The first time I saw the name “Kaur” in a bookstore, I cried. Like, tears-streaming-down-my-face-as-I-try-not-to-be-seen cried. As a Punjabi and Sikh woman, holding Rupi Kaur’s milk and honey in my hands felt like a victory. And there’s a very important reason why.
I grew up lost in the pages of my favorite books. Whether it was a school night or a weekend, an evening at home or on a trip to the grocery store with my mom, I would usually have a novel in hand that made my surroundings melt away. But throughout my childhood and teens, whether I was reading fantasy, historical fiction or romantic comedy, there was not a single instance where I saw myself in the words I read. It wasn’t until adulthood that the lack of representation of Sikhs in mainstream literature even seemed odd to me: I had never seen myself represented, so I didn’t realize that I could be represented.
When you grow up in a society where white faces and Eurocentric features are the accepted baseline for “normal,” your body and appearance begin to feel like an abnormality.
This lack of representation spans beyond literature. It is an extreme rarity to see a Sikh woman who ties a dastaar (Sikh turban) on television, in film or in any form of print media. Even in feminist art spaces, which are increasing working towards inclusivity of women of color, representation of kaurs (Sikh girls and women) is almost non-existent. I’ve never been one to believe that representation is the beginning and end of empowerment, but I do think that there is deep harm in a world that refuses to see girls of color. When you grow up in a society where white faces and Eurocentric features are the accepted baseline for “normal,” your body and appearance begin to feel like an abnormality. An oddity. A mistake that you must constantly apologize for.
When milk and honey became a household name, so too did the name “Kaur,” but recognition is seldom the same as understanding. Most of the non-Sikh women who encounter me on social media have questions about my last name. It’s a question, actually, and it usually goes something like this: “Hey! I know someone else by the name Kaur. Are you sisters?” It’s a well-intentioned enough query, but it’s a reminder that my identity as a Sikh woman is still deeply misunderstood.
In 1699, when the tenth Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh, formalized the visible and spiritual Sikh identity, they bestowed the last name “Singh” (meaning lion) to all Sikh men and the name “Kaur” (meaning royalty or prince) to all Sikh women. These names were established as a means of erasing the classist, caste-based distinctions inherent in traditional South Asian last names. Within a society built upon a violent social hierarchy, these last names became a radical declaration of human equality. The name “Kaur” became far more than a surname: it is a way for Sikh women to identify and the roots of a powerful global sisterhood.
I hope that Sikh girls, Punjabi girls and girls of color don’t grow up as I did, accepting their invisibility as normal.
As I wrote When You Ask Me Where I’m Going, the name Kaur was almost always on my mind. From the book’s conception, I imagined the moment when a young Kaur would walk into her favorite bookstore to see her name and feel that same sense of victory that I once felt. In crafting this collection of poetry, prose and artwork, I was extremely cognizant of the fact that this was my chance to render myself visible, an opportunity that I would not trade for the ease of erasure, of blending in.
Through poems and prose that touch the heart and reach a place within that feels deeply intuitive, I hope to continue carving space for Kaurs. I hope that Sikh girls, Punjabi girls and girls of color don’t grow up as I did, accepting their invisibility as normal. Instead, I hope that they can hold my book like a mirror. Like a reminder that they deserve all the space they occupy. Like a reason to demand more.