Trevor Abes: Writer

Investing Is Hard And I Don’t Have Any Money: Savings Basics For Young Canadians

Saving money for your future self, decades out in front of you, is harder than spending it on your present self. An extra cupcake, a new pair of jeans, or a week in Cuba, look a lot better than figuring out how much money you’ll need per year when you’re in your 60s so you can figure out how much you need to start saving now to get there. You see what I mean? Drudgery. It’s the difference between delight and feeling like you need to climb a mountain just to keep up.

The term, ‘investing’, carries heavy mathematical connotations that are repellent to a large number of people. None of that here, let me assure you. It also feels, somewhat counterintuitively, that investing is only something people relatively well-off can participate in. Let me settle it now: this is false. You can start with as little as $100. So no more of not bothering, figuring it’ll be OK if you get to it next year, or the one after. Because it won’t be. What we’re talking about is learning how to make your savings grow, all on their own, while you get on with your life. It’s what I hope to teach you by the end of this. This isn’t a con or a scam, it just takes a little effort, so many don’t end up taking advantage until they get jobs that offer retirement plans.

I’m going to keep it simple and divide sections into small, manageable parts. I’m also going to try and make all of this tangible for you, the benefits all up in your face so you can’t miss them. Prepare to have the daunting, mysterious, and complex subject of investing unwound into delightfully breezy prose. Here we go. Do not read it all at once.

What is investing? 

Investing means buying shares, or ownership stakes, in things that have the potential to grow in value over time, i.e. assets. The two basic assets young people need to know about, besides their ability to educate themselves and earn more money, are stocks and bonds.

A stock or equity represents the value of a business so that people can buy and sell it. It is priced per share, and the total number of shares of stock equals the whole business. The more shares of stock you own, the greater the profits or losses you will be entitled to as the business grows or shrinks. If the business does well, the share price will go up. If the business loses money or experiences a change in reputation, investors will sell their shares and prices will go down. Moment to moment, the movement of the share price is simply the result of every buy order and every sell order as they come in.

Over 600,000 companies’ stocks are bought and sold electronically in public markets, or exchanges, like the Toronto Stock Exchange, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, the Tokyo Stock Exchange, and so on around the globe. Because they’re public, that means anyone can go online and buy shares in them (more on how later). It’s by buying their bonds and shares that most people save for retirement. And no matter the country, you have loads of leading businesses to choose from. Here are three homegrown examples.

As of the time of writing, Canadian Tire’s stock sits at $137.71 per share, with 58,236,464 shares currently owned by investors. 

Scotiabank’s stock is priced at $72.08 per share, with 1,220, 414, 624 shares currently owned by different investors. 

Shopify, the e-commerce platform, sells for $501.70 per share, with 100, 282, 712 shares owned by investors.

A bond is a loan, or fixed income instrument, issued by a government or a business, and taken on by everyday investors, like you and me, or by institutions that invest on behalf of large numbers of people, like pensions, investment funds, and insurance companies. 

There are no term limits on bonds, but they tend to be for 30 days up to 100 years if the borrower has reasons to believe they’ll still be around—which is likely if you’re a country. In exchange for the money bond buyers loan out, which they’ll get back at the end of the term, they’ll also receive an interest payment, usually monthly or quarterly, totalling yearly to a percentage of the bond price – right now, we’re talking 1% to 4%  or so in Canada depending on the type of bond and the length of its term. The exact interest payment bond buyers receive depends, among other things, on how likely it is that the borrower can actually pay them back. The less likely, the higher the interest payment, and vice versa. For example, if you buy a $1000 Dollarama bond that pays 4% on a quarterly basis, you’ll receive $10 every 3 months for a total of $40 a year. 

disney

Stocks used to be issued in paper form. This one’s for one share of Disney.

Risk

Stocks are riskier—pose a greater possibility of permanent loss—than bonds for a slew of reasons, but the main two follow below.

  1. Developed governments rarely crumble, therefore their bonds tend to be more stable sources of income for those who hold them. Companies, on the other hand, go out of business all the time, and with them, their stocks and bonds; 
  2. Yet, if a company does go out of business, its bondholders have first rights to the company’s assets to get their money back. Stockholders get what’s left after bondholders have been paid back.

Because they are riskier, a global portfolio of stocks offers a higher return on your money over the long term (think: minimum 10 yrs to your working lifetime), in the vicinity of 6% per year, compared to a global portfolio of bonds at 3% a year or so. Stocks are volatile savings instruments. You could lose money. 

In the late 1920s to the early 1930s, the stock market in the United States lost over 80% of its value; in 1989 it lost 20% in a day; and in 2008-09, it halved. Yet, over the last 100 years, U.S. stocks still managed a return that flirts with 10% per year. 

In the 1980s, Japan experienced tremendous economic growth, and stock prices tripled pretty much across the board. Then, in 1991-2, the market crashed with such ferocity that today it has yet to fully recover.

During the 2008-9 financial crisis that began in the United States, Canada’s stock market followed its neighbour straight down over 40%.

Bonds, on the other hand, aren’t likely to fluctuate more than a handful of percentage points over the long term. There are, of course, always exceptions, such as when inflation runs amok

It takes willpower to ignore these price fluctuations, which can last for years, even if you know they’re coming, and that they’re a normal part of investing. Sometimes, when the world seems to be in more turmoil than usual, stock owners get spooked, sell their holdings, and move to bonds for safety, thinking they might lose it all because of Brexit or Trump or something else in the news. They forget that there has never been a meaningful time in human history when large-scale conflict or hardship has been absent. Mass selling, of course, causes prices to drop and investments to lose value.

This is why we diversify. The principle of spreading your investments around, across countries, industries, and asset classes, goes by the name of diversification. We put it into practice as a protective measure. If our developed international stocks (Europe, Japan, Australia) aren’t performing well, we still have ones in Canada, the US, and emerging markets (China, India, Brazil, Russia, etc.) to pick up the slack. If stocks are underperforming, bonds are likely going to do better as the two are uncorrelated. Having an asset class doing well in your portfolio can make a tangible difference in an investor’s life, for example if they retire during a bad year in the stock market, and need to live off their bonds for the next few years while stocks recover.

The key to being a successful long-term investor is noticing when people are afraid and selling, and meeting their fear with bravery, as you buy more shares at cheap prices, knowing full well that no war, or trade war, or your choice of catastrophe, short of an actual apocalypse, has ever stopped the development of humanity and technology along with it. Every stock and/or bond market crash has been followed by a subsequent recovery. That doesn’t mean every company or country—remember Japan from a few paragraphs ago—participates in that recovery, just that global markets as a whole return to fair value, or revert to the mean, over long periods of time. If only there were a way to buy shares in the stocks and bonds of every significant company in the world and ride the progress of industry toward heftier savings and a more comfortable retirement.

Indexing 

Because picking individual businesses and bonds to invest in is a full-time job, most people invest using funds. A fund groups together stocks, bonds, and/or other assets, according to a specific investment strategy. Investors pay a yearly fee, expressed as a percentage of the money they have invested, for the privilege of participating in the fund assets’ potential for rising in value. The strategy most apt for everyday investors like you and me is called indexing.

