On a late-April evening, in the atrium of a downtown Toronto library, Rupi Kaur stood barefoot on a stage. She wore a black crop top, high-waisted ivory pants and a long ivory jacket; her nude heels had been kicked to the side. She adjusted the mic and called out a page number from her book, Milk and Honey, then began reading in a low voice.
When she read a poem about abuse—like “mid-week sessions,” page 15, which begins: “the therapist places / the doll in front of you / it is the size of girls / your uncles / like touching”—the room felt as though it were holding a collective breath. When she turned to one about a breakup—“untitled,” page 88, announcing, “the woman who comes after me will be a bootleg version of who i am”—the place erupted, all hoots and cheers and snapping fingers. When Kaur declared, “our backs / tell stories / no books have / the spine to / carry,” from “woman of colour,” there were audible sighs. The audience was at least 700 people deep, mostly millennial women, mostly of colour, sitting on the ground, sharing a chair, hanging over the staircase that curved to the second floor. That night, Junot Díaz—Pulitzer Prize–winning author, MacArthur genius—happened to be speaking in another corner of the library. He did not draw the same crowd.
To be fair, this isn’t how book readings usually go. But Rupi Kaur is a phenomenon, albeit not your typical lit star. She’s 24, India-born, Brampton, Ont.-raised and, most incredibly, a poet, who first shared her work on Tumblr and, later, Instagram. She also put out a book without an agent or publisher, instead pairing the brief, lowercase poems she’d been writing and rewriting since high school with her own spare line drawings and then using Amazon’s self-publishing platform to turn the whole deal into Milk and Honey.
That was in November 2014, when she was 22 and studying rhetoric and professional writing at the University of Waterloo. A year later, after Kaur’s work gained momentum from social media, multiple campus tours and one Instagram controversy, Milk and Honey was snapped up by American publisher Andrews McMeel. Today, the collection, packed with deeply personal poems that sweep from heartache and trauma to recovery and resilience, has more than a million copies in print. It’s been holding strong on the New York Times paperback trade fiction list for over seven months. Kaur performed a TED Talk this summer. And in October, she inked a two-book deal to be published in five countries.
It’s a crazy amount of success in a ridiculously short time. “This idea that over 10,000 people walk into a store in one week in the U.S. and pick up that book—I haven’t been able to wrap my head around it,” Kaur tells me, sitting in the corner of a sunny café beside a neglected iced tea, right hand fluttering to the copy of Milk and Honey between us. Her deep brown eyes tend to widen when she speaks; her red lipstick only emphasizes how young she looks. Kaur has the kind of open, guileless face that can verge on earnestness but still makes you immediately want to tell her your secrets—which is precisely what her fans did at the library event, waiting hours for their turns at the book-signing table, and greeting her with tears, shrieks and breathless revelations about viciously bad breakups or fraught relationships with their dads.
She understands where the impulse to connect comes from. “I read that the thing we’re most afraid to say is the thing that’s most universal,” Kaur says. “So when folks see the book, it’s a reflection of themselves.” Of course, that’s what literature does: it sparks a shock of recognition; it lets us feel a little less alone. Poets have been preoccupied with romantic passion, doubt and devastation pretty much since they started chiselling words onto stone. But what Kaur’s success shows is that if you want to hook millennial readers, you shouldn’t bother with The New Yorker or the Griffin Prize; instead, put that poem on Tumblr or Twitter or Facebook or Instagram—or all of them—and reach an infinitely larger audience. That has been the approach of other popular, young, female contemporary poets, too, like Lang Leav in New Zealand, Cleo Wade in New York and Somali-British artist Warsan Shire, whose lines had a cameo in Beyoncé’s Lemonade.
But more than any of her peers, Kaur taps into a zeitgeist that’s big on self-care, and transforming experiences of pain and longing into anthems of acceptance and triumph. Her brief, straightforward lines don’t require much unpacking, and the ones that receive the most likes are usually the unambiguous affirmations: “how you love yourself is / how you teach others / to love you,” or “we are all born / so beautiful / the greatest tragedy is / being convinced we are not.” (If Kaur’s work seems well-suited to T-shirts or tasteful mugs, well, Prabal Gurung embroidered “our backs tell the story no books have the spine to carry” onto the back of the black suit jacket that closed his spring ’17 runway show.)
But the journey of empowerment Kaur offers genuinely resonates with young women who hear, perhaps for the first time, their own fears and joys echoed. “Rupi’s work has always felt so raw, and being from the same culture, I relate when she talks about the male-dominated society, immigrant hardships and societal pressures,” says 23-year-old Ishan Chahal, a Kaur fan. “It makes me question a lot of things in my life, as well as helps me feel confident.” Kaur gives her readers permission to be, as she is, flawed and vulnerable and still complete. That’s a powerful message at any age—but it means a hell of a lot when you’re chin-deep in the messy business of growing up.
She may now be the patron saint of millennial heartache, but when Kaur started performing her poems in high school, they weren’t quite so raw. In fact, they were mostly elaborate anti-government screeds, even though, she admits, “I didn’t know a thing about the government.” Looking back, Kaur says “I wanted to find a voice, because I had been voiceless for so long.”
