Bear with me for a second, because I want to be painfully honest about south asian women in regards to an issue which speaks to why Rupi Kaur has been plagiarizing nayyirah waheed from the very beginning of her career. And when I say honesty, I am speaking of my own experience and perspective: I am prepared to reevaluate them.
One of the stereotypes south asian women confront is that we are “too overdramatic” and “too emotional.” I have sensed this attitude from non-south asian (white) people, and have heard it repeated by other south asian women. A woman in my undergrad once said, “Not to be racist, but I’m not friends with women of my own race, because south asian girls are always starting drama.” It’s a stereotype already that (all) girls are “always starting drama” but this is amplified with the south asian woman, who is viewed as too constantly on the brink of tears, driven by the fragility imbued in her “over”analytical character.
South asian cultures are deeply emotional. They are emotional in non-English languages, in south asian phrases where the senses run into each other, where colors are unapologetically intense and all perfumes are the liveliest jasmine (taken from the flower rather than the stems), in the undertones of abusive in-laws and the soft subversions of quickwitted women against sneering patriarchal men, in the quiet pains of feminine men and in the colonized violence against nonbinary people. It is emotional in ways that american culture cannot reproduce. As south asian men mock the accents with which their parents speak yet claim to love their cultures through these patronizing, minimizing, infidelitous derisions, so do south asian women, removed for a context we feel only deep in our subconscious memories, mirror the soft outbursts of the centuries our mothers lived even though we do not understand our motions. In the context of the restrictive English language and the emotion-starved “objectivity” of American culture, these reproductions are superficial. We shadow “drama” without knowing the source.
The south asian woman (when she is not american and even when she is) is always imaged with lowered lashes, unsmiling or smiling too softly, subdued in her pain and quiet about and because of it. The south asian woman erupts and refrains. She bubbles within herself and the emotion spills and she is too apologetic—to the point of inspiring irritation—when she cleans it up. She is seen as superficial, like an imitated accent, and she knows this and sees herself this way. She has a double conscience. She gropes in the dark for reasons to explain her behavior.
In our mothers, words that don’t exist in english perfectly encompass emotions we need entire phrases to translate and understand. The word obhimaan is one my mother always used; it is not anger. It is an anguished frustration enflamed specifically by the thoughtless or selfish actions of a loved one. It is not used with strangers: obhimaan can only be used in the context of love. There is no english equivalent unless you want to consider this paragraph of words.
In english there are despondency, pleasure, regret etc. and the slightly more complex melancholy, homesick—but nothing to describe the specific discontent of completing a fantasy, or confronting your own mortality at your grown daughter’s wedding, or the scientific thrill that attends a failure. What happens when you take a woman who comes from a language like this and shove her into the confines of english, with no memory of why she is the way she is?
When I first read Rupi Kaur, I thought immediately that it took the spirit from nayyirah waheed’s work. This is why, you’ll notice, I’ve never posted her writing on any social media platform. But I was uncomfortable with it for another reason. It’s uninspired. It’s superficial. There is a lack of honesty. It sounds painfully like a woman attempting to express herself in another woman’s language. Brown women have always leaned against black women while benefitting from certain privileges in a closer proximity to whiteness. And Rupi Kaur’s “poetry” was familiar in more than one respect.
I recognized that it sounded like another woman’s language not only because Kaur was attempting to impersonate waheed’s persona, but it was so recognizably an attempt to reproduce another’s language because this is what south asian women do—when we speak English, when we carry the pressures of our mothers against the flight of our own spirits, when we erupt in emotions that cannot translate through diaspora. We are vocal without knowing our voice. And this is something that we need to recognize, understand, and change.
We are lethal to each other as if scrambling to establish a theory first without knowing ourselves, and ultimately still attempting to apply the theories that have already been created for another woman to ourselves. As one commenter said, “desi women are more capable of producing their own emotions.” But we grow defensive and certainly toxic when any of us dares make an attempt that does not resemble what has already been lain out, and we celebrate those who do in their spiritual plagiarism. When we feel vacant ourselves because we cannot fasten reason to our emotions, any semblance of that vapidity in another, even if misplaced or projected, inspires our contempt. We will get nowhere if we continue to deter ourselves and other south asian women who are attempting to pave our own way and relieve the theories of black women of constant misuse, misappropriation, and plagiarism.
Leave the work of black women to black women. They have worked hard. We cannot adopt the struggle of another as a means to name our own growing pains.