Indexing means creating a fund that mimics a group of assets, or index, chosen to represent something. That index could track, for example, the business operations of an entire country, the entire world, a specific industry within a country, or companies that fit into a certain investment strategy.

You can buy a Canadian index fund that tracks the Canadian stock market, owning stakes in established businesses like RBC, Bell, Suncor Energy, and Canadian National Railway, grouped according to their size in Canada’s economy. Whatever the Canadian industrial complex does, the fund will do, up or down. Example: FTSE Canada All Cap Index ETF(1). Don’t worry if some numbers and abbreviations don’t make sense yet. Just have a look around the page.

You can buy an index fund that only invests in the stocks of infrastructure projects like highways, bridges, and energy factories. Example: AGFiQ Enhanced Global Infrastructure ETF.

You could invest in an index fund that tracks companies with good records in the areas of environmentalism, societal contributions, and internal governance. Example: Fidelity Sustainable World ETF

You could invest in a fund that owns small stakes in major businesses in every investable country on the planet. Example: Vanguard Growth ETF Portfolio.

It’s that last category we’re interested in here. Over the long term, we want to participate in the industrial progress of the world through a diversified set of index funds. 

(1)  The term ETF stands for Exchange-Traded Fund. Some funds, like ETFs, trade on a stock exchange, while others, like mutual funds, do not. Trading on exchanges makes ETFs cheaper and more efficient for reasons you can dive into here if you are so compelled.

Why should I invest?

The reasons abound. It’s helpful to lay them out: retirement, a vacation, a car, a house, to start a business, to pay for school, so your kids can have a cushion when it finally comes time to move out. There’s no wrong answer, you just need to know why you want to grow your money.

If you are reading this, and you are under 30 years old, you are one lucky person. You have most of your working life ahead of you to save and let your investments grow. To put that in perspective, if you start investing $100 a month at age 30 in a portfolio that charges a reasonable yearly fee of 0.25%(2) of money invested, and the money grows at 6% per year, and you keep it up until 65, you’d have a little over $157,000 by the end. If, instead, you started when you were 40, you’d only have $73,229. If you up contributions to $500 a month, the total at 65 is $690,338.46. Here’s the compound interest calculator I used to get these numbers. It shows you how investments grow over time. Play around with it and see how much you can afford to save.

(2)  Investment fund fees are generally calculated daily and charged monthly.

How do I invest?

The reason(s) you choose determines how you should go about investing. It tells you your time horizon, or how long you have to invest, which guides you in terms of the appropriate amount of risk to take. 

Remember that risk means probability of losing money. To give you a visual example, take a look at these model stock and bond portfolios by PWL Capital, a Canadian money management firm that works with millionaires but spends a lot of its time educating everyday investors through blogs and podcasts, like Canadian Couch Potato and Canadian Portfolio Manager. Pay special attention to the lowest one-year return toward the bottom, which is the most money the funds lost in a 12-month timeframe, expressed in percentage terms. This is a measure of a worst-case scenario for the funds, the worst bump on the road over the last two decades. This way you have an idea what to expect as you hold the fund until retirement. Also look at the annualized return projected(3) over 20 years, which is the money you made per year by holding the funds over that time, expressed as a percentage. This number represents why regular saving and investing is worth it over the very long term. All you have to do is compare the 5.82% yearly return from a portfolio of 80% stocks and 20% bonds to a chequing account from a major bank today, which gets you about a 0.01% return every single month.

pwl-portoflios.png

Now, say you’re investing for retirement. Since you’re young, let’s suppose that’s 2-4 decades away. Which portfolio should you choose? One with more bonds, because it’s lowest one-year drawdown (i.e. loss) over the last 20 years of 3.87% is less painful, or one with more stock funds, because a 30.72% drawdown means you can buy more shares for cheaper, with decades left to save? It stands to reason that it’s the latter. 

But, if you need your money in less than five years to pay for school or a trip, something shorter term, then anything but bonds could be too much of a risk. The risk of losing 3.87% of your investment in a year, which is what you open yourself up to by investing in a portfolio of 80% bonds and 20% stocks, is much easier to stomach in this case than going into all stocks, possibly losing a third or more of your investment in a year, and not having the luxury of time to wait for the markets to recover.

You also need to think about your own emotions. Would you be able to withstand a stock market crash, like the one in 2008 initiated by the US housing market—where mortgage issuers carelessly handed out mortgages to people of modest means, knowing full-well they wouldn’t be able to keep up with payments—and see your holdings cut by over 50% in 18 months? Would you be able to stay the course until the market recovered without getting spooked and selling? If not, you should minimize your percentage in stocks, and up your bonds, until that feeling goes away(4)

Rationally, you may know that the stock market sometimes crashes, your investments might drop substantially, and that the only way to get through this is by holding on, owning an appropriate percentage of bonds, and continuing to invest regularly. Emotionally, though, you might find yourself betraying your better judgement. Money enables survival, so when it’s at stake, we can’t always be trusted to think clearly. If the thought of losing money robs you of sleep at night, the low and comparatively steady returns of a bond fund may be where you max out on risk. And that’s OK if it’s the only way you’ll sleep at night; you will just have to save more. The percentage of stocks and bonds you decide on is called your asset allocation.

A helpful rule is that, if you’re investing for retirement, your allocation to bonds should increase the closer you get to not working. As we learned earlier, bonds are less risky. You’ll want the money you’ve saved over the years to be relatively safe as you spend it down, relishing your golden years as you see fit.

If you’re young, it’s likely that maximizing investment returns toward a certain goal is a top priority. That would entail a higher allocation to stocks. Something like 80% stocks and 20% bonds is a common allocation for a 30-year-old with decades to compound their money. You open yourself up to more risk that way—the value of your stock funds will move up and down a lot in the short term, but a diversified portfolio should compensate you over a decade or more.

Have a gander at Vanguard and Portfolio Charts’ model portfolios to get a better sense of the percentages commonly assigned to different asset classes.

Having decided on an asset allocation, you can now consider if indexing’s counterpart is of interest to you. Allow me to level with you. In Canada, most investors are not indexers. They put their money into funds that practice what is called active management, or the pursuit of better returns than an index, usually through strategically buying and selling assets that deviate from it. What I mean by ‘strategy’ here is timing of the stock and bond markets. Researching companies and economies enough that you think you can forecast their future with enough accuracy to put money on it. 

The problem here is that, over decades, the vast majority of active managers can’t beat their chosen index benchmarks. This is due to their, on average, very high fees, with most sitting between 1% to 3% or so of total money invested, per year. Compare this to the average index fund that charges 0.2%. The problem is also due to human nature and how greed and fear are hard to remove from anyone’s focus as an investor. 

Suppose you put $20,000 in a stock index fund that tracks the whole world and charges 0.25% a year, and you put another $20,000 in an active global stock fund, whose manager is able to pick any stocks they want to try to beat our index, but charges 1.5% a year. If we project those investments over the next 20 years and assign them a 6% annual return, here’s what occurs: you end up with $64,701 from the index fund, and $50,408 from the active fund. That’s a 71.5% difference in terms of the money that ends up in your pocket.

