Like most writers, Rupi Kaur, the 23-year-old Toronto-based poet, illustrator, and photographer thinks she’s better at putting pen to paper than she is at giving an oral interview. “I’m a better writer than I am a speaker,” she tells us.
On one hand, we believe her. Her work is biting and soft. She twists language in a way that makes you want to walk into a forest and stare up at the sky through the trees. Her words allow you the space to see the world a little differently.
On the other, we don’t. Not really. Especially when the author/mother of “milk and honey,” her debut book of poetry and prose which shot to the New York Times Bestseller List says this: “We navigate the world, come across so many people, but at the core of our experience is love. I think that’s the message I’m trying to consistently share, without even really realizing that I’m sharing it.” The message that, “you deserve to be here and you’re welcome here and allowed space.”
A native of the Punjab region in India, Kaur spent her formative years in Toronto, where she currently resides. She is a modern day storyteller, using her poetry and social handle @rupikaur_ to explore beauty standards, violence, love, injustice, the female body, and more. “my issue with what they consider beautiful/is their concept of beauty/centers around excluding people,” she wrote in an Instagram post on July 11th of this year. It's the same platform that deleted a photo of Kaur's sister, Prabh Kaur on a bed, her gray sweatpants and bed sheet stained by (fake) period blood. Instagram claimed the post violated their community guidelines. Kaur reposted the photo, which was part of a photoseries project for a visual rhetoric course with a caption challenging the decision. "i will not apologize for not feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society," she wrote on August, 25, 2015, "that will have my body in an underwear but not be ok with a small leak. i bleed each month to help make humankind a possibility." Instagram recoiled, apologized; the community clapped loudly. And they kept clapping. Her approach to language and honesty has captured the attention of nearly 600k Instagram followers.
When she first started sharing her work online there was no intention of a book. “It’s still such a personal experience for me. I’m not writing for anyone else," she says. "At times I don’t understand the interest. But all of the sudden I was building this online community and they were the ones that would comment, ‘Where can I buy your book?’”
Consider that Kaur's first reaction to the idea of a book was, “I’m me, I can’t." She was 20 at the time, thought of writing as her “hobby,” and had just started university. Her thoughts were, “I need to finish my degree, I’m paying thousands of dollars to be here.” We’ve all experienced this tug of war-- the one between our head and our heart, our reason and our dreams. But Kaur slowly warmed to the idea. Between the encouragement of friends and the enthusiasm of the online community she began piecing together what would become ‘milk and honey.’
“It was a very difficult moment in my life,” she says, “and I just strapped down. It was the summer of 2014 and I didn’t think I was going to get through it. I couldn’t see myself and I couldn’t imagine my life after this moment. I needed it.”
She wrote the pieces and crafted the book by listening, she says, “to what my body said.” She designed everything from front to back, the font, the pictures, and then put it into the world. “I don’t think anything I ever do will feel as holistic as that,” she says. “It was deeply grassroots, on the budget of zero dollars. When you give birth to something like that and see it blossom, it’s so incredible."
Now consider that her debut paperback, self-published book of poetry and prose sold over 18,000 copies in the first 8 months. "milk and honey" flowed into the world November, 2014 and kept moving.
Around the 8 month mark publishers started calling. Andrews McMeel (AMP) became her publisher. “They’re very agile,” she says. “My biggest worry was someone coming in and saying, ‘Oh, we want to remove these pieces about body hair, or 'We want to change the cover.'”
“It’s not a product to me, it’s my heart.”
Currently, she is working on the release of a hardcover. “It’s very important to me that people have something to hold,” she explains. “That’s what gets passed down from hand to hand and moves across the world. A hardcover is the version that refuses to be ruined. The paperback version is going to fold, its matte black is going to stain, but the hardcover is beautiful and elegant. You keep the hardcover on your bookshelf and you keep the paperback under your pillow or in your purse.”
Throughout this journey, she has remained the creative leader of her work, though there has been pressure to create more, both from herself and industry pros. Earlier this year she tried writing for the audience. An experience she describes simply as “bad.”
“I was holding a knife to the neck of my writing,” she says, and it wasn’t working. There were people who told her she needed to release a second book. That by next year the industry would try and replace her. It didn't deter her. It only annoyed her. “I have to be honest with myself, " she explains. "It’s a very Adele approach. You have to remember why you started and stay true to that.”
She'll tell herself, "You brought yourself here, not the industry. I think that’s a huge source of my power. My inability to see how people perceive my work also allows me to see how powerful I am. I have my insecurities, but I feel powerful. I’m here and I’m doing what I love.”
She knows social media has a lot to do with her success, but Kaur currently follows zero people. However, she’s not pulling a Beyoncé. “Like most people I have my own personal, multi-dimensional battles with social media.” But without it she says, “the publishing world wouldn’t have cared about this young, brown woman. Social media was a free tool that I used to create my own community. It can also swallow you up.”
At the moment she has deleted all social media from her phone. She tweets from her laptop. She’ll download Instagram, log into her account, post, and log back out. She doesn’t read any of the comments. “It’s helped me feel more rooted again. I’m a very sensitive person and I don’t want the thousands of eyes pouring over my work to change the way I’m going to write in the future.”
The way she writes, is magnetic, sticking to all lower case as her words stick to her audience. It’s almost a way of ensuring that no one letter is left in the shadow of another. And it's human.
"When I first started writing it was about getting my voice back and finding my voice,” she says. Now, she has a “loose idea of three to five books that I will write in the next ten years. So I’m going to keep writing and listening to what my body tells me.”
“The recipe for my success, if any,” she notes, “is that I’ve always been honest with myself. I’ve always written what I’ve needed.”
This Friday, August 19th, Rupi Kaur will be delivering a Ted Talk at the Kaufman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City. She will be performing a new spoken word piece followed by a talk called “My First Home.” Via Instagram this past week she told her followers, “I think the piece I’ve written is some of my best work.” Tickets have sold out, but you can tune in and watch it live at 6 pm central time at tedxkc.org.
Arianna Schioldager is editorial director at Create & Cultivate.