BY DUR-E MAKNOON AHMED ’20
Rupi Kaur is not a traditional poet. She started her career in the same realm that makeup artists, rich teenagers seeking fame and celebrities promoting smoothie brands reside in — Instagram. Her poetry opts for the type of simplicity often found in inspirational quotes. In a world that has traditionally been dominated by elite white men, Kaur’s identity as a woman of Punjabi descent makes her stand out. Following her great success and amidst the widespread criticism of her poetry, her identity is frequently brought up. This criticism leads to important questions about the intersection of poetic criticism and racial justice. Does a poet’s ethnicity matter in interpretations of their craft? Does a poet’s ethnicity make them exempt from literary critique?
To her fans, Kaur is more than just a poet. She first rose to Instagram fame when controversial photos of herself went viral. These photographs clearly showed her with spots of menstrual blood on her clothes. She is Canadian, but her South Asian heritage has many strong and deeply held beliefs about the impurity of menstrual blood. The feminist battle against period-shaming is admirable in the Western world, but coming from a woman of her culture, it is even more courageous and rebellious. In short, confessional snippets, Kaur’s poetry deals with familial misogyny, sexual trauma and body image issues that many South Asian women deal with. For them, she is a hero because she helped give them visibility.
“I think Kaur’s work through poetry and activism really does give a voice to women across the globe, and especially South Asian women,” said Gargi Mishra ’18 , an international student from India. “I admire her for talking about difficult topics ranging from abuse to body image and also being able to give it a unique cultural angle, since everyone’s story is different.”
There is no contesting the importance of this visibility, especially in a space as white and male as Western poetry. At the same time, Kaur’s narrative reads as a brown woman who claims to speak for the experiences of all South Asians. The 3,000-word Buzzfeed article, “The Problem With Rupi Kaur’s Poetry,” written by Stanford Ph.D. candidate Chiari Giovanni, accuses Kaur of blurring the lines between collective and individual trauma to sell copies of her book. By keeping her poetry vague enough to apply to many people’s experiences, and marketing herself as an Indian immigrant and not a Canadian, Kaur claims to speak for the experiences of South Asian women as a whole. Similarly, Kaur’s portrayal of the brown woman’s struggles only go as far as they can still be palatable for a white audience. She rarely discusses problems caused by colonial rule, and the discrimination South Asian women suffer from white feminists.
However, it is unfair to place the blame of generalization of experiences on Kaur’s shoulders alone. Her audience includes vast numbers of white women who are responsible for acknowledging the pitfalls of reading one experience and equating it to that of many. The problem with white people’s criticism is that it will always be blind to numerous issues that South Asian women face, including collective versus individual trauma and exotification.
Kaur is not perfect, but she has cleared space for more South Asian women poets in an elite, white world.