Rupi Kaur On the Power of Empathy, Honesty, And Storytelling
Success stories

Rupi Kaur On the Power of Empathy, Honesty, And Storytelling

“Writing was saving me and it was giving me a voice I feel like I didn’t have growing up. I became so hooked on it that I was doing it every single day. It was funny because most kids were partying and not studying, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m not going to study, I’m going to write some poetry.’” – Rupi Kaur

Who is Rupi Kaur? 

Rupi Kaur is a poet, artist, and performer. Born in Punjab, India, Rupi immigrated with her parents to Canada at the age of four. At just 28 years old, her work has taken the literary world by storm.

While studying in university, Rupi wrote, illustrated and self-published her debut poetry collection, “milk and honey.” In the years since, it has become an international phenomenon and landed as a New York Times #1 bestseller. Its artistic sibling, “the sun and her flowers,” was published in 2017 and debuted as a #1 global bestseller. 

Rupi’s words on love, loss, trauma, healing, and femininity continue to inspire and connect readers from all around the world. Recently, she released her widely anticipated third poetry collection, “home body,” a reflective and intimate journey that visits the past, present, and potential of the self.

Her books have sold over 8 million copies, and have been translated into over 40 languages. She’s toured the world performing, hosted writing workshops, and has been featured on Forbes 30 under 30 list, and BBC’s 100 Women in 2017. 

In this original interview with Sophia Amoruso from 2017, Rupi sits down to chat about her family’s migration, artistic storytelling, the meaning of success, and the importance of having honest dialogues with yourself. Enjoy the conversation!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On Rupi’s childhood in India

I spent close to four years there. Everybody always tells me I grew up amongst so much love. There’s this saying that when you grow up in a rural village, a village raises a child. There was always somebody—a grandfather, a cousin, an aunt, an uncle, or a neighbor scooping you up, feeding you, and loving you.

In my earlier childhood, I didn’t have to share my mom with any other sibling yet. I later went on to have three siblings. I grew up mostly around my mom’s side of the family. My dad was a refugee so I never got to spend the first couple years of my life with him. When I was born, he wasn’t there. When my dad left India, my mom left his side of the family to live with her own parents. Usually what happens in an Indian household is when a man and woman get married, the woman leaves her family to live with her in-laws. Because my dad had gone, she went to live with her parents, which is a really rebellious thing to do, and not very common at all. 

On migrating to Canada

When my dad got citizenship for the family in Canada, we joined him in Montreal. I think that’s where the juxtaposition began—that’s when things started to switch for me on the inside. I grew up in a place where there were so many people around, where the weather was always warm, where there was so much love, and rich color. And then suddenly, you land in a place in the dead of winter, with this unfamiliar person coming to greet you. And as a child, you’re crying because you feel like you’ve left what you knew as a father, aka my grandfather behind, yet there was this entirely different man there calling himself my father. My dad and I started butting heads right away. But now, we’re able to have more dialogue than we used to. When I was in Montreal, my sister was born. Then we moved to Toronto, and then another sister was born. I have a younger brother as well.

On Rupi’s relationship with her parents

My dad is a truck driver—he still is. For the majority of my life, he did long-distance driving across the continent from Montreal to Texas or California. He would be home maybe once a week, so my mom was raising us like a single mom. When he was around, he was so exhausted. My mom would shush up the kids when he was sleeping. He did that driving for at least ten years. He’s still driving now, but only for two days at a time. What happens is they miss so much. 

My mom was always around. Even though she’s a stay at home mom, I’m in awe of all that she’s done. There are days where she’ll question what she has accomplished over these past 25 years. She’ll tell herself, “I didn’t do anything, I didn’t even learn the language. I can’t operate a phone, I can’t even use the laptop, I can’t do any of those things.” She calls herself stupid and that always makes me cry. It inspired so much of my second book. She has to take ownership and responsibility for that. If it weren’t for the things she’s done, God knows where I would be right now.

