Growing up in Canada, 25-year-old poet Rupi Kaur said she felt embarrassed by her mother’s Punjabi accent. As she ages, she said she feels increasingly guilty for that sentiment.
Kaur expressed her remorse in a poem titled “Broken English” during a Friday poetry reading of her latest book, “the sun and her flowers.” The reading, hosted by Urban Outfitters, brought several hundred fans and UT students to Space 24 Twenty off of Guadalupe.
“When she opens her mouth and broken English spills out, don’t be ashamed of the fact that she split through countries to be here so you wouldn’t have to cross a shoreline,” Kaur recited from her poem. “Her accent is thick like honey, hold it with your life. It’s the only thing she has left from home.”
The New York Times best-selling author said the poem highlights not only her journey to stop denying her parents’ roots, but also her appreciation of their struggles emigrating from India.
“I’m just now in complete awe at their lives,” Kaur said. “If somebody told me, pack up your bags, leave all your money and everything behind, and you’re just going to take this one suitcase and you’re going to go over to this country where nobody looks like you … I cannot do that, and upon that realization, I wrote “Broken English.”
Neuroscience junior Naina Bains is from Tyler, Texas, and like Kaur, is a Sikh whose family emigrated from India. She said she relates to the poem because she also recalls feeling embarrassed of her parents’ accents.
“I’m from a small East Texas town,” Bains said. “There’s no brown people and just going to the store and being with my family — I used to be so embarrassed.”
Bains said Kaur’s “Broken English” helped articulate her anxieties of trying to fit in Tyler and taught her to overcome them with renewed pride for her background.
“As a brown woman of minority faith and (to) stand on a platform and touch so many people is awe-inspiring,” Bains said of Kaur. “You learn to not doubt who you are.”
After hearing the same poem, public health junior Christina Santosa, born to Indonesian parents, said she also connected with the author’s remorse.
“I said at age 6 or 7, ‘Mom you don’t speak perfect English, it’s embarrassing when you talk to my friends at school,’” Santosa said. “It’s a good reminder to appreciate your parents, especially if you’re coming from an immigrant family because we have it so easy.”
During the reading, Kaur described “the sun and her flowers” as poems that illustrates her own experiences as a minority and other personal struggles as well as those of other women.
In line with the book’s title, Kaur metaphorically labeled her chapters, the first one titled “Wilting” and contains poems about emotional breakups and issues with body image. She turns to more uplifting notes with the book’s concluding chapter “Blooming,” which includes poems about her Punjabi mother and themes meant to encourage and inspire — particularly women and minorities.
As a descendant of Iranian immigrants, neuroscience senior Seena Ounsinegad said the last chapter of Kaur’s book resonated deeply with him.
“Whenever my mom or my dad said something incorrectly (in English), I used to be the first to correct them,” Ounsinegad said. “But the fact that (Kaur) is so proud of her heritage and that she’s very outspoken for her immigrant parents — that’s very similar to the experiences I had.”