At 24, Rupi Kaur has already made the New York Times bestseller list with a book that has sold well over a million copies and been translated into more than 30 languages. At 24, I was unemployed, living with my parents and “finding myself.” Yet, despite the differences in our experience, by chatting with Kaur about her latest book (Simon & Schuster, $20), which goes on sale Oct. 3, I began to understand the woman behind the words—a Canadian millennial who is fiercely passionate, and yet still struggles with societal pressure and self-love.
Kaur’s debut book of poetry, milk and honey, was originally a self-published collection that caught the attention of publishers when her work repeatedly went viral on platforms like Tumblr and Instagram. Three years later, she is releasing the sun and her flowers, a book of poetry illustrated with Kaur’s signature sketches. It’s divided into five chapters, wilting, falling, rooting, rising and blooming, and within its 248 pages, there is a poem for seemingly every mood, experience or event.
Before heading out on her North America-wide tour, Kaur stopped in at FLARE’s offices to give us some insight into what went into her highly-anticipated second book. In between swapping hair removal stories and laughing about how our Indian parents thought we would be doctors, we talked about how her work has changed in the last three years, how her parents reacted to her more erotic pieces and why she finds it hard to be excited about the new book.
In milk and honey, you say, “you were so afraid / of my voice / i decided to be / afraid of it too” (pg 17). How and when did you realize that you were no longer afraid to use your voice?
It was probably the first time I got up on stage. I would always write poems or emails, because it was so much easier to tell a friend that way versus actually having a conversation like this. But I realized I love using my voice at an open mic in Brampton when I was in the 12th grade. It was super unlike me to write a piece and then go up on stage and perform it, but I always tell people it was like something greater was at work that day, because I got up on stage and it was this terrible, terrible awful piece and I performed it like it was the greatest thing I’d ever written. And I fell in love with the adrenaline that you feel when the mic is picking up your voice and it’s booming throughout the space and you have these eyes that are looking up at you. From then on, I was no longer afraid because the impact was just so much more powerful than the fear itself.
You’ve mentioned that you’ve known the title of your second book, the sun and her flowers, for a long time. How did that come to you?
The first thing I did when milk and honey came out in 2014 was start designing the second book cover and coming up with titles. Like, ‘Yeah, wrote the first one! And now, what’s next,’ you know? I’m always thinking like that, and so as I was designing this cover—which was salmon pink before, and thank God that changed—and the title, milk and honey, kind of just dropped in my head. I think the reason it did was because a couple days before, I was writing a poem—which is in the new book [pg 173]—about the way sunflowers rise and fall with the sun, and I thought that sort of worship was so beautiful. When we talk about love, love with a partner, love with a divine, and love with nature is always the same thing, right? Witnessing those sunflowers, it reminded me of how we fall in love with people and how we worship people. I thought, well, if we are our own suns, then couldn’t flowers represent the different people and experiences we go through in our lives?
On Instagram, you recently wrote about how you wanted your two books to be different, but “of the same blood.” How would you say that the second one is different from milk and honey?
I’ve grown so much as a writer since milk and honey was published three years ago. Obviously my skill level is going to grow and what I want to write about, all of that is going to change, so there’s differences in that. But, I would say 50 percent of the book involves themes that milk and honey readers are familiar with, and that other 50 percent is themes that I never thought I’d explore—like I’m talking about life and death and God and a lot of family. That’s what makes the books siblings—very different but still of the same family.
Speaking of family, you really delve a lot deeper into your relationship with your parents and issues like infanticide in the sun and her flowers—why did you decide to go there with this book?
From this January to the end of April, I was in California, basically cut off and just trying to focus on the book. And I think being so separated and not having access to family, not calling them, really put me in a space where I was really able to reflect on everything that they’ve done for the past 24 years and on all the tidbits and the details that they’ve given me. And so, that’s how [the “rooting”] chapter was born. I guess, if we look at the female infanticide [pg 144-145] bit, for example, there was research that went into that—but I’ve also been organizing events around female infanticide and police brutality and so many other issues that touch upon the Sikh community since I was in high school, so I think a lot of the pieces in the sun and her flowers were kind of pulled from the writing that I was doing then, but revamped with the newer style, or voice or skill that I have in 2017.
