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Q&A: Rupi Kaur on her debut collection, milk and honey

Rupi Kaur

(photo: Baljit)

Rupi Kaur, the 23-year-old Brampton, Ontario–based writer, has had a wildly successful year, ratcheting up more than 280,000 Instagram followers, along with public endorsements by such celebrities as Martha Stewart and Mark Ruffalo. Kaur was initially a visual artist who studied economics – later switching to rhetoric studies and professional writing – at the University of Waterloo, but began amassing a following for her writing on social media. Her self-published debut poetry collection, milk and honey, was released in November 2014 and sold 15,000 copies. Simon & Schuster partner Andrews McMeel Publishing re-released the book with additional poems and Kaur’s own artwork in Canada and the U.S. on Oct. 6.

Q&Q spoke with Kaur about the title, her future plans, and social media as a platform for writers.

How has this journey from self-published author to international book deal been for you? It’s been crazy. Professors told me once you self-publish, that’s the end, and you won’t be taken seriously because you crossed all the gatekeepers. I remember after the first time I walked into the Simon & Schuster Canada office a few months ago, I went home and was so overwhelmed that I was laughing and crying at the same time. I don’t understand how it all happened and how it ended up here; it’s just been so great. I was doing it all by myself, then all of a sudden I have this wonderful, established team. After I self-published, the book was very successful, but it really took a lot out of me. In order to make the book what it was, I had to switch my creative side off, and once the business end of me came on, I stopped writing; they’re two different sides of your brain. Now that I have basically a machine behind me, I can just do what I’m good at and have them do what they’re good at.

At first I was excited, but then I thought, “What if they try to change the cover?” For the person that writes and creates, it’s very emotional, but the wonderful team here understands the market and that’s how they work. So I wondered, ‘What if they try to do that? What if they say that some of these pieces are too radical and try to remove [some] poems, would that be staying true to me?’ But they said, ‘We want it all.’

Rupi Kaur milk and honeyYour work deals with a lot of strong and sensitive feminist issues. How do you hope it’s received by people who may be unfamiliar with these themes? We all live in different worlds, so some people say, “This isn’t even happening, why are you even discussing it? It’s not even a problem.” I know I scare a lot of people off who think my work is too aggressive, too radical. But these things are happening, and I try to show through social media that these issues exist. If you look on my blog, there’s a section for confessions that people submit, and it literally echoes my poetry. I don’t really care what people think about me, but there were still some times I thought, “What does the world see when they see me? Do they just see this unattractive, undatable girl?” Because that’s what men are telling me: I’m too aggressive, I’m unwanted, and all of these things, so I think, “Should I stop writing about this? Should I write about something that’s softer?” But then I go on my blog and there are tons of confessions from young men and women, and that’s reassurance that this is important and I can’t let these people that don’t have context hold me down.

With so many writers finding success online – like R.M. Drake on Instagram and Clementine von Radics on Tumblr – do you see it as a feasible starting point for emerging writers? I think so. It’s difficult because there are so many folks doing it, or trying to do it. People are always asking me, “What’s the recipe?” There is no recipe, but it’s not luck either, I don’t think. It’s just about staying true and authentic to yourself. As somebody who didn’t have the money to pay a marketing team and all of that, I had a free account that gave me access to millions of people; how unreal is that? So I think it’s definitely a great place, and it’s like the new place. Where else do you have access to so many people who want to read and experience new things? But I always tell young writers you have to share it only when you’re ready. When you’re reading a piece and your own work hits you in the stomach and makes it turn, that’s when you know it’s time for it to be shared. It’s a very emotional journey, because when you share a piece of yourself with the entire world, it’s not easy. You feel a little bit stripped each time and a little more vulnerable. At the end of the day, my writing always has to be spiritual for me. It’s not about the artwork or writing being consumable and postable or any of that. The writing is because I have questions and I want answers. I’m trying to be true to myself and learn about myself, and if I find a message that is strong and beautiful enough to share, I’ll share it with people.

Screen shot 2015-11-18 at 11.18.41 AMWhat are your plans for the future? It’s weird because I can’t stop writing. I’m going through a period where I’m allowing myself to just soak in my emotions and I can feel my body prepare for a new body of work. This coming year, I’m going to India for two months for my cousin’s wedding. I’m going to start working on a novel, and maybe after that, a second collection. I think I’m ready to take certain poems from milk and honey and extract them into longer stories; I really feel like that will do the book justice. A lot of people ask when my second collection is coming, but poetry is a medium, and I feel like I’m creative in many different ways. Before I can go into a second collection that’s battling totally different things, I have to take some of these pieces in milk and honey and really put a narrative to them, and that’s when I‘ll feel at ease. I can feel it happening inside of me; I can actually feel it cooking. I’m just going to go into hiding for a few months and get it out.