Well Said Podcast | March 3

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Heather Reisman:
Hi, I’m Heather Reisman, and this is Well Said, a podcast on the art and science of living well. This podcast is brought to you by Indigo. Today’s episode is hosted by Shivani Persad, a wonderfully curious journalist and a fellow booklover.

Rupi Kaur:
For me, the personal is always political, and the poetry and activism go hand-in-hand.

Shivani Persad:
That’s Rupi Kaur, a Punjabi-Canadian poet, artist, and performer. Her first two books, milk and honey and the sun and her flowers, have sold more than eight million copies and have been translated into over 40 languages. Her latest book, home body, was released in November of 2020. Rupi's poems are breathtakingly honest and raw.

These are poems that grab you and pull you in immediately. Many are bite-sized, perfect for sharing across Instagram, where she's built up a fanbase of over four million followers. But their impact is anything but small. She writes about trauma and loss, but also about healing, growth, love, activism, and the beauty and resilience of relationships between women.

We are delighted to have the wonderful Rupi Kaur with us today. Rupi, welcome to Well Said.

Rupi Kaur:
Thank you so much. That's such a warm introduction.

Shivani Persad:
Good. I'm glad you feel good.

Rupi Kaur:
I do. I feel really good. And it's an honour to be here chatting with you.

Shivani Persad:
We're so happy to have you. So we just kind of want to start with a simple question. Where does a poem start for you?

Rupi Kaur:
It starts with a feeling within an experience. My poetry is a reflection of conversations and experiences of life. And they always start to write themselves inside of me first. And I feel that one of the last stages of writing is actually me approaching my desk, approaching my journal, and writing it down. That’s where it starts. It's so much about being present and being connected to the body, so that I can feel when it's time to write it down.

Shivani Persad:
One way I would describe your writing is that your writing is very vulnerable. How did you develop your voice?

Rupi Kaur:
I agree with you. I'm very vulnerable, and I do lay myself bare, and I do put it all out there. And I think the reason that it's so easy for me to do that is because for years, before I ever released or shared anything online, I was already doing that in my private life. I've always written this type of very raw and vulnerable work throughout my childhood and throughout my teenage years.

So when it came time to sharing that work, I was sharing it first under a pseudonym during my Tumblr days. There was nothing really different about it. It was kind of like, oh, I'm just doing what I've always been doing. And even if I wasn't an author now and I wasn't sharing my work publicly, I would be just as vulnerable and raw. And actually I have to for my published work, I feel like I need to hold it back. And there's lots of things I wrote while writing home body that I'm like, “No, I'm not ready to give that away yet. So I'm just going to keep it.”

I think that I'm able to do that because I never intended to become an author. Poetry as a career, like who does that? And so because I had no intention of performing and doing all those things and writing—which is something that I loved and it was a tool for my self-healing—it was easy to be vulnerable. And I think that now that I do publish and do share with so many people, my mind is in denial that so many people read it. Because it's too much to digest the fact that they do.

Shivani Persad:
And you say that it was easy for you to be vulnerable, but for a lot of people that can be really difficult. So I was wondering, what advice would you give to a young person struggling to find their own voice?

Rupi Kaur:
I would say for artists who are trying to find their voice, I mean, your voice is there. It's inside of you. You're not going to find it by running around out there. You have to go inward. And if it helps, write what you are most afraid of writing, and write like nobody else is going to read it. And that's when I feel that your inner self will really be vulnerable. And it’s a practice, you know. I go through months where it's hard to be vulnerable and it's hard to tell the truth, but then you sort of work through it and you do get to that place. And so the voice is there. It's about pausing. It's about sitting still and really allowing it to come out—and not getting in the way, not editing, not deleting, not revising yourself, not censoring your innermost thoughts.

Shivani Persad:
You briefly said before that it's about you really feel so connected to your body. Can you tell me, what do you do to feel present and connected to your body?

