Yep, you read that right. Jasmin Kaur is a spoken word artist who blew up after her poem “Scream” went viral and was shared by tons of celebs, including Jennifer Lopez and Tessa Thompson (we’re fangirling over here, don’t mind us).
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When I originally wrote this poem, I was reflecting on the voices that are missing from the pages of history. I was specifically thinking about what my understanding of Punjabi and Sikh history would be like if I were able to read the words of many Sikh women of past centuries. In saying “scream”, I returned to the present moment in which I have the opportunity to document my life and thoughts in ways that women of previous generations may not have had easy access to. When I reflect on the importance of kaurs (Sikh girls and women) in literature and other artistic fields, I think about younger kaurs. Future kaurs. They deserve to be able to look around themselves + back in time and see themselves visible in meaningful ways.
Lucky for us (and the rest of the world), Jasmin is gracing us with When You Ask Me Where I’m Going, a gorgeous collection of poetry & illustrations about hard-hitting topics like sexual assault, mental health, feminism and immigration. The book is split into six sections that follow Kiran as she flees a history of trauma with her daughter, Sahaara, while living undocumented in North America. Through their pain, they are able to find resilience, healing, and empowerment. And after reading these poems? You will too.
Scroll down and prepare to have your heart broken with this early look at When You Ask Me Where I’m Going.
august 17, 2001
There is something about flight that has always brought me close to hope. At that moment when the wheels of a plane slip away from the earth, I am reminded that I have just defied gravity. I am no longer anchored to where I came from, no longer bound there by science or geography or coincidence. By heart? That is, perhaps, another matter. Nevertheless, in this fraction of time between two different worlds, there is a chance to rewrite my story.
“So why are you traveling?” His question was sudden and unexpected. Ten hours of silence and I had thought I could get away with four more. No such luck.
My eyes were transfixed on the clouds that swallowed the sky. He was almost as surprised as I was when the words escaped my mouth: “I’m running away.”
My sight remained glued to the clouds, but I could feel his almond eyes watching me. As the cloud cover gave way momentarily, I caught a glimpse of tiny fields below. I tried to let their smallness sink in.
Small. Everything is small. Just like your problems.
Just like him. Or her.
He was still staring at me. Just as my lips began to form the shape of words my mother would probably tell me to never speak aloud, he responded. “We’re all running away from something. Seven thousand miles is pretty far to be running, though. Do you think you’ve really thought this out?” The corner of his mouth was turned up in a smirk. A part of me wanted to tear it from his face. I wasn’t sure what his intentions were, but I couldn’t recall having solicited the advice of a stranger.
Maybe I don’t have any other options,” I replied with well-trained coolness. It was the coolness that I used for years at the dinner table with my father. It was a well-rehearsed charade for both of us. Dad pretended to be interested and I pretended to be honest.
“We all have options,” he said, slipping his copy of the Business Times into the seat compartment before him. “Pretty girl like you, dressed like that—I’m inclined to think you have options.”
For the first time I let my eyes lock onto his. I said each word slowly and deliberately, hoping that his reply would die in his throat: “Screw off. You don’t know me.”
“Well . . . what are you running from, then?” he asked, eyes still trying to decode mine. His gaze held for a fraction too long, as though he was not simply curious but hungry.
“Gangsters,” I replied with the most stoic expression I could muster. “My father is a drug lord who controls half of the Punjab-Pakistan border. Our mansion in Chandigarh was built on drug money. But drugs are a rise-and-fall sort of game, you know? We’ve got enemies all over the place. I doubt as far as Canada, though.” I stretched out my arm in a rather dramatic attempt to examine my nails and then looked to gauge his reaction. He was unimpressed.
“Fine. You don’t have to tell me. Keep your mask on.” He laughed, scratching his boardroom-smooth cheek.
“I don’t wear a mask.”
For a while, we returned to silence. A world spun ceaselessly inside my head and I wondered what orbited within his. It occurred to me, at some point, that each and every person sitting in this plane contained a world of their own—their own fears, their own joys, their own burdens to bear. Yet here we all were, a thousand miles above all the problems that we were running from. A thousand miles above all the collisions that were yet to be. I love the way a plane makes your world seem so small, the way it makes everything seem so distant. The trouble with planes, however, is that they land, and when they land, you can’t hide anymore.
I watched as the sun slowly handed the sky over to the moon. Know-it-all to my right dozed off, which I was grateful for. I doubted that he’d say anything more for the rest of the flight, though.
I was wrong. When we finally landed, he got up to grab his carry-on and handed me mine as well.
“You know you can say thank you, right?” he scoffed.
“I didn’t ask for help.”
“Maybe you should,” he offered me one last inquisitive look and turned away just before tears began to well up in my eyes.
Help was the one thing that I was certain I could not ask for.
august 18, 2001
When I landed, the earth did not immediately shatter. This was unexpected. The normalness of my uncle’s hug and my aunt’s casual conversation and the rainy drive away from the
airport dizzied me.
