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Ottawa (AFP) – Whether it’s an altercation with Instagram over a photo of menstrual blood or pushing to ban her books from American schools, Canadian poet Rupi Kaur has been banging heads with would-be censors ever since burst onto the world literary scene.
Born in Punjab, Kaur, the best-known of a new generation of so-called “Instapoets”, shot to fame with her self-published debut collection of writings in 2014.
Sexual violence, mental health, immigration, no subject is taboo for the 29-year-old, and her candor has earned her a devoted online fan base, with some 4.5 million followers on Instagram.
But his no-holds-barred approach isn’t to everyone’s taste – and lobby groups in several US states, including Texas and Oregon, have banned or are seeking to ban his first book, “Milk and Honey,” in schools and libraries.
“It breaks my heart that parents and lawmakers are trying to ban this book,” she said in an AFP interview after a performance in Ottawa, where she presented her latest book, “Home Body.” to a predominantly female audience.
She sees the ban as a refusal to consider “the sexual assault and violence suffered by a young woman”.
“But it’s a bigger issue. We’re getting into this territory where we’re banning culture and expression.”
Quiet teenager, loud poet
Born in northeast India, Kaur immigrated to Canada at the age of four with her Sikh parents and grew up in a suburb of Toronto.
“I grew up going to protests and talking about revolution and human rights at our table. And that has always been a common thread in my work,” she said.
The eldest of four children, the “quiet and shy” teenager found her voice through poetry, which allowed her “to be as loud as I wanted to be”.
Admiring the poems of the Lebanese-American bard Khalil Gibran, Kaur writes her own experiences in the first person, without capitals, in a nod to her mother tongue, Punjabi.
Proud of her roots, she regrets that “there are not enough women of color represented in publishing and the media”. But she finds her inspiration in the news itself.
“My poetry is a response to what is happening in my world,” she explains.
“Seeing Roe’s overturning of Wade angered me on a whole new level,” she said of the landmark 1973 US Supreme Court ruling on the right to abortion, currently under review.
“I try to write something that sums up my feelings about it, but it’s so infuriating that I couldn’t quite create the piece I wanted.”
From her ‘Milk and Honey’ collection to her second book ‘The Sun and Her Flowers’, Kaur has sold over 10 million copies and her works have been translated into over 40 languages.
Thousands of people flock to his spoken word performances, also buying his books and memorabilia such as t-shirts and temporary tattoos.
“Last night I did a show in Chicago talking about mental health and abuse and surviving all of that. And there’s over 2,000 people in the audience… tuning in and telling me how we’re not alone in our experiences of anxiety and depression. I think that’s pretty cool,” she told AFP.
Her feud with Instagram over a photo of her lying on her back, her sweatpants stained with menstrual blood, arguably won her more admirers, as the image and her scathing response to her removal from the site social media went viral.
Kaur’s poems “are not very complex, the figures of speech are not very sophisticated, but maybe that’s exactly what audiences like,” said Stephanie Bolster, professor of creative writing at the University. Concordia in Montreal.
Her simple, short poems aren’t “intimidating” and her “accessible” style attracts new readers to the medium, she said.
This is the case of Christine Blair, a 27-year-old nurse for whom the world of Kaur was “a gateway” to poetry.
Addressing topics such as rape and relationships, Kaur is “very vulnerable and I love that about her,” Blair said at the National Arts Center show in Ottawa that kicked off a world tour.
Kaur, wearing a leopard-print skirt, tells the audience before sharing personal anecdotes and memories of an uprooted childhood: “Why not jump on my therapist’s favorite topic, my mental health.”
© 2022 AFP