Rupi Kaur: Meet Poetry's Defiant Darling

A poet and her pause in the wake of a third collection

Poet and activist Rupi Kaur. Photo / Baljit Singh

In 1984, India's Sikh community in India were demonised, brutalised, driven from their homeland. The horrors (occurring in the wake of the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards) killed as many as 17,000: thousands more fled the country.

Brampton, Ontario, was a haven for some of these refugees: a significant number of Punjabi Sikhs relocated here (90,000 people in Brampton list their mother tongue as Punjabi). These were people ripped from their birthplace by a violent majority and plonked into a new continent.

Rupi Kaur, poet, performer, activist, is of this diaspora. Raised by a truckdriver and a stay-at-home mother in Canada, she came to the country (aged 4) unable to speak a word of English. But this language is now her tool and her weapon; and it's helped her become one of the world's most successful contemporary poets.

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Kaur is, quite frankly, a sensation. Possibly the best-known and most successful of the "Instapoets", her success was a rocket-blast. Her first book, milk and honey, sold upwards of three million copies, the second (the sun and her flowers) was also a #1 New York Times bestseller.

Her latest release, home body, is currently perching atop the New York Times trade fiction bestseller list. It's a book that touches on darkness made visceral, speaking of the depression and anxiety she's experienced, which sits "like a wall of bricks where my heart used to be". It also explores the genocide of her people, misogyny and heartbreak counterposed with freedom, possibility.

When we chat over Zoom, Kaur is back at her family home in Brompton, her movements curtailed by lockdown. She hasn't been able to celebrate the book's success.

"People keep asking, "How are you celebrating the book getting to the top of the New York Times bestseller list?' and I say: 'I'm celebrating by sitting in my room and doing the same thing I've been doing for the past 10 months.'"

Anyone with a passing knowledge of Buzzfeed will be au fait with Kaur's vertiginous rise. It started with a photograph in 2015: Kaur lying on a bed, menstrual blood staining her trousers and sheet.

The picture was taken by her sister Prabh as part of a photographic series and posted on Instagram. But Instagram removed it (three times), citing a breach of internal standards.

After the third removal, Kaur took to Facebook to share her anger with her modest but loyal following (then around 20,000).

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"I wrote the post in a mindset of rage, then turned off my computer and went out with a friend," she shares. "When I came home, 12 hours later and turned on my computer, I saw that the post had between four and seven million hits. There were so many numbers!"

This response would have social media marketers salivating. But for Kaur, it was a double-edged sword. While there was love, solidarity, the celebration of opening a conversation that so few of us have, there was also hate.

"Fifty per cent of the feedback I got was hate. There were rape threats and death threats. It was completely insane."

Kaur had been writing and performing poetry for a few years before her publishing deal in 2015. At high school (which she despised) she had a small group of friends involved in with Sikh activism, raising issues affecting the community: female infanticide, the disproportionately high rate of suicides amongst Sikh farmers in India.

"I had started performing poetry around those topics and my community flew me out to Vancouver for performances. At the same time, I was writing about women's issues. My friends and I always talking about domestic violence and the issues facing our mothers and aunties."

Her move to online content was encouraged and facilitated by a small group of friends.

"One of my friends made music videos with me reciting poems and she created my Facebook page. This grew a following via word of mouth."

At the same time, she was writing the poems for milk and honey and paid for it to be self-published. Immediately after the Instagram drama, the book was reprinted by Andrews McMeel Publishing. Within the year it had sold more than 2.5 million copies. Kaur was 22.

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After the menstruation picture (and the subsequent tsunami of fame), Kaur says she "never stopped moving". But what, for some, may seem like a blessing from the book gods, was, for Kaur, a descent into hell.

"When that post went viral, anxiety hit me like a truck. It was new. I had felt anxiety but that was when hit an all-time high. I felt I was being dragged by life."

She was having suicidal thoughts daily for a year: "I came to realisation that if things continued how they were, I wouldn't be able to survive more than two or three years more of this. It was at this time I reached out and told people I needed support."

She sought treatment and began to meditate: "I'm very fidgety and it took me a long time to start to do it. But that brick wall of anxiety that I felt around my heart started to soften and crumble after 40 minutes of meditation."

home body was started during the darkness of 2018. In it, she speaks of the disconnection within: herself, her mind and her body three different beings. How depression froze her in place, the deafening silence of anxiety. And there are poems about the childhood abuse she suffered, in which she "became a woman at the age of 4". It's painful and deeply uncomfortable to read.

But, she says, the writing wasn't painful "because it wasn't forced. It spills out of you, it spills out of you and it's very cathartic. Going back to edit is harder; you have to revisit those dark places. You have to be prepared to experience when you are going through this process."

Her writing style, simple language, no punctuation (apart from a dash preceding an explanatory note in italics at the poem's conclusion, inspired by Gurmukhi script) has been criticised for its lack intellectual rigour, an accessibility which slips into banality. The Telegraph gave home body a one-star rating; a poetry bookshop in Canada refuses to stock her books because they believe they don't deserve the nomenclature of "poetry".

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But the establishment's derision of Kaur's work doesn't bother her. She says that the literati aren't her audience.

"I am not interested in having my work read by that crowd," she shared in the Australian podcast Shameless: In Conversation. "I am interested in the person who is sitting and home trying to survive, the person suffering from sexual abuse. [I'm interested in] in finding ways to work together to be okay. That's it."

Her books are accompanied by illustrations: art being her first creative language, preceding poetry and a means by which she survived as a little girl, unable to speak English.

The illustrations come after she writes a book: she will read a poem, close her eyes and draw the first image that comes to mind. "Once the poetry is done, illustration happens quite quickly. The illustrations are really fun and really playful. You have a roadmap with the poem."

In lockdown for the foreseeable future, Kaur left her house when the book came out on November 17 and hasn't left since. For a person who has been burned out by the speed of fame, this solitude and silence is almost a gift.

"For a minute I was sad that I wasn't going to tour with home body but then I thought, 'Oh, it's actually lovely to be here. I'll just soak it in.'"

— Canvas Magazine, The New Zealand Herald

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