Jasmin Kaur’s forthcoming novel, When You Ask Me Where I’m Going, is a poignant reflection of her experiences as a Sikh woman, as well as a compelling commentary on identity and other complex topics. Kaur is a writer who built her audience online, accumulating nearly 34,000 followers on her Instagram. She has toured North America, the United Kingdom and Australia and was recognized as one of Tempest’s 40 Women to Watch 2019. She aims to “[honor] the powerful human connection experienced through storytelling and the common ground found through our diverse narratives,” and she certainly achieves this in her collection.
The novel contains both poetry and prose, and its title stems from a piece in which Kaur declares herself independent of another’s desires or whims. This sets the stage for the rest of the book as it delves into discussions of feminism, racial and cultural identity, and trauma. The collection opens with the poem “skin,” a powerful free-verse piece that alludes to the many ways in which race impacts the way we are perceived by others and how we perceive the world. The line “my skin is the first me you will encounter” perfectly encompasses not only how being racialized as a person of color affects our interactions but also how one cannot fully understand someone else just by looking at their external appearance. While Kaur’s works can be applicable to wide audiences, at its heart, it is representative of her experiences as a brown woman.
“My poetry is shaped by my engagement with the world as a Punjabi, Sikh woman living in the diaspora,” Kaur writes. “My work is, therefore, deeply affected by the social issues of my communities.”
The collection is peppered with references to societal expectations (“product recall”), police brutality, colorism (“ripened color”), codeswitching and immigration. Kaur also weaves her native language into the collection, whether it is the title of a piece or it forms a core aspect of the story being conveyed. This allows the reader to understand how deeply her background has impacted her and develop an appreciation for the culture itself. The book also contains illustrations, and drawings of cracks in concrete and girls with thick eyebrows really help readers picture what Kaur is describing and allows them to further engage themselves in reading.
The novel also centers on womanhood, particularly brown womanhood, and it highlights expectations about marriage and other forms of pressure placed on women. One particularly affecting stanza is “Girl no older than thirteen/stares up into the eyes/of humanity/and apologizes/for the gaze of men,” a testament to how young women and girls are often seen as being at fault for how they are treated. However, an underlying theme of the collection is one of retaining identity: there is a couplet in which a man glares at a woman and she smiles back as a sign of defiance as if to say she is free from his influence.
While Kaur draws attention to some of the more difficult aspects of womanhood, she also highlights women’s strengths and how they can overcome brutal challenges. Kaur also alludes to politics, and in one work she describes legislators as violent due to the policies they pass. Her word choice and style of writing truly evoke emotion from readers, and this is the main quality that makes reading her work enjoyable.
Instagram has been both an important and potentially harmful tool in Kaur’s writing career. She primarily uses her platform to build community, whether it’s allowing women and non-binary individuals to take over her Instagram story or initiating the conversation herself and allowing her followers to partake in.
“The most exciting thing about sharing creative work through social media is how telling one story or expressing one idea can open a flood-gate of connection for readers to share their unique relationships with the subject matter, often spanning far beyond my original intention,” she writes.
However, having such a large social media presence can come with challenges. In the wake of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings in September 2018, an edited version of Kaur’s poem, “her voice,” went viral. The first word, “scream,” was replaced by “vote” and circulated among the online feminist community. It ignited conversations about how white feminists often misappropriate the words of women of color for their own purposes. Kaur referred to the incident as “peak white entitlement.” She also commented on how Instagram’s ongoing algorithm changes are creating an inhospitable environment for growing artists.
“I was originally drawn to Instagram because it would allow me to instantly (as its name implies) reach people who may be interested in my work,” Kaur wrote. “However, the accessibility of the platform has drastically changed in recent years. As many other poets and artists have also experienced, I’ve found that algorithm changes on Instagram have decreased the reach of my work.”
Kaur is not the first to be impacted by Instagram’s algorithm; recently, creative Ari Fitz left the platform after being shadowbanned and having her content removed. Several other creators and publications have also quit or been banned for violating site guidelines, even when it’s not clear what guidelines were violated. However, despite the challenges, there is no doubt that social media plays a major role in developing artists’ platforms today.
The poem “her voice” is featured in When You Ask Me Where I’m Going. It is, quite fittingly, followed by a poem about losing one’s voice: “how do you sever my body / from my tongue as you / set it out for display?” While Kaur and other creatives may face challenges in making themselves heard, it is abundantly clear that she has no intention of remaining silent, and through her work, she encourages her readers to speak up as well.
When You Ask Me Where I’m Going will be released October 1, 2019. You can order it on Bookshop.
Featured image via Instagram