Rupi Kaur’s milk and honey, an anthology of her writing published in November of last year, has already infiltrated the interweb South Asian Tumblr community. As a fellow South Asian woman and writer, I’ve found that there is a serious absence of South Asian diaspora voices in the literary world that depict and elevate our voices or individual experiences. So we turn to the internet, where access to others like us, as well as those who want to hear about our nuanced experiences, tends to be more readily available than our immediate environments.
The internet community provides an ear when you want, even though most posted poems are shouts into the void. That ear is still so incredibly empowering when you don’t feel like anyone else is listening. We know this. Growing up, I spent hours online reading blogs by angry brown girls so that I could hear someone else put into words all the reasons I was mad at the world and the complicatedness of what I shared with my family and community. Brownness didn’t feel so strange.
This is why I thought Rupi Kaur’s work could have provided for a much-needed voice in contemporary literature, a voice I definitely couldn’t wait to hear. As soon as I saw her book on tumblr and read the name of the author, I bought it.
For me, and I think for a lot of South Asians on tumblr, buying that book was an act of feminism, of brown sisterhood, a way for us to support a fellow South Asian writer and find a part of ourselves in someone else’s words. And, I think, some would argue Kaur succeeded in adequately providing those words. Kaur’s book exploded all over tumblr and social media quickly after I bought it, depicting the crazy snowball effect of anything internet-related. I mean, her book became a meme practically overnight.
I think part of this is due to the fact that Kaur’s popularity has been a project in the making for some time now. By the time milk and honey was published and available for shipment from Amazon, Kaur had succeeded in creating a significant social media presence on Tumblr and Twitter, without which I sincerely doubt milk & honey would have succeeded as much as it did.
Quite frankly, I don’t think that Kaur’s poetry succeeds in any way. I worry that Kaur’s demographic significance warrants an indulgence in her poetry — poetry that, simply put, lacks quality. milk and honey is a collection of clichés, a regurgitation of the west’s perceptions of South Asianness and womanness that doesn’t delve into the intricacies of South Asian womanhood, especially in the diaspora. Kaur’s poetry seems to almost be making a mockery of her marginalized identity and experiences because of their clichéd presentation. I cannot read her poetry to feel empowered. It is like sitting through a breakup and hearing “It’s not you, it’s me.” The banality of her poetry renders it devoid of all real meaning, of the rawness that comes with some of the experiences she describes. I should know, I’ve had them too.
Some of us have complicated relationships with family and our own identities in many ways, issues I think Kaur attempts to narrate in her poetry. Kaur is an example of a poet who understands her own position in society. I understand the importance of using my own perspective and position to produce art. When not many individuals within your community do so, your voice becomes especially important. I appreciate Kaur’s fearlessness in this way; god knows I personally would not have the courage to depict my intimate experiences so publicly.
However, this courage cannot and should not excuse quality. Just because Kaur is a minority — and yes, we need more marginalized writers having their voices heard — we shouldn’t be satisfied with mediocre tweet-sized poetry. We deserve, at least, good writing. I’m tired of being satisfied with half-assed writing because it was written by a brown woman when there are so many good ones out there I have yet to find. Kaur’s poetry lacks imagination, novelty, and compassion despite the myriad acclamations she received from the internet community.
I hope Kaur’s presence in social media expands from poetry, because I really think she has the capacity to influence a large audience. She has already sparked fire in other arenas, particularly in her recent Instagram controversy, where Kaur’s photos depicting people’s experience with their periods were removed by the photo-sharing site. Kaur did a good job of pointing out the double standard that exists in social media, and the grossly dehumanizing way in which the female body is perceived by its consumers. I wish her luck in these endeavors.