Rupi Kaur has a very unassuming writing style that is refreshingly simple and concise without being too simplistic. I expected a collection of random poems, but that's not the case here; it's split into four chapters:
(1) the hurting (2) the loving (3) the breaking (4) the healing
... and tells a story with beginning and end, about the different relationships in life with autobiographical parts interwoven in it, littered with Kaur's doodles. The relationships are those between parent-child, relatives, lovers and the one you have with yourself; sometimes healthy, other times abusive and destructive and how they shape you into the person you are. But in the end it's actually a journey of empowerment and acceptance.
I've noticed poets writing poems with their words carefully placed on the page, lots of gaps and negative space, you see? I don't know if I'm just blind to the nuances of poetry, but if you write something like this:
It automatically gets converted to this in my head:
That being said, after reading Rupi Kaur's biography & FAQ on her website, I was better able to appreciate her work; for instance she eloquently explains why it's important for her to use lowercase and almost no other special characters in her writing:
although i can read and understand my mother tongue (punjabi) i do not have the skillset to write poetry in it. to write punjabi means to use gurmukhi script. and within this script there are no uppercase or lowercase letters. all letters are treated the same. i enjoy how simple that is. how symmetrical and how absolutely straightforward. i also feel there is a level of equality this visuality brings to the work. a visual representation of what i want to see more of within the world: equalness.
and the only punctuation that exists within gurmukhi script is a period. which is represented through the following symbol: |
so in order to preserve these small details of my mother language I include them within this language. no case distinction and only periods. a world within a world. which is what i am as an immigrant. as a diasporic punjabi sikh woman. it is less about breaking the rules of english (although that’s pretty fun) but more about tying in my own history and heritage within my work. / source
kaur is great, when she uses anecdotes:
when my mother was pregnant with her second child i was four i pointed at her swollen belly confused at how my mother had gotten so big in such a little time my father scooped me in his tree trunk arms and said the closest thing to god on this earth is a woman's body it's where life comes from and to have a grown man tell me something so powerful at such a young age changed me to see the entire universe rested at my mother's feet
Parts of it felt contrived and clichéd, but there were some shorter pieces amongst them too that stood out to me:
i've had sex she said but i don't know what making love feels like
Where to begin? "Open Hearts" has surprised me from chapter one. On the surface, it seems like just another smutty contemporary romance, but with subvWhere to begin? "Open Hearts" has surprised me from chapter one. On the surface, it seems like just another smutty contemporary romance, but with subverted tropes, so don't be fooled by the soppy cover!
See, when the book description speaks about a tortured anti-hero, an immortal vampire, shapeshifter, jock or loner dude, they're usually of the alpha male variety. That's fun to read on occasion I admit, especially when they are properly fleshed out characters, but it can feel repetitive fairly quickly. In other words, it can feel like you've been reading the same recycled stories over and over and it all starts to become one big blur.
So it was with great surprise that I discovered Eve Dangerfield's "Open Hearts", wherein she introduced the male lead who seems to be an alpha male on the outside, only he's actually a beta hero. I've read chick-lit books with a hunky, but not overly smart hero before, but Dangerfield has truly outdone herself and set a high bar for this trope and the romance genre in general. I mean, I wasn't sure what to expect from "Open Hearts", but it definitely wasn't a smart romance about two leads who've been dismissed for what they look like one too many times. I'm blown away! The unconscious and conscious gender bias we're subjected to through our social environments and media have contributed greatly to how we perceive people and that's a topic that runs like a golden thread throughout the whole novel.
Let's take Dean, our novel's hero. Here we have a shy lunkhead for a hero who's submissive, sensitive and incredibly caring. Dean Sherwood is the guy, most girls want to use for sex but is considered too stupid and immature to have a relationship with. He perpetually loses his train of thought, is a motormouth and he's never held a steady job in his life. In one particular scene we witness Dean being constantly dismissed by his male colleagues because he's too 'feminine'. He is in fact, aware of this but doesn't give a shit; he's unapologetic in displaying his emotions and doesn't filter them unlike his other male acquaintances. Dean reminded me of a teddy bear wanting to be picked up and loved!
Mains were a choice between steak and salmon. Ash swapped her salmon for Dean’s steak, and he was subsequently ribbed by his teammates for fifteen straight minutes.
“Come on, Sherwood, I know she’s a new girlfriend, but there’s no need to trade in your man-card.”
“Are you gonna ditch your wallet for her purse?”
“Would you like a packet of tampons for dessert?”
Dean laughed it all off like a good little soldier, but Ash, unable to lol at the link between eating a fish and being a big Nancy-boy and feeling very much like an idiot outsider because of it, felt her mood get worse.
When he sees Ash, he's smitten and consistently, but patiently tries to woo her. Ash is at a point in life where she wants to be on her own and is considering a sperm donor to finally fulfill her dream of becoming a mother. At the beginning of the novel Ash is trying to break off an abusive relationship and not interested in anything serious with Dean because he seems anything but a safe choice.
If there's one thing I didn't like, it's the amount of sex scenes and the choice of words for the pillow talk; I thought it to be unnecessarily detracting from an otherwise thoughtful story.
This is the scene where Ash realises she's come to prefer Dean's openness:
Ash zoned out. It was either that or punch him in the groin.