I’m not flatly dismissing activate managers, because a few are able to outperform their chosen indices; it’s simply that we, as young accumulators, tend to not have the hours to research and locate them consistently, or we don’t have access to them. We’d need a handful more zeroes at the end of our balances to earn a glance. But that’s OK. The returns of the public global stock and bond markets are more than enough to meet our big-picture goals.

index funds

When index funds became public in the 1970’s thanks to John Bogle, active managers rightly viewed them as a threat to their fees. They were so scared, they put out ads like this one.

If you’ve just discovered that you’re an active investor at heart, eager to analyze companies and buy shares in the ones you think will do well over time, I wish you more than luck. To those remaining, it’s time to decide the funds that best suit your needs. 

Flip through selections from leading firms in low-cost indexing, such as Vanguard, RBC and Blackrock, Horizons (hover over the benchmark section) and BMO. You’ll find that some of these products are actively managed. Anything that says ‘plus’, ‘enhanced’ or ‘strategic’ is a giveaway. Sample at your peril. Each fund you click on will offer you stats in terms of historical returns, portfolio holdings, and fees. The indexes needed for a global portfolio go by specific names: 

  • S&P/TSX Composite Index or Canadian All Cap is the Canadian stock market: Vanguard, Ishares, BMO.
  • US Total Market Index or S&P 500 Index denote broad US funds: Vanguard, Ishares, Horizons, BMO.
  • EAFE (Europe, Asia, Far East) or Developed International countries refer to Europe, Australia and the UK: Vanguard, Ishares, Horizons, BMO.
  • An Emerging Markets index tracks developing countries like Colombia, Saudi Arabia, and Thailand: Vanguard, Ishares, BMO.
  • In terms of bond funds, what you’re looking for is a Canadian aggregate bond index fund or a global bond index fund: Vanguard, Ishares, Horizons, BMO.

There are lots of possible fund combinations, but the simpler the portfolio the better. You could go the Canadian Couch Potato way, choosing one Canadian index fund, like VCN, plus a World minus Canada stock fund, like XAW, and a Canadian bond fund, like ZAG. You could also buy shares of a fund that holds a set of funds that come pre-divided into your choice of asset allocation. Vanguard and BMO offer their own versions. For example, Vanguard’s Growth ETF Portfolio, which trades under the symbol VGRO, offers a portfolio of 80% stocks and 20% bonds. It reaches these numbers by holding six index funds equivalent to about 30% in the US stocks, 25% in Canadian stocks, 17% in developed international stocks, 6% in emerging markets, 5% in developed international bonds, 5% in US bonds, and 12% in Canadian bonds. Each time you buy a share of VGRO, you get a proportional percentage of each index fund. 

There are no wrong answers to your asset allocation, so long as you get the proportions that suit your goals and risk tolerance. Here’s a quick run through global allocation strategy with a word on fees.

  • The US has the safest and best regulated stock market in the world, while accounting for half of the world’s stock market activity. That’s why most model portfolios will be about 50% in the US. The cheapest US index funds charge 0.15% or so.
  • Canadian stocks live in the 20% to 30% range because the Canadian dollar is the currency we most often transact in. The cheapest broad indices clock in at 0.05%.
  • Developed international stocks tend to hover within 10%-20% of a portfolio. Fees for broad indices start at 0.20%.
  • Emerging markets are stock markets that are only finding their way. Regulation can be poor and the number of investors small, but the potential for growth easily surpasses anywhere else. You see 5% to 15% in most model portfolios. Over the long term, given how India and China are barreling toward superpower status, there’s an argument that the percentage could be a lot higher. Fees for broad emerging market index funds are in the vicinity of 0.25%.
  • Canadian aggregate bond funds cost around 0.1%-0.2%, while a global bond fund shouldn’t cost more than 0.5%. The percentage of bonds in your portfolio depends on your risk tolerance and investment time horizon.

How am I supposed to evaluate which funds are better? You may be asking. How are they different? Good questions. If you clicked on any of the fund names above, you may have noticed that fund companies supply information in terms of objective, performance, and which companies’ stocks are held in a given fund. This is a good place to start. Let me put it this way, though. Sure, there will be different indexing methods among funds that claim to cover the same section of the global stock market. Canadian Index Fund One and Canadian Index Fund Two may track different indices that exist for the same purpose and thus own different stocks. Investment companies do work according to their own internal rules and in-house experts. That being said, divergence among similar broad index funds isn’t worth losing sleep over, so long as they are chosen as a component of a globally diversified portfolio as discussed above. Over decades, differences in returns should average out.

In terms of index fund fees, cheaper is generally better, because all the funds are doing is buying the same assets in their respective indices. A Canadian index fund will own leading Canadian businesses as per the index it tracks. If Bell, for example, goes bankrupt, it will be removed from the TSX Index and replaced with another business. This means the fund that tracks the index will have to sell its Bell stock and buy the new company’s. Swaps don’t happen very often with country-wide indices, so replication is cheaper than, for example, an actively managed fund that tries to buy and sell assets to do better than an index. 

There are a million model portfolios out there, and it’s easy to feel like you’re swimming in information without necessarily going anywhere. To sum it up, the purposes of asset allocation are: to make sure you can meet your financial goals; to make sure you can sleep soundly without worrying about surviving a market crash; and to diversify, because nobody knows, in the short term, what the world economy will do. All we can say, with the confidence of over 100 years of market history, is that a diversified stock portfolio averages mid-to-high single-digit growth per year.

(3)  Please note that the funds in these portfolios are all under 10 years old. The returns data available for them has been averaged per year and projected into the future.

(4)  This can be a nerve-wracking decision, one investment advisors and financial planners make their living helping people out with. Those that abide by a fiduciary standard, anyway.

How do I buy this stuff?

You purchase shares of your stock and bond funds by opening an online brokerage account, which every big bank in Canada offers through their respective self-directed investment subsidiaries. Some are more hip than others in terms of offering online applications, but the result is the same.

Because you’re young, and your tax bracket is probably lower than it will be in 10 years, it makes sense to choose the tax-free savings account, or TFSA option, when you get to opening your brokerage account.

TFSAs come in clutch in many ways. The investments in them grow tax free and it doesn’t cost anything to put money in or take it out. That said, there’s a limit to it. The government adds a dollar amount every year to the total Canadians are allowed to invest in their TFSAs. That total contribution room, which is open to all Canadians, whether or not they have opened an account, currently sits at $63,500. You can open as many TFSAs at as many financial institutions as you like, but you cannot contribute more than the total allowed amount without penalty. The penalty is 1% of the amount overcontributed per month until you withdraw it. You can get more information on opening TFSAs here: RBC, TD, BNS, CM, Questrade.

A note on commissions: brokerages, for providing a place for buyers and sellers of stocks to meet, will charge you $10, sometimes a little less, per sale/purchase in your account. The exceptions to this rule are Scotiabank’s iTrade and Questrade. Both allow you to buy funds, including broad indices, for free or a small fee of a few cents. 

Go ahead and open an account. I’ll wait. 

