On a recent Monday, about 1,000 people, most of them young women, lined up at a New York City theater for a poetry reading by Rupi Kaur. Giant fake sunflowers outside made a safe space for guests to pose for Instagram in their hijabs, baseball caps, pantsuits, combat boots and cocktail dresses.
Then on Tuesday came a big and quietly savage profile in The Cut. On Wednesday, The Guardian published an article on the “inevitable backlash” against her. What a week!
Kaur, who is 25 and Punjabi-Canadian, is used to the ups and downs. In the three years since her blockbuster, Milk and Honey, was first self-published and later picked up by Andrews McMeel Publishing, she has dealt with the issues other women face on Instagram and off: comparisons, aggression, bullying. But she has also built a community and an audience there in particular, with 1.6 million followers.
“Instagram makes my work so accessible, and I was able to build a readership,” Kaur said recently in a cafe in SoHo. “But then I always feel like within the literary world there’s of course downsides, because you have that label attached to your work and then, for some reason, that means you aren’t a credible literary source.”
Instagram was where, in 2015, Kaur first seized on some fame, when the platform removed a photo of her. In it, she was in bed, back to the camera, with fake menstrual blood stains on her sweatpants and sheet. Instagram said the removal was an accident, and then returned it; now it’s just shy of 100,000 likes.
Kaur appended a note: “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.”
Milk and Honey has sold 2.5 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 25 languages. Over the past two years, it has spent 77 weeks on The New York Times paperback trade best-seller list. Her second book, The Sun and Her Flowers, was released this week and is No. 2 on Amazon’s best-seller list.
But Instagram is really where she publishes. Some of Kaur’s poems are just a line, like “i think my body knew you would not stay.” It lends itself to parody. Her themes don’t vary much: heartache hurts, love heals, women are strong, loving yourself is key to most things. Her work has been criticized as “disingenuous,” and it’s true that Kaur stays remarkably on brand.
Kaur also has been accused of writing about experiences that she hasn’t had herself. Asked about this, she shrugged. “It’s so complicated,” she said. It’s also not, historically, a requirement for poetry. Writing poems is how she processes the news and the world around her, she said, and for what she hasn’t lived, she tries to understand.
The literary world doesn’t have a great track record of embracing or even acknowledging artists like Kaur, who are different in some notable way but who attract an enormous and fervent audience.
“Critics might think that Kaur’s readership is young and female, so her work can’t be serious, which is obviously wrong,” said Matthew Hart, a professor of English and comparative literature Columbia University. “Her style doesn’t seem naive.”
I spoke with dozens of Kaur’s fans and critics, most of them young women. Those who dislike her work agree with enthusiasts that she’s addressing weighty issues like violence, sexual assault and trauma in a way that is admirable.
For Shannon Donnelly, 24, “Milk and Honey” was“sometimes difficult to read” because she has struggled with depression and anxiety. Ultimately, reading the book was like “working through my pains with a therapist,” she said.
Kaur has “hit the nail on the head in every single way,” said Tiffany Praimnath, 19. “Guyanese culture is reminiscent of Indian culture to me, especially how men treat women, and I think because Rupi’s of Indian ancestry, that really resonated.”
Two chapters of her new book were written after President Donald Trump’s inauguration. In them she tells the story of her family. Poems about her ancestors and her mother’s bravery in leaving Punjab read as thank-you notes.
The gratitude she feels to her parents for working hard and giving her the opportunity to get an education will resonate with children of immigrants. It’s hard to ignore the power of such work in a moment when the White House pushes for mass deportations of people like Kaur’s family. Her father, Suchet Singh, arrived in Canada as a refugee in the early 1990s.
On Monday, when asked about Kaur’s work, her mother just smiled. Her father said that he also had no words to describe how proud he and his wife are of their daughter, but he did say: “She’s following her soul’s purpose.”
After stumbling upon Kaur’s work on Tumblr nearly three years ago, Rijoota Gupte, a fan of the writers Jhumpa Lahiri and Khaled Hosseini, couldn’t stop thinking about Kaur’s words.
“Rupi’s not like other writers, and that’s exactly why I like her,” she said.
© 2017 New York Times News Service