Moniza Alvi was born in Lahore in Pakistan, the daughter of a Pakistani father and an English mother. She moved to England when she was a few months old, and grew up in Hertfordshire. She didn’t revisit Pakistan until after her first book of poems, The Country at My Shoulder, was published.
Alvi’s poetry is imbued with a spirit of duality, partition, fractured identity and transformation: her early work was concerned with homelands – real and imagined – in poems which are “vivid, witty and imbued with unexpected and delicious glimpses of the surreal – this poet's third country” (Maura Dooley). In these poems she imagines what it would have been like never to have left, to have grown up in Pakistan rather than having left and become a different person.
As well as divisions between what she has called “the receding east, the receding west”, her later work also explores the interplay between inner and outer worlds, imagination and reality, physical and spiritual experience. She has written translations or versions of the poetry of the French poet Jules Supervielle, as well as taking on the myth of Europa.
Her poem ‘Europa and the Bull’ imagines the rape of Europa, the Phoenician princess, by Jupiter, the greatest European god – a story that deals explicitly with both the conquest of the East by the West, and the conquest of women by men:
Climb onto his back,
the air seemed to say.
Cling to his broad white neck.
He bowed low, beckoning her
with half-knowing looks,
and she clambered up the milky hill of him
until they were one –
Europa and the bull, motionless
for an instant, answerable
to the sea and sky.
Alvi’s themes of division and identity are evident in her fascination with otherness, and a predilection for the surreal. Her imagery can render the familiar strange, and the strange familiar.
Her books include Homesick for the Earth, her versions of the French poet Jules Supervielle, and Split World: Poems 1990–2005 (2008), which includes poems from her five previous collections. How the Stone Found Its Voice (2005) draws on Kipling’s Just So Stories for the titles (‘How the City Lost Its Colour’, ‘How the Countries Slipped Away’) of dark, yet delicate, parables. The Country at My Shoulder was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot and Whitbread poetry prizes, and Carrying My Wife was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Europa was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2008. Moniza Alvi received a Cholmondeley Award in 2002.
At the time of writing in autumn 2011, she is currently working on a long poem inspired by a family story and the partition of India and Pakistan.
After working for many years as a secondary school teacher in London, she is now a freelance writer and a tutor, particularly for the Poetry School. She lives in Wymondham, Norfolk.
Peacock Luggage, with Peter Daniels, Sheffield, Smith/Doorstop, 1992
The Country at My Shoulder, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1993
A Bowl of Warm Air, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1996
Carrying My Wife, Tarset, Bloodaxe, 2000
Souls, Tarset, Bloodaxe, 2002
How the Stone Found its Voice, Tarset, Bloodaxe, 2005
Europa, Tarset, Bloodaxe, 2008
Split World: Poetry 1990–2005, Tarset, Bloodaxe, 2008
Homesick for the Earth: Poems by Jules Supervielle with versions by Moniza Alvi, Tarset, Bloodaxe, 2011
Moniza Alvi’s poetry is published by Bloodaxe
Reviews of How the Stone Found its Voice and Europa
Alvi’s poem on Samuel Palmer’s painting Coming from Church, published by TATE ETC.
Alvi’s profile on the British Council website
Read more about Alvi’s poem ‘Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan’ on the BBC Schools website