International sensation Nikita Gill has been hailed as one of the most exciting young writers working today, and for good reason. The feminist poet – who has well over 563K followers on Instagram – has completely revolutionised the medium. And, in doing so, she has reignited our love affair with the “language of protest.”
Ahead of this important event, we sat down with Gill to discuss slam poetry, social media activism, modern-day misogyny, and the #BeKind movement that launched online shortly after Caroline Flack died by suicide. We also found time to talk about veganism, imposter syndrome, Piers Morgan (sigh) and Gill’s upcoming book SLAM! You’re Gonna Wanna Hear This, which seeks to celebrate the ground-breaking poets making their voices heard in the spoken word scene.
Here’s what everyone’s favourite “Instapoet” had to say.
SLAM! You’re Gonna Wanna Hear This is due to hit bookshelves in 2020. What made you want to get involved with this project?
I’ve always been called an “Instapoet” and I have never understood why. Yes, Instagram is a platform in which I share a certain form of poetry, but I also share my poems in literary journals and global publications, so I find it very strange that all of my writing has been condensed to really reductive label.
When I got into poetry, it was through listening and watching performance poets like Rudy Fransisco, Danez Smith, Raymond Antrobus and Olivia Gatwood poets do their thing. I thought they were brilliant. Then I realised that they, too, have been given the reductive label of “slam poets”: all of their work is considered ‘less than’ simply because it is performed in a slam.
With SLAM! You’re Gonna Wanna Hear This, I wanted to show people that these poets’ work is beautiful when they are on the stage or the page. And I want to challenge these notions around what constitutes “real poetry”, because all poetry is real poetry.
We are in something of a poetry renaissance at the moment. What do you think it is that’s reunited people’s interest in it, both as an art form and as a form of expression and activism?
If you look back through history, you’ll see many of our revolutions were led by writers and poets. And that’s because poetry is the language of protest.
Look at Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise. Look at Audre Lorde. All of the work that I personally love is the language of fire. And I think, because we live in quite uncertain times, the world has come to a very strange place where people no longer look at facts and go, “These are facts”. You go online and people are saying they don’t want to listen to experts anymore. This is where poetry kind of comes in. It says, “No, actually, this is the truth. This is the unflinching truth. And, whether you like it or not, this is what it’s like.”
Poetry allows us to build empathy with those who walks a very different life from ours. It really gets down to the nitty-gritty of why it is important to care for your fellow man, or why, as humans, it is important to understand the struggles of others. So, that’s why I think there is this renaissance going on right now with poetry.
Unfortunately, the world seems to be full of bad news at the moment. Do you think that some subjects, like Coronavirus or Brexit, defy poetic interpretation?
I call my own poetry the language of hope, because I like to write about things which are more hopeful and more empowering. But there are lots of other poets who are able to take what’s happening in the news and turn it into something wonderful.
Brian Bilston is one of my favourites, because he takes something like Brexit, or the next Brexit extension, and he turns it into something quite comical and funny but still makes his point. And Danez Smith, one of the youngest ever Forward Arts Prize winners, writes about racism in America. The metaphors and similes they use are so powerful that they are always able to reach you.
I think, because poetry is so diverse, it speaks in different ways to different people.
You tend to place very powerful women at the centre of your own poetry, reimagining fairy tales, legends and myths to bring us something new. What made you decide to look to past tales for inspiration?
I have this unfaltering belief that, deep down, all humans are good: we just get misled sometimes, For instance, the running joke about Greek mythology is that 70% is about Zeus’ sex life – and what happens when Hera finds out is the other 30%.
Hera is made the goddess of marriage by her husband Zeus, then he constantly demeans her by cheating on her for thousands of years. She can’t punish him because he is King of the Gods, and she can’t leave him because her role means she has to be loyal to her husband. So, what does she do with that pain? Well, she takes it out on all the people that Zeus loves.
In my stories, I want her to realise what she is doing. In 2020, Hera runs a woman’s shelter because she is trying to make up for all of time she spent punishing her husband’s lovers. And I think by doing this, I am basically just saying we shouldn’t judge people by the one terrible thing that they do. People are not the worst of what they have done or the best of what they have done: they are all of that and everything in between.
On social media, many are speaking about the need for people to be kinder. What do you make of the #BeKind movement?
I worry that a lot of it is lip service. We need to start dealing with the fact that the people we call trolls are neighbours, and friends, and people we know. They’re lawyers and business people, and they aren’t that stereotype we have of someone sitting in a basement. Until we recognise this, the #BeKind movement will just be this thing that happens online every once in a while.
What about the people using the hashtag?
I saw Piers Morgan and Katie Hopkins use it and I was like, “Really? Your entire platforms are built on hate.”
I got blocked by Piers Morgan for calling him out on something quite hateful he was saying about the Duchess of Sussex – he seems to have been on a one-man crusade against her for a very long time now – and he blocked me for it. This is a man who deliberately wants to say terrible things about someone who can’t defend herself, but, at the same time, he is unable to take any criticism himself. He’s the last person who should talk about being kind to anyone.
What’s the best way to deal with trolls, in your opinion?
Ignoring and blocking them is probably the best thing I’ve done for my own mental health, but I don’t know that it’s good for society at large to just ignore these people.
With Katie Hopkins and Piers Morgan, we should ignore them: the more we talk about them, the more followers they get. They don’t care if they are stroking racism, they don’t care if they’re causing misogyny: all they care about is their views and the money they get from it. They thrive on hate, and we need to ignore them until they go away because they are only as powerful as we let them be.