She was holding it down and managing a household. It’s interesting because in every generation before her, motherhood looked different. You would raise your babies with your sisters and your mother in law around with you—there was so much help. There wasn’t a rulebook for how to do it all by yourself, and she did it with such strength. Now as an adult, I’m reflecting on that. So much of our teenage years are spent fighting our parents but now I’m at the complete opposite end. I’ve seen what the sacrifices have done to them emotionally, mentally, and physically. I’m just a crybaby all the time now, asking how I can give them everything.

What does it feel like to have your parents be proud of you?

They’re so proud but it’s so hilarious. Not all Indian people are like this, so I can’t speak for all of them, but my family and the families around me are not very affectionate, especially between parents and children. My dad will never say I’m proud of you. We’ve never even said I love you to each other, but I know he’s so proud. Because what happens is, when I pull up at the grocery store and get in line, the nice lady knows all about me and my book from my dad. When I go to the bank, the bank tellers know everything about my life. It’s hilarious. I tell everyone I think my dad secretly walks around with a stash of my books.

Is there anything you’ve ever written that upset your parents?

They haven’t pointed anything out specifically. My parents are interesting; my dad gets my work on a conceptual level, whereas my mom is afraid of what my dad might think. When I first showed her “milk and honey,” for some reason, the book would always open up to page number 11. And it’s this line illustration of a woman with her legs sort of spread open, and the poem is right in her crotch. My mom looked at me, and in a very nice tone (because I don’t handle authority well) asked if the drawing was necessary. Growing up, whenever I’d have illustrations of nude women, she would come into my room and turn them around because she was worried my dad would see it. My dad wouldn’t really care. 

On Rupi’s introduction to art

What was your first artistic memory?

The first memory I have of doing anything artistic was when we moved to the city of Hamilton. I was five years old, and we lived in an apartment building where my parents became friends with an old couple upstairs. The auntie and the uncle would come down and they would spend time with me. She would bring down her Indian suits with sequins and beads, and we would make elaborate elephants, tigers, animals and portraits, and decorate them with these sequins and beads. That eventually evolved into my mom helping me draw. 

On figuring out career paths in high school and college

Visual art for me was like my therapy. I’ve been doing it since I was a kid, and I focused on it throughout high school, but I only saw it ever as a hobby. When it came to career stuff, there was a time I wanted to either be a psychologist, or a human rights lawyer—until I suddenly fell in love with fashion. For three years of high school, I dropped sciences and math, and I focused on making gowns and preparing my fashion portfolio full-time.

I was actually going to apply to fashion school but my dad told me I’d fail miserably. And so I thought he must be right. Instead, I applied to the University of Waterloo which was far away from home. It also offered co-op so it could help pay for school. I started this economics and arts degree, and a year into it, I dropped the economics part and went straight into rhetoric studies. It was the best decision because it prepared me for everything I do today. I studied visual design, visual rhetoric, everything from print media to print and design.

On discovering a passion for performance poetry

The first time I hit the stage to perform was when I was 17 years old; it was in grade 12. I performed throughout university, but it was really in 2012-2013 that I was taking poetry seriously. I suddenly stopped focusing on the art, and I felt guilty because I felt like I was cheating on my first love because I’d found a partner who was now suddenly sexier and louder. Poetry and performance are like that—you get on this stage, you hear your voice booming throughout an audience, and you get instant gratification because all these eyes are looking up at you, and they’re listening. Whereas for visual art, I’d be at an exhibit, and my art was on a wall doing the talking for me.

On combining poetry with visual art

I felt very guilty that I’d let go of visual art. In 2013, I asked myself, how do I marry these two things, so I don’t leave one of them behind? Can I use one to push another further? That’s when I developed the digital illustration look that I began to share.

On sharing her earliest works on Tumblr

When you start posting your poetry online on Tumblr? Did you incorporate your illustrations on it? And why did you post it anonymously?

I did it anonymously for a couple of years from 2011-2013, and it wasn’t even a conversation. For me, it was like, ‘Why would I ever put my name on my art?’ Before it became digital, if you go back through my older posts on my original blog, a lot of the poetry and illustration pairing that I’ve done was drawn by hand. It’s interesting when you look back to see how things developed over the years. 