Welcome back. You’ve made your fund choices and at last it is time to buy. I shall throw it once more to PWL Capital and their advisor, Justin Bender, whose video series on buying shares on different brokerage platforms is an invaluable resource. 

When should I add to my investments?

If you pay commissions on each purchase, investing one or two lump sums every six months is enough. The days don’t matter so long as you stick to them over the long term.

If you don’t pay commissions, or they are very little – Questrade’s work out to 0.01% of the purchase price – you can be more flexible and set a biweekly or monthly schedule. Purchases as low as $100 may make sense given your particular situation.

At least once a year, you must also rebalance your portfolio. You achieve this by selling some of your investments that have done well during the year, and adding that money to investments that have done the worst. The idea is to buy low, sell high, and return your portfolio to the asset allocation you want, which for the foreseeable future will be the same one you chose a few paragraphs ago. For example, suppose you invest in a portfolio of 80% stock funds and 20% bond funds. Imagine that, after a year, you sign in to your brokerage account to find that your bond fund now represents 30% of your portfolio, while your stocks have decreased to 70%. In this case, rebalancing would entail selling 10% of your bonds and putting that money into stocks to take advantage of their drop in price. If you have a lump sum to invest, you may be able to rebalance without having to sell and incur commissions. 

Will I make any money?

Yep. 

  • If you add money periodically over decades, according to a schedule you can afford and an asset allocation you can stomach—for perspective: $500 invested at a 6% yearly return over 20 years at a 0.25% yearly fee becomes $1,613.
  • If you make sure to only add money you won’t need to dip into for any reasons other than an emergency and the reasons you are investing. 
  • If you don’t sell shares when stocks crash but instead hold on and buy more if you can.
  • If the percentage of bonds you own always accurately reflects your risk tolerance — i.e. the safer money you’d want to keep around for peace of mind, knowing the stock market could halve next year, and the money you need within the next five years.

Then, yes. You’ll be fine. 

Tidying up

If you have any questions, DM me on Instagram @Trevor Abes.

Disclaimer: This article is meant for general education purposes only. It does not constitute financial advice as I am unaware of your personal situation. Consult a professional who abides by a fiduciary standard before making any investment decisions.

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Review: Broken Tailbone (Nightswimming Theatre/Factory Theatre)

New review in Mooney on Theatre. Had a lot of fun dancing my way through this one. On til Oct 13. Read it here.

Broken Tailbone_ Photo Credit Erin Brubacher 2 (1)

Photo by Erin Brubacher.

Review: Non Gratas (Alma Matters Productions)

My latest review for Mooney on Theatre.

nongratas1

Non Gratas, A Latinx Comedy Show With a Lot of Melodrama, is an improv comedy show that does its name proud. Produced by Alma Matters, and staged at Bad Dog Theatre Company, it’s loosely built around two young Latin American women who become friends after immigrating to Canada. As they struggle to connect with a new culture, they highlight the gap between two stereotypes—Canadian humility and Latinx passion—with jokes that kill but also let me into their devastating longing for home.

Marta (Mariela Pabón Navedo) is a newcomer from Puerto Rico, hungry for love and friendship, who’s been having a rough time connecting with everyone she meets. That is, until she runs into Maria (Patricia Tab), an Argentinian experienced with the culture shock of new arrival. Maria not only finds a friend and roommate in Marta, but also someone to save from the pains of finding your footing as a foreigner.

Each woman sees herself reflected in the other, the first time they recognize themselves in another person since arriving in Canada. Here, they feel like personae non gratae, both unwelcome and misunderstood. They explore this notion not so much through a plot, but by developing their relationship through different improv scenarios.

One recurring segment is a simple back and forth, where Marta and Maria trade off lines built on a central theme. It’s kind of like stand-up comedy with the added jolt of improv. The first of these segments explains how showing emotion is a daily part of Latinx life. The duo conveys this through sweet, poetic exaggerations that perfectly encapsulate the issue. Selected gems include how, in Puerto Rico, it’s normal to get your heart broken on a daily basis, and how, on any given morning, Argentinians may fall in love with someone they saw at a bus stop.

On another back and forth, contrast is exploited to maximum hilarity. Marta has a breakdown and deciphers a lover’s text out loud in front of co-workers during a business presentation. Juxtapose her hysterics with Maria, who quietly poses grand philosophical questions about feeling like parts of her are missing when friends and lovers move on. My favourite is the surreal, “Where do trees go when they want to leave?”

At one point, it turns out the duo have been dating the same Kyle. This leads to them riffing on being Canadian and our well-known typecasting as somewhat dull, polite, and self-effacing apologists. They find nuance in this overplayed subject by concentrating it in Kyle’s love for fishing, and their exasperation at how anyone could find something so boring so interesting. Maria sums up the Canadian-Latinx divide when she asks, rather memorably, “Why it is so hard for men to understand that, sometimes, I just need to argue with someone?”

Non Gratas also includes a number of karaoke performances. It’s another avenue for Tab and Pabón Navedo to depict Latinx effusiveness, this time as a way to exorcise your frustrations by letting them out on stage. The performances are moments of abandon and disinhibition. Open invitations to join in a glorious cacophony of bad singing and dance my troubles away.

Marta’s unrushed, deadpan delivery and Maria’s fretful, anxious musings play off one another from moment one. The dynamic adds a backbone of sharpness to material. It goes a long way to making up for the occasional weak line, or moment of dead silence, which comes with the improv territory if you ask me.

Monica Garrido, member of Sketch Comedy Extravaganza Eleganza, warmed us up with stand-up that showcased her confident, goofy style. She told stories of growing up religious in Mexico as a closeted lesbian and how that compares to a more diverse but no less skewed Canadian existence. One where, she notes, Mexican people are considered brown, whereas in Mexico, they’re just Mexican. Her writing is concise, her timing surgical, and her dance moves during the karaoke segments unrivaled in terms of funkiness.

My guest, Jonah, thought Non Gratas did justice to the strength it takes anyone to bridge two cultures. Though the show brims with laughs, they are often a coping response to how hard it is to make a life far from home. The characters open the tap to that feeling and never turn it off. “I couldn’t help but wish them well,” he said. His one note, given the show’s 45-minute run-time, was that some scenarios would benefit from greater length.

Tab and Pabón Navedo—who perform as a duo under the name Non Gratas—keep the electricity of uncertainty in the air. The show truly feels like it’s being created as they go, minus all the stops and starts you’d expect if that were actually the case. A lot of this has to do with their fearlessness in the face of “yes, and”. But it’s also tied to how the show’s big-picture subject, our need for community, boils down to winging it, introducing yourself to a stranger, and seeing what happens.

Details:

Photo of Mariela Pabón Navedo and Patricia Tab provided by Alma Matters Productions.

My Latest Review for Mooney on Theatre: The Winter’s Tale (Shakespeare in the Ruff)

The Winter's Tale

This outdoor adaptation of The Winter’s Tale – produced by Shakespeare in the Ruff – is playing at the bottom of a little hill in beautiful Withrow Park. It boasts a superlative cast, comedy with improv’s unpredictability, and monologues that will run your heart through the emotional gamut, then give it back refreshed for the real world.

