Newsweek Middle East sat down for an exclusive interview with the famed young poet Rupi Kaur
By Arfa Shahid
Rupi Kaur has an air about her. As the 24-year-old walks into a room, silence engulfs the place. She commands respect. People want to listen to what she has to say. And then she speaks, with a soft, delicate, but decisive voice.
Reciting verses of poetry from her book Milk and Honey, Kaur suddenly transforms into a powerhouse.
As she enters a trance-like state with the rhythm of the poetry, she embodies the words and becomes one with them.
In her performance, every word seems like it has been crafted from the very fiber of her being.
Born in India and raised in Canada for most of her life, the writer, poet and spoken-word artist visited the UAE recently as part of the ‘Visiting Authors Series’ at the annual Sharjah International Book Fair.
Reading verses from her book, Kaur’s soft voice sharply juxtaposes the power of her words. Dressed in a flowing white gown with barely any make-up on, Kaur is unassuming and unconcerned about appearances.
At 21, Sikh-Canadian Kaur revolutionized the way poetry and literature was being consumed. Kaur’s use of social media to present her work–short, simple and impactful–has proved to be a successful model, reviving the old art and reintroducing it to the younger generation.
Taking to Instagram to publish her pieces, Kaur paved the way for a new genre of writers: The Insta-Poets.
While there have been writers in the past sharing their work on Instagram–hence the Insta-Poets reference–Kaur’s pieces stood out.
It wasn’t just because of the way her words evoked a raw emotion in readers, or the fact that she was among the few writers of color who provided an intersectional narrative on issues like ethnicity, gender and identity.
Kaur’s poetry is unique, paired with illustrations that she herself creates. Unfortunately, when she began writing more, she stopped drawing.
“Writing is my new love, but I forgot my old one. Is there a way I can bring these two together?”
Kaur’s artwork, combined with hard-hitting poetry, tugged at the heartstrings of millions around the world, given the ubiquity of social media that has turned the globe into a neighborhood.
“I really wanted to differentiate myself. My name shouldn’t even have to be there, you should just be able to recognize it. And that’s how I began to create the very simple chat-like illustrations with poetry,” Kaur tells Newsweek Middle East.
Kaur successfully combined the best of two worlds: digital media and literature, and merged them together.
Her unorthodox route to publishing her first book was based on an organic demand for the written word, fueled by the power of social media.
Kaur says that at first, she thought publishing on Instagram was a “very bad idea” as one goes on there to get photos, not words.
Instagram is a photo-sharing app that allows users to maintain a photo-log.
“What happened was, I was sharing [my poetry] and readers were like where can I buy your book? And I was like I don’t have a book,” Kaur says, adding “that’s when the book kind of came about.”
Kaur’s work gained momentum fast, and soon, it was being shared by millions around the world. Now, barely 24, her first book Milk and Honey is a New York Times’ bestseller, and she has a two-book deal with publishing giants Simon and Schuster and Andrews McMeel.
“If I had gone the traditional route of just making my poetry fit into the literary space that is present in Canada or wherever in the world, and I just published through a publisher and not how I did, I don’t think it would be as big as it is today. Sometimes traditional ways don’t do that,” the young poet says, attributing her success to the power of social media.
“Once I began to post, it started a narrative between women, having conversations about all of these issues that we sweep under the rug as South Asians or just women in general. And then I kind of just kept going,” she says.
Kaur’s Instagram page created a platform for women to come out and talk about important issues. But it was one specific comment left by a woman in Seattle on a piece she wrote about sexual abuse that made her realize that what she was doing was “not just fun and games.”
“She wrote under one of my pieces ‘Wow, you make me feel like such a woman.’ I think that was a very profound moment. I realized how important it is for people to feel that and own that in the space that’s been taken away from them.”
Kaur’s writing explores themes of identity, female empowerment, sexual abuse, neo-colonialism, body positivity and women of color in a white-centric power structure. What makes her work so relatable and accessible to millions around the world is simplicity.
“Simplicity makes poetry universal. Do I really want to write poetry that only this high elite English-speaking world can understand, or that everybody can understand?” Kaur wonders.
For Kaur, realizing one’s power as a woman is a process, a slow continuous process that builds up.