One thing that really struck me was that you actively name each of your family members in the dedication. Why was it important for you?
I think it goes back to the separation of being away from them. One thing that struck me really hard is how these two people sacrificed their comfort and happiness for mine—and what would make me happiest is being able to give them comfort. I think about all the sacrifices that my mom has made. She’ll be making roti on the stove and she’ll be like, “Oh I’m so stupid” because she’s like, “I can’t text and I don’t know how to use the phone. I don’t know anything, and I came here so long ago. I didn’t even learn how to speak the language,” and this and that. When I watch that, I realized, oh my God, the reason you didn’t do that is because you were busy taking care of me. So, those conversations were really what inspired me to put their names on the book, because I want a piece of them to exist long after they’ve gone; I think they deserve that.
Becoming a poet isn’t exactly an easy career path. Did you face any of those challenges or pressure from your family to pursue a more conventional career?
Yeah, I’ve always kind of been in the arts and I remember I was working my towards fashion school throughout high school, lying to my parents and telling them, “Yeah, I’ll become a doctor,” and “Yeah, I’m taking all the sciences,” although I dropped all that in the 10th grade. So, a day before applications were due, my dad called me in his room and was like, “Yeah, you’re not doing this.” I went back into my room in tears and I put my fashion portfolio, that was supposed to go to Ryerson, back on my shelf and I never looked at it again. I was like OK it’s fine, I’ll just do something else. I went to the University of Waterloo, but I was always doing some form of the arts, or some form of community organizing on the side—and that was really difficult for my parents, I think understandably so.
Why was your dad wary of you fighting for different causes?
My dad is a refugee for the activism work that he did. And so, when he sees me as a high-schooler trying to go out and be like “yeah let’s change the world!” he was horrified. He was like, “What is wrong with you? The reason that my life was in danger, you’re doing the exact same thing.” It triggered that trauma that he experienced, and that was something I couldn’t understand at the age of 17. So, there were a lot of struggle there. And then my dad’s philosophy was like: you should focus 25 hours a day and eight days a week on your studies. So, even if you’re taking an hour out to go perform somewhere, that’s it, you’ve just failed at life and you’re just going to end up working in factories like us, you know? And I can understand that fear.
So for around five years it was like, you know, begging my mom to drop me off at this performance. They didn’t understand it and I also did not have the language and the tools to explain it to them. But, when the book came out and they could physically hold it, it really sunk into my dad’s mind. Like, literature and books is world he can understand. Then it went from being like, “OK, we have no idea what you’re doing and why are you letting your life fall apart,” to, “What can we do to support you?”. But still, my mom just told me the other day she wants me to get my master’s. Yeah, there’s that.
I have to ask—especially since both books contain poems about mental health, abuse and also, sexual awakening and menstruation—what was your dad’s reaction to your work?
I don’t know! It was super weird because he flipped through the pages and there was one poem that he stopped on and it was an illustration of a woman and man sleeping next to each other and their bodies are curved into on another. I don’t know what the poem was, but it was something about women’s bodies, and he just stayed on that page and wouldn’t move—and inside I was dying. I think I died probably 20 times. I was like, Man you need to move it along here. He eventually flipped [the page] and he was like, “This is great.” So he knows what’s in it, but we’ve never talked about it—we can’t. But he knows. Like, when we were talking about translations of milk and honey, he said, “You know, I really think we can skip over Punjabi, it’s kind of like a really intense language and some of your adult content wouldn’t translate so well.” And I was like “OK, moving it along!” And same thing with my mom. When you open milk and honey, it naturally flips to that page in the beginning where there’s a poem in the middle of this woman’s crotch [pg 13] and my mom will ask, “So, do you think that this drawing was necessary? I’m not saying that it wasn’t, I’m just asking you if it was, or what do you think about that?” In my angst at 21, I was like, “Yeah it’s necessary!” But, they’ve been super supportive. My parents will go to shows and family friend’s houses and their kids will sometime try to tell on me ’cause they think that there’s no way my Punjabi Indian parents could ever support this. So, the guys who are in their 30s will be like, “Auntie, do you know what’s actually in her book though?” And she’ll be like, “Yeah, I do. Do you?” It’s really great.
