Unapologetic and Angry, Jasmin Kaur’s Book Will Leave You Restless
Jasmin Kaur’s verses are powerful ramblings of a woman of colour in a white, male-dominated western society.
so that one day
a hundred years from now
another sister will not have to
dry her tears wondering
where in history
she lost her voice
Before singing sensation Jennifer Lopez shared Jusmun aka Jasmin Kaur’s above poem while performing at the American Music Awards last year, Jasmin, a Canadian Sikh writer, was already working on her first book ‘When You Ask Me Where I’m Going’.
Did J-Lo’s intervention help? “It was definitely a positive affirmation to see my work amplified through Jennifer Lopez’s performance. I love the fact that kaur voices are being increasingly celebrated in public spaces. When my poem was featured at the American Music Awards, I was already working on my first book with HarperCollins, so I appreciated the love and carried on writing”, says Jasmin. Besides J-Lo, Jasmin’s work has been shared by other celebrities like Reese Witherspoon, Tessa Mae Thompson, Cara Delevigne and Sophia Bush.
Her debut book -- an over 250-page collection of poems and prose scheduled to come out in October. Reading her work is like taking on a journey across a gushing river of lava. She churns and slices through the prevalent narrative around gender and body politics as one reads through her razor-sharp work. She rightly warns in her book, “there’s nothing gentle about these poems.”
A 26-year-old, turban-wearing woman, not adhering to strict societal norms must have left some people uncomfortable? “I think the way I challenge the status quo, it definitely upsets some people. I have always believed that the decisions another woman makes for her body and well-being are not mine to police or control. I don't think that all people share that mentality, though, and view my self-expression as something that needs to be changed to suit their own personal body politics. I think that this is reflective of the patriarchal world that we live within in which women's bodies are viewed as public property that can be gazed upon, critiqued and controlled by others.” And one can’t help but agree when this comes across in a poem loud and clear “you’ll be baptised into womanhood by all the eyes that own you.”
Her poems are measured, yet powerful; spirited and scorchingly truthful in expression. Some are as small as a couplet, where the thoughts appear constricted. The discipline with choice and use of words adds to the evocative value of her writings. Each poem makes a bold statement about her idea of femininity and feminism. Her angry, rebel self, oozes out of the pages. “I’m not here to be your example of the good girl” reads a line in one of her many thought-provoking poems. “I think I’ve always been rebellious in my own way. I definitely don’t like taking no for an answer and I don’t accept the status quo simply because I’m told to. I often feel suffocated by the constraints that other people establish for me and do what I can to push those boundaries,” she explains candidly.
When most Punjabis in the diaspora community want their kids to become doctors, engineers or lawyers, her mother was the one who “instilled a love for reading within me at a very young age. I still remember the nightly ritual of reading a bedtime story in preschool and think that my love for reading and writing stems from that”. Jasmin grew up as an avid reader, sharpening and developing her writing skills in her high school. She studied English literature and creative writing at the Fraser Valley university with a plan to go and teach. It was there the idea for the book germinated.
“I’d been accumulating poems for my debut since university. At the time, I wasn’t actively thinking about a book, but there came a point when I realised that I had written over a hundred poems and that writing a book wasn’t such an intangible idea. I didn’t know where I wanted to go with my work but I knew that my voice mattered and deserved to be heard. In university, I also began working on the seeds of a fictional novel which became incorporated into ‘When You Ask Me Where I’m Going’. The narrative of Kiran and her daughter Sahaara, started as an idea in one of my creative writing classes and I’m so happy that it’s finally come to life”.
Jasmin has dedicated ‘When You Ask Me Where I’m Going’ to her younger sister Ishleen and others children “to remind her and other young Punjabi girls that they deserve to be celebrated in the books that they read”. Oldest of her the three siblings, Jasmin is rooted in her religious and cultural heritage, that lends her a unique insight and writing style for issues she’s passionate about, including but not limited to, racism, gender discrimination, body shaming, feminism, gaslighting, immigration and the political and everyday struggles of Sikh and other people.
There are six sections of this book which tackle a variety of these issues with honesty through her poems which are often more refined than her prose. In her opening poem ‘Skin’, she writes:
“the outermost layer of a body. a sheathing. an organ... and what is it about the skin? it’s where they draw all their conclusions.”
Another piece beautifully captures the pain of life away from Punjab.
“this neighbourhood is an unwanted migration of Punjab to the promise of soil fertile enough to replant roots”.
“call us unteachable immigrant children/or angry brown children/ or your success story children”;
“my name is not Shiela but I’m wondering if I have the right to a jawani”;
“I come from women who split blood between verses”,
“..a sense of freedom from the ideals of consumetric and eurocentric beauty”
“i will not italicize all the parts of myself that make no sense to you”
“it is the scarf calmly covering her head hiding the black dahlias on her neck”;
“When the poem comes there is no middle ground” and so on.
She uplifts and empowers readers when she says, “i will not suffocate someone with that which allows me to breathe.” The more it flows, the deeper it touches a chord.
As a poet, she comes across way mature beyond her years. Her subject, tone and treatment are extremely nuanced. Sharing her writing process Jasmin says, “Many of the poems are inspired by either my own experiences or events that I've seen unfold through my own eyes. Some are inspired by community experiences and others are inspired by experiences of my loved ones that they have asked me to write about. In Chapter 4 (Nerve), the poems are told from the perspectives of my fictional characters”.
“I’ve always been fascinated by what dwells beneath the surfaces of humans. I think that in our day-to-day interactions with others, we seldom dig deep to understand what motivates other people, what propels their actions, what contributes to their behaviour and interactions with us”.
If it is difficult to balance the fire within, with a certain grace that poetry demands, she responds, “I try to take my readers on a journey that is not simply emotionally charged, but rather one that drives home a point through reasons described in poetic language”.
That’s not all. She paints, illustrates and is also a spoken word artiste, lending her voice to the issues that matter, traveling across the globe. If forced to choose one, it would be writing but Jasmin draws comfort from all mediums of expression. “Illustration allows me to forget my worries. Spoken word allows me to celebrate the power of oral storytelling and performance. Writing poetry and fiction allow me to experiment with the bounds of language and bring my imagination to life in ways that nothing else can,” she smiles.
To her credit is also an impressive social media following, including over 32k on Instagram alone, where she regularly shares snippets of her work.
Speaking about her journey, she says she’s proud she didn’t give in to self doubt that bothered her at times and was able to bring her work to fruition. Her future plans are no less ambitious. “In terms of my writing, I would love to see my second book, which is primarily fiction-based, go to film. It would be amazing to see a story centered around diasporic Punjabi women come to life through film”.
The steel in her voice and writings defies her years and slender frame, but her writings have the capacity to shake a soul and reverberate in the mind long after you have put the book away.
A book to look out for if you want to hear powerful ramblings of a woman of colour in an essentially White, inherently male-dominated Western society or that of a Punjabi girl who challenges patriarchy wherever she witnesses it.
(Kamal Preet Kaur is a freelance journalist based in London.)
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