I approached my best friend who lived with me in college, and I shared this poem about this woman in a violent domestic relationship. I told her I wanted to share it but wasn’t sure if I should put my name on it. She thought it was important for people to see how I look because it says so much about why I was writing about what I was writing about. Domestic abuse is so rampant in my community. She kind of made that decision for me, and so I created a new blog that did have my name.

Did you mean to grow an audience by sharing your work online? 

I didn’t really mean to grow an audience. At that point, writing was saving me and it was giving me a voice I feel like I didn’t have growing up. I became hooked onto it, and I was doing it every single day. It was funny because most kids were partying and not studying, and I was like, yeah, I’m not going to study, I’m going to write some poetry. And so, I didn’t really mean to grow an audience, but it started to slowly develop. It was about sharing and having conversation and Tumblr was great for that.

On creating a visual universe on Instagram

How did you switch to Instagram in 2014?

I love making things look nice. When I buy something, the packaging is so important, so all these desires that I have for how things look couldn’t be done on Tumblr. I was designing everything on Illustrator to make things look a certain way, but I couldn’t fully express it on Tumblr, and so I switched to Instagram. When I realized that this is a platform where I can fully decide how I want things to look, I could create a whole visual universe that was appealing to me. 

The only people following me were 114 of my closest family, friends and acquaintances. Because a lot of people weren’t posting poetry on Instagram at that time, it was a little bit confusing. But it started a conversation and so many women were suddenly reaching out and having a dialogue in the comments section. It just slowly started to grow since then.

On getting off social media 

Is it true that you don’t have social media apps on your phone? 

It is. I had them for so long it became difficult to step outside of that, especially when I wrote my second book. There was so much pressure to write a follow-up. I never imagined a universe where I was going to be a quote unquote, author. When I went to write the second book, there was all this pressure of creating another bestseller. That’s a good problem to have. But it was so much for me to handle, because I was 23/24 years old, trying to figure out how to do it again, not knowing how I did it the first time because I didn’t mean to. 

I only ever wrote and released “milk and honey” because I needed to do it at that specific moment to save my life. It ended up snowballing into something I didn’t plan for. I would end up on Instagram or Twitter scrolling and reading stuff about me, and that would start to influence my work. That’s when I decided I needed to delete social media off my phone. It wasn’t fair to me, and it wasn’t fair to the readers who find so much joy in my work. I’ve been trying to figure out what made “milk and honey” as successful as it was, and I realized that it was because I was so honest with myself. The only way to have that sort of success again was to have that honest dialogue with myself. And I couldn’t have it if I was letting other peoples’ opinions impose themselves on me. 

I feel like when you’re scrolling through your feed all day, your head is full of information. I am a strong believer that when you wake up in the morning, you’re only capable of making so many decisions in a day.  If you spend the first four hours of your day just scrolling along and filling your brain up with information, you’ll be exhausted. When you’re creative, it’s so important to wake up and feel like you have this blank canvas to do whatever the hell you want. Because it proved to work so well, I continued to not have social media apps on my phone.

On the inspiration behind her books

It’s not 100% autobiographical; a lot of it is taken from the experiences of the people around me, the people that I grew up with, the stories I listened to, and the stories that I share. It’s a sort of like communal storytelling for me. Growing up, I’ve always been deeply empathetic to a fault. Everybody would say I would literally cry on demand. If I saw anything that was remotely sad, it would just shatter me into pieces. And so when I have conversations with people, I feel so much of it, and for me to get that out, I write and sometimes it turns into stuff you read in the book. 

On managing a business

How do you balance the business side of your creative practice?

I’ve never seen it as a challenge up until probably now because it’s been so exciting. I’m so lucky that I get to do something that I love. I feel so blessed because I recognize that not many people have that opportunity. I think it goes back to what I stand for, and what I want to sell. My company is built around that. It goes back to the poetry and what that stands for, and making decisions based off of that. Maybe it has negative effects on the business in terms of bringing in more revenue. To be honest, we say no to 98% of opportunities. But we do that, because we really want to stand by my message, my story, and where I come from. I think that’s okay, because it gives me space to create and write more books and make up for it in other ways. I think that’s a beautiful thing. 

