In her debut novel, artist Jasmin Kaur reflects on the power of being represented in stories one values

In an interview with Firstpost, spoken word poet, illustrator and teacher Jasmin Kaur talks about her debut mixed-media novel When You Ask Me Where I'm Going, the impact of poetry in her life, and the importance of community building among the marginalised.

Aarushi Agrawal December 16, 2019 09:35:47 IST
In her debut novel, artist Jasmin Kaur reflects on the power of being represented in stories one values
  • Canada-based spoken word artist, illustrator, and teacher Jasmin Kaur has published her debut novel When You Ask Me Where I'm Going.

  • She finds writing, besides being a powerful form of self-expression, a handy tool that helps her navigate a complicated world.

  • Her writing is a response to fictional trends and the lack of representation of the marginalised.

From being a shy child who “felt happy to disappear into a crowd", despite carrying "many strong opinions”, to recently having published her debut novel When You Ask Me Where I’m Going, — which she describes as an amalgamation of everything it means to be her, — Jasmin Kaur has come a long way. According to the Canada-based spoken word artist, illustrator and teacher, her biggest sources of inspiration have been poetry and performance. “Through poetry, I’ve developed a powerful sense of confidence, and I actually enjoy presenting work in front of audiences,” says Kaur in an email interview with Firstpost. “Poetry and performance have fundamentally changed me.”

In her debut novel artist Jasmin Kaur reflects on the power of being represented in stories one values

When You Ask Me Where I'm Going by Jasmin Kaur book cover. All photos courtesy Penguin Random House India.

But before she could perform, she had to write, which, besides being a powerful form of self-expression, has proven to be a handy tool that helps her navigate a complicated world. “Writing helps me process the issues that I experience and witness. It is a large gulp of air and an exhale in a world that doesn’t let us breathe.” Through writing and art, and through journaling, she’s documenting and analysing her reflections, experiences, and emotions. “I journal to unpack and analyse my emotions rather than simply sit within their waves,” she says. “My journaling doesn’t always lead me to an “aha!” moment, but it allows me to unravel things.”

Besides being a lens through which she observes the world, writing is also her way of making a meaningful contribution to it. “My need to write largely arises from the injustices I see in the world,” she says. Kaur is reacting to a structure that actively oppresses people of colour, women, and other minority communities. “As a woman of colour living in an often-racist society, to be yourself is to live within a pressure-cooker, at times,” she says.

In her debut novel artist Jasmin Kaur reflects on the power of being represented in stories one values

Jasmin Kaur.

Kaur is writing not only as a response to the world, but also as a response to fictional trends and the lack of representation of the marginalised. Having grown-up reading, the writer never found herself represented in the stories she so thoroughly enjoyed. “To see someone who looks and sounds like you within the stories that you value is a very powerful thing,” she says. Instead of seeing “light-skinned, wealthy South Asian women on stages and big screens,” such an honest reflection is what she considers truly representative. “It’s about feeling that your lived experiences as a marginalised person are being accounted for through honest, grounded voices.”

With When You Ask Me Where I’m Going, Kaur has worked to represent, with brutal honesty, one such diaspora, and is speaking essentially to young women and older teenage girls, sharing her own perspective as a Sikh woman from Canada. “I think that Sikh girls often grow up feeling like the other, feeling like they need to erase themselves and their visible Sikh identities in order to fit into the box of Eurocentric femininity that this world has placed them in,” she says. This is a result of primarily ‘othering’ the self, and the solution, Kaur believes, lies in community building between the marginalised. “I know that solidarity among marginalised groups is critical to our collective liberation.”

Through a heavy focus on intersectionality, this oppressed mindset is what she’s challenging. When You Ask Me Where I’m Going touches upon themes of immigration, sexual violence, mental health, identity and racism, and love and healing. “Teenage girls are often navigating the same violent, misogynistic, hyper-sexualising world that women navigate,” says Kaur. “Often, we underestimate the experiences and conversations that teenagers are already engaging in,” she adds. For this reason, Kaur wasn’t hesitant about discussing themes like sexual abuse and trauma in a book she knows will reach teenagers. She wants to create YA (young adult) work that “isn’t soft, comfortable, or censored". "I want to create work that speaks to the lived experiences of marginalised young people,” says Kaur. Visually, When You Ask Me Where I’m Going is a mixed-media work comprising poetry, prose, and illustrations, since for Kaur, poetry and visual art have always come together quite naturally. She also looks at having more than one medium to express herself as an advantage. “I think that there are certain poems that benefit from speaking to readers solely through language. I think that there are others whose meanings expand through visual art,” says Kaur. Among her favourite pieces of art in the book is the one on page 219, which melds language very “directly and viscerally” into the artwork. “I don’t believe that artwork is simply for young readers. All of us can benefit from stories told through multiple layers of representations,” she adds.

In her book, Jasmin Kaur is writing from the perspectives of different characters, also embodying their poetic voices. This is possible through first doing thorough character-building. She thinks about them enough that they’re expanded to “almost-real” people living in her mind. “Then, I imagine the character in different situations. How would they react to pressure? Betrayal? Acts of love? When I’ve figured out what makes them tick and have built up a sense of plausible consistency in their personalities across different situations, then I feel comfortable stepping into their voices within poetry,” explains Kaur about her process.

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only you can teach your insides to bloom but i will stay here as long as you may need with water. — jasmin kaur _ Thank you so much to the @jmc.uci team who made last night so special, especially @harveens + @gurjivkaur who hosted yesterday's event. I'm so grateful to have been able to connect with so many amazing communities in California through @jakaramovement and am sad to leave you all (albeit for a short time 😅). _ BC TEACHERS!!!!! There are still spaces available in my BCTELA conference workshop that's taking place tomorrow at LA Matheson Secondary in Surrey. Please sign up for the conference if you haven't already. I'm so excited to facilitate my first workshop for fellow educators. 🌷

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And while she is writing for myriad readers, she tries not to think about the reactions to her work, since that leads her to the much dreaded writer’s block. “I can open up about my experiences publicly because I don’t tend to fear vulnerability.” This is, in fact, something she considers crucial for an authentic experience as a human being. “I think that we’re often socialised to put on a perfect, happy façade for the world and I don’t think that this is conducive to community building,” says Kaur.

Community building requires honesty, first with oneself. “I think that in the western world, we often look first to those in positions of oppressive power (white people) to prove that we are “just like them”.” Instead, Kaur believes, “as Sikhs, we should be building with Black communities, Dalit communities, Queer communities, Kashmiri communities, and others, to reflect on the ways in which we can support, protect, and uplift one another.” And while opening up to community is important, Kaur also "set boundaries" for herself. "Just because I’m okay with vulnerability, it doesn’t mean that I am okay with strangers invasively crossing my emotional boundaries in search of more than what I am willing to give,” she says, on a concluding note.

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