Young readers suffer when books are banned, says Canadian poet Rupi Kaur

Upon hearing that her debut book of poetry was under fire in Texas, Rupi Kaur's initial reaction was sorrow.

'It makes me feel really sad for young readers,' says acclaimed writer

Poet Rupi Kaur arrives at the Giller Prize Awards ceremony in Toronto on Nov. 20, 2017. She was 21 when her first book of poetry was published, and became an international phenomenon. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Upon hearing that her debut book of poetry was under fire in Texas, Rupi Kaur's initial reaction was sorrow.

Her collection of poems, milk and honey, which received widespread acclaim upon its release in 2014, is partly inspired by her experience with sexual assault and gender-based violence. 

It is also, now, among the many books that have been targeted by conservative parent groups for dealing with themes of race, gender and sexuality.

"It makes me feel really sad for young readers, because at the end of the day, young readers are the ones who are suffering," Kaur told CBC News.

"Young readers who would have otherwise found comfort in, or learned valuable information from, not just my book, but there's hundreds of books at the moment that lawmakers are trying to ban, not only in Texas but a lot of other states as well."

Kaur said last month on Instagram that parts of Texas and Oregon "have banned or attempted to ban" her book from schools and libraries. It has, according to NBC News, "been flagged for removal" in the Keller Independent School District in Texas. It reportedly drew a similar complaint last year at a high school in Roseburg, Ore.

WATCH | Kaur on the targeting of milk and honey:

Parents in Texas challenging poet Rupi Kaur's collection, Milk and Honey

2 years ago
Duration 7:28
Celebrated Canadian poet Rupi Kaur's collection, milk and honey, is facing challenges over its contents from parent groups in some U.S. states, such as Texas.

Kaur, who is from Brampton, Ont., was 21 years old when milk and honey was published and became an international phenomenon. Her minimalist writing style pioneered what some have called a new genre, dubbed "Instapoetry," a portmanteau referencing Instagram.

Discouraged by professors, Kaur self-published and promoted the book on social media, connecting with young people who related to her pieces about relationships, survival and femininity.

Kaur says she wrote the kind of book she would have wanted — or even needed — to read as a teenager.

At the time, there wasn't much of a market for poetry, and most poetry sections in bookstores were filled with authors who are deceased, she says.

Now, some youths in Texas who can't afford to buy their own copies won't have easy access to those stories, Kaur says — a deep loss to those for whom reading books is a salve and an escape.

"I remember growing up, I didn't have access to therapy and other mental health tools, which is why reading books was what I really leaned on for support," she said. 

Kaur, who was born to Punjabi-Sikh parents in India before moving to Canada at the age four, says that people are increasingly comfortable and vocal writing about the immigrant experience.

But she says she hopes the industry will also make room for unexplored narratives — moving beyond the familiar tropes like "the model minority, or the hardworking immigrant that comes, crosses the sea, crosses the ocean with a dollar in their pocket."

"I think that there's so many immigrant stories, so many communities, and I'm looking forward for them to have more space."


Jenna Benchetrit is a web and radio journalist for CBC News. She works primarily with the entertainment and education teams and occasionally covers business and general assignment stories. A Montrealer based in Toronto, Jenna holds a master's degree in journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University. You can reach her at jenna.benchetrit@cbc.ca.

With files from Amara McLaughlin