WD What was it like when you started to have this online dialogue with people? Were you reading how people were responding to it? How does it differ from the environment of a live performance?
RK I think the early communities spaces I was involved in brought me so much love and support. Online spaces were too but since it was online I think it was more of an honest conversation. But earlier, in 2013, it would give me validation to write about the things I wanted to write about because I felt a little bit insecure at that age. I remember I had so much love and support in the community and some dudes were like “She’s so weird, she only talks about sexual abuse, she has so many issues” which can be so horrible for a girl who is 16-17 years old who is trying to be accepted. There were moments when I thought I should just stop writing and I should go do something more appealing. But these online audiences would leave such warm comments and it made me realize, this is what I want to write about, I have to keep going because if not then who else is going to write it? I remember there was a woman who’s now my friend, she left a comment saying, “Wow I never felt more like a woman than I have while reading your work” and that helped me so much because so many things that I’ve gone through in my life have been simply because I’m a woman and I realized how crucial that identity was to me and that helped to ground my ideals and stand by them.
WD Is there anything you’re afraid to write about now?
RK My writing process is very much like journaling. I write constantly. I’m not afraid to write, but to share, yes. There are some pieces in The Sun and Her Flowers and Milk and Honey where I’m being very bold about my sensuality; I was very afraid of sharing those because I come from a culture and a community where we never talk about sex. And then from the other side, when you get viewed as a certain type of writer then you feel like you can’t also be this other type of writer. People are like, “Oh, you’re the feminist writer, you write about violence, it’s so great,” and they don’t expect me to write a piece about just having this guy go down on me. So breaking down those complexities was a fear of mine, but now I’m just getting a lot more comfortable.
WD And I think it's that juxtaposition that sets your work apart. It's the milk and the honey: different consistencies that don't necessarily blend, but compliment each other.
RK Yeah! I think we are all just so complex and emotional, and if I show that to people, they might be like, "Okay, I’m like that too." It’s funny because sometimes I meet and I work with people and they have this idea that I am a super proper artist and when they meet me and I'm making jokes, all of a sudden they’ll freeze up. The reason behind the storytelling and the jokes and letting people see that part of me which I have protected for such a long time is that when you’re on stage and you’re performing such heavy work, I have to balanced that out in some way. I’m sharing stories, and all the stories aren’t autobiographical, but some of them are quite personal, and to balance that out to myself it’s about making jokes and sharing funny stories that would just made the public laugh. And I also believe in having a good time, and I want people that come here to feel home. I want everyone to enjoy themselves and be happy because I think that’s what people deserve and I always try to create the show in that way.
WD For the pieces that aren’t autobiographical, where do those stories come from?
RK All of my work is inspired by conversations or by stories that I know that have happened to women in my community for generations, and I wanted to document that. For example in chapter three in The Sun and Her Flowers, there is a piece about my mom. I wanted to document my family experiences, but then I was like, “No who wants to read about that.” But then right before writing the book I realized, this is insane to me, because my mom and I are both immigrants, we both left this country, and we are both experiencing being separated across worlds—and this is only going to happen this once. Sure, it might happen for future generations of my family but not the same way. I realized that had to document this and talk about this for my community. So chapter three became about immigration. And being in America where that's such an important issue right now, I could feel the anxiety slip right into my work. That was interesting to see how the book changed so much within four months just by me being here.
WD Were you surprised by how it all turned out then?
RK I was! I had my idea of what I wanted it to look like. I thought, "Okay, it’s going to be a two part series, with a sort of yin and yang kind of a thing” and that the plot would be the experience of someone going through an unhealthy relationship, and then the opposite: the second chapter would be something that is completely healthy. I really wanted to focus on the bridge between those two because going from unhealthy to healthy for me was one of the biggest challenges. When unbalanced becomes your norm, that is how you define love, and if someone super healthy comes along and they want to treat you right you’re like, "No this isn’t love because anger is supposed to be love" and so to prove you’re in love you have to be angry. I think it takes a long time to correct that and that’s what I wanted to focus on with The Sun and Her Flowers. Then my publisher was like, “Great we love it let’s do this!" But then when I started writing chapter three, there was this poem [about my family] that started coming to me and I was horrified because I thought, "I have to write these other pieces, I'm going to miss my deadline." But all these other poems kept coming to me, the poems that ended up making chapter three. I struggled to find the recipe that made Milk and Honey successful for so long, but what I eventually realized was that it worked because I was honest. So why would I not be honest with The Sun and Her Flowers? My heart and my mind were presenting me these things, so why am I going to hide them? So I wanted to find a way to blend them all together and create a narrative with these stories that works and that’s when the “Lifecycle of the Plant” kind of started to appear in front of my eyes with going back to your roots and ancestry and family and all that.
WD Does it add to the pressure that you're talked about as essentially bringing back a genre of literature?
RK No, that doesn’t because for me my art isn’t specifically poetry, my art is expression. When I was five years old my dream was to be a painter, and I painted and I drew for over 15 years and it’s so funny because nobody has seen that work. And I feel that I'll move to other genres. I love fashion and film. All of it fulfills me.
WD Have you thought about sharing any of that work you've done in other formats, aside from drawing and poetry?
RK I have, but I think everything comes at its time, there is no reason to rush. I have my entire life.
WD Definitely. Well thank you for taking the time to chat. I really love that we started this conversation with you saying that you grew up afraid of conversation, and later you pointed out that it is now the inspiration for much of your work. Did you realize that?
RK Wow. No, I hadn't. Very full circle. Thank you for pointing that out.
The Sun and Her Flowers is out now from Andrews McMeel. All photos courtesy of Carlota Guerrero / Rupi Kaur.