“You wake up and you think, I’ve been powerful for a really long time,” she says. “I think once you realize your power as a woman, it doesn’t really go away.”
Kaur draws inspiration from womanhood. “A lot of my art comes from what it means to be a woman. Being a woman in my community comes with so much baggage. Why are you speaking? What are you doing? Your mother in law will hate you…”
In 2015, Kaur challenged the social taboo surrounding menstruation by uploading a photo of a woman lying on bed with period blood on her trousers and on the bed sheet. The image was part of a photo series by Kaur for a final-year university project for a visual rhetoric course.
“I bleed each month to help make humankind a possibility. My womb is home to the divine…We menstruate and they see it as dirty. Attention seeking. Sick. A burden. As if this process is less natural than breathing,” she wrote.
That post sparked a massive controversy after Instagram removed the image twice for “violating community guidelines.” Kaur challenged the removal and stated that the photo wasn’t meant to be provocative. Rather, it was meant to challenge the taboos surrounding menstruation. Instagram later retained the image and apologized to Kaur, saying that it had removed the image by mistake.
In eastern societies, menstruation is generally considered “shameful” to talk about. But Kaur says people in the west were equally outraged by her photo. “They were like we’re not a society that’s uncomfortable with periods so why did you have to do this? But that reaction in and of itself is so hateful. It was just very ironic because this group [west] was like this happens over there [in the east], but it’s not.”
To many, this kind of radical self-acceptance that Kaur advocates is awe-inspiring. But she shrugs it off, saying: “Why does it have to be an act of bravery to be kind or to love myself? We’ve taken these things that we should normally be and we’re like it’s so brave and it’s so this or that. But I think that just shows how much we’re starving of that kind of kindness and self-love.”
Born to Indian immigrant parents, Kaur has struggled with her identity as a woman of color growing up and recalls how she had a lot of “self-hate” with her culture, faith and language. “I would never wear traditional clothes…like if I had gone to the gurudwara [Sikh place of worship] wearing an [Indian] suit and my mom was like lets go to the grocery store, I was like hell no that would never happen!” Kaur says.
What changed her perspective, she recalls, is when she came across a group of people in her community who were the complete opposite of everything that Kaur tried to hide and considered “foreign.”
“I was so awed. Watching that group in my community just own how they looked, how they spoke and be the anti to what my school experience was, it was just inspiring. And that was what forced me to kind of take that self-love on.”
Perhaps that’s why Kaur’s work evokes a raw honesty and the compassion of someone who understands the reality of identity politics. ì” could’ve tried all my life to be Canadian, but what does that even mean? It was very visible where I was from. Every time someone would ask me where I was from I’d say Canada and they’d say no but where are you really from?…The sooner you own it, I think the easier it is.”
Kaur’s spoken-word piece Broken English did precisely that–celebrated the struggles and sacrifices of immigrant parents.
“How dare you mock your mother, when she opens her mouth and broken English pours out. Her accent is thick like honey. Hold it with your life. It’s the only thing she has left from home. Don’t you stomp on that richness. Instead, hang it up on the walls of museums,” Kaur recites in a video-post on Instagram.
While Kaur makes a hard-hitting case for reclaiming the narrative surrounding immigrant parents, another social media star offers a more humorous approach on the same subject. YouTuber Lilly Singh, aka Superwoman, is also Sikh-Canadian, born to immigrant parents of Indian origins. Many consider Singh’s humor a mockery of her roots and her parents’ struggles, while others believe it stems from a place of self-acceptance. Kaur is surprised by the parallel drawn between her and Singh.
“I think she’s great. Love is really necessary and really important, and she spreads that message,” says Kaur, adding: “I think she’s serving in a world where there’s so much negativity. It’s just like this person died, there’s this explosion happening here. And so, her message [of happiness] becomes very necessary for young people.”
Kaur’s first book was the “side-effect” of her self expression, but her next two books are a conscious decision to pen thoughts on paper. This time around, Kaur says she will not be sharing any of her new work on Instagram–once the epicenter of her literary masterpieces.
There is a certain vulnerability in putting oneself on a social platform and allowing others to comment freely on it.
For Kaur, she believes no one’s opinion has the right to alter how she writes or expresses herself. “Even with your work out there, nobody owns it but you.”