The play tells of a king’s jealousy getting the best of him, how it leads him to lose his wife and children. And how finally, the universe conspires to grant him one final chance to atone for his paranoid, authoritarian ways.

Director, Dramaturg, and Choreographer, Sarah Kitz never let us slip into fairy tale comfort. This is because, though brimming with laughs, family trauma is at the heart of The Winter’s Tale. And it never quite dislodged enough from my short-term memory to let me believe everything was okay. She gets across how the play is Shakespeare’s tragedy masquerading as a comedy. She offers us a world where life can only have joy if there is sorrow to recognize itself against.

When Leontes, King of Sicily, gives in to paranoia and accuses his wife, Hermione, of being unfaithful with his best friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia, he unwittingly sentences himself to a devastating fate. He doesn’t know that it will be 16 long years of shame and isolation before he gets to see his then-infant daughter, Perdita, again. She is betrothed to Polixenes’ son, Florizell, and they are giving the whole family thing one more go.

Kitz keeps her cast on point by emphasizing fundamentals. They project voices and exaggerate gestures, so the performance reaches the farthest row back. That way, passers-by crossing my line of sight were less likely to pull me out of the story.

Maddie Bautista’s music and lyrics combined with Kitz’s choreography are crowd-pleasers. This offsets the effort of parsing through the dialogue, which is delivered for the most part in its original Elizabethan English.

Richard Lee plays King Leontes and the son of the Old Shepherd who raises baby Perdita after she’s abandoned in the forest. Lee’s charisma and non-stop energy are a delight to behold. A gifted comic actor, he brings a “yes, and” mindset to the stage, completely open to anything unexpected that might happen in the open-air environment. At one point, as the Shepherd’s son, he accidentally nudges baby Perdita in her carrier. His split-second decision to apologize to her with a quick, “sorry, baby!”, sent a roar of laughter through the audience, filling us with excitement for what might come next.

On the dramatic side of things, Lee portrays Leontes’ jealousy with a hint of dictator’s delusion. It’s the kind you catch from living in an echo chamber of yes-men and from thinking your blood is godly. Leontes is captivating because he is unsteady. He believes any idea that pops into his head, supported by a heartbreaker of a monologue, unfettered and arresting in its intensity. As the play’s program proclaims, this is the 17th-century version of a telenovela.

Tiffany Martin plays Leontes’ wife, Hermione, as well as Autolycus, a Bohemian pickpocket who finds a heart when Florizell and Perdita need him most. Martin does so with the kind of gusto reserved for one’s most cherished activities. Every line is savoured, gifted to us as opposed to merely delivered. Highlights include Hermione’s final monologue and the scene where Autolycus imitates royalty. The first is an absolute showstopper. It is brash and eloquent and fearless in its vulnerability, all of it amplified by stage lights catching the tears streaming down her face. The second is an exaggeration, executed to perfection, that finds humour in but also questions how we carry ourselves according to how we want to be seen.

Eponine Lee plays Leontes’ son, Mamillius, with a sadness beyond her years. Her rendition of the bear that chases Leontes’ aid, Antigonus, off stage after he abandons baby Perdita in the forest is a mix of whimsy and terror that disarms with every growl. This is indeed the subject of Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear.”

Jani Lauzon is exceptional as the Old Shepherd, Perdita’s adopted parent. She brings the slapstick every chance she gets, relishing the space to ham it up with a funny walk, or a triple take when something shocking happens. The warmth with which Lauzon shares the Shepherd’s hyperactivity made me feel like a kid at a birthday party with the best clown money could buy.

My guest, Ricky, found the actors’ commitment to the material incredibly engaging. It didn’t matter that people were walking their dogs or having picnics all around you. He also considered the pre-show land acknowledgement an effective way to both raise consciousness and get people in the mood to listen to poetic language.

The cast as a whole is the epitome of professionalism, staying loose with precision and intention as this classic story unfolds. There’s no recitation by rote to be had here, and little in the way of suspending disbelief. Toronto is no Sicily, but the performances fooled me. That each actor plays multiple characters only speaks higher of their skill.

A more than honourable final mention to the Young Ruffians, members of Shakespeare in the Ruff’s theatre creation apprenticeship program, for warming up the crowd before the show with ice cream and peanut butter themed Shakespeare improv. The evening would not have been nearly as enjoyable without them.

Details

  • The Winter’s Tale is playing at Withrow Park (725 Logan Avenue) until September 2, 2019.
  • Performances run Tuesday through Sunday at 7:30pm.
  • Tickets range from $20 to $30 online and are Pay-What-You-Can in the park.
  • In case of rain, performances will continue until no longer deemed safe, in which case, audience members will be given a voucher to come back on another night.

Photo of Richard Lee and Eponine Lee by Dahlia Katz.

Read on at Mooney on Theatre

Community and Self-Help in the Poetry of Rupi Kaur

*This essay is forthcoming in Spanish in Polifonía, an online magazine by the Universidad Tecnológica de Pereira in Colombia, South America. I’ll share the link when available.

Let’s evaluate Rupi Kaur’s work against her self-ascribed purpose as an author, that of a confessional self-help poet, which redefines the understanding of poetic excellence as a mix of subtlety, complexity, and innovation of form and content to being one almost exclusively centred on content. This seems the most fruitful route of analysis given that most of her critics read her through this traditional understanding, even though it has little to do with why she writes.

Kaur was born in Punjab, India, and moved at four to a Southeast Asian community in Brampton, Ontario, Canada. Her poems, initially shared through Tumblr, became famous on Instagram in 2015 after she posted an art photograph of herself with menstrual blood on her sweatpants. The network took it down twice, citing a breach of their Community Guidelines, before uploading it again and apologizing, in large part because of Kaur’s impassioned Facebook post on the matter. The sparring resulted in international media coverage, attention she parlayed into a multiplying fan base and an offer from Andrews McMeel Publishing to re-release her first book, milk and honey, which she self published in 2014. Having sold in the vicinity of five million copies to date, Kaur has her throne reserved in the history of Canadian literature. She regularly shares new verse with 3.3 million Instagram followers, and performs to audiences the world over, notably to 900 people at a launch for her second effort, the sun and her flowers, in New York City.

Her poetry is minimalist and direct. It centres on a wide variety of subjects, including physical and emotional abuse, racism, sexism, feminism, family roots, emotional intelligence, her sense of cultural inbetweenness as an immigrant, and a great deal of love and heartbreak. A poem may be deeply personal and step into a vast and complex topic. For example,

 

this place makes me

the kind of exhausted that has

nothing to do with sleep

and everything to do with

the people around me.

—introvert.(1)

 

Or often a poem may simply delineate a feeling or hokey slice of wisdom and allow it to hang in the air. These captured feelings carry vestiges of Neruda writing about an onion, harboring a hope to catalogue the contents of the earth. Except Kaur’s focus is on building a mental toolkit to deal with how to coexist in society as a responsible adult. Such is her remedy to the violence and injustice she confronts in her writing, which we’ll speak on later.