She listened without hearing as Nate droned on about best practices and maternal mortality and the importance of early intervention. Then something strange happened—she started to hear the tremor in his voice, see the pallor in his cheeks, the way he kept shoving chips in his mouth, barely chewing before he swallowed and crammed more in.
He was upset about Shashi. But instead of admitting it, he’d chosen to come here and give her the big ‘that’s life, sweet-cheeks’ spiel. They could have been comforting each other, bonding over their shared pain, but instead, he was sitting in front of her pretending nothing was wrong and that she was irrational for being upset.
And as he talked, without so much as taking a breath, Ash imagined they’d had a baby together, a son called Nathaniel Huxley, like his father and his grandfather. What would Nate Huxley III have grown up thinking about disappointment, guilt, and sadness? What would his father have told him if he was crying? Ash guessed he’d offer his son an ice cream or a trip to the park. “Chin up, mate! It’ll all be okay! Big boys don’t cry! Not even when it hurts!”
She thought of Dean, tearing up as he got his Best and Fairest award. The way he was never embarrassed to say exactly how he felt, to show his fear and excitement. She imagined Dean pulling their crying son into his lap and holding him, perhaps even crying himself if there was nothing else he could do. He was a man who was as soft inside as he was big outside, who was gentle even when it was to his detriment. Who had never lost that boyish way of letting every emotion radiate out of him, as though he had nothing to hide. Ash stood up, cutting Nate off mid-sentence. “I’m sorry, but I have to go.”
The other night I told you I couldn’t fix your problems. I was wrong. I can totally fix them, I promise. Look.
Problem One: you think the people I know are judging you for your past.
Solution: They can go fuck themselves. You’re the hottest chick in the world, of course, you hooked up with loads of people when you were younger. That’s what hot people do. Anyway, you’re with me now, and that’s all that matters. Besides, do you know how many people came up to me after you left and said we made an awesome couple? Heaps. Maybe they were just staring and not coming over to talk to you because you’re intimidating. Not in a bad way, in like a Queen Cersei way. Or maybe people were staring because you’re crazy hot. Either way, it doesn’t matter to me, and it shouldn’t matter to you.
Ash stared up at the willow tree and smiled like a dickhead. God, she fucking liked this human. When she finally contained herself, she kept reading. Problem Two: you got your period.
Oh, babe, I’m so sorry. I know how much you want to be pregnant and I’m not gonna lie, I wanted that, too.
Ash pressed a palm against her empty belly and felt sadness stab her like a frozen blade. Solution: I keep fucking you until you’re pregnant. I’ve been googling heaps of stuff about babies and the chances I’d bun your oven the first time around were pretty small. Still, from what I’m reading (I googled ‘how soon can you get pregnant once you start trying’) seventy out of a hundred couples conceive within six months, so if you’re still keen, we’ve got an excellent shot.
Problem Three: Chelsea.
She asked me out last year, and I said yes because her dad’s in the club and she was nice. About fifteen minutes into our first date I wanted to run away. It was like going out with Dora the Explorer.
Ash laughed, then pressed her hand into her mouth, feeling guilty. We were so fucking awkward together, I have no idea why she wanted to go out with me…
“Because you’re gorgeous you stupid, great ginger knob.” … but the only reason we went on more than one date is that I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, and I knew she was going to Japan so I thought it would be better if I just waited until she left. We never slept together, we only kissed once. If I had a choice between being her boyfriend and being the guy you called to fix your washing machine, I’d be at your house with a socket wrench every night. You’re my dream girl, Ash. No one even comes close.
Solution: We forget I ever went on some dates with Chelsea and be boyfriend and girlfriend.
Ash pressed the letter to her chest, overwhelmed with stupid spiralling heart feels. Then she yanked the paper away, embarrassed by her own soppiness. Problem Four. The video of me snowboarding with my cock out.
I should have told you about the video, it was stupid to think no one would say anything or show it to you and it wasn’t fair that your ex was the one who did it. I should have owned up when I had the chance. I was drunk and being an idiot, and someone I didn’t know was filming and put it on Facebook. I wish it hadn’t happened, but it did, and there’s nothing I can do about it, except say I’m sorry and I’ll never do anything that dumb again.
Solution: I know the video existing isn’t the whole problem. I know it upset you because it’s more proof that I’m not responsible. So when you get back to your grandma’s house, I hope you’ll find something that proves that I am responsible. Don’t worry, I haven’t set the place on fire or anything. I’m sure you’ll like it. Maybe I shouldn’t have even mentioned setting the house on fire. I’m sorry and please don’t think I would do that.
I told you from the start I think you and me have something special. I didn’t think I would ever have someone special, Ash. I didn’t grow up thinking love or marriage were something I could have. I didn’t think anyone would ever be able to put up with me that long. I lived with Max, I played football, I did whatever job I did and I never made any plans because I didn’t want to hope too much and end up on my own.
If I’d known you were coming, I would have lived differently. I would have made sure I had something to show for myself when you got there, but I didn’t and I can’t go back. All I can promise is that going forward I’ll be better and I’ll never stop trying to be the man you deserve. I love you, Ash, and I’ll be waiting. Take all the time you need.
Ps. Sorry about my shitty handwriting.
Ash sat under the tree, reading and rereading the letter. She laughed and eventually, once she was sure no one but the magpies would see, she cried.