Re­silience, wom­an­hood, and sur­vival

Rupi Kaur’s pow­er­ful po­etry reaches Mcgill crowd

The McGill Daily - - Culture - Khatira Mah­davi Cul­ture Writer

On March 10, some­thing rev­o­lu­tion­ary took place in the Stu­dents’ So­ci­ety of Mcgill Univer­sity (SSMU) Ball­room. So many cu­ri­ous minds were ea­ger to em­brace the po­etry and spo­ken word of a fe­male Pun­jabi artist, Rupi Kaur, that some had to be turned away at the door. The event aimed to cor­rect the un­der­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Black and Brown women as lead­ers and in­de­pen­dent artists. It did so suc­cess­fully; the over­whelm­ing crowd of ap­prox­i­mately 400 peo­ple was a true man­i­fes­ta­tion of how valu­able their work is. As a wo­man of colour, it is very rare that I get to ex­pe­ri­ence the thrill of see­ing my iden­tity rep­re­sented by an in­spi­ra­tional artist of colour in a dig­ni­fied way, so Kaur’s per­for­mance and the re­cep­tion of her poems was a tri­umph for me per­son­ally and for what seemed like an in­spired au­di­ence.

Based in Toronto, Kaur re­leased her first book of po­etry and prose, milk and honey, in 2014. Since then, she has been touring within Canada and in­ter­na­tion­ally to share her art with a broader au­di­ence. SSMU Eq­uity in­vited Kaur to host a night of po­etry, but she did much more, en­gag­ing the crowd in the themes of vi­o­lence, abuse, fem­i­nism, love, and iden­tity. Dur­ing the show, she per­formed three spo­ken word pieces: “bro­ken english,” “the art of grow­ing,” and “lib­er­a­tion” – all of which can be found on her Youtube chan­nel – as well as by read­ings of sev­eral poems from milk and honey. I sat in the crowd and my heart swelled as I wit­nessed this artist take the stage with bril­liance.

Kaur ex­plained the ti­tle of her book by re­fer­ring to the col­lec­tive strug­gle and heal­ing of the Pun­jabi women she iden­ti­fies with. milk and honey is used as an anal­ogy for the heart-sooth­ing method of brew­ing milk and honey to soothe ail­ments, which the artist noted to be a com­mon In­dian cul­tural prac­tice. Kaur’s po­etry is in­fused with themes of in­ter­sec­tional wom­an­hood and cel­e­brat­ing Brown iden­ti­ties, all of which res­onated deeply with me as an au­di­ence mem­ber.

The artist’s poem “wo­man of colour,” which she per­formed at the event, draws on this theme: “our backs / tell sto­ries / no books have / the spine to / carry.” In this work, Kaur ex­presses sol­i­dar­ity with other women of colour who carry the bur­dens of racism and sex­ism on their backs while mov­ing through their lives with grace and suc­cess. This type of ac­knowl­edge­ment of bur­dens and strug­gles is more com­monly geared toward white women, which is why the poem’s sen­ti­ment was es­pe­cially strik­ing to me, It felt re­fresh­ing to not only see a fe­male poet com­mem­o­rate women of colour and en­cour­age them to cel­e­brate their iden­ti­ties, but to see the poem re­ceive a warm re­cep­tion among the crowd.

Na­dine Ta­han, a Le­banese wo­man and a U3 Po­lit­i­cal Science stu­dent told The Daily at the event, “I ap­pre­ci­ated how the au­di­ence was mostly women of colour. It felt good to be sur­rounded by oth­ers who share sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences as you.”

It is im­por­tant to note that Kaur pur­pose­fully does not use cap­i­tal­iza­tion in her po­etry. She says it is a way of pay­ing homage to the writ­ten ver­sion of her mother tongue, Gur­mukho, which does not use cap­i­tal­iza­tion. De­vel­op­ing these themes of home­com­ing and cul­tural strug­gle, she per­formed the spo­ken word piece “bro­ken english.” The room grow­ing quiet, and mu­sic, which ac­com­pa­nied all of her spo­ken word pieces, filled the empty spa­ces be­tween au­di­ence mem­bers. The sound of bells cas­caded through the crowd as Kaur spoke about the lan­guage and cul­tural bar­ri­ers that first-gen­er­a­tion im­mi­grant mothers strug­gle with: “so how dare you mock your mother / when she opens her mouth and bro­ken english spills out / her ac­cent is thick like honey / hold it with your life / it’s the only thing she has left from home.”

Ex­pe­ri­enc­ing Kaur’s per­for­mance was cathar­tic for me be­cause so of­ten fem­i­nine ex­pres­sions are si­lenced and women of colour are of­ten robbed of op­por­tu­ni­ties to am­plify their voices, and yet here was a young Pun­jabi wo­man with jet-black hair slicked into a braid read­ing pro­mis­cu­ous po­etry to a crowd of 400. Aye­sha Tal­reja, an In­dian wo­man and U3 In­ter­na­tional Devel­op­ment Stud­ies stu­dent, was im­pressed with Kaur’s per­for­mance, but had crit­i­cism to spare. “[Kaur’s art] made me think [...] how [strug­gles of ] peo­ple of colour [...] within and out­side our com­mu­ni­ties are of­ten glossed over and sub­con­sciously or con­sciously made to fit for wider main­stream ac­cep­tance. I be­gan to think more about who is bur­dened with al­ways hav­ing to talk about race, iden­tity, fem­i­nin­ity, and mi­gra­tion, and won­dered why I ex­pected this [dis­cus­sion] from her. Just be­cause she is a fel­low wo­man of colour? Just be­cause she is a fel­low mi­grant?”

With her po­etry and spo­ken word, Kaur ad­vo­cates strongly for an open con­cept of fem­i­nin­ity, re­mind­ing women to ac­knowl­edge the strength in them­selves and each other, as she says in her book: “we all move for­ward when we rec­og­nize how re­silient and strik­ing the women around us are.” Kaur’s po­etry night was all about en­cour­ag­ing women of colour to rec­og­nize their beauty against ho­mog­e­nized and white­washed stan­dards. Kaur demon­strated the role of po­etry in en­gag­ing with the is­sues of fe­male re­silience and so­cial trans­gres­sion, and how cru­cial it is for these ideas to come from the mouth of a wo­man of colour. Her work is not a me­taphor­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of iden­tity and strug­gle, but stems from her lived ex­pe­ri­ences. Kaur’s po­etry and spo­ken word is proof of her sur­vival.

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