 

it takes grace

to remain kind

in cruel situations.(2)

 

Any seasoned reader of poetry would realize that Kaur’s approach to the genre is more about what she says than how she says it. She spoke to Rolling Stone’s Shannon Carlin about distancing herself from poetry dense enough to need its meaning coaxed from it.

“Kaur…doesn’t want readers to agonize over each and every word like she did when learning poetry in school. “I would have to pull out the list of literary devices my teacher gave me and my 10 colorful pens,” she says, her big, almond eyes getting wider. “It was like doing surgery on the damn thing.””(3)

Those who enjoy flare in their poetry have plenty to site when they dismiss Kaur outright. Take the poem about introversion above. She revisits a thought that anyone who has thought about introversion has had a version of. That would seem to exclude all of those people from the intended audience of the poem, leaving only those who haven’t had much contact with the condition. Kaur’s interest in self-help begins to show here in the attention she tends to pay to readers who are novices in what she’s writing about. She tailors the poem to them, happy to state it flatly to maximize understanding, never threatening to outgrow its minimalist husk. She does not attempt to arrange words such that readers might discover new angles through which to understand introversion. As is the case in virtually all of her work, characterization, imagery, and metaphor follow suit with this spoon-fed flatness by keeping paper-thin and overly friendly with cliches.

Even the shapes of her poems, though they might resemble rich, dense language from afar, turn out to be riddled with line breaks of chopped up prose. Their thoughtless, unpretentious structure is given more importance than the chance at experimenting with structure in the name of expanding poetic meaning, and self-help shows up as a priority once more. Kaur chooses digestibility over aesthetics, dispelling would-be poetry readers’ preconceived notions about having to be learned to understand the genre at all.

Similarly, Kaur’s lack of punctuation and exclusive use of lower-case letters convey grace, humility, and the appearance of innovation, but ultimately feel like resorting to surface changes to mask rather than support ideas left hollow. The same goes for her playfully ethereal drawings, which add little to the purposes of a given poem by being overly literal. In the case below, the drawing risks transforming the poem’s counterintuitive, and for that reason, fascinating comparison, into a belabored point. It takes up space traditionally reserved for a reader’s imaginative freedom when they sit down to meet a text halfway.

rupi the orgasm

(4)

The heavy handedness and redundancy continue with the summations preceded by a dash that end many of the poems. In the example below, repeating the word ‘representation’ in an otherwise stirring rallying cry for the voiceless, once in the text, and again after the dash, causes an unnecessary pause that distracts from the speaker’s demand for space.

 

now

is not the time

to be quiet

or make room for you

when we have had no room at all

now

is our time

to be mouthy

get as loud as we need

to be heard

 

representation

is vital

otherwise the butterfly

surrounded by a group of moths

unable to see itself

will keep trying to become the moth

—representation (5)

 

It is also notable how vague the poem is when it comes to who exactly it’s meant to encourage. There is a blending of experiences of voicelessness inviting readers who’ve been silenced to imagine each other’s lives regardless of beliefs and background. This merging of selves is a major theme in milk and honey and the sun and her flowers, as the ‘I’ that speaks in the poems not only imagines an introvert but also an escaped refugee on an overcrowded boat(6), an alcoholic parent(7), an idealist about love(8), victims of racism and verbal and sexual abuse(9), and a number of other experiences Kaur clarifies later on in this essay to belong to many different sources. She sees the potential empathy and community-building to be gained from poetically putting herself in other people’s shoes as invalidating the notion that authentic stories can only be told by those who have lived them. For her, the determining factor between writing and not writing about someone else’s trauma is whether or not subject, reader, and writer come out of the process seeing themselves and each other with greater humanity. Kaur has been called disingenuous for her appropriative practice, but I will commend her for it later on when we discuss Chinua Achebe’s concept of imaginative identification.

All this is not to say that Kaur is a bad writer, just an underdeveloped one. It isn’t often that she executes a concept and every word feels essential. But when they do, it’s a respite from the onslaught of sentimentalism, a mirage that turns out to be solid.

 

first

i went for my words

the i can’ts. i won’ts. i am not good enoughs.

i lined them up and shot them dead.

then i went for my thoughts

invisible and everywhere

there was no time to gather them one by one

i had to wash them out

i wove a linen cloth out of my hair

soaked it in a bowl of mint and lemon water

carried it in my mouth as i climbed

up my braid to the back of my head

down on my knees i began to wipe my mind clean

it took twenty-one days

my knees bruised but

i did not care

i was not given the breath

in my lungs to choke it out

i would scrub the self-hate off the bone

til it exposed love

-self love (10)

 

Here we have a melding of form and content, one that builds something new out of experience instead of merely accurately sharing it. The images, visceral and sensory, induce you to speed-read toward the poem’s affirmational ending, concentrating the speaker’s shared interest in getting there as soon as possible. You can feel a presence behind the poem, a beneficent hand redirecting violence inward to the roots of inherited beliefs that do not serve the speaker. This is the extent of Kaur’s occasional sense for composition before returning to a plain-spoken diary style. Which, as we’ve seen, pre-removes husks from their kernels, and often accompanies them by realistic drawings of those kernels just so everything’s completely clear. There are no multiple possible meanings to mull over or novel rhythms to de dazzled by. The stage is always relatively free of any sense of linguistic flourishes, which most might view as a disadvantage, something keeping her from standing out and finding a readership, but not for Kaur. Instead of worrying about writing tight, sensory poems like the one above, she has framed her work’s absence of ‘surgeries’ as a path for her lessons to reach her readers. Since nuanced writing carries so little weight in her work, it is clear content or message that makes up the writer-reader exchange. Kaur spoke to PBS News Hour’s Jeffrey Brown about what exactly she’s trying to get across.

Brown: Does it hurt you when the poetry is being critiqued as more therapeutic or emotional than real poetry?

Kaur: Not really, because I never intended to get into the literary world; this is actually not for you. This is for that 17-year-old brown woman in Brampton who is not even thinking about that space, who is trying to live, survive, get through her day.”(11)

Kaur goes on to say she favors plain, accessible language because her poetry is a space of healing, one where readers like herself, who have gone through “some really real things”—like sexism, racism, and abuse— and aren’t able to talk about it, can see their concerns reflected in the voice of another and feel heard and understood. She returns to this notion of reflection when offering her personal definition of poetry, “For me, poetry is like holding up a mirror and seeing myself.(12) But Kaur is quick to state that only the poems’ emotions are autobiographical. The majority of the stories being based on the everyday experiences of love and violence lived by her sisters, cousins, aunts, and mother. Lacking formal writing flare, it is these experiences Kaur is responding to and reflecting back at her readers as a way of making community. That way they might rid themselves, if only for a few moments, of the anguish of suffering through trauma alone.

