Last month, the writer Rupi Kaur attended New York Fashion Week as a guest of Prabal Gurung, who was unveiling his latest line. The Nepalese-American designer is an admirer of Kaur's writing, and a black suit embroidered with Kaur's poem women of color closed his Spring 2017 collection: "our backs/ tell stories/ no books have/ the spine to/ carry." (Gurung slightly altered the text in the name of couture.)
When Kaur arrived at the event, she learned she was sitting in the front row, right next to Gloria Steinem, the co-founder of Ms. magazine.
Later, a star-struck Kaur posted a photo of the two of them to her Instagram feed, where she has 1.6 million followers, many of whom enthusiastically responded to the photo of the two feminist writers – one pioneering, one emerging – with a series of emojis and exclamation marks.
"There have rarely been any moments, in the past year-and-a-half, where I've had the time to just pause and sit," says Kaur, sitting in a Toronto coffee shop one afternoon last month, pausing to reflect on the encounter. "But when I was sitting there, next to Gloria, chatting with her, and we're waiting for all these supermodels to come out and do their thing, I was like, 'Whoa. Life is pretty insane, and I love it.'"
Rupi Kaur, who turned 25 this week, is, at this moment in time, probably the most popular Canadian writer in the world, and one of the most popular writers in the world, full stop.
Her first collection of poems, milk and honey, which she originally self-published in November, 2014, went on to sell approximately 1.5 million copies around the world – "Now two million," she says, without any trace of ego. "I just got told last week."
Well, then. The book sold two million copies around the world, was translated into more than 30 languages and has remained a mainstay of bestseller lists, including the one that appears in this paper. (It appears on The Globe and Mail's list once again this weekend.) It's not only that her simple, heartfelt, often-illustrated poems – adored by her readers, mocked by those who just don't get it – are wildly popular, but that Kaur has been responsible for ushering in the age of "Instapoets," such as Tyler Knott Gregson and Kaur's compatriot, the shadowy Atticus, and rejuvenating a genre that, let's be honest, had almost-zero cultural visibility. Krishna Nikhil, executive vice-president, print, and chief strategy officer at Indigo, told me that even if you take away Kaur's sales, the poetry category has "nearly doubled" in sales since she burst onto the scene. "Nobody could have predicted poetry being as big as it is right now."
Kaur's second collection, the sun and her flowers, went on sale on Tuesday. It is among the most-anticipated books of the year. She revealed its title, as well as the cover, in an Instagram post in July; Kaur appears naked, the white cover painted onto her back, a perfect metaphor for a writer whose work seems to lay her soul bare. It has garnered more than 150,000 likes, which, coincidentally, is the number of the first printing of the book in Canada, a mind-boggling large number for this country.
"In my over 30 years of publishing, I've seen all sorts of surprises … but no one would have anticipated that [she would] have taken on the world like this," says Kevin Hanson, president and publisher of Simon & Schuster Canada. "Her voice is resonating around the world like no other Canadian author we've ever seen before. I don't think there's a Canadian author who's seen this kind of response, globally, like this, at such a young age. There's nobody that comes to mind."
To put her success in context, one could probably add up the sales of every poetry collection published in Canada this century and fall short of two million.
The soft-spoken Kaur, for her part, is "thankful, and I think that's all I can be. Be thankful, have gratitude, realize how blessed I am. It always invigorates me to keep on writing. Because there are moments when you're like, 'Maybe I'm not meant for this. Maybe I'm supposed to be this one-hit wonder …'"
We're talking exactly two weeks before her book arrives in stores. Kaur tells me she's recently given up her Toronto apartment, as she's about to spend the next eight months, on and off, touring the new book, from the United States to Britain to India, where she was born, in Punjab in 1992. Her father, fleeing sectarian violence, left for Canada shortly after she was born; Kaur and her mother followed 3 1/2 years later. The family moved around – Montreal, Hamilton, Mississauga – before finally settling in Brampton, where her parents still live. Her family's history – and especially the sacrifices made by the women who came before her – are a constant theme of Kaur's work. The new book is dedicated to her parents, as well as her two younger sisters and brother.
She self-published milk and honey while she was a student in the English department at the University of Waterloo. She had built up an audience by sharing her poems, some of which dated back to high school, on social media – first Tumblr, then Instagram. The self-published edition of milk and honey sold more than 15,000 copies before it was acquired by a traditional publisher and rereleased.
Kaur calls milk and honey "the blessing of my life" but also looks at it, or at least parts of it, the same way one looks back on angsty poetry they'd written as a teen: "Sometimes I'll read certain pieces and I'm like, 'That's so embarrassing I wrote that. It needs to be edited like 500,000 times.'"
Much of the new book was written last fall and winter, while Kaur was living in a series of rentals in different cities along the California coast: San Diego, Oakland, San Francisco. She wrote in long, furious 12-hour stretches – she was determined to publish the book before she was 25, but she was also left "debilitated" by the pressure to live up to her first book.
"I came into the second book thinking, 'Now I have to write something that not only sells a million copies, and is on The New York [Times] bestsellers [list] for over 70-whatever weeks – how am I going to do that?' It was so much pressure that I couldn't even write anything for months. It was like having my hands tied behind my back. I would begin, and all that would play through my head is, 'You have publishers counting on you. You have an agent counting on you. You have an entire team that you are now supporting.' It would just leave me an emotional wreck. I would write one sentence and I'd be like, 'Oh my God, it's terrible! It's terrible! This is not going to sell two million copies. Rip it up!'"
The second book echoes the first; once again, her poems explore issues of love, and trauma, and family, and gender, and finding a place in the world. The poems themselves are plain – no capitalization, mostly untitled – but most are adorned with Kaur's clean line drawings, which some readers have tattooed on their bodies. Here's a poem called i love you from the new book:
i stop myself from
saying the words out loud
as if leaving my mouth too often
might wear them down
"No matter where I am, folks always tell me that 'You put the words to this feeling that I've always had, that I didn't really know how to define.' Everybody, everywhere, always tells me that," Kaur says.
Critics dismiss her work as unsophisticated – all right, it's doubtful she'll win the Griffin Poetry Prize – and there's been an increase in the number of articles assailing her work in recent weeks (sample headline: Instagram Poet Rupi Kaur Seems Utterly Uninterested In Reading Books) but she's trying to evolve as a writer; her experiences in the United States last year, witnessing the election and inauguration of the current President, has resulted in a more politically charged collection this time around, especially when it comes to issues around refugees and immigration. That said, she has no plans to abandon her American readers as she prepares for her global book tour.
"Am I going to go to the White House? No, I definitely will not do that. I need to definitely sit in a space with [the] people who've come to the events. We just need to laugh and smile and share some love, because I think everybody down there could use some of that right now."