With more than three and a half million copies sold, her first self-published book replaced Homer’s Odyssey as the top-selling poetry collection. Why the world needs women such as poet Rupi Kaur now more than ever.
Fräulein Print Issue #1/2020: Interview with Rupi Kaur
Poet-superstar Rupi Kaur had huge success with her first poetry collection, Milk and Honey, in 2014. Rupi revolutionized not only the poetry and publishing industry, as one of the first Instagram poets, but also with her books, her image series and illustrations. She stands for the rebirth of strong, self-loving women, liberating themselves from the shackles society thrusts on us.
Fräulein: Let’s start speaking a little bit about your childhood. You were three and a half years old when you moved from India to Canada. What are your best and worst memories growing up?
Rupi: My best memories were just playing. No matter where we lived and what the living situation looked like, I always found a way to have fun. Children are just so resilient and creative, much more than adults can be. I never cared about what we didn’t have. Just running around with the kids on the streets and playing, in a time when there were no cell phones, apps or iPads – these were some of my warmest memories.
Some of the more difficult ones would be… So, I grew up in a very strict surrounding, there was love but in different ways, different from what we’d see in the West. I was a very sensitive child, super shy and super introverted. Not knowing English until elementary school was very difficult for me as well.
Do you actually remember learning English?
Yes. I still see myself in Kindergarten, looking around, just hearing noises. My parents didn’t know any English, which made it harder for me since I didn’t have anyone to learn from. In third grade, I started to learn English properly. That is when I read books and was absorbing so much. I thought I was so smart and studious as this was all I did, but then I only got all these C’s and D’s. Even in fifth grade, I still spoke very little. I was never a very vocal person. I didn’t have the guts to tell people off, but I could sit at home alone with my books, that always felt more comfortable to me.
Writing was an easy way for me to start communicating. Now, I think, read and write in English; I even publish books in English. Nothing makes me feel so alive as performing my poetry. That is the place where I can finally find my voice. And that is why I fell in love with the stage.
How does the English language open or close certain views on life for you?
I had been listening to a lot of Punjabi music when I was writing. The stories and emotions that the words create can never be replicated in English. So, the English language closes me out from exploring emotions in a very very deep way, because Punjabi can really go into many layers. It does feel very powerful, though, to know that I can manipulate English my own way and do what I want with it, considering that it gave me so much trouble earlier on.
Do you write in Punjabi sometimes?
I tried it for maybe six months but it was terrible. I can still write, read and speak in Punjabi, but the language comes in very different forms. There is the conversational everyday Punjabi, which I know very well, but if you’d give me a newspaper in Punjabi, I could read it without knowing what it’s saying because it would include words that no one would use on a regular basis. I hope that one day I can move back to India for maybe a couple of years and learn more intricate Punjabi so that maybe I write in it one day.
How did your parents, traditionally educated Sikhs, react when you started performing and publishing your poems?
I started to perform my poetry at about 18 years old. My parents, though, wouldn’t come to anything I did. They had been very much against it. They come from a country where there was no freedom of speech, where if you had spoken up to something, you would get kidnapped or disappear. My family and my community had a difficult history considering that there was a genocide against them in 1984. So, I never told them that I was going to publish my poems since there was this whole other digital world for me. There, I published my poems, but it was going nowhere, so I also had no reason to tell them.
My parents only found out after I published my first book in 2014. I came home visiting from school and showed it to my dad. I think he was able to understand books and literature, but poetry, he didn’t know what the hell that was. He was very concerned that I would drop out of school, not study, and end up with a physically demanding job like he had for his whole life since he moved to Canada.
But when he saw my first book published, I think he understood that this was something that could become bigger. Since then, both my father and my mother have been 100% supportive. It is so nice to see that my relationship with them finally took a change.
You then also cut your hair, which is quite unacceptable for a traditional Sikh. How did your parents react to that?
I went behind their back when I cut my hair. Their reaction was… not ok. It took my dad many, many years to forgive me and move on from it. He didn’t talk to me for three years, although we lived in the same house. He didn’t say my name, didn’t look at me, didn’t acknowledge me. I must have hurt him so deeply that he was like, “You know how many people have died for you to do this?” He had seen so many people dying and being executed. For someone like me, who grew up in the West, it just wasn’t a big deal, though. We never had an open conversation about this and I also don’t think they will ever really respect what I did, but at this point, what could they do to stop me?!