Sometimes that’s challenging when you’re feeling like a CEO and a businesswoman. I love business and making decisions, I love talking strategy and growth, but above all else, I love being an artist. I think I’m very lucky because my team is so strong, and they’re so rooted. I want to build a career as an author and to stick around for the next 50 years. Sustainable, happiness and satisfaction are so important because we know that if they don’t exist, we won’t be growing for the next 30-40 years.

On staying true to your values

When I was publishing the book, “the sun and her flowers,” my agent told me it was going to be in hardcover and sell for $30. I was super excited at first because hardcovers are so beautiful and seemed so legit. But $30 is a lot. $30 for a kid who might have grown up how I grew up, or even worse, won’t have access to this book. And so we had to make that tough decision that probably made a big dent in revenue, but it felt right for me. It answered the questions of where I came from, and what I am supporting.

I was very adamant about wanting a paperback release, and I want it to be $20 bucks, Barnes and Noble or whoever else is going to discount it for 40% off, and you can get your hands on it for $9 to $15. It took months to get done because that’s just not how books work. Books are always released in hardcover. 

I asked my agent, Suzanne, why books have to be in hardcover. And she said that’s just the way it works. Historically, they would come out in hardcover so the elite would have access to them. They would be able to read these books and pass them within their circles. After a year, the cheaper paperback would be released to the masses. If your book doesn’t come out in hardcover first, the literary world doesn’t take you so seriously. That’s an awful reason to continue to do this, I thought.

On performing live 

I love being on stage, it’s so much fun. What everybody tells me is that it’s like going to a concert, but it’s also like going to a comedy show because I’m cracking jokes all the time. I do that because I’m sharing such heavy work. It’s also like sitting in a bedroom with your girlfriends at a sleepover, talking shit, crying at 4 am, and then just laughing around. I open my show up with a spoken word piece with accompanying music, and then I open my book and I’ll read selected poems from chapter 1. I’ll break with another musical piece and then read chapter 2. Storytelling is laced in between—it’s a journey. 

Whereas Instagram helped create a visual universe for me, performing on stage is the full experience. People are laughing and crying, I’m laughing and I’m crying. I feel like the most powerful version of myself when I’m up there. I think every single person in that room feels the same way because I perform based on the energy they feed me. A show usually lasts an hour and a half, but if the crowd is wild, I will be up there for two hours. 

On overcoming writer’s block

Where do you find inspiration when you have writer’s block?

I usually go out and talk to people. Connecting with people is what inspires me. It’s so funny because sometimes you get it while you’re waiting for a bus at the bus stop or you’re with your Uber driver. That’s usually where my inspiration comes from. 

On first jobs

There’s this place called Tim Hortons, which is like the nicer version of Dunkin’ Donuts—it’s literally a part of Canadian culture. I started pouring coffees there in 10th grade, and I did that for a couple of months. It was amazing because I felt so independent. I went through a whole spiral of odd jobs: being a telemarketer, selling cable door to door for a couple of years. It was ridiculous.

Is there anything you learned from those experiences that you’ve taken into your writing or your tours?

I learned that you have to work really hard for your dreams. Especially in that one job where I was knocking on doors all day selling cable, and being chased by dogs. I never take things for granted now. I have to work hard for the next thing because I want the dreams to grow and to expand.

On the meaning of success

It’s two things: happiness and the ability to do what you love the most. You could have all of the money, awards, and accolades in the world, and still not be successful. I learned early on that fulfillment comes from inside. I think that we always have to fight for our time, our space, our emotional well-being, and our mental health. When we do that we’ll be at a happier place.

On acts of self care

Recently, I realized that I actually have the power to say no. So many things come our way and saying no is so liberating. I always walk out of that conversation feeling awesome. 

Sometimes I give myself a nice face massage when I can’t get one. It’s only three minutes during the morning. I like lathering all my moisturizer and making myself feel good. It’s those little things that make me feel prepared for the day. 

Follow Rupi on Instagram at @rupikaur_ and Twitter at @rupikaur_.

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Rupi’s stage performances are magnetic musical interactions of poetry, art and theater. Witness her poetry reading from the Girlboss 2019 rally.