When Canadian poet, writer and illustrator Rupi Kaur published a photo of herself lying in bed with a bloodstain on the crotch of her pyjamas and on her sheets, Instagram removed the image. Twice. Then she received death threats.
Kaur (24) is appearing at the Sydney Writers Festival today and tomorrow. One of the panels she’s part of is called Sex, Blood and Death.
She describes herself as “somebody who’s always been very open and expressive about taboo topics”. Her poetry covers sex, death, trauma, violence, alcoholism and female sensuality, so she’s used to challenging expectations and defying what polite society believes is acceptable for a young Punjabi-Sikh woman to express. The best example of this is her originally self-published book, Milk and Honey, which, after being relaunched by a publisher, spent more than a year on the New York Times trade paperback bestseller list. It's remarkable for poetry, never mind a book that was first self-published by a young woman of colour.
“Milk and Honey is still seen as very taboo because we are not comfortable yet talking about things like partner violence,” says Kaur. “I talk about death a lot, and redefining death. It’s not something you want to talk about.”
Maybe. But for her followers it’s part of her allure. “When I spoke with some women and men about why they were reading my work they said, ‘We’ve never had these conversations before’,” says Kaur.
Kaur first shared her poetry on Tumblr and moved to Instagram when she started combining it with her sketches. At first the combination of poetry and social media felt weird to her, but the unlikely partnership worked. “Because the poetry was for me beyond just words, it was also a visual and visceral experience ... I wanted to create a sort of universe and pull the readers into it,” she says.
When Instagram removed her menstrual-blood-leak image (posted as part of a university assignment for a subject called Visual Rhetoric) in 2015, Kaur fought back against a system she said allowed women’s bodies to be “objectified” and “pornified”, but that objected to portraying real, lived female experiences. “I will not apologise for not feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society that will have my body in underwear but not be okay with a small leak,” she wrote on her social media at the time. The incident made headlines, and her following swelled (she currently has 1.3 million followers). But threats and abuse came with the attention, too. (Instagram eventually restored Kaur’s picture after complaints.)
“People react like that out of fear or when they don’t understand something. That photograph illustrates the way half the world will wake up at least once in their lives, so to think I would get such an extreme reaction is a bit terrifying and hard to believe,” she says.
“I think it’s the fear of the unknown, and I think the way we demonise women's bodies and menstruation is a part of that.”