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Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: American poet - Murder-suicide
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: July 16, 2003
Date of birth: 1962
Victim profile: Her son Jehan Vazirani Komunyakaa, 2
Method of murder: Stabbing with knife
Location: Chevy Chase, Montgomery County, Maryland, USA
Status: Committed suicide by slashing her own wrist with a kitchen knife

Reetika Vazirani (19622003) was an American poet and educator. On July 16, 2003, Vazirani was housesitting in the Chevy Chase, Maryland home of novelist Howard Norman and his wife, the poet, Jane Shore. There, Vazirani took the life of her two-year-old son, Jehan, and then her own.


She was born in India in 1962, came to the US with her family in 1968. After graduating from Wellesley College in 1984, she received a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to travel to India, Thailand, Japan, and China. She also received an M.F.A. from the University of Virginia as a Hoyns Fellow.

She lived in Trenton, New Jersey with her son Jehan, near the poet Yusef Komunyakaa, who was her partner and Jehan's father. Vazirani was Writer-in-Residence at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, with the intent of joining the English department at Emory University at the time she committed her murder/suicide.


  • 2003, Anisfield-Wolf Book Award

  • 1996, Barnard Women Poets Prize

She was a recipient of a Discovery/The Nation Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Poets & Writers Exchange Program Award, fellowships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee writers conferences, the Glenna Luschei/Prairie Schooner Award for her essay, "The Art of Breathing," included in the anthology How We Live our Yoga (Beacon 2001). She also had a poem in The Best American Poetry 2000.


She was the author of two poetry collections, White Elephants, winner of the 1995 Barnard New Women Poets Prize, and World Hotel (Copper Canyon Press, 2002), winner of the 2003 Anisfield-Wolf book award. She was a contributing and advisory editor for Shenandoah, a book review editor for Callaloo, and a senior poetry editor for Catamaran, a journal of South Asian literature. She translated poetry from Urdu and had some her poems translated into Italian.

She contributed a poem, Mouth-Organs and Drums, to a "Poets Against War" anthology.

Vazirani's final collection of poetry, Radha Says was published in the fall of 2009 by Drunken Boat Media, edited by Leslie McGrath and Ravi Shankar.


Senseless tragedy strikes the American poetry scene

December 5, 2004

Well known Indian immigrant poet Reetika Vazirani (the winner of the 2003 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, a Barnard New Women Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize) was identified on July 18 as the woman in Chevy Chase, Maryland (a Washington DC suburb), who apparently slashed her own wrist with a kitchen knife and died in a pool of blood.

The horrific discovery turned even more tragic, as a second body on the scene was identified as that of American poet Yusef Komunyakaa's 2-year-old son, Jehan; the child was also lying in the dining room of the home belonging to novelist Howard Norman and poet Jane Shore, where Vazirani had been housesitting.

The DC medical examiner's office later released the cause of death for Jehan Vazirani Komunyakaa; though originally it was believed that a wound to his left wrist was the cause of death, Letter eX has learned Jehan's death was much more violent. The child suffered stab wounds to his chest, neck and forearm, which penetrated his lungs and his heart.

The medical examiner has not yet ruled on Reetika Vazirani's death, but investigators found what appeared to be a suicide note with references to her husband of three years, the boy's Pulitzer-Prize-winning father Komunyakaa, who was appointed a chancellor for the Academy of American Poets in 1999 and who received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from the Chicago based Modern Poetry Association, the publisher of Poetry Magazine.

Vazirani, whose work has appeared locally in TriQuarterly, was a writer-in-residence at the College of William and Mary (W&M) in Williamsburg. Her death continues a traumatic year for W&M. Since the beginning of the 2002 fall semester, four students and one instructor have died.

Apparently, there were advance signs that Vazirani was distraught. The day before the bodies were found, Vizirani sought a meeting with a priest and also borrowed a Bible from a neighbor. Denise King-Miller, a friend, said Vazirani had spoken to her about personal "problems" involving "her relationship with Yusef Komunyakaa," the Princeton University professor with nine collections of poetry, whose work has appeared locally in the Tia Chucha Press publication Power Lines, as well as countless other publications.

King-Miller said Vazirani left her a voice mail, hours before the alleged murder / suicide, saying, "I think I'm going to hurt myself." King-Miller got the message too late and began calling Vazirani every hour but got no answer. Vazirani left a second voice mail for a co-worker, saying, "I'm having a kind of emergency now, and I wanted to make sure you could let yourself in." Her co-worker came to the house, discovered the door unlocked and found the two bodies lying parallel to one another on the floor within an enormous pool of blood, with two large kitchen knives nearby. At the time, Vazirani and her son appeared to have been dead for hours.

Vazirani, an internationally acclaimed lyrical poet, came to America from India when she was 6 and began writing poetry when she was 25, spending eight years working on her first book, "White Elephants" (Beacon Press).

Her second book of poetry, "World Hotel", was published by Sam Hamill's Copper Canyon Press in 2002. Yusef Komunyakaa and Reetika Vazirani read their poetry together as recently as May 22 for an appearance at Texas A&M University, a week after Komunyakaa's workshop for the Poetry Center of Chicago, and they were both scheduled to join the faculty at Emory University in Atlanta this Fall. Vazirani was 40.


Reetika Vazirani



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