The Importance of Women's Mental Health in Rupi Kaur's ''milk and honey''


Rupi Kaur, an Indian-born Canadian poet, has made waves in the literary field for being one of the best selling authors of  2017. She accomplished this with her poetry anthology, milk and honey. What’s impressive about her success is that she sold over a million copies of a book that, for the most part, is written in verse. A lot of popular female authors, like Suzanne Collins and Gillian Flynn, nowadays only achieve mainstream success for writing in the most popular genre since the 19th century, the novel.

Her poetry succeeds thanks to the simplicity of her verses (paired with her illustrations) that convey messages in a relatable format. The themes that are carried throughout her work such as heartbreak, maternity, relationships, healing, acceptance, and overall, empowerment, all bundled together,  are the selling point of her literature. The theme of mental health from a feminine perspective is prominent throughout her poems. I think most self-proclaimed women’s mental health activists have taken a liking to her work, and with good reason.

milk and honey, which she stylized in lowercase as a tribute to her mother tongue, Punjabi, is divided into four appropriately titled sections: the hurting, the loving, the healing, and the breaking. Kaur writes her poetry exclusively in lowercase because Punjabi script has no uppercase letters. She decided that it would be a good way to honor part of her culture. Furthermore, she states that she appreciates the uniformity of texts written in lowercase.

Over the span of almost 300 pages, she explores how gender roles and stereotypes negatively affect the mental state of women. The first section of the book recounts the suffering brought by sexual abuse and patriarchal values upon herself, her mother, and other women. She emphasizes what is expected of her, typically by the men in her life, and counters with healthier alternatives of expressing and relating to each other. Kaur’s graphic tone has inspired women to open up about the generational gender inequality and abuse that plagues women all over the world. She emphasizes the pain that her mother had to endure while raising her as a form of highlighting her strength. She recognizes her own struggles, relates them to those of others, and tries to inspire hope in them.

The other sections of her anthology explain the feminine struggles of a heterosexual relationship and what it entails. The second section mainly discusses the positive parts of a relationship. The last two sections focus on validation struggles and feminine identity. This identity is strengthened after abandoning the desire to be with a significant other. As she states in one of her poems, ‘’you are in the habit / of co-depending / on people to / make up for what / you think you lack’’ (milk and honey, p. 147.) She recognizes the unhealthy expectations that are rooted in women’s lives and how imposing codependence, hypersexuality, lack of free will, and invalidation of negative feelings destroys a woman’s self-confidence and mental health. The book tends to jump between narratives of pain and trauma to words of strength and empowerment.

Many of us could learn from milk and honey. I thought of the book as a collection of wise words for healing and comfort against sexist and misogynistic life traumas. I was surprised to be able to relate to some of her verses, given my gender. I realized that, generally, the way we associate with each other in romantic relationships is inevitably replicated in all sorts of interpersonal relationships. The toxic dynamic of power and control through masculine identity permits people to hurt each other and justify it through normalization of pain. We’ve been taught that it’s somehow okay to hurt each other. Kaur’s verses teach us to try to look at people in the eyes and recognize our pain —just as the pain in others— and identity as the first step to combat abuse seen in many relationships. The union of feminine voices and identities is a key factor in mending the wounds caused by a society that is way too focused on attacking and marginalizing others.

Although many critics may scrutinize her work as oversimplified and uninteresting, I consider that her messages weigh far more than the complexity of her poetic structures. In an ideal world, milk and honey wouldn’t be a controversial book, but apparently, some people are too focused on literary ideals to focus on her message and what it represents for women around the world. Regardless of her detractors, she’s proven that many are resonating with her voice and hopefully is inspiring other women to share their stories.