By Fareeha Shah
Illustrations by Annika Lammers
On a purely visual level, Rupi Kaur’s books are beautiful. I couldn’t help but feel excited as I held milk and honey in my hands for the first time; it felt like silk between my fingers. With its textured cover in watercolor hues of yellow and blue, the sun and her flowers was also quite pleasant to look at. Writing this, I am kicking myself internally for arriving in New York without these copies in tow. I know exactly where they are too: sandwiched between old notebooks and my undergraduate dissertation on my desk in my bedroom at home. I bought them when I first decided that I wanted to write a piece about Kaur, but couldn’t figure out where exactly I stood with her. Now, over a year later, I am even more unsure.
November marked the five-year anniversary of Kaur’s first book (originally self-published, before being picked up by Andrews McMeel Publishing), milk and honey. The title spent 77 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller List. In January, Penguin Random House released a new version of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, to mark its entry into the public domain, with a foreword by Rupi Kaur. John Siciliano, executive editor of Penguin Classics, believed that Kaur was the “obvious” choice to write this introduction. “It’s an opportunity to breathe new life into these works,” Siciliano said, referencing Kaur’s massive social media presence.
Kaur’s impact on the production and consumption of modern poetry is undeniable; milk and honey has sold 5 million copies, and has been translated into 39 languages. Her work represents a contemporary democratization of poetry, a form that was once regarded as inaccessible to many. Her Instagram account boasts 3.8 million followers that shower each post with boatloads of praise, even when she uploads content that she has published before.
Kaur is credited with single-handedly revolutionizing the world of publishing by renewing public interest in poetry. She is seen by millions as a force that speaks truth to power. For me, a mere glance at her carefully curated Instagram feed, her main platform, reveals a performed vulnerability juxtaposed with professional photographs of herself and ticket details for upcoming shows.
The fervor of her fans even forced Instagram to bend the knee in 2015, and made them apologize and immediately restore a post featuring menstrual blood that had been taken down. The rhetoric of self-empowerment, transnational feminism, and intersectionality has been used to celebrate Kaur’s work. But her work just doesn’t sit right with me. It never has.
Kaur navigates her brown identity to create art, to create a brand, that comes across as politically empowering but that is, in my opinion, really just commercial.
the art of being empty touches upon an issue that resonates with women of color around the world without lending any nuanced insight into how her family “likes their daughters invisible.” With this short poem, Kaur is conveniently able to appeal to a demographic that feels this pain too. By teasing them with a brief moment of connection as they scroll mechanically down their Instagram feeds, her words make them feel heard. Make them feel seen. Make them feel listened to. This comes across in her comments. But, what exactly is this “emptiness” to which Kaur refers? What does it look like? How does it feel?
“who’s coming to the long beach show tonight ?!?” read the caption. “7 hours to go.”
It is also easy to find inconsistencies in this narrative of familial alienation. On Father’s Day this year, Kaur posted the following:
This is not to say that care cannot coexist with abuse. As a child to brown parents, I am no stranger to domestic dynamics that resist comprehensive definition. However, it is particularly difficult to come to terms with a relationship where “the only reason you know/you’re still alive is from the/heaving of your chest,” but also where her father wants to set her and her sisters free “in a world that wanted to contain [them].” Emptiness and empowerment don’t really jive well together.
A couple of years ago in college, I came across a group of my friends sitting on the steps of the academic block, erupting in periodic fits of laughter. I set my bag down next to them, smiling before I even knew what they were talking about.
One of them turned to me, waving a copy of Kaur’s, the sun and her flowers.
“Sara just got this and we’re reading it out loud. It’s really fucking funny.”
We spent the next half hour passing the book around, conducting a theatrical reading of her bite-sized declarations. Flipping through its pages, we couldn’t believe that others didn’t consider her work to be empty and transparent. It seemed more like an artless mimicry of poetry than anything else. But, for whatever reason, we still bought it. And we were still talking about it.
When I told Sara (who moved to New York around the same time I did) that I’m writing about Rupi Kaur, she shook her head in disbelief.
“I know it’s supposed to be modern poetry, but like climate change, not all modern things are great.”
