We can call 2017 the year of many things. So far, the last 10 months have been dominated by headlines about Donald Trump, nuclear war, absurd restrictions to women’s reproductive rights and, most recently, alleged sexual abuse at the hands of Harvey Weinstein.
But in amongst the landslide of almost-daily news notifications, there have been some small glimmers of hope worth holding on to. Think women in Saudi Arabia finally being given the right to drive. Think women in Northern Ireland being given access to abortions on the NHS in England. Think of all the righteous rage and fury that spurred the Women’s March to become the biggest protest in American history.
And think of Rupi Kaur, who slashed gender stereotypes like scissors through pieces of ribbon as she soared to the top of the international bestseller charts. Having sold an unprecedented 2.4 million copies of her debut poetry collection, milk and honey, Kaur has become the world’s most celebrated “Instagram-poet”, and has spent the last year touring the globe and spinning words for shows that sell out within minutes, while catering to her 1.7 million strong legion of Instagram followers.
Now, in perhaps her greatest show of female defiance in a male-dominated industry – and, let’s be honest, a male-dominated world – Kaur readily attributes her success to her female friends.
When I met Kaur to discuss the release of her much-anticipated second book, the sun and her flowers, she made it immediately clear that female friendship is like oxygen to her writing, with her close-knit group of girlfriends inspiring much of her poetry.
“Milk and honey was just born and bred from a house full of young women,” she tells me. “I was at University [in Toronto] living with my best friends, who are all super thoughtful and complicated human beings, so all we had to do was have one single conversation.”
Fans of Kaur might be surprised to learn that not all of the poems in her first book are based on her own life – in fact, she estimates she experienced around 70% of the book for herself. Split into four distinct sections, “the hurting”, “the loving”, “the breaking” and “the healing”, milk and honey reads much like a breakup bible, touching on themes of assault, infidelity and, of course, heartbreak. Kaur’s simple black and white drawings, paired with sometimes only a line or two of text, paint such a raw and visceral picture of emotions that it’s hard to imagine how she knew what to say without having been through every step of that journey herself.
“I’m extremely empathetic – to a fault,” Kaur explains. “I will internalise everybody’s feelings, and when someone so close to you experiences those things it’s easy to step into their shoes and write about it.”
Kaur credits both her mother and sisters, as well as her friends, as inspiring her poetry, but adds that “even if I haven’t experienced it, there’s still a piece of me in everything… so much of milk and honey is personal, but at some point everything personal has already been written”.
Like most of us, Kaur relies on her friends for so much more than just inspiration for her creative process. Following the global success of milk and honey, which rocketed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list when it was published in 2015, a year after Kaur self-published the volume herself, she now spends much of her time on the road, cut off from her closest relationships.
“Life changed so fast and all of a sudden I’m travelling all the time and I haven’t hung out properly with my best friend for almost two years now,” she says. “When we do hang out there’s so much catching up to do that we don’t have those regular day to day conversations and that’s been very difficult.
“I will go months and months without having a conversation about my emotions with one of the women in my life. And that is such a life changing thing.”
For Kaur, this unwilling withdrawal from her friends went hand in hand with her meteoric rise to fame on social media. And as a consequence of swapping real friends for digital followers and pixelated hearts, she has found herself feeling understandably anxious on platforms such as Instagram and Twitter.
Kaur declines to follow anyone on Instagram, and refuses to read the deluge of comments that flood every image or message she posts.
“I haven’t read comments for over a year – I’m not strong enough to read them,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll see something that isn’t so nice, and my friends will be like, ‘you get thousands of nice comments but then this one negative thing just breaks you’.
“Instagram has been so kind to me but it got to a point when I was always on it, always aimlessly scrolling, and always feeling like I’m not going to bother, because there’s always someone out there doing it better than me.”
This compulsion to compare herself unfavourably with what she sees on social media is undoubtedly something we’ve all experienced. But for Kaur, with 1.7 million followers, that feeling is amplified a thousand-fold.
“I’d go on social media and all of a sudden I’d feel so anxious, like I should be doing more, I should be like this, I should be like that,” she says. “It was all this added stress that was really pulling me away from reality.”
Plus, Kaur’s feed is hardly filled with the usual holidays and food fodder that the majority of us post – by sharing such visceral and honest poems about life and love she is putting herself in the vulnerable position of being out-rightly judged for her emotions. Describing how, in the early days of her career, she would “literally toss [her] phone to the other side of the room and run away” whenever she posted anything, she has kept the whole production of her second book under wraps, to preserve the purity of what she is trying to say.
“When I was first putting out new pieces twice a week it was scary, especially talking about difficult things that had not happened to me and knowing that people would project that onto me,” she says. “I had to walk around with the weight of that… I needed to take a step back and say, let me put a whole collection together and then I will post it when I am ready.
“It would feel like so much judgement, say if I put up a new post from the new book and it only got a certain amount of likes, and that wasn’t enough… it’s not something I want to live with, and it’s not something I want to think about, when I’m trying to create something beautiful and pure.”
Of course, there is an added layer of insecurity that comes with publically posting poetry about your lovelife, and I was curious to know whether any of the exes Kaur writes about had ever been in touch with her about her words.
“No – I think they’re too scared,” she laughs. “I feel bad for my exes. Sometimes I’ll share something they know is about them and I’ll notice that I get a block here and there.”
And Kaur’s response to these digital reactions is much the same as what we would expect from reading her books.
“You walked all over me but it’s not happening again,” she says bluntly.
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And does she have a message for the millions of women and girls around the world who have devoured milk and honey cover to cover, and will do the same for her new edition, the sun and her flowers?
“I want women to feel powerful in their own skin when they read my work,” she says.
“Once you feel powerful in your own skin and you own that, you realise how powerful you are – and then you can do anything. That’s what has allowed me to be who I am today.”