Rupi Kaur:
I feel like there is a version of me before milk and honey and then there's a version of me after, because after milk and honey I experienced a very dark period of depression and anxiety where I felt completely disconnected. That’s when writing became difficult, because I felt that in order to survive, in order to continue touring in the schedule that I was touring at, I had to disassociate. I had to cut off my connection to my body in order to sustain what I felt like I needed to give the world. And writing was so hard. I thought that I would never be able to write the sun and her flowers.

I was convinced, in 2019 November, I had given up writing home body and I was, “All right. Who's going to point me to the nearest private desert island where I can hide in a cave for the rest of my life? Because I genuinely, every cell in my body feels like I cannot do this.” And that's when I was like, “Okay. We need to take it slowly. And I really need to start to tackle the depression and tackle the anxiety, and work on this connection with myself.” And actually, I was seeing therapists. I was doing all the things.

But the one good thing the pandemic brought me was that it forced me to sit still, because I don't think I would have ever stayed at home for a couple of months. I was meditating every day. I was writing, I had rituals, I had routines, and they were really working for me. Of course, there were lots of tough moments in quarantine as well. But something happened in the shower. It was like this feeling where I could feel my physical body and my mind sort of merge together and come together like this again. And it was the wildest feeling.

Right now I'm experiencing so much quarantine fatigue because, oh my God, it's the same thing every single day. But it really does force you to be present and find joy within the hard stuff.

[music]

Shivani Persad:
You mentioned activism. And again that's something you don't shy away from in any of the books—especially with what's happening right now in India. So I wanted to ask you, what role does activism play in your life?

Rupi Kaur:
It’s always played such a huge role, I think.

My dad has been taking me to protests since I was five years old. I couldn't even read and this man—we were standing in front of the Indian Consulate—he's forcing me to hold these signs. I can't even read it. And I'm just there. So a five-year-old, like, “Yeah, human rights abuses are bad!” And I don’t even know.

And then he would write speeches for me and put me in speech competitions. I think it all just goes back to the fact that so much of the Punjabi-Sikh community in southern Ontario are here in Canada because of a direct result of the human rights abuses we faced back home, the 1984 Sikh genocide and the decade of state-sponsored violence that followed.

And my dad had to flee India because of that violence. He was targeted for being a Sikh man, and he was able to escape before they were able to hurt him. And we then joined him three-and-a-half years later. And so because it sort of just then goes down, we grew up hearing these stories. We know people who are still locked away in jails back home without any due process. We are still under attack by the Indian state.

And so activism has always played a huge role in my art because actually my poetry came from my activism. So in high school, I became a community organizer within the Sikh and Punjabi spaces. And during my community work, that's when I was introduced to spoken-word poetry. And that's where I was first given a stage to perform. And so while we were talking about female infanticide or farmer suicide, that was 10 years ago, I would organize the events but then also write a poem to express my ideas. So both of those things really went hand-in-hand.

I think that for me, the personal is always political, and the poetry and activism go hand-in-hand.

Shivani Persad:
When you first wrote milk and honey, you were still a student at the University of Waterloo. So what was the creative process like at that time?

Rupi Kaur:
I feel like when you're like 17, 18, 19, 20, I felt like I could take the world on. I was like, “Who's going to get in my way? Let me show you.” And it was maybe it's that environment where you're surrounded, you're at university, you're living the life. Like as a brown girl, you're finally away from your parents and your community. Nobody's there to judge you. It's great, you know? And it's like this amazing—adulthood still hasn't hit you in the face yet. And I thrived off that energy. I was full course load, part-time jobs. I was a part of so many club committees, execs here or there. And then I was performing on the weekends, traveling. And I lived off of that.

And I think that just being around that energy, being around so many students was a huge inspiration, because you're constantly surrounded by fresh ideas. And I lived with my best friends. So every night, nobody slept. We would spend hours talking about everything. Talking about boys. Talking about the guys who cheated on us and the guys who played us. And it all went into milk and honey. And so I think it was so effortless to write that.