Some people criticize your poems for their collective experiences of South Asian women. Why do you think you can speak for these women, having grown up in Canada?
I am not trying to speak for South Asian women. I am speaking from my own experience. I am a brown woman that grew up in Brampton, which is so full of South Asian people, they also call it Browntown. People who criticize me for that just don’t understand that I didn’t grow up around white, American people. My entire neighborhood, my entire street was all Punjabi immigrants. This is where I come from, and so why should I stop writing about this!
You recently posted a picture on Instagram which shows you and your mother riding a bike in India in 1990. It is so beautiful. What kind of role does your mother and motherhood have in your life?
My mother is just insane in terms of what and how she gives. Her strength really inspires me. She dedicated her entire life to her kids and I think that this is very common for South Asian women. Motherhood is such a central part of their whole life, but this strength has also broken my heart. My mother is more than just that. She is a woman with her own dreams and there are all these things that she could have been doing. But she doesn’t even know because she doesn’t come from a community that enables her to think those things.
She has a very fun and rebellious spirit which is finally showing up, now that she has less to worry about. Sometimes when she comes to my events, she would turn into a 16-year-old girl. It is so funny to see this person in her that she never dared to be. Instead, she chose to make dinner for the family at like five years; marrying at a super young age is very common. All of this makes motherhood difficult for me, though, because I know I just couldn’t do that. I feel I am way too selfish for this. Of course, I would want a nice balance of sharing the strength and dedication she has been giving, but also showing my future kids that I am my own person. It is what I am trying to make my mom realize now, that she is more than a mom.
Isn’t that crazy how such strong women can appear so fragile at the same time?
So much! I constantly worry about my mom as if she is my child. That might be the reason why I tell my friends I would not even want kids since I already have one. I am worried about her mental health, her physical health, her happiness. My parents, they work, work, work and never really had a break. So now I am sitting here with all this privilege and the resources, wondering how I can make their life more comfortable. How I can extend their lives so we can enjoy each other’s company more, which we never were able to do when I was younger.
How would you describe female strength?
For me, as a woman, it comes from the center of my body. That is where I access all this energy and resilience that I need to overcome a situation I think I cannot overcome. We’ve seen all these women just go above and beyond, managing entire communities. I think we are so interlinked to each other, maybe this is part of a larger sisterhood.
We also have this ability to be vulnerable, which I think men don’t have yet. This is a huge issue because men need to learn how to talk to each other. We need to create a society where men are allowed to be vulnerable because they have never been. This is why they access hate and anger – because we only allow them few things to access. Women, on the contrary, were able to access loads of different emotions, which makes us honestly also more powerful.
Which words come to mind in thinking of birth or giving birth?
Of course, babies, books, freedom, pain. I mean, I have never given birth to a baby, but the closest I have come to this was when my first book got published. I felt such a physical change in my body. I got this piercing headache, it remained only for like 30 seconds, a short pain in the back of my head, and then it felt like there was steam coming out of my ears. It was so intense and emotional, I was weeping and crying. It really felt like a birth. So, I consider my first book as my first baby.
Then I realized a couple of years into it, I published this book and all of this disappears, but it doesn’t mean that I’m a 100% healed from it. I thought I had written all of this out, that I would never have to go back there again. Then my second book came out. A change, though, happened with my third one. It felt like I burned all this shit of my past to now create something new and powerful again, without any fear.
You had fear when you wrote your second book?
Yes, I was scared of people. When I was writing my first book, Milk and Honey, I had no fear since I didn’t think I was going to publish it. I thought I was going to write it for no one else but me, which is such a liberating feeling. With the second book, I knew I had people waiting. For this third book, I’ve been challenging this fear and pressure. It is not easy, but luckily, I am getting back to my “I don’t give a fuck”-attitude, which I had with Milk and Honey, so this book will definitely be a rebirth for me.
When you posted your menstruation series on Instagram in 2015 – a.o. images of yourself with bloody pants – you started a whole unexpected scandal with Instagram removing your images and people sending you death threats. How did you cope with that and how do you look at it now?
