Is Rupi Kaur Really That Bad? (Spoiler alert: She kinda is.)

Gitanjali critiques Rupi Kaur's impact in poetry and allegations.

Rupi Kaur is an Indian-Canadian poet who has published three poetry collections: milk and honey (2014), the sun and her flowers (2017), and home body (2020). She self-published milk and honey at only 21 years old, and she remembers the experience fondly. On her website, she states that “the hustle and bustle of those years has been one of [her] favourite memories till date.” 

Ever since 2014, her short visual style of poetry has been ridiculed and parodied on social media. An early example of this is in 2017 when a book titled honey and vine was created in parody of Rupi’s writing. It featured 100 quotes of classical vines that wrote in Rupi’s signature style. The book was criticized, not really for the parody of it, but because the author did not credit the original creators of the vines nor did he pay them. More recently, Harry Mitchell (@HarryIsLate on Twitter) created a thread wherein he converted his girlfriend’s dreams and stylized them like Rupi’s poetry as his girlfriend talks in her sleep. 

I can’t say I didn’t laugh at these, however, there are many reasons why I do think she deserves (some) praise. Firstly, she has created a diverse community that empowers gender minorities and women. Her poetry has allowed people to feel seen and heard. I remember being excited to get my hands on milk and honey as a 15-year-old Desi kid. The impacts of migration, the growing pains of adolescence. It was the first time I was exposed to a piece of media that understood the struggles I was feeling. I’m sure that many have felt connected to her poetry in that sense, especially since she was named the Writer of the Decade by the New Republic in 2019. 

Screenshot (4).pngThough I understand that her poetry isn’t the most technically perfect, which most critics express, I do enjoy the fact that her poetry is relatable to many. I like to think of her poetry as a stepping stone for people, mainly young teenagers, trying to get into it but are unsure of where to start. Especially because poetry has a reputation of being synonymous with school and can be quite pretentious and difficult to understand and relate to, but it can also be an amazing way to bring people together, as all art forms do.

One of her poems in home body elaborates on the togetherness and acknowledges the revolution that is occurring within the Punjabi community. I admire the way she uses her platform in support of issues that are personal to her. Especially with her widespread global audience, this is especially important since Asian stories tend to fly under the radar in international media. 

Furthermore, this current era of literature is so diverse that she was able to self-publish and get this much fame is already mind-blowing. Social media and globalization has made it easier for people to spread their talent and gain recognition. Unlike classic literature (which I love), wherein you can see a distinct pattern in the writings as a result of things like industrialism, I love that in more recent years, there are more narratives and anecdotes being shared by communities that I would’ve never known otherwise. Rupi Kaur’s poetry has allowed others to gain a deeper understanding of issues or topics that they might not have personally undergone or will undergo. The diversion that Rupi took from traditional poets provides others with a new perspective.

Despite all of the amazing contributions she has made, it is important to note the more serious reasons why Rupi Kaur is criticized, with the allegations of plagiarism. There are very large similarities between her writing and Nayyirah Waheed, a Tumblr poet who published her book of poetry titled Salt in (2013), a year before milk and honey was published. Some of the similarities are the themes, structure like short and choppy lines, minimal punctuation. Also, when comparing a poem from Waheed in 2013 and Kaur’s in 2014, the similarities are impeccable, especially thematically. The metaphor of honey is elaborated though it is clear that Kaur’s use was not as discussed nor transformed, unlike Waheed’s.  

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The public apology that Kaur made was appalling—to say the least.

She perpetuated a cycle of oppressive behaviour by gaslighting those who were criticizing her. Also, she compared the traumas and experiences of both communities (the Indian community and the Black community) that were historically oppressed in problematic ways. For example, in Kaur’s apology, she states that both she and Waheed come from “communities that deal with a lot” which is true but indirectly compares the traumas of two completely different histories that are incomparable. 

The Indian community was occupied by the British who stole resources and wealth, tearing apart a country and creating mass emigration. They changed the culture entirely (especially when we look at LGBTQ+ history). Further, it was found that in the 1700s, India was one of the world’s richest countries with 27% of global GDP but at the time of independence in 1947, the GDP was at 3%. Indians immigrated to the United States in the early 20th century working for the agriculture, lumber and railroad industries. Indian immigration was then banned (amongst other Asian ethnicities) thrice: in 1917, 1921 and 1924. It was only in 1965 when the Immigration and Nationality Act was established which removed national-origin quotas in its entirety. 

From Chapter 5 of Asian American Studies Now, published in 2000, titled The Cold War Origins of the Model Minority Myth, Robert G Lee mentions that Asian Americans were looked at as the more successful ethnic minority group due to “stoic patience, political obedience, and self-improvement”. It allowed for Asian Americans to be looked at as the “paragon of ethnic value”. The political silence of Asian Americans made them a model minority. In this article, Kat Chow from NPR elaborates that though Asian-Americans have had to be put in incarceration camps and were denied citizenship, it does not compare to the “systemic dehumanization” that Black people have had to go through in terms of segregation, discrimination and police brutality. 

The Black community still face discrimination with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer 2020 following the murder of George Floyd. They have been marginalized in Western societies ever since they were forcefully brought to be enslaved by European settlers in the 1660s. Their culture, history and identity were lost as the belief that they are inferior was ingrained. Casual racism and cultural appropriation still occur in today’s time, and Kaur’s statement erasing the possibility of plagiarism leans towards anti-Black sentiment that should not be forgotten. 

Yes, both communities have undergone extremely difficult times in history but both are incomparable. Kaur’s statement was dismissive and inexcusable.

The article by Aarushi Nohria, published in 2020, went into this issue deeply, especially as someone who was a long-time fan of Kaur. It is a necessary read. 

Rupi Kaur did speak out in 2020 on her Instagram, sharing resources and videos in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, but does that erase the manner in which she approached the plagiarism situation? 

I admire the impact that Rupi has made globally but am strongly against the steps she took to lead her to where she is now. The combination of poetry and imagery has given a voice to many and I think that that shouldn’t be pushed aside. Though, it also shouldn’t be used as a way to put her on a pedestal and erase the harm that she has undoubtedly perpetuated. 

Sources Cited:

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