The young Punjabi-Sikh poet, from Canada, is fit for the Instagram age, but her writing is entrenched in her experiences and traditions as a South Asian woman
28 Septiembre 2018 14:06
Rupi Kaur is the modern day poet fit for the Instagram age. Yet, her credentials don't end there. The 25-year-old Toronto-based writer may have millions of followers on Tumblr and Instagram - a truly millennial phenomenon - but her minimalist style is also a meditation on deep-rooted Punjabi-Sikh traditions and holy texts. Some have criticised, and even mocked, the fragmented free verse style in which Kaur voices her inner reflections, but she remains unfazed. Sure, her poetry is easy to follow, but the intent behind it is far from simplistic.
Kaur grew up among a community of South Asian women, both second and first generation immigrants to Canada, where she wrote poetry, performed, painted, and immersed herself within a group of activists pushing for greater representation. She began sharing her work on social media through her teenage years and amassed a following unrivalled by any of her peers. Kaur now has three million followers on Instagram. Who knew poetry had such a mass appeal? Contrary to popular opinion, it is not an art form that died when the iPhone was made.
‘As a young girl, I needed [representation] - perhaps more than anything else. I can only speak as a South Asian woman, that is who I am. I write to document that we were here. These were our lives. Our dreams and despairs.’
In 2014, Kaur self-published her first book Milk and Honey. It became a New York Times bestseller and has been published in over 30 languages. And last year she released her second book, The Sun and Her Flowers, which has just been published in Spanish. We speak to Kaur about reflections on love, life, and identity, navigating the complicated world of social media fame, and why there is enough space for women of colour to be seen and heard.
What was the process of writing The Sun and Her Flowers? And how did it differ from your previous work?
The Sun and Her Flowers and Milk and Honey are siblings. Cut from the same cloth but unique in their own ways. Both books revolve around so many facets of love, loss, friendship, heartbreak. Both are reflections of the inner self and in The Sun and Her Flowers I begin to look outward. I was writing it in January 2017 in California and so many of my friends there were worried and fearful about what was to come. Some were undocumented, others were young women terrified that so much of the progress they’d fought so long and hard for was about to be snatched away from them.
Why is it so important to tell stories from your culture as a South Asian woman?
As a young girl, I needed that--perhaps more than anything else. I can only speak as a South Asian woman, that is who I am. I can only speak about my lived experience and of the women around me—my mother, the life she’s lived, her mother, my sisters and so on. Our trauma escapes the confines of our own times. We’re not just healing from what’s been inflicted onto us as children. It is generations of pain embedded into our souls. I realized the importance of representation and knew this experience must be different for my children. I write to document that we were here. These were our lives. Our dreams and despairs.
As a woman of colour, you have an enviable career and platform. But is there enough space for WOC writers to share the same success?
There is so much space. I think we fall into this thing called the scarcity complex. Where the idea is that if one person is succeeding, others must not be succeeding. Is there only one person who encapsulates all love songs? There are millions — Adele, Sam Smith, Beyonce. This world is giant and there is space for a multitude of voices, especially within the South Asian community. I think we have to leave this myopic and shallow way of thinking and shift it towards a more purposeful perspective—let’s figure how we can promote a diversity of lived experiences.
What role does technology play in navigating your identity and writing?
I started to perform about nine years ago. I’d perform to a small group of people. At that time in Canada, my friends and I were all engaged in community activism; it was a group of first and second generation brown folks creating art around things like domestic violence, growing up as girls, our immigrant experiences, faraway homelands and so on. After shows, people would come to me and say: ‘Rupi, you need to post your work online, more people need to hear this.’ I landed on Instagram by mistake. I took my poetry to Instagram because the visual element was so important to me; I could showcase a poem like a piece of art in a frame- in the same way that I used to display my paintings growing up.
You have been catapulted to fame through your poetry - how do you make sense of international notoriety?
When I was growing up, I didn’t have someone I looked up to, especially when it came to writing what 5-year-old Rupi needed to read. I always got lost in books from such a young age - they were my refuge. So, I often write based on what the younger versions of me needed at so many different ages in my life. And, it is a deeply personal experience. Seeing those experiences then catapulted to all of these places is aweing. The biggest takeaway I get is that it teaches me to strive for better. To improve in my crafts as a writer and artist everyday.
Many doubted that poetry could be a platform for mass appeal and social media fandom. You and others have proved them wrong. What do you think makes your poetry so popular in the ‘Instagram age’?
I don’t think it is a reinvention as much as simply a different means of distribution and consumption. So much of what I was writing about, I had never said out loud before. I didn’t feel I could say it out loud. Much of my growth as a writer came during the time I was sharing more and more. I believe there’s more democratization of content with less gatekeepers than in other mediums. It can be problematic but it does allow for folk from all walks of life to have a larger voice. As an artist, you write what you want to write about, and your readers gravitate towards you. There’s less standing in your way. This is really important for work from marginalized or underrepresented communities. In some ways, social media has helped in leveling out the playing field.
How do you feel about being labelled an ‘Instapoet’? Is the term reductive?
I feel we have a desire to classify and codify. Some days you’re a poet and others an essayist. My purpose is to write.
Some have criticised your style as being simplistic. What do you think of such critiques?
I don’t. For me, the way I write, why I write the way I do, and who I’m writing for is a result of so many journeys. So much of my written word is linked to my spoken performances. And, although I can read and understand my mother tongue (Punjabi), I do not have the skill-set to write poetry in it. To write Punjabi means to use Gurmukhi script. And within this script there are no uppercase or lowercase letters. All letters are treated the same. I enjoy how simple that is; how symmetrical and how absolutely straightforward. I also feel there is a level of equality this visuality brings to the work. A visual representation of what I want to see more of within the world: equality. So, in order to preserve these small details of my mother language I include them within this language.
Why did you want to give readers a Spanish language edition with el sol y sus flores?
I’ve had a love affair with the Spanish language from afar for a long time and as soon as we began the process of translating into different languages, my team and I knew creating something special for our Spanish readers was key. And so many of the wonderful people I’ve met throughout this journey come from Spanish speaking countries. I’ve had some of my most rewarding creative experiences in collaborating with them.
You can buy El Sol y Sus Flores (Spanish) here.