Literary Feuds

Do ‘sad brown girls online’ write the same? Plagiarism charges against poet Rupi Kaur start a debate

New voices in writing and poetry online challenge the popular notions of belonging and home.

When poetry is plagiarised on the internet, the backlash is swift and arguably disproportionate. On July 24, Twitter users accused Indian-origin poet Rupi Kaur, author of the bestselling book Milk and Honey, of plagiarising a fellow Tumblr poet, Nayyirah Waheed. The issue was further complicated when Waheed’s fans pointed out that the African-American poet tried to initiate a dialogue with Kaur about the similarity in their work months ago, and was rebuffed. Kaur and Waheed’s work are similar in structure and metaphor, but they have this in common with several female of poets of colour that are writing on the internet. A quick guide for navigating the world of brown poets on Tumblr:

In the classroom of life, there are the inevitable archetypes: the know-it-all, the late bloomer whizkid, the underserved underachiever, and, more familiar to some of us, the model minority.

And then there’s the critic.

In recent years, new voices in writing and poetry have come to the forefront, challenging both parochial and popular notions of belonging and home. Many of these have been women, and an increasing number of women of colour at that. Part of this is inevitably the sheer talent and brilliance of these women of colour, while another part is, for better or worse, the growth of these women of colour as a marketable commodity within a larger publishing industry run by white people. Either way, you’d think their presence and contributions to the fields would be appreciated given long years of same-old-same-old, especially by their peers.

You’d think. Where I hang out on Tumblr, I don’t see it. I see comments like this one, written by a second-generation South Asian young woman:

“...feels like this weird inability those of us in diaspora have to see ourselves and our lives and experiences as whole. a few years ago, i fell hard for all that sad brown girl poetry, characterising all of us as missing pieces or being stuck between two places. i still feel it sometimes, sure. it’s a real thing, and i’m not gonna dispute that, but i’m so bored of giving credence to this idea that the second-generation immigrant experience... is inherently lesser and built on some vaguely mango-flavoured nothingness.”

As someone in the second-generation myself, I’m polarised by this message. I generally agree that romanticising the homeland is a petty and foolish endeavour, especially for people like me who have very little access to that homeland on a material basis. But I’m saddened by this user’s blunt reflection on her contemporaries. Is that all these new voices get to be even among their target demographic: sad brown girls?

I don’t know about you all, but I smell a stunt.

The accusation

Like most ethnic creations, there is no one hard-line formula that will produce the optimal desired melancholy, mahogany product. The term first bubbled up on Tumblr back in 2013 or so, in the wave generated by Warsan Shire’s nomination to the position of Young Poet Laureate of London, but the originator and context is seemingly lost to the sands of time at this point. What I have below is a general recipe, culled from my ethnographic experience deep within the field of brown creative scene Tumblr.

sad brown girl.
at least one (1) immigrant parent
one (1) estranged native tongue
2 or 3 whole crossed oceans
1 cup chopped mangoes (may substitute coconuts or tamarind)
1/2 oz feeling of not belonging in homeland + 1/2 oz feeling of not belonging here (mixed)
a vial of tears
pinch of turmeric
pinch of cheek by doting auntie
salt and alienation to taste

Now, if I was a ruder person, I could also market this as a crude attempt at satire of the genre as a whole. Basically, the sad brown girl is equally as foreign to whites as she is colonised by whites and blue as hell about it. Common themes include: guilt over parent’s sacrifice, being unavailable to both white and brown boys (sometimes girls), watching Bollywood movies with subtitles, cooking daal as good as parent, etc.

The term itself isn’t perfect. Warsan Shire, apparent progenitor in the genre, is an ethnic Somali, making her solidly black in the eyes of most, not necessarily brown. It could be said that the term is some sort of answer to or rejection of the “carefree black girl” trope that has gripped the internet in the past few years, in which case – yikes, can we let black people, black women especially, have one thing for themselves? Regardless, the term is here and we’re living in its aftermath; take its attributions with a grain of salt. (Or a grain of brown rice, I guess.)

The accused

The OP of that post doesn’t name names, but I guarantee you any person of colour who has reblogged at least two posts on Tumblr in the past week will get a certain vibe from the phrase “sad brown girl poetry”. I’ll offer a few examples of the various genera associated with the genre. Consider this exercise both a criticism of the critics and a handy list of writers to keep in your literary back pocket.

