She walked into the classroom, her youthful eyes scanning the roomful of unfamiliar students’ faces. To professor and poet Reetika Vazirani, new places and different people were always familiar, a product of her frequent traveling and moving around. Despite her natural poise and grace, no one knew the pain that migration and other tragedies had inflicted on Vazirani’s life.
In 2001, Vazirani found herself once again preparing for a new life, a new job – a new identity – this time at the College. Her students were now her family, and her mission was to teach them. About life. About art. About experience.
Their first assignment: take out a piece of paper and a pen. “Just experience the actual act of writing,” she said, as recollected by Lauren Mulryne, a student in Vazirani’s fall 2001 Short Story class. “Don’t worry about WHAT you are writing, but focus on the pen gliding across the paper.”
For a woman who was known to be incredibly precise with language, simply writing without thinking about it beforehand would have seemed inappropriate. But much is often unexplainable, and like Vazirani’s first assignment, her death on July 16 – along with the death of her two-year-old son, Jehan – lacked a clear explanation.
“We were all shocked when we heard the news,” Jean Graham, chair of the English department, said. “We didn’t expect it at all. We were appalled and it was just very sad.”
According to the July 18 Washington Post article, Vazirani slashed Jehan’s left wrist and then her own. Their bodies were later discovered by a friend who responded to a desperate call from Vazirani. Mother and son were found lying next to each other in a pool of blood in the Washington home of friends Howard Norman, a novelist, and Jane Shore, a poet, where Vazirani was temporarily staying.
“I can’t imagine the place she must have been in, but she had to be very far from herself,” Kim Pearson, associate professor of English, said. “Suicide is hard enough to understand, even though it happens. But I can’t understand taking the life of her baby.”
While faculty and students knew Vazirani to be pleasant, receptive and easy to approach, Pearson said that her poetry was haunting and revealed someone who was unsettled in her identity.
After being born in India, Vazirani moved to the U.S. when she was six and grew up in Maryland. She lived in China, Thailand, Japan, Cambridge, Tampa, Piscataway and Trenton, among a number of other places, as her parents changed jobs.
Raised by her parents – both professors – Vazirani experienced loss when her father committed suicide. She was only 12 years old.
“For me, it was a disappearance because I was never told that he died,” Vazirani said of her father’s death to Poets and Writers Magazine. “I read two obituaries sitting at the kitchen table, and at that time, I didn’t know what suicide was – I thought it was a disease.”
Her dealings with her father’s death and her constant migration made it harder for her to fully adapt to one place. As a result, these issues influenced her award-winning poetry.
For her first collection, “White Elephants,” she won the Barnard New Women Poetry Series in 1995, and her latest work, “World Hotel,” won the 2003 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. Most prestigiously, she was awarded the Pushcart Prize in 2000 for her poem, “Daughter-Mother-Maya-Seeta.”
“She was a master of the craft,” Pearson said. “She knew the exact effect she wanted to achieve – in poetry and in her teaching alike – and she did it consciously but not obtrusively.”
For example, Pearson said that when Vazirani would find something unusually horrible – whether it was a newscast, an article or a current event – she would simply say, “That’s some fucked up shit.”
“It would have so much more of an impact because she chose those words so carefully,” Pearson said. “When she said it, she really meant to say it.”
While her words were solid, Vazirani constantly struggled with identity. Faculty members who had deeper conversations with her knew a more isolated, uncertain woman.
“What we all knew and saw was that she suffered from a painful sense of isolation that was just so big,” Janet Gray, professor of women’s studies, said. “I don’t know if any of us could have understood it. We tried to help but we don’t know if it would have been possible.”
Cathy Day, professor of English, said that as writers, she and Vazirani shared the experience of always seeming to be in a new place. Because of this, she tried help Vazirani adjust to her new surroundings by going shopping together and showing her around the College.
But despite the College’s welcome, Vazirani once again did not stay in the same place. She took the spring 2002 semester off in order to work on her latest book and to be with her family. She then moved to Williamsburg, Va.., to work as a writer-in-residence at the College of William and Mary. Her latest plans, before her death, were for her and Jehan’s father, Yusef Komunyahaa – a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who was teaching at Princeton – to join the faculty at Emory University in Atlanta.
“She was just such an intense person,” Gray said. “People will always speculate why she did what she did, but will ultimately find that you can’t solve it for anyone else. We are really in the face of a terrible tragedy.”