“How’s your mom doing?” my aunt asked.
My hands, delicately stacked one upon the other, tensed ever so slightly.
“She’s good, Chachi Jee. She’s not working anymore but she still designs suits,” I replied.
“Oh yeah? Where’s my suit, then?” She laughed effortlessly. Her laughter was always surprising. It is the day to my mother’s night. My mother’s laughter is seldom so carefree.
“That,” I said smilingly, “you’ll find out when we get home.”
She looked back with kind eyes that said, You shouldn’t have. My mom’s eyes can speak like that, too.
The intensity of my mother’s gaze at the New Delhi airport was still floating in my mind. Just after I handed my oversize suitcases to the sugar-polite airline attendant, I looked back at Mom and Dad. Mom’s features were arranged in the way I had expected. She spoke to me wordlessly: Go to school. Finish well. Come back and everything will be fine.
I tried to interest myself in the sights outside the window: cement and tall buildings and soon the endless expanse of a freeway. Breathe in. Breathe out. I steadied myself with the way the moon followed us faithfully no matter how fast the car traveled. It was the same moon, ivory and luminescent, that I stared up at from my bedroom back in Chandigarh. Guess I hadn’t traveled halfway across the world all alone, after all.
The lights gently illuminated the streets when we finally got home. The time difference between Punjab and Vancouver had me wide awake, despite the lateness of the night. The cold Canadian air, which would feel like a surprise for months, wrapped its arms around me as I stepped out of the car. So this was home.
My uncle fumbled with his keys in the darkness as he opened the trunk.
“Don’t worry, Kiran, I’ve got it,” he said as I attempted to help him with my luggage. “You and your chachi go inside.”
My uncle’s home looked nothing like our gated house back in Chandigarh. My father’s rising position within the car company meant that he was able to cross off half of his travel list by the age of forty-five: Barcelona, Dubai, Tokyo, and Paris. For whatever reason, however, cities in North America were never very high on his list. It was only with my grandmother’s insistence that my parents had decided to visit my aunt and uncle in Canada. At the time, I was eight and my aunt and uncle lived in a tiny apartment in Surrey. The little home was constantly buzzing with sound, mostly that of Joban, my baby cousin. As a young girl, I couldn’t put a finger on what it was, but something about that house felt different from my own. There was a warmth there that had nothing to do with weather.
Eleven years later, I was back. T This time, on my own. This time, no longer the child assured of her place between her mother and father. This time, standing on unsteady legs that would have no one to guide them. It was everything that I needed and everything I dreaded.
My aunt and uncle lead me up to the bedroom closest to the stairway.
“I’ll go wake up Joban,” Chachi Jee said. “He’ll want to see you.”
“No, no. Let him sleep. I’m actually really tired, too,” I replied.
“Okay, you should get some rest. But call your parents first and let them know you’ve arrived.”
“Okay,” I whispered.
It had been approximately seventeen hours since I had decided that the first time I called her, I would tell her the truth.
“Only a few years of school and then we have the wedding! I talked to Prabh’s mom the other day. I swear that woman must have everything her way. She knows this new designer from Bangladesh—Mukherjee something—and she insists that he—”
“Mom?” I paused, absorbing the momentary silence between my end of the receiver and hers, a distant world away.
“Hanji,” she replied, her voice, so familiar and unbending.
I let the words settle into the space between us. I didn’t breathe.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean . . . I’m pregnant.”
“This is why I told you to be careful when you are alone with him! It doesn’t matter whether you are engaged or not. A man is still a man.”
I hesitated for a moment. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her.
“You stupid girl.”
The receiver remained to my ear and I found myself sliding to the ground, pulling my knees up to my chin. The wood floor beneath me was cold against my naked feet. At once, I was in Chandigarh again, two days before I had boarded the plane. The waterfall at the Rock Garden bloomed before me, its rushing waters juxtaposed with the tears streaming down my face. Prabh finally spoke. His almost jet-black eyes piercing into mine for the first time.
“And I’m supposed to believe you over my own brother?” he hissed in a frigid whisper.
“Why—why—would I lie about something like this?!” I angrily retorted.
He stared at me with something cold and foreign shadowing his features. Something indifferent in place of the loving outrage I had expected. How could I have been so stupid?
The silence on the phone was the length of either a moment or a lifetime. I had almost willed myself to say something when she finally spoke up.
“Is the abortion already scheduled? You should already have medical covera—”
“Mom, I’m . . . keeping this child.”
“And how do you think I’m supposed to plan a wedding, your wedding, before it starts to show that you are pregnant? You have the rest of your bloody life to have children with him.”
Then came the part that was somehow just as overwhelming. The words slipped from my lips before I could even stop myself.
“I’m not going to marry him, either.” With that, I ended the call.