Anything that evokes a visceral reaction can be reasonably classified as art. Anything that starts a conversation is modern art. A banana duct-taped to a wall is art. It sells for $120,000. My issue with Kaur’s work isn’t that what she makes isn’t art. It’s that her art compresses brown suffering into uncomplicated, easily digestible poems for fiscal benefit.
This is one example of that. If the unpunctuated question, “do you know how often/flowers confuse me for home” is to be seen as an image, why does it not come full circle? What are these “flowers” that she speaks of? In this characterization, she reduces the brown body to its aesthetic qualities without even making any meaningful comment about it. By cherry-picking her identity where it benefits her, Kaur is once again able to appeal to a wide demographic, without reflecting on it in any way.
When I say meaningful, what I want to see is a precise indication of how Kaur relates to her brownness. This can be achieved in many ways; through individual instances where she has celebrated her identity, through an exploration of the emotions she mentions, and through an interpretation of her subjectivity in a social situation where her racial position stands out. Anything that isn’t vague. Anything that isn’t general. By presenting her ideas in this indefinite manner, her poems become fill-in-the-blanks. By evading specificity, she leaves it to the reader to project their own experience, their own pain, and their own suffering onto her work. She leaves them to derive their own meaning from it; to do all the work for her; to read nuance into its nebulousness.
This is almost worse than when brown women are fetishized as “exotic,” because she is a brown woman. Almost. She is reinforcing reductive stereotypes; she should know better. The caption underneath the poem doesn’t really have anything to do with it either. I’m not begrudging her the right to share her content in whichever format she pleases, but it makes me particularly uncomfortable to read a poem – an incomplete thought, at best – about being the “color of the earth” without any significant exposition into what this entails.
introvert is accompanied by an illustration of Lilliputian-like figures swarming over a pair of disembodied legs. Identifying as an introvert is common in online communities. If you suffer from social anxiety, if being around people for an extended period of time drains you, you can always retreat behind a screen to interact with others in a manner that balances isolation with connection. She gains a necessary proximity to these feelings (“you know??????????”) but doesn’t deem it necessary to say anything more.
Minimalist design is at the heart of her presentation, which incorporates illustrations, visually satisfying typographical elements, random line breaks, and no capitalization. There is a liberal use of negative space, an ironically omnipresent characteristic. Does a collection of words where the majority of it is blank signal its own emptiness? This format applies uniformly to her oeuvre, both print and digital.
In this way, Kaur’s work is a calculated understanding of her audience, and of their willingness to consume content that appeals to them, visually and otherwise. Her work touches upon themes vague and generalizable enough to resonate semi-universally, without going into any degree of specificity that could lend potential texture and nuance to her material.
It would be so easy to end here. When I initially conceived this piece, I could not have fathomed a sympathetic light to perceive Kaur’s work through. Previous criticisms are in agreement with my argument. Kaur has also been accused repeatedly of plagiarizing the works of Nayyirah Waheed and Warsan Shire, claims that she has made only half-hearted attempts to dismantle. A meme format mocking Kaur’s arbitrary line breaks and watered-down sayings has been making the rounds for a few years now. It would have been easy to end here, but I cannot do so with good conscience.
Earlier this week, I was on the phone with my friend, Elia, while scrolling listlessly down Kaur’s Instagram feed. I could see Elia nodding in the small, pixelated box at the bottom corner of my scratched screen as I read the poems out to her. We were laughing, when her eyes focused suddenly on something distant.
“There’s so much bitter energy towards a woman who has allegedly ‘duped’ people, but how much of this is internalized misogyny? Jealousy? Is this just another example of women – especially brown women – being pitted against one another? And apart from being an objectively bad poet, what is she really doing wrong?”
The narrativization of suffering embodied in Kaur’s work, performative or otherwise, has always been expected of people of color. I have seen it. I have lived it. It is notably one of the most effective (and only) ways for international students to weasel their way into the American academy. In high school, our college counsellors conducted an exercise that asked students to list particular challenges and how they overcame them over the course of their lives. A week later, we received a stapled document with ink that stained our fingers, containing a list of the most effective examples of this.
It was easy to identify a pattern in these: the student is oppressed. The student does not have appropriate avenues of expression in their own backward, Neanderthal societies. The student is stifled, and is desperate to find shelter in the ivory tower of the western world. One excerpt spared no detail about a student’s family’s inability to fund his mother’s knee-replacement surgery. Economic instability, dysfunctional governance, and inequality all factor into these grim, grotesquely compelling narratives of gift-wrapped suffering.