You’ve achieved a lot of success in a short amount of time. What advice do you have for other millennials who want to turn their passion into a career?
advice from one of our favourite Canadian poets, (cc )
— FLARE (@FLAREfashion)
In this second book, there’s a lot of poems that deal with very timely issues, like “let’s leave this place roofless” (pg 231) which talks about the glass ceiling…
That one wrote when I was on a plane coming back from Dubai when Hillary [Clinton] lost the election. I did not expect to have this reaction, but I was crying in the plane while I was waiting for her to come give her speech. I was so defeated. I was like, If she can’t do it, then how could any of us even try? Even that one called “boat” [pg 126], which is about refugees. Remember that super that went around of the little boy? I guess it’s my reaction to all that’s happening—like how do I make sense of that photo? Poetry has always been a form of me answering the questions that I have about the world.
On the back of the first book, you tell the reader: “This is my heart in your hands.” With that said and the amount of extremely personal content in the sun and her flowers, how do you feel before a big book launch?
I don’t know. I want to say all the classic things like, “Oh my God I’m so excited!” I feel a little bit of nervousness in my body and I’ve been feeling it for the last month. It’s like an excited feeling, but it’s still very subtle and I’m also the type of person who doesn’t let things excite me. I’m very chill. I think it’s hitting me slowly. I was on the Gardiner in Toronto with my sister on Friday night and saw a billboard ad for the sun and her flowers and I literally screamed. That’s the second time I’ve screamed at anything, and the first time was when Andrews McMeel Publishing emailed me about wanting to publish milk and honey. I guess I’m not like over the moon because I don’t believe it, it doesn’t feel real.
You have written a lot of motivational and inspirational pieces. Do you ever read your own work when you’re in need of a boost?
There was a period where I started touring a lot and I got really, really insecure and I think it was because, I don’t know, so many people were suddenly looking at me. And that I was like, Oh my God, there’s so much wrong with my face. And then I was looking at all the other people on the internet and I just became my high school self again. I felt like such a fraud because I was like, How can I feel like this and say these awful things about myself when I just told 2 million people who bought [milk and honey] to love themselves and embrace themselves. That’s when I realized this is like a never-ending cycle, and so, reading work that you’ve written, it does lift you up. A lot of the pieces in the sun and her flowers deal with beauty, and that’s something that I’ve struggle with for the past three years a lot.
Your work deals with so many of these personal challenges, particularly overcoming sexual assault, and you’ve talked about having other survivors tell you how much your work helped them. How do you handle that?
I think this goes back to how it feels like it’s not happening to me. Maybe I’ve subconsciously built up this protective thing. I feel like all of the great things are happening to my twin who’s wearing an invisibility cloak and she’s standing right next to me. So, whenever people come up to me, they’re speaking to her, but through me. Before, when people would come up to me and tell me they read my work, it felt so intense and so personal and so scary. So I think I had to really create these invisible boundaries.
We’ve talked about self-care and protecting yourself, but now that you’re prepping to go on tour, how do you unwind at the end of your days?
Oh God, I don’t even know. Like, I talk so much about self-care, but it’s been such a struggle to even understand what my self-care means, because for the past year and half there was no self-care happening. There was this thing in my mind where I was like, You just gotta keep hustling. So, I kept doing that, but my mental and emotional health had been non-existent, until I had a complete breakdown and realized I was not OK. But now I have a team and they put me in line. So, they’re like, You’re not allowed to come to the office today. Just go home and get a massage. And there are days dedicated to that. I think my entire team saw how important that was right after we came back from our most recent European tour, because everyone was so exhausted. They were like, “No, this is not how we will sustain a 40- to 50-year career. We’re all going to be burnt out pretty soon.” So, we’re just trying to re-jig all of that. But, I do like to get away from my computer look through a magazine, just relax, watch a show—even though I should get away from the laptop a little bit more, but I’m figuring it out.