For the last 25 weeks, a certain book has been making quite an unprecedented impact on leading international bestseller lists.
The anthology Milk and Honey, by 24-year-old Toronto-raised Rupi Kaur, is a collection of raw, unpolished, strikingly direct poem and prose. It has had critics raving and readers demanding more ever since Kaur first self-published it on Amazon two years ago. Within a surprisingly short time, given that poetry tends to be the least popular of all forms of writing, milk and honey landed on the Amazon top seller list for Canadian literature, alongside literary icons such as Margaret Atwood. It also made it to the second spot on the Amazon bestseller list for poetry. Following this popularity, it was picked up for a second print by Andrews McMeel Publishing, and now Rupi Kaur, a woman who, two years ago, only Instagrammers had heard of, is a worldwide sensation. She recently signed two book deals.
Kaur is what The Guardian calls an ‘InstaPoet’ – a poet who has become famous in the universe of the photoblogging site, Instagram. In a recent piece, The Guardian said that she “has fashioned a career out of forcing herself into places where she’s least expected; whether it’s The New York Times bestseller list or challenging social media to rethink how it sees menstruation”.
By now, it’s hard to say whether Kaur is famous because of the poetry she has been posting on Instagram, accompanied by drawings, or because of the controversy she created on social media in March 2015, when she posted an image of herself fully-dressed, with a blood stain on her pajamas and a coin-sized patch of menstrual blood on her bed. The picture was part of a series of photos for a visual rhetoric course, to engage critical discussion using non-verbal media, in her final year at the University of Waterloo, Canada.
Instagram banned the picture: “We removed your post because it doesn’t follow our Community Guidelines,” Kaur was told by email. The mail inspired her to fight back. Poetry was her weapon.
Kaur couldn’t comprehend what the big deal was. After all, the process of shedding the lining of a woman’s womb is as natural as breathing. “I was just amused that this was even as fiery as it was... there were so many reactions that this anxiety and numbness took over and I eventually couldn’t feel anything,” Kaur reminisces in an email interview from Toronto. Was she scared? “Life got extremely busy after that moment, so there was no time to be scared.”
She reposted the photo, pointing out the hypocrisy and double-standards of the social media platform in these words: “i will not apologize for not feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society that will have my body in an underwear but not be okay with a small leak. when your pages are filled with countless photos/accounts where women (so many who are underage) are objectified. pornified. and treated less than human. thank you (sic)”. Her post was shared and re-shared. Instagram caved in, reinstated her photo and apologised.
Threats and insults were hurled at Kaur. Yet her post gathered 91.7k likes, even as her followers swelled. At present, her Instagram has 683k followers.
“the thing about writing is
i can’t tell if it’s healing
or destroying me”
As a kid, Kaur aspired to be different things: an astronaut, a fashion designer or perhaps a social worker. Each school year was a different infatuation. But one childhood dream that stayed with her through the years: the desire to “save the world like all my favourite book characters”.
And she chose to turn to what came to her most naturally: the written word.
Kaur won an essay and speech competition in school in the seventh grade. “a shy introverted bullied 12 year old now standing in front of a hundred students reading my work out loud and accepting an award. it was my first step toward becoming the person i always wanted to be,” writes Kaur on her website. She took to writing birthday poems for friends and love poetry for crushes. Then she started maintaining a journal.
Though she had been sharing her work anonymously on a blog through high school, in 2013, she made an account on Tumblr and began posting all that she had been writing through the years – using her own name this time, rather than a pseudonym. “tell them I was/the warmest place you knew/and that you turned me cold” reads one poem, which received 16,722 notes on Tumblr.
In March 2014, she moved to Instagram when she began illustrating her poems. Kaur had been drawing since she was five, but somehow fell out of practice till she rediscovered her knack at Waterloo and decided to start weaving art with poetry: “The topics I was discussing were very heavy, but the illustrations were so simple. I loved the power those two opposites created,” says Kaur.
