Voice of millennials: Nikita Gill on being a poet in the digital age

Also known as one of the most successful 'InstaPoets' of modern generation, the writer opens up about her mental health challenges and why she refuses to abide by conventional norms — both in life and her poetry


Somya Mehta

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Published: Fri 22 Apr 2022, 5:10 PM

Enjoying an expansive following of 641k on Instagram, poet of Indian origins, Nikita Gill, defines the millennial writer — unabashed and empowered. While age-related experiences once may have been the norm for how seriously a poet was to be taken, social media is rewriting the rules of writing itself, as a medium of choice. Anyone can now become a publisher with a click of a button, enjoying positions of power once limited to hierarchal structures. While social platforms can be — and should be — used to amplify one’s voice, the 34-year-old writer strongly believes that it’s important to diversify and not let the digital platforms control you or your art.

In a conversation with KT, Gill, who has curated and written seven volumes of poetry, with the most recent one being Where Hope Comes From: Poems of Resilience, Healing, and Light (2021), opens up about her mental health challenges, advocacy for free therapy and why she refuses to abide by the conventional norms — both in life and her poetry.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

You’ve grown up in various different places. Has your multicultural upbringing shaped your writing?

With every new place you visit, you get to meet a lot of different people, from various backgrounds. You really learn how to respect every single human being on the same level as you are. That’s also how my parents brought me up. I had an egalitarian upbringing from both my parents, who taught me that dignity and respect are two really important qualities. My father also taught me to have compassion for everyone. It may lead to you to become a little too empathetic towards people at times but it was a great life lesson to be learned from my father. Gentlemen raise gentle children. And that’s how the world changes.

While empathy is an imperative skill to imbibe, the natural extension to that can also be that people’s pain becomes yours. How do you protect yourself from that?

You’re absolutely right. I think empathy as a concept can be confusing. At times, it can become quite selfish because you’re making someone else’s pain yours. So, you have to toe this line where you feel for that person but you don’t become the main character in their story. Somewhere in your early 20s, you start realising that all these people around you are the main characters in their own lives, and you’re only the main character in your life. So, learning to disassociate really helps. Healthy disassociation is very different from disassociating yourself because of trauma. This is also why I’m an advocate of free therapy for everyone. Our mental health is as important as our physical health and therapy can be vital. But it is extremely expensive. Therapy shouldn’t be a luxury, it’s a right. It shouldn’t be something that only people with privilege can have access to.

You speak about mental health even through your poems, such as ‘Affirmations for days of self-loathing’. How would you define your relationship with yourself?

The relationship with the self can be a very complex topic to navigate when you’re a woman. Especially, when you’re a woman of colour, living in a country like England, where race is a thing whether they want to admit it or not. But as a woman specifically, I feel as though we live our entire life being gaslit by people. We’re told that our problems aren’t really problems. Our body image issues aren’t real or that conventional beauty has always existed, which isn’t true. The notions of conventional beauty change every decade. I believe that once you hit your 30s, you stop giving as much a damn about what people have to say. And once you hit your 40s, that’s when you really come into your own as a woman. That’s what terrifies people. I get really happy when I read the works of women in their 50s, 60s or 70s because it teaches me so much about myself. My relationship with myself has changed a lot because I started reading a lot more from women writers and realised I wasn’t alone.

Are your self-loathing days behind you now or is it an ongoing journey?

There is nobody in this world, no matter how confident or self-assured they are, who doesn’t have days of self-loathing. I struggle with it on and off because I’m quite an anxious person. I keep having to explain this to people in regards to mental health, depression, and anxiety. The latter being the one I suffer with the most, it’s like another human being sitting inside your head, making up scenarios for you to worry about. The logical side of your brain is constantly at war with the other side saying ‘no, you’re being ridiculous’. And sometimes that logical side of your brain gets tired and doesn’t want to fight back. That’s what causes those days of self-loathing, when the anxious side wins. This is why having a toolkit for anxiety is so important.

You’re often regarded as one of the most successful ‘InstaPoets’. What does the term mean to you?

I’m very ambivalent about this word. I struggle with it because the word ‘InstaPoet’ was literally invented to segregate us from ‘real’ poets. It’s the same way performance poetry was treated. They were called spoken word poets, which kept them away from the ‘real’ poetry community. The word itself is very divisive. A lot of us have leaned into it simply because it’s the only way we could reclaim ourselves by making it our own. As a woman writer, it’s so easy for people to diminish your work and treat it like it’s not important. That’s how women, specifically women of colour, get denigrated. What’s interesting about it is that it really pulls out the misogyny in the poetry community. It’s very hurtful as a writer to exist in a space where you are experiencing these obstacles. It’s also very easy to ignorantly dump a bunch of women writers into a single box, giving all of the credit for their work to a platform.

You’ve almost made it aspirational to be an InstaPoet for the young writers but it may not sit well with the older generations. Do you ever come across people that question the nonconformist nature of your poetry, arguing that it strays away from the conventions?

I tend to laugh when people try to define poetry. If you walk into a room of 20 people and you ask them what poetry means to them, every single one of them will come up with a different answer. Someone will say poetry is what Robert Frost use to write or someone else will say poetry is what Emily Dickinson used to write. Now, Emily Dickinson’s work is very different from Robert Frost’s work, so the definition of poetry for those two people is entirely different from one another. The advice I give to young people who are writing poetry is you don’t start by writing with form and structure, those are things which are learned. When people go after young poets and reject their work, it’s important to realise that they’re still in the process of learning how to write. It can be harmful to young artists to hear that because they need time and space to learn. If you see a 12-year-old trying to paint or dance, you don’t tell them it’s horrible. You say ‘That’s great, keep going’. That’s what we need to say to young writers as well.

How did you discover Instagram as a creative platform?

I’ve always believed that I’m a storyteller, first and foremost. Whether I tell a story through illustrations, poems or a prose piece, it doesn’t matter. So, when I went looking for a platform, I wanted something where I could put up varied forms of writing quickly. I started with Tumblr and then discovered Instagram. I realised that a lot of my work was being shared there without crediting me.

Many creators face this issue where their work gets reused without credits, let alone monetary recognition. How do you navigate your intellectual property rights on social media?

Initially, it does hurt when your work gets used without any acknowledgement but there’s a lesson to be learned here. When you put your work up online, people are going to take it and do whatever they want with it. All you can do is protest when you see it being used in a bigoted format. But other than that, the work belongs to the audience. Once you put your work out there, you can’t control how it’s being interpreted.

Do the social media algorithms influence your poetry?

It’s very easy to let algorithms take over your life because that’s literally what these platforms want. My aim has always been to create work that goes way beyond the platform. As an artist, whenever someone comes and asks me for advice, I tell them to diversify. Don’t let Instagram control you. You should use Instagram, don’t let it use you. These platforms are designed to make you feel like you have to be as active on the platform as you can be. I create so much work on so many different mediums that as a writer, my work is everywhere. It doesn’t depend on Instagram to exist. Writers are not content creators, they’re artists. Treating writing as content is part of the reason why it devalues art and devalues writing. This is why I tell people, when you share your work on Instagram, do not let Instagram use you because it will diminish the true capacity of your work.

Lastly, you also mentioned you’re open to writing for films and TV. So, what does the future have in store for you?

My book The Girl and the Goddess: Stories and Poems of Divine Wisdom, which is a novel in verse, has been picked up to be turned into a TV show. I’m quite excited because I feel like it’s every artist’s dream to be able to be part of something like this. To see how your work gets transformed into a completely different medium, streaming on television, is great. So, I’m really looking forward to it.


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