And then I lost all that community upon graduation. You step out into the real world. Everybody goes their separate ways. I was suddenly traveling all the time. I went from being surrounded by my friends 12 hours a day, every single day for years, to not seeing my friends for months. And that loneliness, really I thought that I'd never be able to write again. It was to the point where I was like, “Oh my god, should I enroll in my Masters so I can be surrounded by students again and maybe that'll help?” And I didn't do that, but I realized, “Oh, community is a big inspiration to me.”

Shivani Persad:
How have your relationships with women shaped who you are today?

Rupi Kaur:
They've saved my life in so many ways. I’d always had a very, very small group of friends, but they're like they're my sisters.

When we were in middle school, we would talk about the sexual violence we experience and the domestic violence that the women, the aunts, and moms in our life were experiencing from their husbands. And those are conversations we were having in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. And those conversations used to be whispers to each other at recess, until we went on to high school and we continued to talk about those.

And then it turned into, as the girls started dating, the conversations turned to now the violence that we were experiencing from brothers and cousins and boyfriends, and that sort of thing.

And so the conversations, or the poems and the themes that I discuss in my poetry, those have been the topics that I've discussed since I was a little girl.

And then the women I met in my activism circles, who get in and believe(??), those were the women who saw this version of me before I ever did. So they were the women who were putting me on, saying, “You need to perform, here. It's not enough that the people at this event saw you. Now we need to record a video and put it on the Internet.” They forced me to make Facebook pages and Instagram pages. And I was like, “Eww, that's so weird,” because I was always the behind-the-scenes person and suddenly they were pushing me to the forefront. And I would say that without their support, I would not be here, because they were my guiding light. And so I really owe those women everything.

Shivani Persad:
When you talk about your community, especially in, I would say, all three of these books, you do a brilliant job of talking about how your community has hurt you but also about all the wonderful positive aspects of it. So how do you balance all that your community has given you with everything that it's taken away?

Rupi Kaur:
Right. Well, I think that, well, there's always this fear, right, that you don't want to talk about the bad bits because you never want to throw your community under the rug. Especially when there's such little representation of your community that you're like, “Okay. If I have a platform, I can't say a negative thing because I don't want to paint them in this way.” But I think I've tried to do it in a way where I've never said all of them are like this or all of us are like that. Because you could never make that statement about any community, and every community has their positives and negatives. And so I sort of explore that. And I think it all goes back to those negatives really are rooted in misogyny and rooted in patriarchy. And that's what we're trying to, at the end of the day, dismantle.

I think it's really important to also write down and document especially our parents’ stories. My dad's a refugee; my mom and me are immigrants. I think I feel the pressure to document their stories and my experience as a first-generation immigrant, because if we don't do it, we're the only generation that can do that. After us, those first-generation stories, those immigrant stories, not that they're gone but the sources will be gone. I often think about I'm from here but I also don't fully feel like I'm from here; I'm from there but I'm also not fully from there. And what does that mean? I feel at home everywhere and nowhere. And so I think that's very specific to immigrant stories. And I love exploring that.

Shivani Persad:
Your poetry also speaks to the immigrant experience. There are so many anecdotes. The one about your father working as a truck driver, that felt so vivid. Can you expand a bit on why it's important for you to include those stories of migration in your work?

Rupi Kaur:
I felt the need to include those stories because I saw the way that so many essential workers were so ignored during the beginning of the pandemic. And I was thinking about whose bodies were on the line to feed people who had the resources to afford getting delivery and takeout every single day, and pay for private doctors, et cetera, et cetera. There was one particular article, I believe in The New York Times, about folks who were working with Uber Eats and just delivering food. And all of them were immigrants. So many of them were people of colour.