It was really confusing. This whole experience caused me so much anxiety, which has never left my body. I did not expect this to happen, I was very naive. Initially, it was rather young men that lived nearby that reacted so strongly, but then, it got bigger and bigger – Instagram took down my photos, I reposted them and they took them down again. I was really pissed and so was the WhatsApp group I was in at that time, a community of 17 girls, friends and artists. We were so upset people were reacting to these images while the web is full of hypersexualized, pornographic content.
I then published a post about this, went to a museum for eight hours, came back home, opened my computer to see that my piece had four million hits. The only thing I said to myself was “Fuck, my parents are going to kill me.” I was on the front page of Reddit, BuzzFeed etc.! My body was just terrified, I clearly remember the physical change that happened to me. I was in complete shock. I read all these comments, every single death threat. That was definitely not good for me.
Did they ever make you regret your actions?
Well, I am quite grateful that it brought so many people to my work. But then also I did not want to be “that period girl” my whole life. I wondered if my readers would keep on reading my work if I didn’t give them all of this again. And they did.
What also made me very grateful was that even some of my friends sat down with their family or friends and talked about the period openly, something that they would have never done before. It is so important that these conversations were held.
Do you still have this WhatsApp group, a female community to exchange?
Yes, we all grew up in Brampton and founded this Sikh community, raising awareness about the genocide. Within this group, there has always been a spirit for activism. For years, we had been able to amplify each other’s work. There is nothing that can ever replace this community. It is so important and it is the reason why I am here now.
Why are poems such a strong a tool to unite people nowadays?
When I think about why I started to do all this, it was never for books or performances, that is just what happened. What I really aimed for was to share and connect with people, whether on stage, through Instagram, or books. And I think the reason why I succeeded is because we are all hungry for connections and we all want a sense of belonging. In the day-to-day, we are so distracted by different things, whether it is work or individualism. But to be truly happy and to feel truly loved, we need each other.
Can you recognize any cultural differences within your audience’s reactions to your poetry performances?
Oddly not, which is surprising. When you start traveling the world, you would expect things to change dramatically, but they actually don’t. This was a really good learning experience for me because I always think about how I could change and adapt my shows to a particular country or culture. But what is similar about my readers outweighs everything else. They share certain experiences, such as domestic or sexual abuse, a deep amount of loss – in their family or romantically – and so they gather based around the things that I write about.
Is that also the case when you perform the more sexual pieces?
When I went to India, I was very scared to perform them. I was told to not do so, hence I took them out. But then people would yell out, “Read page 57!” and I would turn to that page and find a very sexual piece on it. I thought that they were so behind, but really it was me that was behind the times. Folks over there had moved on. I think this is an immigrant issue: When immigrants leave a certain country and move to a new one, they hold onto their culture at the time they immigrated. That goes for my parents.
So, did you perform the sexual pieces in India in the end?
No, but I made some local jokes about it. I cannot wait to go back and give them some more of that sexuality.
What kind of role does social media play for you, being a huge platform for Instapoems?
Everybody from my family has a working-class background, mostly all of them are factory workers or truck drivers. There was no way for me to access information, tools or networks where I could be like, “Hey, I am very interested in this book thing, is there somebody that I can speak to.” So social media was very helpful for me. The powerful thing that happened was that I put something out there that I personally believed in and I think if you do so, it is a natural thing that people will gravitate towards it.
Social media is great for young writers, for women of color, for people who would otherwise not get published traditionally because publishers would say that there is no market for work like ours. Very traditional forms of media used to ignore the things that young women love and not take it seriously. But this is changing now. Young women have changed the industry and publishers have understood that they need to change, too.
What kind of projects are you currently working on?
We will be selling my first special filming that I did in L.A., end of February. We are talking to our dream platforms now so that it will be out by the end of this year, hopefully. And I have to finish my third book. This year is kind of a big creative year for me. Next year, I will be touring the world. Let’s see how that goes – fingers crossed. I cannot wait to perform in Berlin! I was there last summer and I really loved it. You just roll out of bed and you start doing your thing. It is rough in all good ways.
Interview: Sina Braetz | Photos: Dario Calmese
Styling: Anatolli Smith | Make-Up: Bob Scott | Hair: Guy-Laurent Winterstein
This story originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Fräulein Magazine.