Nayyirah Waheed

Nayyirah Waheed is a writer based in the United States. She has authored two collections of poetry, salt. and Nejma.

Like many devout Tumblrites, I bought Nayyirah Waheed’s first collection of poetry, salt., which she promoted heavily on the microblogging platform before its release in 2013. Was I impressed? Honestly, yeah, and I’m not a poetry person in the slightest. Her poems were initially published on Tumblr to great response; a typical one, lands, has over 18,000 notes. The poems are short, some just three lines long, but they pack a punch. In the age of 140-character limits, maybe this is all poetry needs to be, or at the very least this is all we can need from poetry. Short as they are, they are sharp reflections on pain, alienation, and separation from origins and sources of love, precise and incisive as a doctor’s scalpel.

Regardless, Waheed endured endless scorn from established Tumblr cultural critics for her format choices and the perceived corniness of her work. Perhaps due to the relentless viral popularity of her posts, she became a symbol of the overhyped poet, one who just happened to write from the diaspora, and quite boldly at that. A typical comment: “Nayyirah Waheed really did take Warsan Shire’s monopoly on sad brown girl poetry.” For a while in 2014, reblogging a post with her trademark signature “ – nayyirah waheed” was shorthand for, roughly: this is just an adjective away from being bad poetry, or, alternatively: chill out, brown person, it’s not that deep.

Waheed herself became infamous for publicly reblogging and calling out detractors, fostering accusations that she was an insecure ham who couldn’t take criticism. One line, however, resounds particularly sharply: “what is wrong with tending to our diasporic wounds out in the open. loudly. with no caution?”

Rahila Maajid

Rahila Maajid is a writer based in London, UK.

Waheed herself was successful in this endeavour, more so than others. Evoking the name Rahila Maajid on Tumblr, on the contrary, is akin to an aesthetic blogger’s Bloody Mary. Maajid was a polarising figure on Tumblr for her poetry, then later for her aggressive answers to questions asked and allegedly false incrimination of another Tumblr user for sexual assault, the receipts of which (text messages between her and an infamous blogger known as Kia) went viral as evidence that the poet was, egads, problematic. Later, she was run off the site after she was exposed for lying about her race, having claimed she was black and using the n-word liberally when, all evidence would suggest, she was solely of Desi heritage. For the time that she commanded the spotlight, however, she offered raw, unpolished glimpses into her diaspora blues. A few excerpts, whose source posts are now long gone:

“i would rather be mute than let my tongue dance to the loose rhythm of your mother tongue.
your mother is evil.
don’t you know.”

“i meet girls like me
with eyes as dark as dried blood clots lips torn.
she rubs her hands on my face
and sees my future’s map.
i ask if the seas still bleed
she says pain will never be a stranger but merely a teacher.”

“your grandmother’s eyes are browner than your skin
and they water when you sink
and grow when you float to shore.”

Now, she wasn’t a total hack: in 2014, she was featured in a Lonely Londoners exposition, “Keep the Water Coloured”, which premiered at Trispace Gallery in Southwark. Regardless, for the in-crowd on Tumblr her name is still synonymous with shock value and brown mediocrity. She’s popped up in ghost trails from time to time, but for now she’s settled down into the digital dust, a memory and a myth all at once.

Rupi Kaur

Rupi Kaur is a Punjabi-Canadian writer of both written word and spoken verse. She has published one collection of poetry and prose, milk and honey.

24

A post shared by rupi kaur (@rupikaur_) on

Rupi Kaur. Photo credit: rupikaur_/via Instagram

Rupi Kaur is in seemingly every bookstore here in my city, and for good reason: her writing is fresh to most. Her debut collection, milk and honey, was released followed a viral controversy in which a photo containing menstrual blood was removed from her Instagram. In terms of what she writes about? She is among a small number of South Asian women who writes openly about sexual assault, which has been a godsend for more than a select few. As far as her general aesthetic goes, let her tell it herself:

“i always felt that being a woman of colour who is an immigrant to this country (i am from punjab and settled in canada). i was always stuck between two worlds, but never fully belonging to one. on a land that does not want me. coming from a land that no longer considers me its own, i had no place to call mine. i never felt beautiful enough, not for western standards or eastern standards. i had to build the bridge between these two worlds and attach them together to build my own foundation. perhaps that’s been the greatest struggle.”