Another interesting facet of Kaur’s poetry is her use of lowercase and periods. “in the gurmukhi script... all letters are treated the same. i enjoy how simple that is. how symmetrical and how absolutely straightforward,” writes Kaur on her website. “a visual representation of what i want to see more of within the world: equalness... so in order to preserve these small details of my mother language i include them within this language. no case distinction and only periods.”
A number of themes and ideas run through her crisp, raw poems: love, rape, alcoholism, trauma, womanhood, and the processes of hurting and healing. “The pain that all people experience in life and the light that helps them champion through it all – it’s their lives and their stories and their love and will to keep living that moves me to write,” says Kaur. She particularly enjoys writing ‘empowerment’ poems “because it’s like becoming my own best friend and giving myself the advice I need”.
Kaur read hundreds of books while growing up, but none reflected the torment and experiences of her community or the larger South Asian diaspora. “The trauma of South Asian people 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,” she says.
Sexuality and abuse are issues that feature prominently in her work in milk and honey. “our bodies are not our property. we are told we must be conservative. a good south asian girl is quiet. does as she is told. sex does not belong to her. it is something that happens to her on her wedding night. it is for him. we know sexual violence intimately. we experience alarming rates of rape. from thousands of years of shame and oppression. from the community and from colonizer after colonizer,” she writes on her website. For her, poetry is a means of challenging that narrative.
What she yearned for, while growing up, was access to words written by people who looked like her, writing about the things that she was going through. “At that moment I realised the importance of representation and knew this must be different for my children. They must have access to their own literature,” she says. “When I was little, my dad told me about Anandpur Sahib and the court of Guru Gobind Singh. That we came from a tradition of poets, warriors and artists who created when it was illegal to create... we’re groomed to be reckless in the defense of what we feel is right.”
But wasn’t she uncomfortable posting lines so personal for the world to see? “I felt voiceless for so long, I wasn’t ever able to say what I felt out loud. I didn’t know how to say it. Posting online presented itself as a comfortable medium. I could say what I wanted to say in a way I still felt comfortable. Whenever, however I wanted to.”
Kaur chose to self-publish milk and honey against the advice of her college professor, who warned her that she might be excluding herself from literary circles. “I sat with myself one day and asked: who is in those prestigious literary circles? Do they represent me? Do they appreciate the topics I write about and the style in which I write? Do those gatekeepers let a demographic like mine through the door? And the answer was no. I was already barred from those literary circles, so self-publishing wouldn’t make a difference.”
After hitting the heights of Amazon, sales of milk and honey took off when the book got to The New York Times bestseller list. On the paperback trade fiction list, milk and honey has been one of the top 10 books for over 25 weeks. In an interview in The Guardian last month, the publisher of milk and honey, Kirsty Melville, said that the book had sold over half a million copies and was in its 16th round of printing. She pointed out that on average, a strong-selling poetry book would sell less than 30,000 copies a year.
“i thank the universe
everything it has taken
and giving to me
everything it is giving
Kaur is overwhelmed and almost self-deprecating. She never thought she could make a career out of poetry. “I wasn’t entitled to dream so big,” she says. “The idea of me being a writer wasn’t even possible in my mind. Even when I began to write and first published, I couldn’t call myself a writer.” Only in the past six months has Kaur become comfortable with labeling herself a writer.
As for the critics and purists, Kaur remains impressively unfazed about what they think of her work. Does it matter, considering how milk and honey has touched more than half a million people, she asks. “I’m a brown girl from a Punjabi pind raised in Toronto. I don’t expect literary critics and purists to understand the nuances of my experiences, and the experiences of the people around me…,” she says. “And my tradition holds that there is a magic in the written word. So how I write, what I write of, and why I write all comes naturally.”
“i am hopelessly
a lover and
and that will be
the death of me”
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From HT Brunch, October 23, 2016
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