Kaur replaces craft with unadorned clarity so that her work may offer her readers the comfort of a village having their back. We can express how she goes about populating it into at least two steps: 1) By poetically rewriting her life, the lives of the oppressed, her idols, friends and family, the depressed, the anxious, the lovelorn, and loads of others, such that pretty much anyone can feel how it is to be them from the safety of the page. 2) By laying out a philosophy of emotional intelligence that fills in the gaps in these re-examined, often traumatized lives such that they might stay and understand themselves and each other more fully. It suggests Kaur’s historical awareness of her profession and the circular nature of time, of how people like Plato, Aristotle, and Marcus Aurelius wrote self-help books and were revered for them, but how nowadays giving advice is seen as lowly, heavy-handed territory for an artist. Kaur stands up for the role of education in literature, subverting the ludicrously popular idea among serious writers that providing insights into functional models of behaviour is somehow below the purview of creators of worlds.

Kaur gets at 1) by what Chinua Achebe calls fiction’s property of imaginative identification. As her readers, “things are then not merely happening before us; they are happening to us. We not only see; we suffer alongside the hero.”(13) Kaur takes fiction as an opportunity for “the imagination to recreate in ourselves the thoughts that must go on in the minds of others, especially those we dispossess.”(14) But beyond a mere choice, it is also a responsibility, one she assumes by channeling these minds in the service of humanization. Kaur wants to add the experiences of the people she writes about to her readers’ conceptions of what it means to be in the world. To this end, she relies on the common ethical thread of our shared nervous systems; that if she writes a person under a justifiably favorable or disparaging light, we will follow her there.

When she writes that “drowning is easier than staying”(15) for a refugee escaping persecution, that perhaps “the sea is your country…because it is the only place that will take you”(16), she is co-opting our hearts to care for people who need it. On the contrary, the position from her spoken word poetry community at large is that telling someone else’s struggle in your own voice is wrongful appropriation(17). Silencing someone for one’s own inauthentic artistic ends. Though noble on the surface, loyal as it is to everyone sticking to what they know, this position can be falsified due to how it can’t differentiate fact from fiction. Any concerns about misrepresenting refugees should be quelled by how Kaur is making up a scenario based on their treacherous journeys. Realism is the concern of realists. There is no reason to hold her, or any other romanticist, accountable to the tenet that fiction is somehow bound to replicating the world as it is. This would prevent her from portraying as undeniably human people who tend to be treated as much lesser than.

Kaur repeats the process in a poem about a girl in therapy who was sexually abused by her uncle(18). Her entire childhood seems to evaporate into maturity in the short piece. The aging process begins with when she was “the size of girls/your uncles like touching”, and ends with the last line,“fine/numb really”, its shades of world-weariness too casual and jaded to possibly refer to a child. Kaur shines a light on not feeling as a survival mechanism and hints at the day-to-day consequences it poses to basic interaction. The girl’s mood resembles anyone closed off from the world who still has to talk with you or me to get on with their life, the major difference being that people don’t go around explaining their sourness like it’s weather talk. The poem invites us to save tenderness for these brick walls and what lies behind them.

What I mean with 2) by filling in the gaps is that Kaur has assembled a narrator across both of her books whose prescription for hardship, trauma, anxiety, and depression is confronting it from the standpoint of seeing oneself as intrinsically valuable. In other words, worthy of love regardless of the tragedy and prejudice that claims you aren’t and how much anyone thinks of you.

 

who tricked you

into believing

another person

was meant to complete you

when the most they can do is complement.(19)

 

Reading Kaur is to be reminded that you will remain whole through the salvaging of your shadow side, the redemption of the parts of your life you wished you had processed differently. Her array of prescriptions is vast and safe to mix and match. You may choose, for example, to “get flowers from your pain”(20), or to reassess pain as the sole determiner of its presence in your life(21). You may place things you can control like spirit and intelligence over ideals of beauty(22) and integrate failure as a way forward in your life-plan(23). You may broaden how you love so that it is worth giving in principle only when it is worth giving in practice(24). Then there’s relying on your community(25), periodically blocking the world out with love reserved exclusively for yourself(26), and upgrading your collection of comforts for pains that can only be fixed by letting them hurt(27). Anything you might need to find a way to reclaim experience you could only hope to ignore before.

 

what is stronger

than the human heart

which shatters over and over

and still lives(28)

 

I am a museum full of art

but you had your eyes shut(29)

 

it is a blessing

to be the color of the earth

do you know how often

flowers confuse me for home(30)

 

It is good to remember that Kaur recognizes how self-esteem is easy to forget, and how its existence is always news to somebody. And that the age of that somebody isn’t necessarily 12 or 13 if they’ve grown up being told they have no choice in how confident they can be. It seems pointless to call attention to any flaws in poems that act like assurances that one isn’t cursed and that the world won’t end. You’re probably going to get much more done in a day reading one than not. It is a revolutionary insight to be told that the devastating loneliness of a breakup isn’t actually an involuntary nightmare but a product of having a better idea of what you deserve and the wherewithal to attain it. Kaur is affording people years in terms of getting used to how maturity is choosing the pains we are willing to endure.

She goes a step further, treating awareness of one’s entitlement to love as a privilege, rallying readers blessed with it to remind those who have to deal with the prejudiced sideswiping of it that they should demand it too. Kaur’s mission for her readers is to make fair the oppressive institutions that create the need for poets like her determined to form a counterattack.

 

i stand

on the sacrifices

of a million women before me

thinking

what can i do

to make this mountain taller

so the women after me

can see farther

 

—legacy(31)

 

….last month i visited an orphanage of

abandoned babies left on the curbside like waste…

how can i refuse to believe

my life is anything short of a miracle

 

—circumstances(32)

 

She challenges those who are loved to open pathways to self-realization for people with adverse odds at finding one. They are called to consciousness, to be selfless, and give back for the sake of the greater good. When it comes to building her literary community, Kaur requires a closeness that entails mourning when anyone is lost.

 

i am sorry this world

could not keep you safe

may your journey home

be a soft and peaceful one

—this will free you both(33)

 

Kaur sets her readers up to be people more willing to address negativity, injustice, and irrationality, understanding that all three are default components of the human psyche. This self-image is what makes the difference between granting pain—regardless of provenance— the right to be managed, and repressing it under mistaken religious or political assumptions that it is wrong to feel or that it will just go away. Kaur’s pain management system, her community of imaginative identification and emotional intelligence, does not in principle restrict membership, no matter how contemptible the person’s behaviour. To do so would be to deny someone their humanity—their right to heal, to be forgiven, and to work out a burden with a book like hers that helps you forgive. But that’s exactly what happens, at the expense of the ever-widening altruism responsible for unity among her fans. Ethical issues arise with observations that seem problematic without a more thorough treatment.

 

why

did you leave a door

hanging

open between my legs

were you lazy

did you forget

or did you purposely leave me unfinished

—conversations with god(34)

 

It is easy enough to offer the poem a charitable interpretation and say Kaur is pointing to a topic that branches out into how many women internalize subservience next to men, i.e. ‘finished’ people. But it would seem careless not to also add that the poem doesn’t contribute to minimizing the problem, nor does it completely close off the possibility that its last line carries a hint of truth. The lack of a guiding hand is glaring when we compare it with the straightforward positivity of the complete you and self-love poems above.

 

If you are not enough for yourself

You will never be enough

For someone else.(35)

 

This poem ignores myriad ways love can find you. It is common sense that people incapable of loving themselves fully constantly turn others on, and that the semantic field of ‘my everything’ has room for all. Your circumstances really have nothing to do with someone stumbling upon contentment by your side.

