The Problem With Rupi Kaur's Poetry
The milk and honey author's use of unspecified collective trauma in her quest to depict the quintessential South Asian female experience feels disingenuous.
Not many poets are able to say that Ariana Grande follows them on Instagram. Rupi Kaur, however, can: The 24-year-old Indian-born Canadian counts the Dangerous Woman singer among her 1.5 million Instagram followers. Indeed, Kaur’s particular brand of celebrity is more akin to that of a pop star like Grande than a traditional poet. Her debut collection milk and honey, 200 sparse poems about love and loss, abuse and healing — first self-published in 2014 while Kaur was still in college — has sold over a million print copies and remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 52 consecutive weeks. Tickets for the London leg of her world tour in spring 2017 sold out in less than ten minutes. In July, when Kaur uploaded a series of Instagram posts to announce her forthcoming second poetry collection — the sun and her flowers, to be released on Oct. 3 by Simon & Schuster — each image racked up over 100,000 likes. Kaur’s explosive success is largely due to her origins as a social media star, and she is not alone.
Like her peers Nayyirah Waheed, Lang Leav, and, to a lesser extent, Warsan Shire (whose work is more complex and has received more critical acclaim), Kaur produces bite-size, accessible poems. Their free verse poetry eschews difficult metaphors in favor of clear, plain language, and this accessibility is precisely what has garnered the new wave of "Instapoets" such a large and dedicated following.
But in terms of sheer numbers, Kaur remains the most popular — and the most controversial. Lauded by her readers as an authentic, intensely personal writer who isn’t afraid of baring her innermost trauma, she’s considered a much-needed voice of diversity in a literary scene that’s overwhelmingly white. But she’s also been accused of plagiarism and criticized for blurring individual and collective trauma in her quest to depict the quintessential South Asian female experience.
Kaur’s work brings up a bevy of questions: Is her poetic engagement with trauma valid as a defense against any critique of her style? After all, honesty, vulnerability, and a willingness to tackle tough issues are valuable qualities in any writer, but content and form are ultimately separate, and one does not cancel out the other. In an age when increasing attention is being paid to narratives of female trauma — particularly those communicated in a confessional vein — it can easily lead to the exploitation and commodification of those who experience said trauma.
Rupi Kaur’s rise to fame is a story befitting of our digital age; it’s a tale of sudden virality and savvy capitalization. In March 2015, Kaur was still a student of rhetoric and
professional writing at the University of Waterloo, Ontario. She had a modest
internet following when she uploaded a photo to Instagram of herself lying in bed, menstruation bloodstains on her clothes and sheets. The photo was removed twice, ostensibly for violating the site’s Community Guidelines. She hit back on Tumblr and Facebook, saying:
i will not apologize for not feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society that will have my body in an underwear but not be okay with a small leak. when your pages are filled with countless photos/accounts where women (so many who are underage) are objectified. pornified. and treated less than human.
The story went viral, gaining attention from media sites across the world, including Jezebel, BBC Newsbeat, Mashable and the Huffington Post, the latter enthusiastically praising Kaur for breaking down the stigma surrounding menstruation. Emboldened by her new fan base, Kaur released an updated edition of milk and honey with new poems and illustrations later that year. The poems in the collection can be broadly divided into two main categories: emotional and empowering. Kaur deals with the pain and joy experienced in familial and romantic relationships, as in:
the way they
i see you
and begin grieving all over again.
She is also popular for her verses that focus on female empowerment and self-esteem, such as this poem published on her Facebook page for International Women’s Day, entitled progress:
our work should equip
the next generation of women
to outdo us in every field
this is the legacy we’ll leave.
The poems are often accompanied by Kaur’s own line drawings, such as:
we are all born
the greatest tragedy is
being convinced we are not
which appears inside a line drawing of a pregnant woman, or
is a museum
of natural disasters
can you grasp
how stunning that is
which is paired with a sketch of a tornado.
Kaur’s poetry has been dubbed by the Huffington Post as essential reading for women everywhere due to her engagement with gendered yet universal themes such as sexism, abuse, trauma, sexual violence, and friendship. It’s this universality that can propel a poem — or part of it — into viral territory, as was the case for Warsan Shire’s "What They Did Yesterday Afternoon," an excerpt of which circulated around the internet following the Paris attacks in November 2015. It is perhaps telling that only the second, broader, and more general half of the poem went viral, rather than the first, which alludes to war crimes and conflict in Somalia and Kenya.
