Balli Kaur Jaswal

Singapore Hot Takes is an interview series with contemporary writers from Singapore looking at issues like craft, reading, influence, community, and ethics.

Balli Kaur Jaswal is the author of four novels, including Singapore Literature Prize finalist Sugarbread, and the bestselling Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, which was a selection of Reese Witherspoon’s book club. Her debut novel Inheritance won the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelist award. A former writing fellow at the University of East Anglia, she teaches creative writing at Yale NUS College. Jaswal’s non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar India and Salon, among other publications. Her latest novel The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters was released internationally in 2019.

Photo of Balli Kaur Jaswal

What was your early reading life like, what did you read and what books left an impact on you?
Like most writers, I started out as a reader. Growing up, I read pretty much anything I could get my hands on, but I was particularly drawn to Judy Blume and Roald Dahl. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was the most honest thing I had ever read. My favourites by Roald Dahl were Matilda and The Witches. I liked Judy Blume because she was an adult who actually told the truth. Sometimes I still feel as if I’m in conversation with her when I write, continuing a tradition of daring to “go there” with taboo topics. In my teens, there was a new wave of writing from India and the diaspora that really hit home with me too, because I was suddenly seeing representations of my own world in fiction. Work by authors like Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri, Zadie Smith and Monica Ali illuminated the possibilities of what stories could do.

How did you come to writing? Was there a pivotal moment when a lightbulb went off? Or, was it a gradual process?
I would say it was a gradual process and I’m still learning; every time I start a new project, I discover that most of the skills I learned in writing the previous projects were not necessarily transferable! There were definitely some key moments though. I remember writing detective stories in primary school and getting into trouble for their inappropriate content, which was enthralling – what were grown-ups so worried about? What was this power I had? Unfortunately, after years of being discouraged from writing, and being labeled a dreamer with no career prospects, that thrill turned into shame. I buried my love for writing for a couple of years. Then in high school an encounter with my English teacher Suzanne Kirk (hi Ms. Kirk!) changed everything. She read a story that I reluctantly handed in, and wrote: “Whatever you do, keep writing.” That comment set me on a path towards pursuing writing more seriously.

Tell us about your latest work. What are its themes and techniques?
The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters is a novel about three adult British-Indian sisters who take a pilgrimage to India to fulfill their late mother’s final wishes. There are a couple of spiritual tasks and final rites mixed in with visits to places that have personal significance to their mother. It’s also her way of forcing the three sisters to spend time together and resolving the many tensions between them. The novel approaches the conventional road trip narrative with a couple of tweaks – firstly, most stories about about traveling in India are from the male perspective. Men have much more freedom of mobility in places like Punjab and Delhi, where street harassment is common. Secondly, the typical travel narrative in India tends to be from the perspective of outsiders – I wanted to write about how the diaspora experience influences these women and adds to their complicated relationship to a country that at once feels like the motherland, but also seems foreign and confounding. The novel addresses a range of themes, including racial and national identity, mortality, feminism, grief, the spectrum of tradition and modernity, and the relationship between rituals and spirituality.

Where does your work fit in contemporary Singaporean literature? Here, I am wondering about the work of peers that you like, and the broader ecosystem in which you write?
That’s a question I’m still working out, if only because post-independence Singapore is so young and obsessed with constant reinvention. Fundamentally, we’re still defining what it means to be Singaporean. It’s no wonder that there’s such enthusiasm for our stories to be told, because with each foray into the lives of characters and places around us, we inch closer to an understanding of who we are. I really admire the writers who explore the rich diversity of Singapore, especially the ones who challenge the common narratives about our prosperity and history. I’m thinking of authors like Jolene Tan, Alfian Sa’at, Jeremy Tiang, Pooja Nansi and Tania De Rozario. My first two novels and my work-in-progress are set in Singapore. The common thread running through them was the idea of making invisible communities visible, so we can include people like Sikh women, people with mental illness and domestic workers in our answer to the question “who belongs here?”

And, finally, can you explain your future literary plans? Is there anything specific readers should know about?
I’m writing a novel set in Singapore which follows the lives of three foreign domestic workers from the Philippines who work together to prove their friend’s innocence when she is accused of murdering her employer’s wife. The novel takes a darkly humorous approach towards the social issues surrounding foreign domestic workers in Singapore, and the world that they inhabit within their own communities. I’m really interested in exploring the tensions between these women’s subservient roles within their households of employment, and their autonomy as individuals.

I’m also a consultant on the feature film adaptation of Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows. We have a script, and there’s talk of things progressing in 2020 so let’s see how it goes!


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