Making waves: Punjab-origin women winning West with valour and verse

  • Nirupama Dutt, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
  • Updated: Dec 08, 2015 14:48 IST
Rupi Kaur (L) and Mona Arshi, Punjabi-origin women poets.

Happy tidings for poetry lovers in Punjab. As the day of the immigrant brand of marginalised writing by women departs, two Punjab-origin girls are at the very heart of poetry, English poetry, in the West. And they are making waves.

London-based Mona Arshi is this year’s winner of Britain’s prestigious Forward Prize for the best first collection of poetry for ‘Small Hands’. Carving a niche on the literary scene is also Rupi Kaur, a university student in Toronto, whose book ‘Milk and Honey’ is among the 10 bestselling authors in the US.

Mona, a lawyer-turned-poet, has broken sexual taboos with ease in her writings, giving, for one, a memorable sensuous poem ‘Hummingbird’ — “Slide open the bone-zip of my spine, anoint each rigid peak. Take my limbs and fold me over.” The Forward Prize jury praised Mona’s debut collection for its “imagination, sensuality”.

In an online interview, Mona says she had always read poetry, but her interest was reignited only when she was pregnant with her twin daughters. Mona, whose poems have an enchanting dream-like quality, says she took time off from practising law and joined a creative writing course to hone her skill. “I started reading poetry by contemporary poets and started writing in 2008. I took six years to write my first collection,” she says.

Earlier, Mona’s ‘Hummingbird’ won the first prize in the inaugural Magma poetry competition. Mona also won an award in the Troubadour International Competition in 2013 for her poem ‘Bad Day in the Office’, and in 2014, she was joint winner in the Manchester creative writing competition with a portfolio of five poems.


Rupi, immersed in poetry and art, came out with her verses on Instagram only two years ago and has since touched the cord with her outspoken poems on violence, abuse, love and loss. Going straight to that what bothers her, she speaks out directly, writing as her style is — in lower case: “tell them i was the/ warmest place you knew/ and then you turned me cold.”

Drawings and photographs accompany Rupi’s poems on Instagram, and she raised hackles when she posted photographs from a visual project at the university which showed her curled in bed with a blotch of blood leaking from her pants onto the sheet. The photographs were twice removed and reinstated only after her protest on the social media.

In an interview to Huffington Post, Rupi justified choosing the menstruation project. “Why do I lie about it? As if it’s a bad thing to have. The issue is so much deeper. Some women can’t visit their places of worship, or leave their homes or cook while menstruating because they’re considered dirty.”


Although it is their respective countries that the two writers call home, the second-generation immigrant experience is very much alive in the minds. Mona says she still remembers growing up in a street where large immigrant families rubbed alongside old, white pensioners. “There was a lot of generosity shown to us in many ways, but there was also hostility, a feeling that we were outsiders and were different,” she says.

The writer, who is in her twenties, however, says the most difficult aspects of being a child of immigrants is having a different accent and a different first language than that of one’s parents.

Rupi says she faced difficulty as there was no market for poetry about “trauma, abuse, loss, love and healing” through the lens of a Punjabi-Sikh immigrant woman. “So I decided to self publish,” she says.

Having found a place on the English literary scene now, the two young ladies have no plans to stop. Both are working on their second anthologies of poetry.

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