The Technopo[e]litics of Rupi Kaur: [de] Colonial AestheTics and Spatial Narrations in the DigiFemme Age
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Abstract: Abstract: Rupi Kaur, a trending poetess of Instagram, has recently gained critical acclaim online for her newly published poetry collection ‘milk and honey’ which is a stunning depiction of trauma, survival, love, womanhood, and friendship. Identifying as a first-generation Canadian, Punjabi-Sikh, woman of color, Kaur works visually in her book and on Instagram to portray and subvert how space functions to produce the gendered, diasporic subject as a body that is “unhomed.” Through the complex interplay of illustrated imagery and verse, Kaur contests the violent spatial (and bordering) practices of nationalism by positioning her poems’ persona in new and different ways to occupy, produce, and claim space off and online—performances of celebration, reclamation, resistance, and ultimately, acts of (de)colonial self-love. Kaur’s art and cyberspatial narration adds an important dimension to considering the colonial project of space. Occupying space on Instagram, Kaur supplants the place where women have traditionally been relegated. It is exactly the embodied telling of Kaur’s artwork that she attributes to the importance of its public nature: the Instagram becomes the home—rehomed by her art—whereas the nation becomes the network. Through Kaur’s narratives shared online, Kaur connects to a cyberspatial sisterhood and demonstrates that healing through narrative is necessarily collective.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 3 Rupi Kaur, a trending poetess of Instagram, has recently gained critical acclaim online for her newly published poetry collection milk and honey which is a stunning depiction of trauma, survival, love, womanhood, and friendship. Identifying as a first-generation Canadian, Punjabi-Sikh, woman of color, Kaur works visually in her book and on Instagram to portray and subvert how space functions to produce the gendered, diasporic subject as a body that is “unhomed” (Braziel and Mannur 15). Through the complex interplay of illustrated imagery and verse, Kaur contests the violent spatial (and bordering) practices of nationalism by positioning her poems’ persona in new and different ways to occupy, produce, and claim space off and online—performances of celebration, reclamation, resistance, and ultimately, acts of (de)colonial self-love. Kaur’s art and cyberspatial narration adds an important dimension to considering the colonial project of space, one that is central to the “racist, heterosexist, and gendered foundations of nations, nation-states, [and] even diaspora” (16). In the anthology Theorizing Diaspora: A Reader, Jana Evans Braziel and Anita Mannur describe diaspora (a highly contested and fraught term) as that which refers to communities dislocated or displaced from their native homelands (1, 4). Postcolonial theorists, including literary scholar Homi Bhabba as well as Braziel and Mannur, refer to this process of diaspora as “unhoming” and this state of being (diasporic subjectivity) as an “unhomliness” (qtd. in DasGupta 3, Braziel and Mannur 15). Diaspora or diasporic identity, then, is a lived and experienced spatial phenomenon whereby one’s body is ‘unhomed’ in a multitude of ways. In her design poetry, Kaur resists diasporic ‘unhoming’ but recovers diasporic subjectivity as one that ‘homes.’ First, however, Kaur addresses the gendered experience of diaspora as that which makes apparent the processes of social stratification by way of nation through its constructions of female sexuality and in the regulatory norms of white western beauty ideals.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Historian Gayatri Gopinath in Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures describes how “discourses of female sexuality are central to the mutual constitution of diaspora and nation” (10). According to the transnational feminist theorist Chandra Talpade Mohanty, “women are not only mobilized in the ‘service’ of the nation, but they become the ground on which discourses of morality and nationalism are written,” ones that are, “embodied in the normative policing of women’s sexuality” (133). Additionally, ethnic studies Professor Eithne Luibhéid in Entry Denied: Controlling Sexuality at the Border has demonstrated how sexual violence comes, “to signify not what is done to woman but what is done to nation” and in the process, “access to women’s bodies and sexualities become constructed as a matter for males, rather than females, to determine” (qtd. in Razack 118, 127). Playing a key role in nationalist discourse, global south, women of color bodies emerge as both literally and figuratively essential to the space-making practices of nation and diaspora. For these theorists, global south, women of color bodies are the site for state’s negotiations of nationalism: their bodies are not their own, but for the purposes of reproducing global north nations. Kaur, however, visually reasserts dominion over her own sexuality by reoccupying her body in her poetry, and the poems that we will title “Welcome” and “Did You Think I Was a City” offer such an illustration (Fig. 1 and Fig. 2).
