Tackling Violence against Women with Poems
Female poets of colour are having a moment right now – like Nayyirah Waheed and Warsan Shire – the voices of North American Indian poets are still soft, though growing louder each day. And one of the loudest of those – paving the way for those who will follow – is Rupi Kaur.
Born in India and raised in the Greater Toronto Area, Kaur first discovered her passion for art at the age of 5 when her mother gave her a paintbrush and the security and freedom to create on her own. Art became the focal point of Kaur’s life – painting, drawing, reading and writing. At 17, Kaur began to focus her energies on writing, performing, and finding ways to share her art with the world.
After years of rejections from literary journals, magazine and anthologies, Kaur realized that by submitting a piece here and there she was, as she calls it, “cheating on [her] work.” She writes on her website, “I was doing a disservice to the entire body of my work by plucking an eyelash there and a nail there. I realized that my writing – all the dozens of poems together were themselves one poem. All the parts/poems came together to make one body. To pick off pieces wasn’t right. The reader would only fully understand the emotion of it if they read all the pieces in the order I had put them in.” And with that, she decided to go out on her own. She put together the pages of her poetry, took full creative control, and self-published her first collection titled ‘milk and honey’.
A year later, the book was re-released by Andrew McMeel Publishing, and reached #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, stirring something in readers with its poetry and prose about violence, abuse, love and loss. The book is split into four chapters, where “… each chapter serves a different purpose, deals with a different pain, heals a different heartache. Milk and Honey takes readers through a journey of the most bitter moments in life and finds sweetness in them because there is sweetness everywhere if you are just willing to look.”
Kaur pays homage to her Punjabi roots by using only lowercase letters in her poetry. She
notes that while she can read and understand Punjabi, she is not yet fluent enough to write in Gurumukhi script. Because Gurumukhi script uses no upper or lowercase letters, she uses only lowercase in her own poetry, appreciating the visual representation of equality.
It is not the norm in the Indo-Canadian community to talk about about violence, abuse and sexuality, but Kaur tackles these subjects both delicately and head-on. On writing about sexuality and abuse, she said, “By the time I am born, I have already survived the first battle of my life. Against female feticide. I am one of the lucky ones who has been allowed to live while millions of other girls are killed at or before birth. Simply for being born girls.
Our bodies are not our property. We are told we must be conservative. A good South Asian girl is quiet. Does as she is told. Sex does not belong to her. It is something that happens to her on her wedding night. It is for him.
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.
But we also challenge that narrative every single day. And this poetry is just one route for that.”