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EXCLUSIVE: Poet Lang Leav talks about being an unlikely social media celebrity

Lang Leav kicked off the phenomenon of writing poetry for social media. In her first interview with an Indian publication, she talks about fleeing war-torn Cambodia, growing up as an immigrant, and leading a low-key life

HT48HRS_Special Updated: Nov 25, 2016 19:02 IST
Manali Shah
Manali Shah
Hindustan Times
Lang Leav,social media,Instapoet
Poet Lang Leav(Photo courtesy: Michael Faudet )

Lang Leav kicked off the phenomenon of writing poetry for social media. In her first interview with an Indian publication, she talks about fleeing war-torn Cambodia, growing up as an immigrant, and leading a low-key life

Tumblr catapulted Lang Leav from best-selling poet to internet sensation (293k followers on Instagram and 7,32,621 likes on Facebook) in 2013. But she’s an unlikely social media celebrity — there are barely any selfies, no brand mentions or glamorous pictures.

Read: Poets of Instagram: How social media is making poetry hip again

She does not even consider herself an “Instapoet”, pointing out that she had two collections of poetry out (Love & Misadventure, 2013; Lullabies, 2014) before actively sharing her work on Instagram in 2015. For the most part, she posts her poetry via images: her short verses are often set on a faded yellow backdrop, accompanied by minimal illustration.

Readers around the world have been touched by Leav’s verses on love, heartbreak, loss and longing. Simply written, yet capable of stirring up a range of emotions. Hundreds show up for her book signing events, with people known to have camped overnight to meet her.

She launched her fourth book, The Universe of Us, last month. By now, she could have chosen the life of a celebrated writer. Speaking at literary festivals, book launches, inaugurating cultural events, mingling with the society crowd, penning opinion pieces. Yet, she prefers to maintain a low profile.

Lang Leav’s new book, The Universe of Us (Photo courtesy: Lang Leav)

In fact, Leav almost leads a dual life. She lives in sleepy seaside town in New Zealand (she refuses to say which), where the locals have no idea about her fame or what she does. “During my events, I’m escorted by armed guards. It is such a stark contrast to my everyday life.” She is comfortable with the recognition her writing brings, as long as it’s in small doses. “The rest of the time, I love my simple, quiet life.”

Leav, who enjoys a huge fan-following in India, was invited to speak at a literary festival in the city last year, but couldn’t make it because her schedule did not permit it. Recently, she even collaborated with the Indian micro-fiction storytelling platform Terribly Tiny Tales. “India is right at the top of my checklist of places I want to visit, so a tour is definitely on the cards,” she says.

An archival image of Lang Leav and her family as refugees (Photo courtesy: Lang Leav)

Humble beginnings

Leav was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, when her parents fled the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-79) in Cambodia. The family moved to Sydney, Australia, when she was 11 months old. “My parents are true survivors. They went through the most unimaginable horrors during the Khmer Rouge regime. There was torture and genocide on a mass scale,” she says.

Someday, Leav wants to write about her mother. “A story she once told me is etched in my memory. My mother, along with my father and two brothers, were on the run from the Khmer Rouge. Exhausted, they found a place to rest for a few hours. She remembers her head, heavy with sleep, resting on something warm and comforting. She woke up to find she had been sleeping in cow dung,” she recalls.

She adds that this is just one of the many stories her parents have told her about their ordeal. Immigrating to Australia was not the end of the family’s struggle. Her parents experienced the many challenges of being refugees in an alien country. “My mother found work as a seamstress to support us. It was an industry rife with exploitation. As new migrants, we were powerless against the clothing manufacturers. They would falsely accuse my mother of stealing garments in order to withhold the meagre payment from her. If she didn’t get paid, we would go hungry,” Leav says.

Being a migrant lent her a unique world view. Her parents’ and her own early experiences shaped her into the person she is today. “As a refugee, it is common to feel displaced and unwanted. Nothing ages you like suffering,” she says.

Lang Leav during her book tour (Photo courtesy: Lang Leav’s Facebook page)

For the love of art

Before taking to writing, Leav donned the hats of artist and fashion designer. She studied at the College of Fine Arts in Sydney. Although her parents were supportive of her passion, her community wasn’t. She says this is common in a migrant society: financial stability is considered paramount. “Day in and day out, I would be inundated with people telling me I was wasting my time and I should study something more practical. There were many instances when things got tough, that their voices would come back to taunt me. Now they have been silenced for good,” she says.

As a struggling writer and artist, Leav was often on the verge of giving up. It was then that she wrote a piece (featured in Love & Misadventure) called Swan Song: ‘Her heart is played like well-worn strings. In her eyes the sadness sings, of one who was destined for better things.’ It was, in effect, a break-up letter to her creative self. “I just felt like a decade was more than enough to pour my soul into something that could barely feed me. I needed someone to believe in me, after I had stopped believing in myself.”

An illustration from her new book (Photo courtesy: Lang Leav)

That person turned out to be fellow writer Michael Faudet, who Leav is in a relationship with. “He refused to let me give up. Every day felt like a struggle with no end in sight. And then suddenly, like a river bursting its banks, the success came roaring in,” she says.

Faudet’s, whose verses are often erotic, too has collections of poetry out (Bitter Sweet Love, Dirty Pretty Things). “‘Who you love and who loves you back determines so much in your life.’ This is a line I wrote about how much your choice of partner impacts your life. I sometimes wonder if I had wished him into existence,” says Leav.

This is for the ALDUB fandom 🍾 Lots of love, Lang xo #aldub #aldubwedding

A photo posted by Lang Leav (@langleav) on

The Universe of Us by Lang Leav is out now.
Price: Rs 599
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

First Published: Nov 24, 2016 00:00 IST