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Characterizing “sex as a regulatory ideal” in the production of gendered subjects, philosopher Judith Butler has suggested that the relationship between gender and space is arranged via patriarchal sexual violence (52). In “Welcome” and “Did You Think I Was a City,” Kaur critiques the notion that a woman’s body is spatialized either as a “pitstop for men” or a vacation “big enough for a weekend getaway” (4, 13; 2). Both the personas become metaphors for hotels: ones with room “empty enough/for guests” (15; 6-7). Fashioned like a concrete poem—a poem whose visual appearance matches the topic of the work—“Welcome’s” visual treatment of space comments upon how a woman’s body is regarded as a penetrable place for men to enter. At the same time, the persona reclaims the right to her own body: it is now ‘impenetrable’ by way of its speech. Similarly, in “Did You Think I Was a City,” Kaur draws her body akin to a town—a home instead of a hotel one passes through. Rather than making “public” her “privates,” Kaur’s poetry privatizes her personas’ bodies publicly.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Another way western nations remap gender and racial hierarchies is by imposing particular standards of “beauty.” Documented in Victoria M. Bañales’ article, “‘The Face Value of Dreams’: Gender, Race, Class, and the Politics of Cosmetic Surgery,” beauty norms—“as according to racist, Western standards of feminine beauty”— are used in projects of empire (133). Throughout much of her poetry, Kaur challenges western criterions of physicality that attempt to colonize her body; she reclaims her body as home by destabilizing the colonial ideologies that would lay siege upon it. One example of Kaur’s use of spatial “rehoming” takes place within the poem “The Next Time” (Fig. 3).
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 1 Addressing the (white) cultural norm that excess body hair is unfeminine, Kaur gives the reader visual metaphors for the natural beauty of the female body. Rather than a place for sexualized, gendered, and racialized hierarchies to settle, Kaur depicts flowers, mushrooms, and leaves growing upon the figure’s legs instead. Beauty is natural and alive like a meadow; it is not artificial nor can it be contained. Just like in the preceding poem discussed “Welcome,” Kaur’s body isn’t “welcome” for the readers’, the male antagonist’s, or the nation’s projections (11, 9-10). In the poem we will coin “Stretch Marks,” it is the denigrated flaw of stretch marks that attests to a woman’s strength and instead becomes a source of feminine beauty that make us “utterly whole and complete” (Fig. 4, 13-14).
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Interestingly, many of Kaur’s pieces describe women’s bodies as natural environs. In one poem alongside a drawing of an oceanic tidal wave imprisoned in a cup, she declares: “I am water/soft enough/to offer life/tough enough/to drown it away” (Kaur 137). Further compositions present Kaur, her personas, and her implied readers as works of metaphorical art or the architecture that houses them.  The jagged whirlwind of a tornado blows: “your body/ is a museum/of natural disasters/can you grasp/how stunning that is” (Kaur 173). While feminist scholars Shannon Sullivan and Jane Rendell have noted the “crucial ways in which raced, sexed, and imperial(ized) bodies are linked” with landscapes whereby “femininity is connected with chaotic and disorderly space, while logocentric space remains masculine,” Kaur flips this repressive association of women’s bodies with nature into one that makes uncontainable the power of the feminine principle (209, 107).