Kaur's stylistic similarities to writers such as Nayyirah Waheed and Warsan Shire, however, have also had negative consequences, with Waheed in particular recently leveling accusations of plagiarism (now deleted) at Kaur on Tumblr. Kaur has stated in interviews that she takes inspiration from Waheed and Shire, but Kaur works within a subgenre predicated on minimalist style — like short lines and a lack of punctuation — which makes it impossible to tell where inspiration ends and plagiarism begins.
This is not the only censure Kaur's work has been subject to. Satirical tweets, which have racked up hundreds of likes, imply that Kaur’s work is formulaic, shallow, and lacks true poetic talent. Her readers, however, do not mount a defense based on the quality of Kaur’s language; rather, they cite her openness about personal trauma in response to critiques of her work, suggesting that such honesty, particularly from a woman of color, exempts her from accusations of superficiality. That the debate has divided itself in such a way is a direct result of the poet’s own self-presentation: Whether on social media or in her poetry, Kaur has consistently marketed herself as an authentic writer who produces art free of artifice, and so any discussion of her work inevitably falls along these lines.
Kaur’s comments on her own work and the motivation behind it, as well as her rejection of the literary establishment, only strengthen this impression of effortless authenticity — in true confessional style, Kaur refers to her book as a “baby” and, in an Instagram post from June, calls writing her “most honest act of living.” Thus, when any suggestion of artificiality is preemptively shut down, it becomes impossible to discuss Kaur’s work in a way that goes beyond the existing dichotomy of vapidity versus raw honesty — and, as the moral high ground will always favor those who point to emotional authenticity over cynics who call the poet “corny,” this display of unpretentious openness ultimately benefits Kaur.
milk and honey is divided into four sections that can be read in isolation or in order, the first being "the hurting." Most of Kaur’s darker poems about rape, abuse, and familial misogyny can be found here. Yet many of these poems are not in the individual confessional vein for which Kaur is known and celebrated. Rather, they speak more generally about parents and children, men and women in the abstract, or they take a collective approach, relying on heavy use of plural pronouns like “we” and “our” to refer to an imagined South Asian universal experience. While Kaur didn't answer multiple requests for comment, the FAQ section of her website indicates that she is interested less in sharing her own experiences, despite the claims of her fans, and more in what she portrays as the collective nature of sexual trauma in her community, writing:
we know sexual violence intimately. we experience alarming rates of rape. from thousands of years of shame and oppression. from the community and from colonizer after colonizer.
This, together with Kaur’s attempt in the collection to gesture to a universal South Asian female experience, marked by abusive relatives and fear, reveals her desire to speak not about herself, but on behalf of the entire “larger South Asian community and diaspora.” Her ambition to act as a spokesperson of a mythic South Asian female experience also extends beyond the present day and into the past. Referring to colonial violence, she says:
our trauma escapes the confines of our own times. we’re not just healing from what’s been inflicted onto us as children. my experiences have happened to my mother and her mother and her mother before that. it is generations of pain embedded into our souls.
Kaur thus intends for her poetry to do two things at once: milk and honey functions both as an extremely individual (and thus subjective) work, and as a manifesto that attempts to redress the perceived wrongs done to the South Asian female collective. As she says under the FAQ section, “we also challenge that narrative [of abuse] every single day. and this poetry is just one route for doing that.” However, simply extending personal confessions to an entire community, and then claiming to represent generations of trauma with these confessions, is not as straightforward as Kaur would have it.
In his 2007 book The Literature of the Indian Diaspora: Theorizing the Diasporic Imaginary, academic Vijay Mishra writes of the new wave of upwardly mobile South Asian immigrants and their “uneasy postmodern trend towards collapsing diasporic (and historical) differences” in the postcolonial literature they produce. Kaur indeed seems to note little difference between her educated, Western, Indian-Canadian self and her ancestors, or even modern South Asian women of a similar age in rural Punjab. She suggests that the way all South Asian women move through life is universal, uniting herself with them by insistently returning focus to the South Asian female body as a locus of “shame and oppression” in her collection.
While more female South Asian voices are indeed needed in mainstream culture and media, there is something deeply uncomfortable about the self-appointed spokesperson of South Asian womanhood being a privileged young woman from the West who unproblematically claims the experience of the colonized subject as her own, and profits from her invocation of generational trauma. There is no shame in acknowledging the many differences between Kaur’s experience of the world in 2017 and that of a woman living directly under colonial rule in the early 20th century. For example: neither is any more "authentically" South Asian. But it is disingenuous to collect a variety of traumatic narratives and present them to the West as a kind of feminist ethnography under the mantle of confession, while only vaguely acknowledging those whose stories inspired the poetry.
