When You Ask Me Where I’m Going
When You Ask Me Where I’m Going
you ask me to speak my truth in digestible doses
and tell me to lie.
my tongue will not be severed & diced
spread thin across a surface
& seen in segments
for space at the table.
not when this voice could pull the table apart.
build a raft.
a way forward.
Jasmin Kaur’s first novel, in poetry, prose and images, is clearly meant to “pull the table apart”. In the book which is divided into six sections, five named after a body part and the sixth called “light”, Kaur uses intense and passionate poems and illustrations to explore the reality of women living in a world that doesn’t accept them. Ambitious in her scope, Kaur examines the devastating effects of mental illness, grief, sexual assault, racism, immigration and healing. Underpinning much of the poetry is the lurking threat of violence – both personal and political – but the ultimate message is one of empowerment of women, especially women of colour.
Embedded within the poetry is a prose section that tells the story of Kiran who leaves her homeland after a traumatic assault and raises her daughter, Sahaara, while living undocumented in North America. By contrasting the experiences of the new immigrant and the next generation, Kaur still demonstrates that both must deal with patriarchal culture, social rejection and the constant threat of violence against women.
The mix of genres in the book is interesting, if initially disorienting, as are references to real events, ranging from the Indian anti-Sikh pogroms in 1984 to a moment with a traumatized young student. Kaur, a fourth-grade teacher, may write, “i am tired of teaching resilience”, but the book does just that. She delves occasionally into thoughts of a teenaged boy, but most of her lessons and her calls for change are reserved for women and girls of colour: “i will grow into my body/this sun-drenched skin will belong to me/even though i was told i don’t belong here.” Though the topics are painful, the ultimate message is one of hope. Near the close of the book, Kaur declares, “the earth aches when hardened soil/cracks open but this is the only way/to anchor new roots”. Notes in the appendix clarify important allusions and provide some personal insight into Kaur’s writing and beliefs.
Kaur’s novel is promoted as fitting in with Rupi Kaur and Elizabeth Acevedo’s verse novels. However, readers of Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey or Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X may struggle to follow a narrative thread in When You Ask Me Where I’m Going for Jasmin Kaur has no intention of speaking her truth “in digestible doses”. The novel genre has been redefined in recent years, and When You Ask Me Where I’m Going certainly does not follow the tradition of an extended narrative. The anchor of the prose story of Kiran and Sahaara helps give focus to the vivid poetry; however, a teen reader looking for a complete story may find the poetry and illustrations add intensity but not narrative momentum. A young reader patient enough to revisit the book could make connections but may balk at the definition of the book as a “novel”.
Ultimately, Kaur’s message comes through with no lack of clarity. A call to action and empowerment, a demand for light to be shone on important issues, When You Ask Me Where I’m Going will inspire readers to fight for justice in their own lives and in the wider world.