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Rupi Kaur on heritage, heartbreak, and the heart of her works

Anya Thakur, the author (left), the book cover of Rupi Kaur's "Milk and Honey" (center) and a photo of Rupi Kaur (right). (Photo collage by Anya Thakur)

If I had to describe New York Times bestselling author, writer, and performer Rupi Kaur in one word, it would be poetic. Her dark hair is coursing down her back and strands are left to dangle freely, framing her face. And Kaur’s dress, floral and feminine, black chiffon patterned with white flowers embellished with hints of color, suits her well. But it’s not her outfit that draws my attention; It’s Kaur herself. Her dusky cheeks are flushed pink as she reads aloud one of her poems from “Milk and Honey,” and she’s gesturing animatedly, in a video for publishing company Simon and Schuster.

It’s woven into her expression, from her steady gaze to the elegant way she bows her head and her almond-shaped eyes, alive with a distinct luminosity, widen — she’s poetic. And hearing these pieces read aloud by Kaur is different from reading them on the pages of her book or my computer screen. Her voice, soft and calm but unwavering, is cathartic. And her poems, on love, heartbreak, womanhood, and heritage, are seen by over 2.5 million people, the number of Instagram followers she has currently, as a liberation for South Asian women and a self-love guide to many more.

The titles always just come. It’s not even something I’ve ever had to think about,” Kaur opens up about the meaning behind her manuscripts in a Foyles video. “And it was like ‘The Sun and Her Flowers’ just because I fell in love with…sunflowers. So ‘The Sun and Her Flowers’ is also a play on sunflowers and I was in love with the way that sunflowers worship the Sun, how they rise with the Sun and then they follow the Sun around. I thought that was such a beautiful representation of love and relationships and it could go many so many ways. I mean, the Sun could represent this woman and the flowers are the relationships that she has through life. There’s so many other meanings I’ve attached along the way so I think it’s very multi-dimensional.

Her hard work led her to previously unimaginable places and on a tumultuous journey of self realization and actualization.

“It was just, like, you’ve worked so hard all year to lead up to this moment,” Kaur said. “I mean, I would show up at my table every day. I would start writing [at] a kitchen table…living room, that sort of thing…It was like that typical thing where you would just, like, literally rip your paper out of your notebook and, like, toss it away. AI wand is like, ‘No, this isn’t the way to do it. I’m not writing a book. Mm-hmm, I’m just writing a page a day.’ And when I framed it like that, it got easier. And so eventually a page a day, a page a day, a page a day turned to like 200 pages and then we had a book. And I realized that’s how ‘Milk and Honey’ was born.”

Kaur recalls being overwhelmed with emotion, especially when meeting supporters who have resonated with her poetry.

“Overwhelming, yeah… A couple, I think it was [on] Friday,” Kaur said to q on cbc. “We were filming something for BBC, actually. And we were in a parking garage. We parked my car, we’re trying to go through the subway station up to Eaton Center, and I didn’t even make it. There was [sic] young women coming up to me and they were like, ‘Oh my god, how’s it going?’ And they were saying all the wonderful things you said.”

This support is what gives her the strength to share her work.

“I think it just hit me right in the face,” Kaur said in a q on cbc video. “And suddenly I’m crying and they’re crying and we’re all crying. And I was like, ‘I need to get out of here. This is scary.’ No, it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful because it’s like they feel like they’re being held…That loving and that support that they’re giving me…gives me strength to, you know, continue to write and continue to share.”

Her heritage and culture as a Punjabi woman added meaning to the words milk and honey as a source of comfort and a way to heal from pain or sickness, and colored the themes of her writings.

“So in order to preserve these small details of my mother language, I include them within this language. No case distinction and only periods. A world within a world, which is what i am as an immigrant, as a Diasporic Punjabi Sikh woman,” she wrote. “It is less about breaking the rules of english (although that’s pretty fun) but more about tying in my own history and heritage within my work. Years ago, I wrote a poem about the 1984 genocide of Sikhs in India. In it there is a line about the women who lived through that terrible time. Their resilience is breathtaking…”

She constantly sought feedback when starting out, but realized that pushing boundaries and saying what felt right, even if it was uncomfortable, was most important in sharing her message of acceptance and distinguishing herself. Interacting with her readers is important to her, but she stays true to her original ideas and the core tenets of her work and inspiration.

“I don’t read comments really. Oh, I used to. Now I’m like, ‘I’m good’ because I don’t want, I know where the magic comes from. Magic comes from me being honest with myself,” Kaur said in a q on cbc video. “And maybe I’m afraid that if I read comments I’m going to let external things influenced my writing and change my mind. So like for example, I might want to write about something. but if I read a comment or like a couple comments about, you know, what other people want me to write, then I might not want to write the thing that I actually want to write about. And so I just want to, yeah, I don’t want to, you know, let what I mean get influenced. I don’t tune it [the praise] out I used to. But now I’m just learning to accept and learning to give back and be grateful.”

She believes her words have the power to transform others, to reflect and pay tribute such as to her idol Maya Angelou, and to be a form of justice and righteousness.

“I feel powerful and there are very few poems growing up that I read that made me feel powerful,” she said to q on cbc. “And like I could get up and change the world and Maya Angelou was one of those poets that made me feel like that every day.”

Writing has helped Kaur to heal and grow as a person, but also been scary as she has shared her intimate thoughts and personal convictions and a soul-search for motivation and ideas.

“For many months, it was like a lot of pressure and I felt debilitated like my hands were tied behind my back,” she said. “And I was told to write but nothing came out. And like weeks and weeks would pass but it was because of the, you know, I felt like I needed to create something that would be… successful.”

She uses her passion as a vehicle to overcome fear, triumph over heartache, and express herself in an uninhibited way in the digital age through new mediums.

“On Instagram new things are bound to be. It’s a very traditional media which is poetry meeting something very untraditional,” Kaur said in a q on cbc video. “And the gatekeepers of both don’t understand what’s going on because, you know, I’ve kind of like married these two things along with lots of other writers also using Instagram to, you, know share their work. So I think it’s like a very interesting time.”

She has learnt that she, and girls like her, are powerful beyond their expectations, and stronger than they believe.

“‘I guess that there’s only space for one woman or a few women and if you don’t take up that space right now, then there just won’t be no space for you.’ And I was like, ‘Wow, this is this is insane.’ And it makes no sense, because why does my lifespan have to be so short?” Kaur said to q on cbc. “My life time, span for success — whereas, you know, I see men and they’re like in their 70s and they’re out there in their prime and their peak. And I was like, ‘No, I need to take my time and I need to give myself space.’ And that’s when “Timeless” was born.”

(Photo illustration by Anya Thakur)
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