The oldest of four siblings, Kaur left India with her family when she was three and a half, reuniting with her father, who had already settled in Montreal and was working as a truck driver. The Kaurs soon headed for Ontario, moving seven times in five years until they landed in Brampton, a Toronto suburb. For much of her childhood, Kaur says she kept quiet—first, because she didn’t know much English, and then because she was terrified to hear herself in class. “I think I only started to speak to people in grade four,” she says.
Those silent years gave way to more tumultuous ones in her teens, with Kaur and her father in near-constant battle. “With immigrant parents, they’ve had to sacrifice so much to survive, and they’re trying to preserve the culture they lost, so there are just so many boundaries,” she says. There were arguments over cutting her hair, wearing T-shirts to class, going to the movies; Kaur recalls months-long fights to get what she wanted. As an adult, she realizes what lay behind all the rules: “A lot of Indian fathers don’t know how to show affection. My parents really do love me, even though my dad has never been able to say those words to me.” She realizes the inverse is true, too: “Just because someone tells you they love you, it doesn’t mean they actually do.”
In her TED Talk, Kaur performs a piece called “I’m Taking My Body Back,” which centres on sexual violence—a crime committed on a car ride home. “I asked where were we going,” she recites. “You asked was I afraid. And that’s when my voice jumped over the edge of my throat, landed at the bottom of my belly and hid for months.” Kaur has spoken before about a dark, difficult time in her teens, and her poetry often grapples with the physical and emotional fallout of sexual assault. But unlike artists such as Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer, she hasn’t directly addressed her own experience. I ask her if the TED Talk—with its emphasis on “I”—is a more personal reckoning. “A little bit,” she says. “If I were to share any more than this, I’d layer it into fiction. The truth will always be in the art, and I already feel like I’ve said so much.” Kaur began writing poetry as a response to her trauma, but it’s not the story she wants to tell—she’s more interested in survival. “I write about it obsessively because I’m trying to teach myself that, even if terrible things have happened to my body, I’m fine,” she says. “My heart is
beating and I’m breathing, and nothing anybody has ever done has changed that.”
Here’s how you break the internet. In March of 2015, Kaur posted a self-portrait on Instagram: her back is to the camera, she’s lying in bed, and there are spots of blood on her patterned sheets and grey sweatpants. Immediately, the photo was removed for violating “community guidelines.” Kaur reposted; Instagram removed that, too. She countered with a Facebook post that smacked Instagram for its hypocrisy—sexualized women are just fine; menstruating women are real bad—and spoke to a wider frustration over the endless policing of women’s bodies. It launched 75,000 likes and nearly as many think pieces; she gave interviews to The Guardian, The Washington Post and Vice. Instagram eventually relented and allowed Kaur to repost the image.
Within three days, Kaur gained 150,000 Instagram followers. (Her total count, at press time, is 722,000.) But she wasn’t exactly a social-media cipher before that: she had already amassed a solid 35,000 followers, thanks to frequent posts of her highly regrammable poems, as well as dogged promotion of the writing workshops she facilitated and the panels she took part in at campuses like New York’s Columbia University. When she agreed to speaking engagements in San Francisco or London, Kaur would order a box of her books to be sent to the organizer’s house so she could sell them after the event. She wrote on airplanes and at 5 a.m. in hotel rooms, pushing out more poems, which led to further sales on Amazon and caught the attention of her American publisher. “My entire life, everyone has referred to me as a workaholic,” says Rakhi Mutta, Kaur’s manager. “Then I met Rupi, and it was the first time in my life I was inspired by someone’s hustle.”
Women are often wary of self-promotion—we fear it makes us look too ambitious, too needy, too narcissistic. We preface our accomplishments with apologies for drawing attention to them in the first place. But Kaur is proud of what she’s built. “What I created by myself is right now on the New York Times bestseller list, competing with books that have been released as movies,” she tells me. “I’ve had a lot of success in the past year, and some folks made me feel like it was an accident. And then the imposter syndrome kicks in. But that’s not true at all.”
Kaur adds, “People like that I wrote a book—that’s cute, but oh, making a business out of it? That’s not nice.” She doesn’t care. She recognizes there’s always tension when art and business collide, but she is determined to grow her brand while staying at the centre of it. “Empowerment, honesty and truth: that’s always been the message of this book,” she says. “There have been moments where it’s been, like, how about we do a special version of Milk and Honey for Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day, or make bookmarks or pencils? If I don’t trust it, I’m not interested in it.”
The same goes for sponsorship deals. There have been buckets of opportunities, and turning those down is a luxury not every writer can afford. “She’s not swayed by the shiny or the gold people are throwing at her,” says Mutta. “She’s not here for that. She wants to be an author and get her message out.”
In the middle of all of this, Kaur’s carved out a life that looks more like a typical 24-year-old’s: she recently moved into her own apartment in downtown Toronto, and she says her relationship with her parents—particularly her father—has mellowed with a bit of distance, wisdom and time. She just happens to be a 24-year-old who has the total attention, and faith, of the publishing world, since her American publisher joined forces with Simon & Schuster Canada to sign Kaur to a two-book deal without entirely knowing what those books will be about—maybe poetry, maybe not.
Kaur takes absolutely none of this lightly, and she knows she’s expected to deliver something big. She also knows that she’s going to have to contend with her current (and unusual) case of writer’s block. But she doesn’t sound especially stressed. “My gut is so strong,” she says. “I feel like I have a lot of books in me, and they’re going to come out because I said so. It’s going to happen.”
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