When I applied to Masters programs, I did the same. It was singularly difficult; as someone that has lived a life of relative comfort and privilege, it was hard for me to identify instances where the system had really inhibited my doing what I wanted. Karachi is an undeniably unsafe place for people across the socio-economic spectrum; the recent kidnapping of Dua Mangi demonstrates this. But as a person that typically takes measures to ensure my own safety, I have navigated the dangerous landscape of my city with caution and care.
Still, I found a story to tell, and I told it without shame. It is difficult to live in a society that sees women as little more than vessels to house future generations. I want to write; won’t you teach me how? With the right tools and tutelage, I think I could really flourish. This, along with my qualifications, are what I feel makes me an excellent candidate for your program. Is Rupi Kaur’s writing really very different from this?
Selling an oppressed, exotic identity is the only way to differentiate ourselves in this system. It is an effective way to subvert this paradigm, to extrapolate benefit from within its many, many restrictions. It is clearly out of the question to evaluate us along the same rubric that assesses our white counterparts. Another friend rolled her eyes during a conversation about the “Oppression Olympics” inherent to scholarship applications.
“The Fulbright application literally asks for a sob story,” she said.
Being able to study in the United States of America is an honor, and the American government makes sure we don’t forget this. The discourse of alienation is omnipresent in the nomenclature used to indicate international students. We are repeatedly referred to as “aliens,” as though it is completely normal to define people in these terms. A few weeks ago, I was filling out some forms for an on-campus job. The “Certification for Withholding Exemption for Form 8233” reads:
“I am a resident of Pakistan. I am not a U.S. citizen. I have not been lawfully accorded the privilege of residing permanently in the United States as an immigrant.”
The demand for trauma porn from journalists is having another moment, and while this demand may have space for nuance, it still comes under the umbrella of stories about suffering. Publishers cater to real and imagined white audiences in the stories they choose to amplify. During a talk at The New School, I asked Kyle Chayka, co-founder of Study Hall, if he could identify a clear disadvantage faced by journalists of color.
“Oh, absolutely,” he said, without hesitation. “Most of the time, POCs are pigeonholed to a particular beat and that’s all they really get to report on.”
Rupi Kaur resists this. Her work resists sitting in for a specific disenfranchised group. By evading detail, Kaur refuses to paint the picture expected from artists of color. By keeping her poetry general enough to appeal to a broad group of people, she rejects this pigeonholing. After all, she isn’t saying anything distinct enough to voice the political and cultural concerns of any one social group. Her politics and Sikh lineage roll around seasonally; one example of this is the most recent election day in Canada.
Embodying this narrative of pain, of exclusion, of a search for a better future, is our only option, because we are still seen as the “other.” By “we,” I mean international students. By “we,” I mean people of color. By “we,” I mean “me.” I borrow here from Claire Dederer, whose work explores the importance of the use of first person pronouns when framing discourse of this sort. Deflection is easy; taking personal responsibility is difficult. Constructing our lives in this manner is a way to regain some semblance of twisted agency in a twisted system, and we have every right to do it. It is, after all, a rendition of our own experience. Rupi Kaur, similarly, has every right to construct her content to pander to a white audience. It’s just good business sense.
With Rupi Kaur, what you see is pretty much what you get. In a somewhat scathing profile for The Cut, Kaur reportedly said that she doesn’t like to read while she’s writing. Her work distils big ideas into cookie-cutter, half-baked aphorisms, enclosed neatly in their little boxes of white emptiness. Her work resists complexity. She resists complexity. In her silent refusal to carry the full weight of her people’s suffering upon her shoulders, she sidesteps the burden of responsibility that is expected of art by people of color.
I think her work is devoid of artistic value, and I stand by that opinion. Do I think it is problematic that Kaur’s legitimacy extends beyond Instagram? Yes. Do I personally consider her to be the most suitable person to write a foreword for one of the most well-known collections of poetry of all time? No–on the basis of merit, other contemporary poets may be more suitable. Does it make me uncomfortable that she is considered a force that speaks truth to power, but doesn’t have anything specific to say? Yes.
But should her work really be branded as fauxetry? Or can it instead be seen as an exercise of brown agency? I can’t decide.