May 4, 2023
Content warning: There are mentions of suicide, murder, and mental health challenges in the below story.
In the summer of 2003, a violent tragedy struck an otherwise quaint, peaceful suburb of Washington, D.C. While house-sitting for writer-poet couple Howard Norman and Jane Shore, 40-year-old poet Reetika Vazirani stabbed her 2-year-old son Jehan to death with a kitchen knife, and then fatally stabbed herself.
The devastating murder-suicide was inexplicable to those who knew Vazirani. Her students admired her for her wit and generosity and her friends and family described her as a loving mother. To outsiders, she seemed the picture of success. She authored two award-winning poetry collections (The White Elephant and World Hotel), taught at many renowned colleges, and won numerous awards, including the coveted Pushcart Prize.
But Vazirani’s closest friends and mentors knew that she also faced deeper struggles. Her father died by suicide when she was just a child, and she frequently wrote about her search for belonging. This pain, intertwined with themes of immigration, race, and identity, appeared throughout her work. Her poetry, acclaimed for its sensuous lyricism and technical brilliance, captivated prominent poets such as Rita Dove, the former U.S. poet laureate. But nearly 20 years later, the late literary star is seldom spoken about and her pioneering work is rarely referenced. Her legacy as one of the first successful Indian American poets is complicated by the tragic circumstances of her death — but it’s one that deserves to be remembered.