Nikita Gill is a poet and artist for our times. With the recent launch of her collection for young adults, Absolutely Education finds out more

Words Libby Norman

Nikita Gill says on her Instagram page ‘I make things’. It’s a nailing of colours to the mast and it’s true, for her words and artworks have resonated with an enormous following – over 660,000 on Instagram alone. Many readers who found her first via Tumblr, Instagram or other platforms she’s inhabited over many years are now able to read her in print. These Are the Words: Fearless Words To Find Your Voice, her latest collection of illustrated poems, was published by Macmillan Children’s Books last August.

Nikita Gill – poet for our times
Nikita Gill. Portrait by Peace Ofure

Gill was born in Belfast to Kashmiri parents. Her father, who was in the merchant navy, was taking his naval captain exams at the University of Ulster. During that time her mother worked at youth clubs in what was then a very troubled city – Gill has been told many stories about the atmosphere of fear that prevailed. “That’s where I come from, that’s part of my roots. And then of course, I’m Kashmiri as well,” she says. “My family in India comes from partition. All of my grandparents were deeply, deeply affected by it. Being Kashmiri, being Punjabi and being Sikh – even before I was born being Kashmiri was a very political thing to be. We don’t choose to be born in the identities that we’re born in, right?”

It’s certainly not lost on Gill that creativity is often strongest in places of conflict. “There is no catharsis in areas of war – the only way that we can express our pain in those kinds of areas is to create or to write. Even if that thing is destroyed through the language of war, at least it existed for a time and it was beautiful. That’s the way my grandmother put it to me – it really stayed with me, that. We don’t create art always for it to be immortal, sometimes we create art just because it can exist at that moment in time and we can remind ourselves there is beauty here.”

Nikita Gill – poet for our times
Nikita Gill’s artworks sit alongside her poems – she trained as an artist in New Delhi and UCA

The family returned to New Delhi after her father’s course and that’s where Gill spent the rest of her childhood. The writing – and the art – were bubbling up from her early years and she was also deeply influenced by her family history. The first story she had published, at age 12, was an old story handed down about her teenage grandfather’s bravery in Kashmir during the chaos and trauma of partition. Two newspapers picked it up – Mid-Day and Hindustan Times – a big moment for the young Nikita Gill.

Her grandfather was incredibly touched, and she had the pride of being a published author. Gill says this helped her stay the course of many rejections over the years, but it meant something more. There was a realisation that words we make in poems and stories have a life of their own. “I was able to take a story that would have been forgotten through the strands of time in our family, and I was able to put it in a newspaper and more people read it and more people now remember it,” she says. “That struck me as a really important thing as a child.”

Gill describes her youth in New Delhi as one of restrictions – her parents were worried for her safety on the streets and demanded a “monstrous amount of detail” before she went out. She says it became easier to stay in. “Which is why Emily Dickinson was my favourite poet then. So many of her poems are about sitting in a room but looking outside – it was very much my childhood and teenage years!”

She was always very involved in the arts – visual, drama, writing – also an online world of creativity that was then sharing and supportive. “You would share art and other people would also share art and we’d start to have this sense of community,” says Gill. “Social media gave me a community, which I didn’t really have, so I had a lot of love for it then.” She also loved the art room and the library – these spaces were her refuge. She still has an enormous warmth for librarians and teachers because often they were her protectors. “The problem with being a kid who prefers books to anyone else’s company is you’re also a target. You’re constantly picked on because you’re always alone.”

“We’ve spent so much time pretending that teenage girls for generations haven’t driven culture. Teenage girls drive culture”

Gill studied Design at university in New Delhi, then an MA at University for the Creative Arts. And she stayed on in the UK, living and working as a cleaner and a carer for a number of years while continuing to write. These Are the Words is her eighth volume of poetry. Her creative focus remains the young adult market. “All of my work, I feel, has always been for young people – especially young people who feel powerless in the world.”

The themes of These Are the Words are big ones, things young people feel to their core – love, loss, family, conformity and fitting in, fear and anger. Some are undoubtedly dark, but there is light along with shade. “It’s really important for me to go: ‘yes, there’s a lot of grief here, yes, there’s tragedy, but there’s also a lot of joy – we just to have to find that’,” she says. Getting that balance right with a YA audience is important, something Nikita Gill remains painfully attuned to. “There’s a fine balance between being toxically positive and toxically negative!”

Nikita Gill C Guy Bell
Nikita Gill continues to champion the spoken and written word and believes art and poetry belong to us all. Photo: Guy Bell

She puts a lot of the credit for the book’s final more hopeful shape down to an excellent editor. Gill had lost a lot of people in the wake of the pandemic and say the first draft reflected that. “What she basically did was remove three-quarters of the poems I submitted and then I bought in that lightness and positivity. Every last poem of every section is a really hopeful poem,” she says. Poems such as ‘The Wish’ (about a father’s hopes for his daughter’s future happiness) are joyful, but the book also expresses anger (‘On Seeing The Wolf Again’) and the wistful ache of unrequited love (‘To the Girl At the Bus Stop’).  

Nikita Gill can be searing on love and loss – to adult readers too – because she has a long memory for what that feels like when you’re young. “Your first heartbreak, the first time that you face that wound and it’s so intense, you never forget it”. She also remains painfully aware of the journey girls especially have in a world that still casually belittles and marginalises. “Misogyny is so insidious that you’re brought up with it – you don’t even see there’s anything wrong with it,” she says. “We’ve spent so much time pretending that teenage girls for generations haven’t driven culture. Teenage girls drive culture. How many bands that exist today owe their entire legacy to teenage girls? I think Harry Styles is one of the few people who actually talks about it, which is why he’s so popular.”

Young women and girls gravitate to her poetry – and with good reason, she speaks with directness about issues that matter

That ‘Instapoet’ label is catchy but doesn’t do justice to the scope or seriousness of Gill’s work. And it also risks being used as part of that belittlement of women’s voices in culture. But then again, it was social media that helped her to find her audience and that is important. “Art is for the people – I think art and poetry belong to everyone. That’s precisely why I thought social media was so important because it cut out that middleman and let people decide whether they liked it or not.”

Nikita Gill is a voice young people – girls especially – listen to, and with good reason. She is there for them and with them, writing with a directness that cuts through. “There are all these painful things that are happening, all these things that you are going through. There should be someone there to guide you through without saying, ‘oh you’re ‘young, you’ll get over it’,” she says. “We need to put more into our young people, and that is what this book is about.”

These Are the Words, by Nikita Gill is published by Pan Macmillan, £7.99. Nikita Gill

Further reading: Natasha Devon on navigating teenage years