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Rupi Kaur: The attractive, marketable social media icon critics love to rage at and young Instagrammers flock to

Last year, a 3,000-word BuzzFeed article criticised Rupi Kaur for positioning herself as the voice of South Asian immigrant women. Kaur’s eyes widen, and she allows herself a little laugh

Written by Anushree Majumdar |
Updated: February 4, 2018 10:44:39 am
Sikh-Canadian woman Rupi Kaur, Literature, writing, global literary, social media and its use, Indian express, Indian express news Speaking for herself: Rupi Kaur. (Source: Rohit Jain Paras)

Fame rests lightly on Rupi Kaur’s shoulders. It may not be well-deserved, as her detractors the world over will shout in uppercase letters, but it allows her to call herself an artist, and call her pithy verses poetry and her freehand and loopy drawings art. The 25-year-old Sikh-Canadian woman from Brampton, Ontario, burst unto the global literary scene in 2015 when she was already a legend on Tumblr and Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. A year later, Kaur’s verse flowed on the back of a jacket by fashion designer Prabal Gurung. Even witty parodies that have spawned in the wake of her mostly-listicle form bear her signature — “- rupi kaur”. The girl has made a name for herself.

Fame has also been a little unkind, with Twitter users taking pot-shots at her during her sessions at the recently-concluded Zee Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF). Two years after attending the festival as an audience member, Kaur found herself performing in front of thousands of people; after selling four million copies of her poetry collections, Milk and Honey (2015) and the sun and her flowers (2017), she was, arguably, the highest-selling author to attend JLF this year.

“When I was in Jaipur, one of the organisers, who is a very big supporter of mine, told me that some people came up to them and said, ‘We’re not coming if she’s coming. She’s done this to poetry and this and that’,” says Kaur, a day after the festival ended. In India for a three-month, six-city tour, the world’s most popular “Instapoet” has tucked her long, straight hair behind her ears, highlighting the sharpness of her nose and her big, expressive eyes. Kaur is every bit the attractive, marketable social media icon critics love to rage at and young Instagrammers flock to.

“The thing that comes to my mind every day: what would I drop all of this for? Writing and drawing and painting — those things are my life force. It’s like how necessary breathing is. I wouldn’t even share it with anyone,” says Kaur, who first shared her poems on stage at open mic events near Brampton, in 2009.

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In several interviews, Kaur has spoken of her early years in Canada, where she moved with her family when she was four years old. Unable to speak English and overwhelmed in a new country, her mother encouraged her to write and draw as a way to express herself. “The moment I came to art is the moment I came to self-love and understanding and embracing culture, religion all at the same time. And it goes back to a group of Sikh kids who taught me to say my name right in the 12th grade. I used to hate the fact that I was brown, that I was Punjabi and Sikh, or that I was a woman. There is so much pain in those immigrant communities. Kids go home to rampant alcoholism, domestic and sexual abuse, and they bring that to school,” says Kaur, whose works mainly explore themes of self-love, body positivity, female empowerment, heartbreak, abuse — all the while being a woman of colour.

“I feel things too keenly, I am empathetic to a fault. Imagine a faucet that’s running, the sink is overflowing, and feeling like that for a decade. When I found writing, it was so magnetic. After I hit the stage, like 10 years ago, spoken word was so sexy and loud,” says Kaur, whose 2016 TEDxKC performance of her poem, I’m Taking My Body Back, about surviving a sexual assault, is testimony to her talent as a spoken word poet. She does not have the fiery, percussive rhythm of Kate Tempest’s verse, nor does she have the urgency of Andrea Gibson’s compositions; Kaur’s voice is low and meditative, intimate and steady. Had she solely stuck to this form, perhaps Kaur would have gained more credibility as a poet, but was unlikely to become a publishing phenomenon.

“Spoken word poetry does not dance on a page. So, what if I took out all these little gems, parts of the poem that make my stomach turn over? I realised that I didn’t really need to share the entire circumstance to get to the point,” she says. And social media agreed, lapping up her bite-sized epiphanies and bathetic metaphors, along with her sparse sketches, on their phones and tablets. A following of 2.2 million users crowned her the poet laureate of Instagram, alongside others like Lang Leav, Amanda Lovelace, Christopher Pointdexter; and Nayyirah Waheed, who like Kaur, writes in lowercase, and has pointed out the “paraphrasing” and “hyper similarity” in Kaur’s work, and accused her of plagiarism.

“I think we have to look up the definition of plagiarism. I don’t own that form, you don’t either, and so many people before us having been using that form. If I felt like that, I’d be suing people all around the block. We can’t be silencing people because we’ve both used the word ‘honey’. Us talking about similar themes and using similar forms, is that not the by-product of our times?” says Kaur.

The times Kaur speaks of, is about growing up and grappling with life in the age of social media. Her followers and fans, mostly young women, measure themselves with the hyperrealities seen online, where both praise and censure are meted out thoughtlessly, second by second. Women of colour, especially, are drawn to Kaur’s poems such as this one: “it is a blessing/to be the color of earth/do you know how often/flowers confuse me for home”.

“I don’t think my work can be fully reviewed or critiqued through a white lens or a Western one. Because even though I grew up in the West, my home, those four walls, were not Western. That’s what happens in immigrant families, you latch on to what you’ve left behind, and you want to preserve it in the new place. Growing up, when I was learning about religion or culture, these things weren’t explained to me by my parents — instead of a conversation, there’s just yelling and anger,” says Kaur, who believes that the publication of her first book helped repair her relationship with her father.

“My dad’s actually on tour with me right now. Now, I reflect on my father’s journey and why he might have done somethings and my heart expands with pain and love. If we had an opportunity to do things differently, we would, but we also have no regrets. In the beginning, he was so typically South Asian; he didn’t understand my poetry, the spoken word shows, because where had he seen anything like that? It wasn’t until the book was published and I handed it to him that my father understood. That’s when I got it, too, and understood that he needed to see something that he understood, like literature, a book, those kinds of things,” she says.

Last year, a 3,000-word BuzzFeed article criticised Kaur for positioning herself as the voice of South Asian immigrant women. Kaur’s eyes widen, and she allows herself a little laugh. “How can I even say that when Jhumpa Lahiri is out there doing her thing,” she says, waving her hand back, dramatically. “I understand that my immigrant experience is not going to be like somebody else’s immigrant experience. But it’s also a by-product of the success which I never expected to happen and all I can do is keep going on my path. Figuring out how to open doors for other women. There are more of us at the table now and there’s more room for different types of representation of different types of stories.” In other rupi kaur words: “of course i want to be successful/but i don’t crave success for me/i need to be successful to gain/enough milk and honey/to help those around/me succeed.”

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