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 2 Through social media, Kaur has also become well known for condemning body-shaming and naturalizing bodily processes (such as menstruation and giving birth) as fundamental to feminine empowerment. Publicly criticizing Instagram’s policy of censoring a collection of images that she took of herself menstruating, she counters in a post: “I bleed each month to make humankind a possibility, my womb is home to the divine.” In a similar poem from her published collection, Kaur envisages the reproductive system as entangled, blooming vines wherein she espouses: “the recreational use of/this body is seen as/ beautiful while/its nature is/seen as ugly” (Fig. 6, 177). Queer theorist Gopinath, previously mentioned, has discussed the ways in which female diasporic subjects have been characterized as and related to the home space(s) of nation (194). Although Kaur attempts to invert the devaluation of femininity (as repressive home-space) to one of recalcitrant subjectivity, she still reterritorializes women’s bodies as (gendered) spaces to be entered/penetrated and beauty becomes the category through which female “bodies achieve humanness” (Nguyen 368). Heterosexuality, then, also becomes the “structuring mechanism” and “key disciplinary regime” of not only Kaur’s definitions of femininity but of state and diasporic nationalism as well (Gopinath 10). If gender is conflated with sexual anatomy (Fig. 6), if femininity is imagined solely through aesthetic gestures (Fig. 3 and 4), and if women are again conceived of as land or home (structured by and through the male gaze), is Kaur merely reproducing ideologies of nationalism or is she rewriting them (Fig. 1 and 2)?
¶ 27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 2 Cyberspace makes Kaur’s poetic spatial productions legible within the context of diaspora. Arjun Appadurai, Victoria Bernal, Jana Evans Braziel and Anita Mannur, respectively, have tackled the ways in which, “diaspora[s] [are] being remapped through cyberspace interfacing” (Braziel and Mannur 15). Through emergent mediascapes and the technologies of online forums, new collectives such as social networks, public spheres, and diasporic cultural art forms have been reconfigured, thereby “undermining nationality and nationalism as discrete categories of identification” (Appadurai 25; Bernal 161; Braziel and Mannur 8). The virtual world has become the space for community building, and its sustenance, globally across diasporas. Although more literature is written on the dangers of the Internet for women of color, for author Jessie Daniels in “Rethinking Cyberfeminism(s): Race, Gender, and Embodiment,” it is an “internetworked global feminism” enabled by the “cyberfeminist practice[s] of online organizing” wherein discussions and activism about racism and sexism can and do take place (106). Communicating across digital platforms via shared storytelling is where communal resistance is forged, and it is here that Kaur makes a space for herself and her readers.
Kaur occupies space on Instagram and creates “alternate, spatialized narratives,” supplanting the place where women have traditionally been relegated (Flanagan 75). She calls both the online medium and style of her poetry “design poetry:” poetry based on the spoken word that voices communally what is often silent (Kabango 4:52). In an interview with journalist Rachel Grate on the website Hellogiggles, Kaur portrays the place of Instagram as her blog:
“The blog has become an open space for these discussions where we all come together to learn and create narratives for things we don’t regularly discuss. and if i can’t answer a question i open it up to others who might be able to help. it’s just home, you know? my home.”
¶ 34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 2 The Instagram becomes the home—rehomed by her art—whereas the nation becomes the network. This larger online home could be described by Mohanty as: “not as comfortable, stable, inherited, and familiar space but instead as an imaginative, politically charged space in which the familiarity and sense of affection and commitment analysis in a shared collective analysis of social injustice” (128). Through Kaur’s narratives shared online, she connects to a cyberspatial sisterhood.
