Book Review

Rupi Kaur and Generalized Depictions of the “Brown Female” Experience

“i want to apologize to all the women i have called beautiful
before i’ve called them intelligent or brave
i am sorry i made it sound as though
something as simple as what you’re born with
is all you have to be proud of
when you have broken mountains with your wit

-Rupi Kaur, milk and honey

Rupi Kaur is a 24-year-old Canadian writer, poet and performer, most well known for her two collections of poetry, milk and honey and the sun and her flowersKaur self-published her first collection, milk and honey, in 2014 through Amazon, and the book was later picked up McMeel publishing in 2015. Her collections are immensely popular among young adults and millennials, presumably because of the “raw” subjects she touches on, such as love, trauma, loss, femininity, and revolution, as well as her stylistically simple and extremely accessible style, usually presented in just a few lines. It also seems to be the case that the public’s appetite for writing from a young woman of colour is constantly growing, and Kaur’s writing seems to appeal to the minority demographic, both in the nature of her own cultural identity and the topics such as migration and assimilation she touches on in her works.

However, despite the cult following Kaur seems to have amassed, there are certain problems intrinsic to her work. While milk and honey is relatively well written, and I can understand the appeal and popularity of such a collection, and I rather enjoyed skimming through the poetry myself, the claims her fans make that Kaur’s work is powerfully in its simplicity because it touches on such personal issues, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Not all of her writing is about her, but rather, according to Kaur, often refers to the women (mothers, friends, daughters) who she has around her. Further, Kaur claims that she speaks for a universal South Asian experience, especially in “the hurting” section of milk and honey: she says on her website, “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.” Indeed, her poems themselves often shift out of the first person and into an unidentifiable, broad “we” or “our” in an attempt to qualify and speak for a universal “brown” female experience.

“Our backs tell stories
no books have the spine to carry”

-Rupi Kaur, milk and honey

Where this becomes problematic is if one considers Kaur’s Western and educated upbringing with the her “colonized” ancestors, or perhaps even her rural counterparts in South Asia today. She says “it is generations of pain embedded into our souls”- and granted, there is no reason to dispute that this pain is not something very real in her life. The problem lies in the attempt to equivocate, to generalize, indeed, to universalize the pain that she feels with the reality of everyday abuse women in Southern Asia face consistently.  In other words, Kaur seems to blur the lines of trauma into a collective experience in order to depict an essential “brown female” experience, and in fact, ends up coming off as disingenuous and privileged.

“our knees
pried open
by cousins
and uncles
and men
our bodies touched
by all the wrong people
that even in a bed full of safety
we are afraid”

-Rupi Kaur, milk and honey 

While I applaud Kaur for her driven approach to publishing, as well as acknowledge the need for more diverse voices to be heard and published, especially within poetry, the vagueness in Kaur’s poetry seems to be the ultimate problem. While I am in no way suggesting that Kaur’s experience has been any less “authentically” South Asian that her ancestors, or someone who lives in South Asia today, the problem ultimately becomes her collection of vague ownerless narratives of “abuse” and “rape” and “trauma”, while presenting herself as the spokesperson for the unnamed women who have experienced these narratives.

It might be argued that Kaur is so vague in her work as a way of attracting and presenting this tragic narrative to the Western reader, in a way in which they might both sympathize and also relate personally. Yet her narratives are just specific enough for her to remain authentic to the women of colour who see their experiences in her. This seems to be the struggle of most minority writers: to write in a way that is informed by the cultural background of oneself but to avoid such specifics in doing so that may threaten or intimidate Western readers. Kaur, if nothing else, seems to have nailed this formula perfectly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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