If Sad Brown Girl was a comic book heroine, this would be her first diary entry. Now, Kaur is my age (that is to say, fairly young), and I guarantee you there are endless virtual binders of brown girls who can identify with what she is saying. Still, some of her peers aren’t buying it: one of the most recent posts in the Rupi Kaur tag on Tumblr, cites Kaur’s being overrated as an “unpopular opinion”. Another takes her to task for her menstruation manifest: “Yes, our periods are natural. But you know what? So is shitting. However, you don’t see people posting pictures of shit and worshipping it.” (The latter user later took back their statement and apologised for their shortsightedness.) Basically: some brown girls think she’s pedestrian, simply too one-of-them to be exceptional. Now, these are bitter pepper-flakes of critique dotting a foamy Venti latte of appreciation, but the internet is a fickle place; one of these haters will inevitably have their thinkpiece moment sometime soon.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Maza Dohta, Safia Elhillo, Ijeoma Umebinyuo, everyone featured in The Coalition Zine

🌻

A post shared by p a v a n a 🦄 (@mazadohta) on

Maza Dohta. Photo credit: mazadohta/via Instagram

The Defence

As something resembling a brown man, I have to beg the question: why are we making our women into fodder when so much of our existences hinge on brown womanhood? For myself as an Indo-Caribbean, brown womanhood is equal to resilience, strength, and survival amidst the very present realities of rape and forced labour, as well as the passage of wisdom and the creation of creole cultures. We can also surely attribute food and folk tales to the brown women in our lives as well. When I walk in my neighbourhood, it’s brown women who smile at me, who say thank you when I awkwardly step to the side to let them pass, who compliment me sweetly on my outfit and my smile.

Brown women in the creative field, especially brown creatives in the public eye, are far from indefensible or beyond critique. Truthfully, though, I don’t see half as much of this invective directed at Remi Kanazi, Vikram Seth, or Abhay Kumar, let alone other creatives like Aziz Ansari or Zayn Malik, whose rightful comeuppance seems to exclusively come from brown women. (It’s only recently that critical discourse has touched upon Desi slam poetry duo Darkmatter, whose members identify as nonbinary trans – before then, their word had been near dogma for many.) The question at hand is, why are the feminine among us exclusively deemed corny, reductive, or myopic in their craft?

To which you might respond: none of those other artists are corny; they present complex, developed, and well-executed musings on their emotional longings and the distance between homeland and present. Here’s the thing: I guarantee you they were corny at some point. I guarantee you they didn’t always write so eloquently or artistically. But someone – a mentor, friends, or some incendiary self within themselves – saw the potential in their work and praised them, gave them feedback, and encouraged them to continue improving their ideas and expression. No one would ever think to pigeonhole any of the men listed above as “sad brown guys” or any variant thereof.

So, honestly, why don’t we extend that same respect to our women creatives?

I’m not saying that Nayyirah Waheed is the end-all-be-all of poetry, let alone sad brown girl musings. But if you really have an issue, engage, don’t tear down. All egos aside, most creatives generally want to be nourished; I guarantee you very few of us, creative or not, respond well to being maligned and made fun of. If your favourite poet is on Tumblr and responds to their messages, send them a few questions or – ancient as it may seem – e-mail them. Write your thinkpiece (or think-text-post) with language that is respectful and curious rather than accusatory. Talk to your friends or your local brown girl gang and start a conversation as to whether or not these poets represent you after all. Or, if you’re able, write some poetry of your own! If these poems really aren’t for you, the best you can do is write something better.

A parting note

At the end of the day, homegirls aren’t paying attention to the haters. Warsan Shire had a high-profile feature on Beyoncé’s most recent magnum opus, LEMONADE, elevating her poetry to a new level of appreciation and a completely new audience. Rupi Kaur just gave a TED Talk. More and more brown girls are using platforms like Tumblr to gain exposure and fans. As is typical and routine for brown women and girls, despite the immeasurable odds they are excelling – and thriving.

I am bless to say, that I am very thankful that Beyonce had recited one of my poem's in her lemonade album

A post shared by Warsan Shire (@warsanshire__) on

Warsan Shire. Photo credit: warsanshire__/viaInstagram

Thanks to Priyanka M. for providing editorial feedback.

This essay originally appeared on Burnt Roti, a London-based magazine for South Asian communities around the world. It has been republished with permission from Burnt Roti editor, Sharan Dhaliwal.

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