“It’s the strength in women that has inspired me. my mother, my sisters, my friends. the women throughout history who have endured. who have fought against patriarchy and fought for the rights of those around them […] since i’ve embraced and began to nurture sisterhood at a grassroots level in my community, i’ve really started to grow, and have been able to help some and see other women rise. and that’s all it’s about. the power to uplift. we have that within ourselves and we have to use it” (Grate)
¶ 37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 This “sisterhood that has completed” her—one she recognizes and aligns herself with—is specifically a women-of-color-sisterhood (Brown, Fig. 8). In the poem “Our Backs,” Kaur identifies with the shared oppressions as well as the irrepressible might of women of color (Fig. 8, 171). The lines “stories/no books have/the spine to/carry” expands figural space, resisting any attempts from man or state to claim the space of hers and her sisters’ bodies as their own (2-5). Additionally, she rejects the reading of the Internet as a post-racial place of democratic egalitarianism wherein “users leave their bodies behind when online” (Brophy 929). It is exactly the embodied telling of Kaur’s artwork that she attributes to the importance of its public nature: “we [women of colour] are able to narrate and document our own stories now, and that’s a big deal” (El-Safty). While Kaur might have “re-embraced [her] body along with space, in space, as the generator (or producer) of space” on and offline, women who respond to her art are largely white audiences (Fig. 7, qtd. in Soja 52). One could argue, ironically, that Kaur’s blog becomes another occupied space in the enterprise of colonial appropriation, challenging her imagined community of multicultural feminist sisters. What it suggests, however, are the ways in which gendered and sexually “inflect[ed] diasporic formations” operate in the interests of global capitalism and how “diasporic cultural forms are produced in and through transnational capitalist processes” (Gopinath 9, 13). Let us return to the spatial “rehoming” that takes place within Kaur’s poetry, critical to understanding her illustrated writings of self-love.
¶ 39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 Kaur recovers diasporic subjectivity as one that ‘homes’ in the poems “My Name is Kaur” and “Searching for Home” (Fig. 9 and Fig. 10). In “My Name is Kaur,” Kaur reconfigures her identity as undifferentiated from liberation; they are one and the same. She expands her body and her self spatially outside of anything that can be constituted by the state or contained in a book (1-7). Kaur’s texts perceptibly take up the page or visually extend outside of its margins (Fig. 1). She is not a body that is acted upon but is instead a body that acts, and she reminds us that she always has been (9-10). Also, as space-making and spatial recuperating endeavors, Kaur’s creations are above all home-makings (Fig. 10). Rather than accepting a diasporic body that is ‘unhomed,’ Kaur ‘unhomes’ anything other than herself that could take up room there. In “Searching for Home,” Kaur rehomes her own body and ‘unhomes’ all other occupancies. Her poetry also reminds us that the space of home lies solely within ourselves: “it [is] when [we] stop searching for home within others” that we find the “foundations of home within [ourselves]” (1-2).
¶ 44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 1 Through reclaiming space for her own creation-making vis-à-vis the subject matter of her visual verse and virtual design, Kaur transforms the place of her body—now her home—by celebrating it. In fact, much of her book is a reveling in pleasure, evoking Audre Lorde’s concept of the erotic: “our most profoundly creative source […] is female and self-affirming in the face of a racist, patriarchal, and anti-erotic society” (59). Can we consider these poetic self-affirmations decolonial acts? Kaur has described her book milk and honey as a meditation on self-love (Brown). She has also referenced Junot Díaz as one of her inspirations, well renowned for his literature’s enactment of decolonial self-love (Shafaque). While Kaur’s rejoicing serves to transform feelings of inferiority and shame into the sensibilities of self-worth—those that strive to delink us from the processes of colonial “erasure, devaluation, and disavow[al]”—her expressions of bodily ownership could be construed as being predicated upon western, capitalist notions of singular selfhood (Gaztambide-Fernández 198). The work of Semiotician Walter Mignolo may provide a helpful framework to evaluate the aesthetic practices and spatial reclamations applied in Kaur’s poetry.
¶ 46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 In the transcribed interview “Decolonial Options and Artistic/AestheSic Entanglements,” Mignolo engages with the idea that art is decolonizing or can be. According to Mignolo, decolonial aestheSis refers to any “thinking and doing […] geared toward undoing” the aestheTics of coloniality or its sensibilities (Gaztambide-Fernández 201). Ultimately, the goal of decolonial artistic methods is to heal from the “colonial wounds” that “operate through making people feel inferior”:
“Healing is the process of delinking, or regaining your pride, your dignity, assuming your entire humanity in front of an un-human being that makes you believe you were abnormal, lesser, that you lack something. How do you heal that? Through knowing, understanding, decolonial artistic creativity and decolonial philosophical aestheSis, and above all by building the communal (not the Marxist commune, neither the liberal common good, but the communal; the legacies of “communities” beyond Eurocentric legacies of Christian and secular family and “society”)” (Gaztambide-Fernández 207).
