Harnidh Kaur is a 21-year-old student, currently pursuing her Masters in Public Policy from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. Her first book, ‘The Inability of Words’ (Writers Workshop, Kolkata), emerged as the Amazon Poetry Bestseller on the very first day of its launch. She feels thrilled and surprised at the same time. “Did I expect all my friends to buy my book because of loyalty? Yes. Did I expect fathers to email me requests to autograph copies they bought for their daughters as a secret gift? No. I'm still reeling.” She’s presently looking at expansion— international publishers who can help increase the distribution network, and of course, upcoming reviews.
Read our conversation on identity, perspective and various other aspects of her poetry here:
Trivarna Hariharan: Congratulations on your book! So happy to see it getting all the love it deserves. I know it has not been too long since the release, but what do you make of your writerly life so far?
Harnidh Kaur: Well, for one, people are demanding. Especially when you're a poet. They want interpretations, personalisations, whatnot. When you write, your thought process isn't just yours anymore. It's gratifying to know that people will pay money to read you, of course.
But it's also a little alarming, because people want to spend money on what I write! It should be up to par.
TH: Does your external environment affect you as much as your internal one?
HK: It doesn't impact how I write. But it's definitely a boost. And it's a lot of validation of a LOT of hard work. That feels good. I'll shrug it off by tomorrow, but for now, I feel grateful.
TH: You have an individualistic voice. Are you afraid of being judged for what you say, sometimes? Of the repercussions of an honest piece?
HK: I welcome debate and conversation, and if someone has a valid point to make, they're welcome to it. I've never claimed to know the truth, just what I see as right and wrong. Sure my first reaction is 'how would you criticize me' because that's just automatic defence. However, in these few years of writing, I've become a lot more open to worldviews and judgements. I welcome your words, as long as you can stand by them.
TH: In what ways does criticism impact you?
HK: It makes me think. That's about it. The source of the critique is what my reactions depend on. If it's someone I know, someone who has some merit, I'm very happy to try and improve. But that requires immense sifting, because a lot of critique today is a mixture of dislike, envy, and a need to be critical.
TH: Do you have a creative process? What is it like?
HK: When I write, I research, and intensively so. All references are cross checked, and each poem probably has a short story’s worth of context behind it. My ‘process’ simply involves putting pen to paper and trying to think from a reader’s perspective. If I feel that something I’ve written would evoke the images I see in my head, the piece is a successful one.
TH: That ideology reflects in your work. In fact, what surprises me about your poetry is this glaring co-existence of relatability and individualism. A lot of poetry that is relatable doesn't always have a voice of its own, and vice-versa.
HK: Everyone lives as an individual, in a context. It's just something that we've been conditioned to ignore, and to shun away, because it's too difficult to imagine people as whole beings coming together. It's easier to think of them as half beings fusing to create a homogenous whole. Maybe the conditioning went wrong with me. Maybe I was just lucky to escape it. Being an outlier helps in this. Just having a perspective a tiny bit different can change the colours you see.
TH: But are there times when you look back at your writing without identifying the contexts you wrote them in, after a really long time?
HK: Not really, no. I don't really escape contexts or emotions. They layer up on me, in my mind. So I can access them, and use them, as I want. Maybe that's what makes my work accessible. I'm 15 and 20 and 30 all at once.
TH: Is that kind of compartmentalization draining? Or do you enjoy it?
HK: It makes me acutely empathetic. Which is at odds to my normally abrasive personality. It's very useful, I suppose. And that's what matters. It allows me to leach off emotion and experience with ease. Does it leave me exhausted? Yes. But it's worth it.
TH: I sensed that when I read your book. Your poems have the ability to look at things from an objective perspective without being void of sentiment.
HK: They're completely intertwined. Think of it like a camera focus. You take a context, and then you zoom into and focus onto certain details. I suppose that's how I work, too.
TH: What is your core source of inspiration?
HK: Honestly? I have none. I think I write simply to give voice to a very rapid, tumbling monologue in my head. It's filled with rich descriptions, made up words, and purple words. I just need to purge it out on paper.
TH: What are some of your biggest fears?
HK: Finding myself out of words. Finding myself in a position where I can't write because I don't have the resources to. Finding myself without something to write on, physically. Imagine having a poem in your head with no way to jot it down!
TH: And as an individual, what is your biggest fear?
HK: Not leaving a mark. I want to change lives, and perspectives. Falling short of that aim would be...disastrous.
TH: Speaking of perspectives, your poetry demonstrates a high sensitivity of geography and place. How has your geographical identity influenced you as a person?
HK: I’m a female from a minority community in one of the most interesting countries of the world. My geographical context is everything to me. I don’t think I’d be a poet, much less a good one, if I didn’t live in a place that can assault my senses with perspectives and abilities like India does.
TH: How do you discover the various aspects of your identity through poetry?
HK: Identity is an exploration. In one of my poems I describe people as patchwork quilts, and that’s exactly what identity is. It’s absorbing as much of our own context as you can, and unravelling it through narratives, whichever your chosen medium might be.
TH: Was the process of exploring your perspectives in a particular voice difficult?
HK: Not really. I think it was the fact I was taught to understand that literature, good literature, that is, is always created in a context helped me immensely. My narrative stems from my context, and limits itself to it. I don’t presume to speak for people. Humility in poetry is always a lovely accessory.
TH: True. And I found it interesting that by the end of your book, you had walked me through an expanse of your perspective. When you read your book today, does it transport to you to a time and sentiment in the past? Can you relive it exactly as it was?
HK: I can. I have a very, very vivid memory. Tastes, smells, sounds, textures. That's how I write too. The aim is to transport the reader into the context I find myself in. If you sit with me, I can show you how the poem came into being. It's burdensome, sometimes, carrying all those memories. But it definitely makes for interesting conversation.
TH: I would love to be a part of that conversation. It’s exhilarating to see poems come into being. Talking about evolution, what has been the most difficult poem you've written?
HK: Definitely Bequeaths. I share a very...complex relationship with my mother. We're forces of nature. Tendencies forced me to face the realities of emotional abuse, and their manifestations. A lot of my poetry is about uncomfortable realisations.
TH: How do you feel after writing these poems? What is your immediate response?
HK: Well. Think of having to break a bone to reset it because you have to reconfigure a healed bone. That's what some of my realisations feel like. They do help in the long run. But I won't deny, they're horrible sometimes.
TH: How do you resolve them?
HK: I power through them. Find the problem, study the tangle, and undo the complicated knot. That's the only way for me.
TH: And that I think, sums up The Inability of Words too. It powers through. If you had to describe it in a few lines, how would you do it?
HK: It's an endeavour to spill forth a lot of words, and find just the right ones. That's it. It's an honest, unafraid one.
Buy “The Inability of Words” here.
Trivarna Hariharan is an editorial intern at Open Road Review.