Kaur’s balancing act does not only extend to her approach to trauma, but also to her engagement with literary diversity. Kaur describes her personal trajectory specifically as “the story of a young brown woman”: Rather than self-defining as a Canadian poet, she stresses her marginality as “a Punjabi-Sikh immigrant woman,” deliberately rejecting a mainstream Western identity in favor of alterity. Her vision of herself as an icon of diversity against hostile gatekeepers of literary prestige is evident.
In interviews, she emphasizes the importance of being a brown woman in traditionally white spaces, whether it be expensive restaurants or bestseller lists, despite being warned about being barred from literary circles if she self-published her collection. Despite her political stance, however, Kaur’s work and public persona are carefully modulated in order to maximize her marketability to both a Western metropolitan readership and the grassroots social media audience to whom she owes her fame. Kaur meticulously works to present a different face to each market: On her website, she states that she writes in exclusively lowercase using only periods to pay homage to her mother tongue, Punjabi. But in a January 2015 interview with the mainstream feminist website HelloGiggles, she gives her love of “branding,” “visual experience,” and symmetry as the reason for her stylistic choice, with no mention of her mother tongue or the Gurmukhi script. It is a watered-down version of her explanation on her website, and one designed specifically with a white audience in mind. A love of symmetry is, after all, easier to identify with than a loyalty to a specific South Asian script.
Kaur’s strategic appeals to two different markets also inform the composition of her collection and her social media presence. While milk and honey contains several poems that, through coded words like “dishonor,” obliquely refer to Kaur’s cultural upbringing, that’s about as explicit as it gets: The poems are vague enough to provide identifiable prompts for readers from a variety of different cultural environments, including — in many cases — white Western readers. Thus the collection remains relatable — and, crucially, marketable — to a wider audience, while still retaining an element of culturally informed authenticity that forms much of Kaur’s brand. The few poems that specifically address race are positioned facing each other, a brief interlude in a collection that is otherwise devoid of racial politics, and once again addresses a white, Western audience in their appeal for recognition of South Asian beauty and resilience.
On Kaur’s official Facebook page, all the pieces she posts are broad, usually relating to love, breakups, and female empowerment, and can garner up to 28,000 shares. The same is true of Kaur’s Twitter and Instagram feeds. Most crucially, her individual pieces that do not deal with race, but rather treat more general topics, no longer read as inherently informed by race simply through their inclusion in a collection that claims to speak to issues of diversity. Her black-and-white words and sketches become neutral, shared by (often white) women all over the world as a nod to empowerment and sisterhood. There is no longer any indication of the specific issues of race and diversity she claims her work intends to address.
Thanks to this social media strategy of sharing pieces with little to no context, Kaur is able to target two demographics: white Westerners who might be disinclined to buy books by minority writers, and her loyal grassroots fan base that includes a large contingent of young people of color across the world. She is thus able to maintain her brand of authenticity and relatability, but in different ways for different groups; to her Western metropolitan audience, she is “the patron saint of millennial heartbreak,” while to her marginal readers she is a representation of their desire for diversity in the literary world, despite rarely touching upon race in her work. This is not to reinforce the often-damaging expectation that writers of color must write only about racism in order to be successful, only that Kaur claims to be documenting a specifically South Asian experience that never materializes.
But is Kaur exclusively to blame here? It is important to consider the literary environment that has uplifted her while shutting out countless other writers from the margins. The Western metropolitan literary market’s demand for confessional writing that is colored by just the right amount of postcolonial authenticity, ensuring that it is exotic enough to be attractive without making white Western readers uncomfortable, plays a major part in her success. Kaur is marketable because she presents a homogeneous South Asian narrative while remaining just vague enough to appeal to the widest possible demographic. Kaur’s reach will no doubt expand with with the release of her next book, the sun and her flowers, this October.
That’s because her mass appeal lies in her perceived universality, with her fans often claiming that she vocalizes feelings they have not been able to put into words. Other minority writers, who trade in specifics and details, not broad-reaching sentiments and uncomplicated feminist slogans, would probably not achieve the same level of success. It is the paradox of the minority writer: the requirement to write in a way that is colored by one’s background, but is, at the same time, recognizable enough to a Western audience that it does not intimidate with its foreignness. It is only by eschewing complacency and holding such artists to account that mainstream media and culture will become more diverse: the kind of representation that, without compromise, accurately tells the stories of people of color around the world, and not just the stories that are the easiest to sell. ●
Chiara Giovanni is a writer and PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Stanford University.