¶ 48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 3 Kaur compelling depicts her wounds as ruptures needing to be healed through her writing: “the thing about writing is/I can’t tell if it’s healing/or destroying me” (148). In the afterword of milk and honey, it also states that Kaur, “shares her writing with the world as a means to create a safe space for progressive healing and forward movement” (n.p.). Writing by space and through space is what Kaur conceives of as a form of narrative healing for herself and her female followers: “I don’t know why/I split myself open/for others knowing/sewing myself up/hurts this much afterward” and “you split me open/in the most honest/way there is/to split a soul open/and forced me to write/at a time I was sure I/could not write again/thank you” (125, 204). Her cyberspatial writing creates the space for women to speak, and therefore, allows for communal and self-healing. Kaur posts poetry on Instagram and literally opens up new territories for her sisters to interact. Each click, posting, and connection generates new scapes where Kaur’s self-recovery happens within a collective context. Healing is singular only as much as it is communal: recovering the space of one’s own body as ‘home’ recuperates space for others as well. Although it is objectionable as to whether Kaur’s border-thinking is altogether decolonial, as Mignolo suggests, the decolonial is an option and always must be for to “promote the co-existence of non-imperial options” is to foster and nourish “decolonial love” (209). Through “alternative visions of the home and homeland,” Kaur’s visual and spatial narrations are just one option in a world so desperately needing of healing (Braziel and Mannur 13).
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Fig. 1. Kaur, Rupi. Welcome. Instagram. Web. n.d.
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Fig. 3. Kaur, Rupi. Milk and Honey. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015. 165. Print.
Fig. 4. Kaur, Rupi. Milk and Honey. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015. 169. Print.
Fig. 5. Kaur, Rupi. “Period.” Rupikaur.com. Rupikaur.com, 2016. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.
Fig. 6. Kaur, Rupi. Apparently It Is Ungraceful Of Me. Instagram. Web. n.d.
Fig. 7. “English Alum Rupi Kaur Makes Top Seller Lists With Poetry Collection.” Waterloo Arts. University of Waterloo, 10 Feb. 2016. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.
Fig. 8. Kaur, Rupi. Milk and Honey. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015. 171. Print.
Fig. 9. Kaur, Rupi. Milk and Honey. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015. 184. Print.
Fig. 10. Kaur, Rupi. It Was When I Stopped Searching For Home Within Others. Instagram. Web. n.d.
Fig. 11. Kaur, Rupi. Milk and Honey. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015. 185. Print.
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¶ 103 Leave a comment on paragraph 103 0 1. Poetess is a moniker employed to describe Kaur in the interview “WildTalk: Exclusive Interview with Poetess Rupi Kaur” (Brown). Instapoet and micropoet are other descriptors also used for Kaur in an article from The Guardian “How do I love thee? Let me Instagram it” and (Qureshi) and on CBC radio (Kabango).
¶ 104 Leave a comment on paragraph 104 0 2. Explicit claims to Kaur’s first-generation immigrant identity in her writing include poems on pages 14, 32, 37, 170, 171, 184, on Instagram: https://www. instagram.com/p/5_Fb-4nA8a/?taken-by=rupikaur_&hl=en, and in multiple interviews.
¶ 107 Leave a comment on paragraph 107 0 5. This idea is also examined by Mimi Thi Nguyen in the article, “The Biopower of Beauty: Humanitarian Imperialisms and Global Feminisms in an Age of Terror,” a source cited later in this paper.