And it just really broke my heart. I've seen how my father has really given his body and his entire life to feeding us, in a job that wasn't kind to him. Him and I, because he was also not working for quite some time during quarantine, he shared so many stories with me. I really wanted to write about those stories in the book. When he first came here, he had to work for free for so many truck companies, and how he was abused by bosses, and how there was nowhere for these new immigrants to go to have their voices heard.

Shivani Persad:
I would love to talk about the fact that you have a whole section of this book on rest. I would love to know, how has your relationship to rest and productivity changed over the last year?

Rupi Kaur:
I used to be such a productivity junkie. I feel that's always been me. Maybe it comes from—and I write about that—I don't know where I get it from. I think it's seeing my parents work nonstop, like never take a day off, mixed with the capitalistic nature of the society we live in.

Also, I think there's a lot of trauma that I experienced and didn't have access to therapy or resources. So working, working, working became my way of like running away from all that. And I hated having a minute to relax because that's when the bad thoughts would come up. And I was like, “No, no, no, no, no. Stuff them away. Okay, work, work, work.” And then I think it started to become a problem in the last couple of years, because it became really hard to work at that pace because of the depression. There would be weeks where I couldn’t get out of bed. And then when that happened, I would punish myself even more.

Then I realized, “Oh my god, I'm addicted to being productive. But that's not necessarily a good thing because it's a rat race that nobody wins. This issue has nothing to do with what I'm trying to create on the outside, and I really need to tackle what it is that I'm running from and how I want to function as a human being.” So I think that the pandemic, and the pause and the stillness of the pandemic, really forced me to find the language for it.

It's been language that I've been trying to find for a very long time. But within the stillness, I was finally, finally able to find it. I think what really helped was realizing that play is just as productive as work, and balance is the most productive thing that you can do for yourself.

Shivani Persad:
It's all about the balance.

And so before we wrap up, can I ask you to read something in honour of International Women's Day?

Rupi Kaur:
Can you hear the women who came before me?

Five hundred thousand voices ringing through my neck as if this were all a stage built for them.

I can't tell which parts of me are me and which parts are them.

Can you see them taking over my spirit, shaking out of my limbs to do everything they couldn't do when they were alive?

[music]

Shivani Persad:
So we just have a few fun questions we like to ask people at the end of every episode. What book changed your life?

Rupi Kaur:
That's so hard. The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. It's a collection of 20 poems that I feel I've been obsessed with since I was young and will continue to be obsessed with forever. It’s so good.

Shivani Persad:
What are you reading right now?

Rupi Kaur:
I am reading this book called Heavy by Kiese Laymon. I might be pronouncing his name wrong. It's an amazing memoir. I'm almost done. He's such a brilliant writer.

Shivani Persad:
What brings you joy?

Rupi Kaur:
Laughing.

Shivani Persad:
Are you laughing a lot lately?

Rupi Kaur:
I am. But I wish I was laughing more. Being around my friends makes me laugh, but I haven't seen them in so long.

Shivani Persad:
What does purposeful living mean to you?

Rupi Kaur:
Listening to your inner voice and giving yourself whatever it is you need without feeling any sort of guilt.

Shivani Persad:
That's such a good answer. Rupi, thank you so much for being here with us today. It was such a privilege.

Rupi Kaur:
Thank you, Shivani, for having me. It was so lovely talking to you.

[music]

Shivani Persad:
Thank you for tuning in to our conversation with the wonderful Rupi Kaur.

For more ideas to help you live well, including Rupi’s books, milk and honey, the sun and her flowers, and home body, visit indigo.ca/podcast.

If you enjoyed this episode, please leave us a rating on Apple Podcasts.

You can subscribe wherever you listen to your podcasts.

Well Said was produced for Indigo Inc. by Vocal Fry Studios and is co-hosted by me, Shivani Persad.

[music]

Shivani Persad:
The information provided in this podcast should not be relied upon by our listeners as medical advice, even where it has been presented by physicians or medical practitioners. Any information presented in this podcast is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The views expressed throughout this podcast represent the views of the guests and do not necessarily represent the views of Indigo.