funded by a Fulbright fellowship, and discovered that we both knew, and had fond memories of, the late Joel Porte, who taught at Harvard when I was an undergraduate there.
Professor Porte was then one of the youngest tenured members of the English department, known for his piercing eye, his sharp black goatee, and for finding hidden meanings in the writers of the American Renaissance. I spent a semester of independent study with him, reading Thoreau's Journal and writing about Thoreau’s philosophy of food. Meena had met him not long before, when he was traveling in India.
I mentioned that I had been reading memoirs from Africa, and Meena mentioned that she had one of her own. She had grown up in Sudan, and described the experience in a book called Fault Lines.
I picked up Fault Lines shortly after that, and was surprised that I hadn’t heard of it before. Like many poets, Meena Alexander writes excellent prose, crafting each sentence with care and taking chances with language that not many prose writers would risk.
The book has an unusual structure. It was first published in 1993, and ten years later Meena returned to it, adding several new chapters in an effort to deal with painful material that was only partially explored in the original version. Some of the new chapters have the same names as previous chapters, as she revisited certain memories. This is how the first of two chapters called “Khartoum Journal” begins:
Khartoum, 1964. Blood seeping into water, a slow dark pool of it and overhead the sun turning the surface of the Nile into a sheet of burning metal. Then the blood vaporizes in water, vanishes into heat and I cannot tell what is water and what is the sun that burns up the sky anymore. This keeps recurring in dreams. Somewhere, at the banks of the river, they are fishing out a man's body, the head beaten to a pulp, the color of blood when it leaks into hot Nile water.
I hear her voice, calling, calling me, my friend, Sarra Annis. I'm sure it's she. “Meena, come quick, quickly.” I hasten in the direction of the voice. I see a small crowd by an acacia tree at the water's brink, see Sarra there too and crouch with her by the edge of the Blue Nile where a corpse has been raised: a poor student from Wau, head mashed to a pulp, lifted out in the arms of three swimmers.
Geoff Wisner is the author of A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books That Capture the Spirit of Africa, which discusses books from every African country. He also blogs at www.geoffwisner.com.