But, as a writer that practices nuance, I can’t say that Piers Morgan looks the same as a troll who has 10 followers. So, with individual trolls, we really need to start examining where that hate comes from. Why are these people doing this? They don’t have any money to gain from it, so it seems they actually take pleasure in hurting people.
Yes, ignoring and blocking them is probably the best thing I’ve done for my own mental health, but I don’t know that it’s good for society at large to just ignore these people.
You’re very vocal and honest on Twitter. Do you feel a responsibility with how you use your own platform?
It’s really important for me to stand up for the right thing, and it’s really important for me to use my platform and say what I need to say. If the people who follow me don’t align with my views, then they need to learn more about why I think that way, and I’m happy to engage and have a respectful conversation.
I’ve noticed that you use social media to celebrate and support other women, particularly women writers, and it always feels quite heartening – especially as so many are obsessed with Queen Bee myth. Why do you think it’s so important to shine a light on others?
I recently spoke at an event and someone said she worked in a business where there were only three other women in a room. They felt that they were constantly competing against each other. It’s down to that scarcity myth which is perpetuated onto us by misogyny and racism: all of these things make us feel that we have to be the only one.
I believe it is our job and our duty to – if we have made it – keep the doors open behind us. We need to celebrate when another woman succeeds, or another person of colour succeeds, or another LGBT person succeeds. We should fill up rooms until they are filled with women and people of colour.
Celebrating other people and other authors, especially in my field, doesn’t take anything away from what I’m doing. It just means that someone else doing something similar to me is succeeding with it, and that means there is hope for all of us.
Give people a boost and a leg up. It’s your door, so why shouldn’t you open that door and kick that ladder down for everyone else struggling?
Why are you taking part in this year’s #March4Women on International Women’s Day?
We need to bring our carbon emissions down. Women bear the brunt of climate change, especially in the east. They are 14 times more likely to be killed by natural disasters and it’s because, particularly in agricultural places like India and the continent of Africa, women do all of the work.
With the Amazon fires, many indigenous women have been fighting against the government and trying to protect the rainforest. The same thing that happened in Australia, when the indigenous aboriginal people warned the government that work needed to be done to prevent bush fires: nobody listened to them.
Care International UK is doing a really good job trying to amplify these women’s voices. And that’s why I wanted to be part of the march this year. Yes, it’s great to have Greta Thunberg be the face of the movement, but the true faces are the indigenous women who are doing so much work to prevent climate change – and who bear the brunt of the effects.
What little things can we do to help with the climate change movement?
I’ve stopped eating beef, I’ve cut down on my dairy, there’s no more single-use plastic in my house, and I’m carrying a water bottle with me everywhere. But it’s going to take every single person doing this: just reducing what we usually do will have a knock-on effect.
I’m not perfect. I still eat chicken and I eat fish and there are loads of things I wish I could change about myself. I’m trying to do things like plant a tree for every six or seven books I sell, because I know that 66 of my printed books are created from one tree. And I know it’s hard for people on benefits and people with disabilities to be able to make as many changes – but even one small change even makes you feel good.
What’s the best way to speak to people about white privilege?
The best way to get people to understand their privilege is by explaining how I am privileged. I’m privileged because I’m an educated Indian woman from a country where women aren’t educated. If I start talking about my privilege first, that gets people thinking more about their own. It’s a far more productive conversation, and I’ve had a lot of success speaking to people this way – but then there are also those who still refuse to have this conversation.
I think the issue is that a lot of people conflate this idea of ‘white privilege’ with being a racist. What would you say to these people?
The problem is unconscious bias. You don’t have to be actively racist to say or do something racist: it means you said a racist or did a racist thing. This is the problem with cancel culture. Look at what’s happening with Jameela Jamil. Every time she says something, people say “she’s cancelled” – but she’s trying to learn, and she’s very brave with it, and when someone calls her out for something she openly apologises. She says, OK, I’m trying to learn from what you’ve said – which I think more people should do because we don’t know everything.
How does it feel to be a source of inspiration to so many people, particularly those South Asians who don’t often see themselves represented in the public eye?
I feel very lucky. Yes, I have built a platform but the platform was only built because people supported me. That’s why amplifying other women, other South Asian women especially: it’s my privilege and my honour to be able to do that. It’s surreal sometimes, though. I think, “Is this real? Is it just my mum making multiple accounts?” But that’s my imposter syndrome talking.
Honestly, I swear I haven’t met a single woman who doesn’t suffer with imposter syndrome.
It’s honestly an epidemic. We don’t talk about it because we’re told not to take up space. And, despite how hard we work as women, our work is still not given the credence it deserves.
There is this unsaid thing that, if lots of teenage girls like something, then it’s not good. But how many good bands owe their success to teenage girls? Think The Beatles, David Bowie. Young girls, especially teenage girls, are culture makers: they drive culture – and yet they are the ones who so often suffer with imposter syndrome.
Early on in my career, I said that I write for young women and for non-binary people. I said that my work is, essentially, for teenage girls. But people in meetings would tell me that I couldn’t say that, that I was alienating people. I’m really not: I’m writing for people I know who need the voice.
Women and POC are the ones leading YA fiction and romance and poetry. But I would argue that, right now, romance and poetry are so interesting and different – and so deeply competitive. To be able to make an audience in any these fields is incredibly hard, and if you look in those fields the one succeeding is women. Their work is not given the credence it deserves.
Nikita Gill is joining forces with CARE International UK for the 2020 #March4Women, an International Women’s Day rally devoted to fighting the impact of climate change on women and girls around the world.
To join her, you can…
You can find out more about this year’s #March4Women event here.
Images: CARE International/Getty
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.