The work isn’t to ask more from Rupi Kaur. The work is to read broadly and deeply from progressive South Asians.
By Sagaree Jain
In the weeks surrounding the release of Rupi Kaur’s second book, it became virtually impossible to have a conversation of any extended length without discussing her. For me, a Punjabi American woman with ties to progressive South Asian organizing and racial justice oriented poetry communities, Rupi Kaur began to shadow my life with a certain inevitability. I could only go so long, among new and old friends, before a joke would be made, or a meme would be referenced, and then off we went, discussing Rupi Kaur for the third time that week.
I think many South Asians in the US and Canada, especially South Asians with strong commitments to feminism and movements for justice, have been deeply split on how to think about Kaur and her poetry. On one hand, seeing Kaur’s face in the Style section of The New York Times when so many of us are aching for representation of our stories is undeniably moving. And Kaur comes from a history many of us resonate with, and she speaks sometimes on the alienation of moving to the US when she was four, growing up in a Punjabi speaking home, and knowing that her family escaped the 1984 Sikh Genocide in India. The way her poetry resonates with young women, young brown women especially, is beautiful, a joy to watch.
But on the other hand, there’s something immovably frustrating about what she has come to represent. Kaur’s work puts forward her experiences in simple bites, with a minimal range of theme and concept. The most popular pieces resonate with white women as easily as they do with women of color, and for a woman internet-famous for posting menstruation blood on Instagram, her public persona is very much apolitical. On the Poetry Foundation, Kazim Ali writes that Kaur’s verses “identify; they do not interrogate.” On Buzzfeed, Chiara Giovanni critiques the homogeneity of her depiction of South Asian women. As Kaur builds momentum, commentators from South Asian traditions ask, dismayed, is this really all an American public wants from us?
Kaur’s work thus far does not ask the difficult questions a South Asian poet might be preoccupied with. She is not likely, thus far, to comment on white commodification of ethnic poetry. Or on the complexities of non-Black Asian immigrants finding their way in a deeply hierarchical settler colonial state, engaging in appropriation of Black culture on one hand and anti-Black racism on the other. Rupi Kaur is not going to write about historical Punjabi Mexican communities, or the Komagata Maru. And as passionately as she writes on state-sponsored violence and Sikh resilience, she is not likely to comment on the Hindu nationalist violence growing steadily bolder in India today.
Journalists, scholars, and artists who have been engaged with these questions are not asking them out of elitism, or a desire to rob young women of art that moves them. The questions of how the quickly growing South Asian American culture might influence our social environment and this very powerful country are simply too important to ignore. As we give and take from this shared culture, explore its divisions and cohesions, compare it to the experiences of our Native, Black, and brown siblings, our political environment demands that we be just as rigorous as we are loving.
That said, if you believe, as I do, that Rupi Kaur is fully aware of what intellectual traditions she might ally herself with, and is as capable of making choices about her persona as older or whiter authors, it becomes something of a lost cause to ask her to represent the complexities of the South Asian American experience. It is simply not her project.
Some, mostly women, have found Rupi Kaur’s work nourishing, and her narration of her identity relatable. Which is fine, and good, all told. Others have found her work frustrating and incomplete, hinting at the existential questions of twenty-first century immigrant communities, but shying away from real engagement. Which I think is better.
If Rupi Kaur isn’t about to replace her Instagram portraits with campaigns for a Clean DREAM Act anytime soon, the work isn’t to ask more from her. The work is to read broadly and deeply from progressive South Asians (The Aerogram, Vijay Prashad, Jasbir Puar might be a good start), to learn from South Asian organizations for justice (ASATA, DRUM, and SAALT are my favorites), and to explore what critical South Asian art looks like (I love Fatima Asghar and Ayqa Khan, personally). There is so much left to learn from our predecessors and our parents, and there is so much left to create. In The New York Times and in our own worlds, living rooms, community spaces, there is so much rich ground left to cover.
Author Bio: Sagaree Jain is an aspiring poet, scholar, organizer, and thinker. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, the co-creator of The Turmeric Project spotlighting queer South Asian Art, and a John Gardner Fellow with the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. Her writing has been featured in India Currents, the Aerogram, and Kajal Magazine.