Collins' parents are from Grenada, where they returned shortly after her birth. Her primary education was in St George's, Grenada. She later studied at the University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica, earning degrees in English and Spanish in 1972. She then taught history and Spanish in Grenada for two years and subsequently in St Lucia. In 1980, she graduated from Georgetown University with a master's degree in Latin American Studies. She graduated from the London School of Economics with a Ph.D. in Government.
From 1984 to 1995, Collins taught at the University of North London. She is currently Professor of Comparative Literature and English at the University of Maryland. Her critical works include "Themes and Trends in Caribbean Writing Today" in From My Guy to Sci-Fi: Genre and Women's Writing in the Postmodern World (ed. Helen Carr, Pandora Press, 1989), and "To be Free is Very Sweet" in Slavery and Abolition (Vol.15, issue 3, 1994, pp. 96–103).
Her first collection of poetry, Because the Dawn Breaks, was published in 1985, at which time she was a member of African Dawn, a performance group combining poetry, mime and African music. In 1987, she published her first novel Angel, which follows the lives of Grenadians as they struggled for independence. Her collection of short stories, Rain Darling, was produced in 1990, and a second collection of poetry, Rotten Pomerack, in 1992. Her second novel, The Colour of Forgetting, was published in 1995. A review of her 2003 poetry collection, Lady in a Boat, states: "Ranging from poems reveling in the nation language of her island to poems that capture the beauty of its flora, Collins presents her island and people going about the business of living. They attempt to come to terms with the past and construct a future emerging out of the crucible of violence. Lady in a Boat is a poignant retelling of a period in history when, for a brief moment, Caribbean ascendancy seemed possible. Merle Collins shows how the death of this moment continues to haunt the Caribbean imagination." Her most recent collection of stories, The Ladies Are Upstairs, was published in 2011.
- Because the Dawn Breaks, Karia Press, 1985, ISBN 978-0-946918-09-6
- Rotten Pomerack, Virago, 1992, ISBN 978-1-85381-556-0
- Lady in a Boat, Peepal Tree Press, 2003, ISBN 978-1-900715-85-0
- Angel, Women's Press, 1987, ISBN 978-0-7043-4082-4; Seal Press, 1998, ISBN 978-1-58005-014-2
- The Colour of Forgetting, Virago Press, 1995, ISBN 978-1-85381-892-9
- Rain Darling, Women's Press, 1990, ISBN 978-0-7043-4258-3
- The Ladies are Upstairs, Peepal Tree Press, 2011, ISBN 978-1-84523-179-8
- "Dr. Merle Collins", Profile from the 23rd Annual Conference on West Indian Literature, University of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica.
- Author information at Peepal Tree Press.
- "Dr. Merle Collins – Grenadian poet and novelist", St George's University website.
- June D. Bobb, "'Want[ing] a Different Song': Elegy for an Island", The Caribbean Writer.