Jasmin Kaur’s second novel If I Tell You The Truth follows the intersecting stories of Kiran, a Punjabi Sikh teenager who becomes pregnant after being sexually assaulted by her fiancé’s brother, and, eighteen years later, her daughter Sahaara, who speaks out against the powerful man who raped her mother. The book addresses immigration, rape culture in South Asia and the diaspora, and relationships between girls and women. “Our lives are seldom one topic,” Kaur tells ELLE.com. “We are many things all at once. It’s the interlocking nature of all of these different themes that shape our lives. That’s what [the book is] about—unraveling the layers of oppression and trauma that shaped the lives of this specific Punjabi mother and daughter, but also so many other families.”
As she did in her 2019 debut novel, When You Ask Me Where I’m Going, Kaur employs prose, poetry, and illustration, drawing on her experiences performing spoken word poetry and creating it for Instagram. “My style has always been to go experimental,” says Kaur. “If I Tell You the Truth is a cohesive mixed-media experience. All the pieces interweave, not necessarily in a linear or direct way. Storytelling doesn’t have to exist in one formally recognized medium. We can create our media. We can create new forms of storytelling.”
To mark the publication of If I Tell You The Truth, Kaur invited three models—Seema Hari, a genderfluid Bahujan activist of South Asian descent; Angel Barnett, a queer Black woman; and Tyra Preston, an African American and Mexican woman—to channel the novel’s spirit of tenderness and strength. “This is a book for women of color to celebrate the parts of ourselves that are not always allowed to be spoken about or discussed or acknowledged,” Kaur says. “These models are unapologetically taking up space and embracing the book, color, nature, themselves, and one another.” The photographs were taken by Lara Kaur, a mixed-race Punjabi photographer and social worker, while Mallory Browne, a floral designer of Black and Filipina descent, styled the flowers. Both served as creative directors for the shoot.
ELLE.com spoke to Kaur via Zoom about experimental novels, writing about trauma, and the perils and praxis of social media.
How has being a Sikh woman of color growing up in Canada informed your work?
My love for social justice has come from how I was raised and how I’ve explored the Sikh faith. I remember coming into Sikh community spaces and having candid discussions about injustices back home in Punjab, like state violence and police brutality. They were told to us in a context that makes sense to a child, but they fired me up. In university, I started learning about things globally—injustices against marginalized people, against indigenous folks in Canada, against Black people across the world and especially in North America. It was my Sikh upbringing that compelled me to take a stand about those issues through my poetry. There’s a beautiful tradition in the Sikh faith that is credited to the time of the Sikh guru, when people of marginalized faith groups were being persecuted: The guru encouraged Sikhs to write poems to inspire people to stand up for themselves. [My work] is the continuation of that revolutionary lineage.
How did the structure and style of the book come about, and how does the structure inform the content?
Poetry is my first language. I have spent years performing and writing pieces that are meant to be performed with a certain cadence and drama and fire and energy to them. When I think of a narrative like this, which is about a Punjabi mother and daughter up against an immigration system that is not built to keep them safe and a powerful male public figure who wants to bring them down, spoken word channels so much of that fire I wanted to capture in their spirits. My favorite poems in this book are those that sink into Kiran and Sahaara’s hearts, offering glimpses of their pain, their sorrows, their happiness, their romantic feelings, their anger, their outrage. Sometimes that poetry is accompanied by art. The visual art compliments the linguistic art. It adds another layer.
The poem that is on the back of the book is one of my favorites. It begins, “This is not a poem / This is an obituary for the girl I used to be.” It speaks specifically to Kiran, but it’s also to many girls. We are constantly shedding layers of our past. I hope girls who read that poem have that experience of knowing they’re allowed to put aside someone else’s version of them. You’re allowed to be a different version of yourself, even if it doesn’t conform to what someone else wanted you to be.
Which writers and illustrators have influenced your work in general, and this book in particular?
Fatimah Asghar and Safia Elhillo remind me what is possible with a poem. There are poems in If They Come for Us that are structured in beautifully unique formats. The language is so simple and to the point but it reaches into your heart. I think that’s what a poem is to me, where it just cuts straight to the core of a message and makes [the reader] feel it.
Trista Mateer’s Aphrodite Made Me Do It is a poetry collection told from two perspectives. Some of the poems are written in the voice of the goddess Aphrodite—they are about sexual violence and the patriarchal beliefs that do not allow a woman or woman-identified person to express themselves without being sexualized and sometimes sexually brutalized. As a Sikh woman who has read Guru Gobind Singh’s scripture Chandi di Var, Aphrodite reminded me so much of Durga. She’s the only woman there. All these men are trying to take her down, but she refuses to succumb. She’s the only one who can fight injustice. I don’t think anyone understands how much [connecting these two texts] meant to me—to see strength and femininity reclaimed by both Aphrodite and Durga, and how and what femininity can be.
How did you arrive at Kiran and Sahaara’s voices and how did you sustain them?
Kiran is coming from a place of a lot of pain. She’s had it rough from the beginning. The experiences she’s had have forced her to grow up very young. She has figured out things that most adults would’ve had a support system to figure out. I had to take emotional breaks and practice self-care and step away from the computer and let myself rest and recover. Writing can sometimes be a lot like method acting. Sahaara has been protected from the violence that her mother was not. She has wonder and joy and a feeling of confidence about life that was easier to sit in [as a writer]. It was challenging but necessary to show the dichotomy of how these teenage Punjabi girls grew up.
How do you navigate the inherent risks of writing about trauma?
I want [this book] to be as honest as possible, and that means putting up a mirror to this world. I want this book to be accessible to people like Kiran and Sahaara who have this trauma. I want them to feel safe reading this book and to feel seen. When I was writing a traumatic scene, [I made] sure that I wasn’t dwelling in the violence. There is a scene where Kiran is being interrogated by police. There’s a flashback of the sexual violence she experienced. Originally, when I wrote that, I described what she was seeing and experiencing. Then I sat there with it for a few weeks and I rewrote the whole [scene], and instead described Kiran saying, “I could tell you what happened, but does it matter, because this world isn’t going to believe me anyways.” That felt more authentic because it didn’t matter what happened in that room. What mattered is how this world reacted, which is how it always reacts when a woman speaks her truth, which is that she is shunned, silenced, and told it doesn’t matter.
In erasing the visceral details, the people who have proximity to that violence don’t hear it because they have lived it. The people who have not experienced that violence shouldn’t need to read it to offer sympathy for [the character]. You shouldn’t have to see someone suffering in order to feel sympathetic towards them.
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Do you think social media is helpful or hurtful when it comes to issues you care about?
If it weren’t for Instagram, my audience would not have found my work. My agent found me via Instagram. It’s radical for people of color to not require gatekeepers to decide that their work is valuable. As these platforms have become more commodified, it’s become harder for small artists to be seen and get the same reach for their work. The trolling is really intense. As a Sikh and Punjabi woman, the abuse online has been hard from trolls, predators, and people who don’t like my opinions, what I stand for, or the way I look.
[This] shouldn’t be the cost of being a woman on the internet. I had to create better boundaries for myself. I had to ensure that people know that my Instagram is not a space for cruelty or drama or airing grievances. I’m happy to say I’ve created a community where there are a lot of young people, especially young women of color, who feel like they can talk and discuss their issues and their experiences, and feel comfortable opening up and sharing and sending me messages. I take solace in that when the trolls come.
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