“Milk and Honey” has sold 2.5 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 25 languages. Over the last two years, it has spent 77 weeks on The New York Times Trade Paperback Best-Seller List. Her second book, “The Sun and Her Flowers,” was released this week and is No. 2 on Amazon’s best-seller list.
But Instagram is really where she publishes. Some of Ms. Kaur’s poems are just a line, like “i think my body knew you would not stay.” It lends itself to parody. Her themes don’t vary too much: heartache hurts, love heals, women are strong, loving yourself is key to most things. Her work has been criticized as “disingenuous,” and it’s true that Ms. Kaur stays remarkably on brand.
Ms. Kaur too has been accused of writing about experiences that she hasn’t had herself. Asked about this, she shrugged. “It’s so complicated,” she said. It’s also not, historically, a requirement for poetry. Writing poems is how she processes the news and the world around her, she said, and for what she hasn’t lived, she tries to understand.
The underlying message of all this criticism is that Ms. Kaur’s work isn’t “real literature.” The literary world doesn’t have a great track record of embracing or even acknowledging artists like Ms. Kaur, who are different in some notable way, but who attract an enormous and fervent audience.
This dynamic has cropped up recently with the writers Lang Leav (with whom Ms. Kaur shares a publisher) and Tao Lin. Like a Kathy Acker or even a Patti Smith before them, these writers also weren’t seen as important, largely because of their too-youthful or too-female readership.
“Critics might think that Kaur’s readership is young and female, so her work can’t be serious, which is obviously wrong,” said Matthew Hart, a professor of English and comparative literature Columbia University. “Her style doesn’t seem naïve.”
Art by women and art intended for women can be derided as common, popular and unsophisticated.
Jane Austen, Dr. Hart said, was “one of the most important figures in allowing us to get over the idea that the ordinary business of ordinary young women’s lives can’t be the topic of important art.”
But Austen died 200 years ago. Ms. Kaur’s work reminds us that the ordinary business and experience of millennial minority women is not to be dismissed.
I spoke with dozens of Ms. Kaur’s fans and critics, most of them young women. Those who dislike her work agree with enthusiasts that she’s addressing weighty issues like violence, sexual assault and trauma in a way that is admirable.
“We’re best friends and we’ve been apart for two years, but we’d send each other her poems on Instagram when one of us was feeling down or lonely,” said Katharina Gadow, 28, who attended Ms. Kaur’s reading with a friend who had just moved to New York.
For Shannon Donnelly, 24, “Milk and Honey” was “sometimes difficult to read” because she has struggled with depression and anxiety. Ultimately, reading the book was like “working through my pains with a therapist,” she said.
Ms. Kaur has “hit the nail on the head in every single way,” said Tiffany Praimnath, 19. “Guyanese culture is reminiscent of Indian culture to me, especially how men treat women, and I think because Rupi’s of Indian ancestry, that really resonated.”
Many fans told me they share her poems with friends via Instagram or screen shots sent as texts, as encouragement or as a way to let Ms. Kaur’s work speak for them. Ms. Kaur becomes permission and voice both, a reminder and a vehicle that they have every right to speak, even when they are made to feel like they should be silent. Organizations including the National Eating Disorders Association, Moms Can Code, and Curvy Girls Scoliosis all broadcast Ms. Kaur’s work on social media as encouragement, solidarity or motivation.
Two chapters of her new book were written after Donald J. Trump’s inauguration. In them she tells the story of her family. Poems about her ancestors and her mother’s bravery in leaving Punjab read as thank-you notes.
“I wonder what it was like for my mom,” Ms. Kaur said. “How the hell did she pick up, move and do that all by herself?”
The gratitude she feels to her parents for working hard and giving her the opportunity to get an education will resonate with children of immigrants. It’s hard to ignore the power of such work in a moment when the White House pushes for mass deportations of people like Ms. Kaur’s family. Her father, Suchet Singh, arrived in Canada as a refugee in the early 1990s.
On Monday, when asked about Ms. Kaur’s work, her mother just smiled. Her father said that he also had no words to describe how proud he and his wife are of their daughter, but he did say: “She’s following her soul’s purpose.”
After stumbling upon Ms. Kaur’s work on Tumblr nearly three years ago, Rijoota Gupte, a fan of the writers Jhumpa Lahiri and Khaled Hosseini, couldn’t stop thinking about Ms. Kaur’s words.
“Rupi’s not like other writers, and that’s exactly why I like her,” she said. Her mother was beside her.
“She’s thought-provoking in a different way, and she opened my eyes to issues not normally talked about in Indian families — things like abuse, violence towards women, trauma,” Ms. Gupte said. “Her poems are important to South Asian women like me. She’s breaking into this industry that doesn’t represent people who look like her — who look like me.”
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