When Stephanie Wong was a child, she often found herself feeling proud when her classmates called her “whitewashed.”
“People would say these things that are actually insults, but that’s what I found myself craving. It was that sense of belonging,” she said.
Wong is now a second-year speech-language pathology student at the University of Toronto. She said she embraces her racial identity, but sees much of her past experiences in the work of Toronto-based poet Rupi Kaur.
Kaur is the author of the critically acclaimed milk and honey, which is a collection of poems that focuses on issues such as heartbreak, rape, and self-love. She came to Ryerson on Tuesday for International Women’s Day and read to a sold-out audience of 500 people.
Ryerson’s Sociology Students’ Union hosted the event and proceeds went toward the South Asian Women’s Centre in North York.
Wong described Kaur’s poems as “raw,” and said they help her connect to the emotions that many young women experience.
“I love that she embraces our biology and the things that we tend to suppress,” said Wong. “She’s very empowering for that.”
Anuja Jeeva, events coordinator of the RSSU, said the idea to invite the poet came from Laci Green’s appearance at Ryerson in March of last year.
According to Jeeva, the union is trying to create an annual trend of inviting prominent social media personalities to speak at the university. She said she invited Kaur this year to promote intersectional feminism.
“Personally speaking, as a South Asian woman, I wanted to bring someone who can speak on feminism,” said Jeeva. “I also wanted someone who could speak from my community, which is a marginalized one.”
Zaahra Hassanali, another second-year speech-language pathology student at the University of Toronto, said she also feels a connection to Kaur as a woman of colour. Hassanali discovered the poet’s work through Instagram.
“She’s very, very relatable,” Hassanali said. “A lot of girls our age are going through the same things that she talks about, so we come away with a sense of empowerment.”
Hassanali immigrated to Canada from Kenya in 2001. She said there weren’t many people of colour at her school, and that Kaur’s poetry gives her a sense of community she didn’t have when she was growing up.
“It’s nice to listen to her speak about this,” Hassanali said. “Her poems are easily accessible to women of colour, and that’s what I find unique.”
Elizabeth White, 23, also attended Kaur’s reading. She said she recently discovered Kaur on Facebook and had only read a few of her poems before attending the event.
The University of Toronto law student said it was “fantastic” to see a group of energetic young women celebrating International Women’s Day together with a “brilliant young artist” like Kaur.
Poems written by young women are “impactful” whether or not the reader identifies with the specific topic, said White. She also said that it’s important for people to learn about how different women interact with the world.
“We all have very different understandings of where women sit,” she said. “I think [Kaur] helps us gain knowledge as a community, and that’s important.”
Mina Iyer, a social work student from York University, has been a fan of Kaur for about a year. She said she feels privileged to have been able to attend the reading.
Like Kaur, Iyer identifies as South Asian. The 26-year-old said she found it interesting to hear another woman talk about things like sexuality and family relationships.
“These are topics that people in our families don’t discuss,” said Iyer. “Her art transcends what’s taboo and what’s not and that creates a really good space to relate to people.”
Photos courtesy of Poetic15 Productions