¶ 109 Leave a comment on paragraph 109 0 7. Additional examples include a loosely sketched image of an easel that declares: “The very thought of you/has my legs spread apart/like an easel with a canvas/begging for art” and another that announces above open forms of bended, female bodies, “I was music/ but you had your ears cut off” (57, 115). Other instances are on pages 57, 71, 100, and 115. Women represented as edibles are also on pages 11, 31, 97, and 101.
¶ 110 Leave a comment on paragraph 110 0 8. However, Kaur also likens her male lovers (or their love) to nature, edibles, and art (50, 51, 66, 87, 89, 98, 99, 108, 119). Futhermore, her visual poetry could be a mode of insurgent mimicry, noted by Madeline Hron and Homi Bhabba as that which “negotiate[s], question[s], or even resist[s] […] cultural constructions by virtue of its own constructedness” (3).
¶ 112 Leave a comment on paragraph 112 0 10. Such as Lisa Nakamura’s incredibly important work “Unwanted Labour of Social Media: Women of Colour Call Out Culture As Venture Community Management,” “Gender and Race Online,” Lori Kendall’s “Meaning and Identity in ‘Cyberspace’: The Performance of Gender, Class, and Race Online” and Michelle M. Wright’s “Finding a Place in Cyberspace: Black Women, Technology, and Identity.”
¶ 113 Leave a comment on paragraph 113 0 11. Bernal suggests in her research on Eritrean diaspora online that, “Eritrean websites have fostered the emergence of counter-publics and spaces of dissent where unofficial views are voiced and alternative knowledges are produced. [It consists of] people inventing a public sphere that [makes] possible the articulation of ideas and sentiments that could not be expressed elsewhere” (176). Elsewhere, cyber-theorist Lisa Nakamura has demonstrated, “when women create their own networks for posting content about video game racism and sexism, they can have unexpectedly wide-reaching and powerful effects” (3).
¶ 115 Leave a comment on paragraph 115 0 13. In milk and honey, she professes: “I must nurture and serve the sisterhood to raise those that need raising;” “my heart aches for sisters more than anything it aches for women helping women like flowers ache for spring” (Kaur 184, 187).
¶ 116 Leave a comment on paragraph 116 0 14. See geographer Edward W. Soja’s definition of counterspace or thirdspace of political choice: “a meeting place for all peripheralized or marginalized ‘subjects’ wherever they may be located” (35, 68).
¶ 117 Leave a comment on paragraph 117 0 15. “I am suggesting, then, an ‘imagined community’ of Third World oppositional struggles – ‘imagined’ not because it is not ‘real’ but because it suggests potential alliances and collaborations across divisive boundaries, and ‘community’ because in spite of internal hierarchies within Third World contexts, it nevertheless suggests a significant, deep commitment to what Benedict Anderson, in referring to the idea of the nation, calls ‘horizontal comradeship’” (Mohanty 2).
¶ 119 Leave a comment on paragraph 119 0 17. Lorde also defines the erotic as: “function[ing] for me in several ways and the first is in providing the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference” (56).
¶ 120 Leave a comment on paragraph 120 0 18. Including “you/are your own/soul mate” and “all you own is yourself” (Kaur 176, 189). Further examples are on pages 55, 112, 150, 153, 161, 167, 172, 174, 186, 189, 197.
¶ 121 Leave a comment on paragraph 121 0 19. Narrative healing is a technique Kaur attributes to Warsan Shire’s workshops, the root inspiration for Kaur’s poetic style and genre: “I wouldn’t have explored ‘paper’ poetry if it wasn’t for Warsan’s work. Her poetry literally flipped my insides out. Her poetry forced me to heal. It was a slow, yet beautiful process that changed me”(Shafaque, Brown). More could be said on whether Kaur’s artistry is a form of homage or aesthetic appropriation.
¶ 122 Leave a comment on paragraph 122 0 20. For Mignolo, diasporic epistemology or “Border thinking and doing (artistic creativity as well as any other forms where thinking is manifested) is precisely the decolonial method” (206).