 

take the compliment

do not shy away from

another thing that belongs to you.(36)

 

The poem is another that asks the reader to provide a grain of salt to avoid questionable implications. Given the welcomed emergence of zero-tolerance toward sexual abuse across the world, Kaur’s advice appears too open to recontextualizing an unwanted advance instead of getting as loud as needed to be heard.

 

the thing about having

an alcoholic parent

is an alcoholic parent

does not exist

 

simply

an alcoholic

who could not stay sober

long enough to raise their kids(37)

 

Here Kaur glosses over the roots of addiction, discriminates against those suffering from one, and essentially bans them from her literary refuge. The poem bubbles with resentment, anger, and the jaded person’s tendency for fatalistic pronouncements. Its tone is one of fact, an indefensible kick on the downtrodden.

Kaur’s poetic project responds to what Achebe calls humanity’s “need to explain and alleviate [its] intolerable condition”(38), that of being “caught in a tiny glow-worm of consciousness”(39), with an ultimately inconsistent path to altruistic community. The problem has to do with inconsistently romanticized trauma, how she sometimes gets too caught up in advice and in faithfully expressing victims’ feelings to consider who her phrasing dehumanizes. Her lack of critical engagement with these feelings and their causes has the effect of normalizing them, especially when prescribing behaviour is an integral component of milk and honey and the sun and her flowers. It is the case that there are experiences so grueling that expressing them as they occurred is remarkable progress. I grant the function of externalizing caustic feelings onto the page to diminish their strength. But, as a leader, and as a healer, Kaur loses credibility by conveying that certain people cause more harm than they are worth while professing a belief that people are worth more than any harm they could ever commit. Though she tends toward the latter, her attempt to teach the oppressed with such gaps in the troubles she is willing to take on cannot but inspire suspicion.

 

our knees

pried open

by cousins

and uncles

and men

our bodies touched

by all the wrong people

that even in a bed full of safety

we are afraid.(40)

 

Sometimes it is not enough to summon an injustice into existence for your audience and call it a day. Sometimes unresolved fear shared among many stops being a solution and turns into a crutch. What I’m saying is there is a price to every citizenship. Kaur’s work may be the place to replenish you from devastation, but it is up to you to protect your critical faculties from her efforts to replace them with her version of your best self.

(1): p.85, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.

(2): p.160, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.

(3): Meet Rupi Kaur, Queen of the ‘Instapoets’. Rolling Stone. December 21, 2017. <https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/meet-rupi-kaur-queen-of-the-instapoets-w514035>.

(4): Rupi Kaur, Instagram, <https://www.instagram.com/rupikaur_/&gt;.

(5): p.238-9, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.

(6): p. 126-7, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

(7): p.39, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.

(8):  p.74, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015; p.182, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

(9): p.15, 41, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.

(10): p. 105, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

(11): PBS News Hour. “How poet Rupi Kaur became a hero to millions of young women”. January 2, 2018.<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QEgOmgQVG4>.

(12): Ibid.

(13): p. 144, Chinua Achebe, Hopes and Impediments.

(14):  p.149, Chinua Achebe, Hopes and Impediments.

(15): p.126-7,the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

(16): Ibid.

(17): “The milk and honey author’s use of unspecified collective trauma in her quest to depict the quintessential South Asian female experience feels disingenuous”. Chiara Giovanni. Buzzfeed. Agosto 4, 2017.<https://www.buzzfeed.com/chiaragiovanni/the-problem-with-rupi-kaurs-poetry?utm_term=.om89j8lN5N#.go8mQxV8q8&gt;

(18): p.15, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.

(19): p.154, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.

(20): p. 152, 158, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.

(21): p.151, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.

(22):  p.179, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.

(23): p.160, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

(24): p.162, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

(25): p.97, 146, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

(26): p.107, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

(27): p.193, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

(28): p.109, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

(29): .100, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.

(30): p.227, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

(31): p.213, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

(32): p.130, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

(33): p. 125, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

(34):  p.65, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

(35):  p.197, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.

(36): p .240, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

(37): p.39, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.

(38): p.143, Hopes and Impediments, Doubleday, 1989.

(39): p.141, Hopes and Impediments, Doubleday, 1989.

(40): p.36, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.

 

New Review: Louis Laberge-Côté’s The art of degeneration (DanceWorks)

Read my review of Louis Laberge-Côté’s The art of degeneration (DanceWorks) here. Runs til Nov 3 at The Citadel: Ross Centre for Dance. Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh.

Louis Laberge-Co^te_-Smoke &amp; Pearls-ph by Jeremy Mimnagh-sm

 

Read my review of The Men in White on Mooney on Theatre

My review of Anosh Irani’s play, The Men in White (Factory Theatre), is live on Mooney on Theatre. Read it here.

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I’m reading some fiction this evening. Come by if you fancy.

Here’s the Facebook event: Portraits of the artists as men.

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I have some new fiction in paperplates magazine

I’m thrilled to have a piece of short fiction from a book I’ve been working on in the latest issue of paperplates magazine! Read it here.

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My review of Homewrecker is up on Mooney on Theatre

My review of Homewrecker—presented by Coyote Collective, Leroy Street Theatre, and Scapegoat Collective—is up on Mooney on Theatre. Read it here.

Homewrecker poster

New Article on Charlotte Cardin’s Big Boy EP

I have an article about Charlotte Cardin’s Big Boy EP on Under the Deer.

charlottecardin

New Poem About Self-Preservation

Here’s a new poem inspired by Moritz in Spring Awakening. I performed it at the November 2017 edition of Facilitate in support of Ghost Light Players‘ forthcoming production of the play.

21 Ways To Stick Around

  1. Save up to buy the land just outside of where your world ends just in case you decide to expand.
  2. Practice not being OK by treating each time as practice.
  3. Practice regularly dealing with bullshit while working on important things.
  4. Accept that there are different instantiations of the person you want to be to increase the odds of keeping yourself together.
  5. Declutter with vulnerability.
  6. Invest in ignorance by acknowledging its presence in the things you take for granted.
  7. Integrate absolution into your bedtime routine.
  8. Forgive yourself for not saying the right thing because the attitude of fuck it is a flowering endeavor.
  9. Find yourself through a buoy at sea.
  10. Find an activity that engulfs you from darkness.
  11. Tell people about the things you love without letting yourself love them any less no matter what they say.
  12. Defy your anxieties by making a home for the doom this brings forth.
  13. Imagine yourself Sisyphus finding the work too interesting.
  14. Exfoliate by letting what you’re feeling rip your face off.
  15. Get flair from the knowledge that you don’t have to stay.
  16. As an empty vessel you may fill as you choose, you can change your mind about anything.
  17. Talk to yourself like nobody loves you more than you.
  18. Become familiar with the edge of your nerve so mistakes can propel you forward.
  19. Test your beliefs until they’re closer to a space than a feeling.
  20. Stew in discomfort until it presents itself to you as more life.
  21. Consider why you might already be the shit.
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