Crafting Fiction,Talking Taboos: Interview with Balli Kaur Jaswal

Constellations Issue 2

IVY CHUA & NATASHA NURULASHIKIN

Nov 30, 2018 | Articles

Former NTU writer-in-residence Balli Kaur Jaswal is a leading light in contemporary Singaporean fiction. Her internationally recognised writing takes on topics ranging from race relations and mental health to gender and family dynamics. She is currently studying for her PhD in Creative Writing in the School of Humanities.

The first Singaporean recipient of the prestigious David T.K. Wong Fellowship for writing from the University of East Anglia, Balli gained the spotlight in 2013 for her novel Inheritance (Sleepers Publishing), which explores belonging and national identity through a Punjabi family in Singapore. Following its publication, the Sydney Morning Herald named Balli one of Australia’s best young novelists in 2014. Balli’s second novel, Sugarbread (Epigram, 2016), is about race in Singapore and is told through the eyes of a young narrator. It was a finalist for the 2015 Epigram Books Fiction Prize. Her third novel, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows (HarperCollins/William Morrow, 2017), is a cross-cultural meditation on womanhood, sexuality, and community. Translation rights to the novel have been sold internationally and film rights have been acquired by Scott Free Productions and Film Four in the UK.

Balli is completing her fourth novel about three sisters who go on a pilgrimage to India. We sat down with the author to talk about how her background inspires her fiction and to learn more about her forthcoming novel.

INTERVIEWERS
How did growing up in a number of countries, including Russia and the Philippines, influence your writing on the immigrant experience?

BALLI
I think it gives you the perspective of being an outsider. Having to constantly question your identity and your sense of belonging to a place translated very well into my representation of the immigrant experience.

INTERVIEWERS
Your novel Inheritance reflects the alienation of individuals who do not fit prescribed moulds, while simultaneously tracing Singapore’s progress towards becoming a prosperous nation. How can we reconcile the tension between progress and disenfranchisement?

BALLI
I think we can work toward filling that gap by understanding and recognizing the humanity in people. We are a nation obsessed with progress, but we need to step back and think about what “progress” means and at whose expense it is achieved. A story like Inheritance and stories of people struggling to catch up are cautionary tales about what will continue to happen and about how many people will fall behind at the expense of this progress that we’re so obsessed with.

INTERVIEWERS
Indeed, a number of literary texts deal with marginal peoples and communities, and this is an important topic that merits discussion.

BALLI
Absolutely. As a writer, I am privileged to have a voice, an education, and a platform to speak about these things. But this is a rare privilege that a lot of people living on the margins or suffering from multiple layers of oppression do not have. They are very busy just trying to get by. It’s really a losing battle for some people. I speak from my own experience. I don’t want to claim that I know what it’s like to be more marginalised than I am. But I’m hoping that more conversations open up and, as a result, bring opportunities for those marginalised people to step forward and speak up.

INTERVIEWERS
Inheritance is a great example of how marginalisation crops up as a theme in your work. What is the significance of the confluence of shame, sexuality and mental illness in this novel?

BALLI
These things are not supposed to be visible in the community that I write about. Particularly, women with mental illnesses and women who express their sexuality are supposed to be silent and invisible. The shame surrounding both mental illness and sexuality is very pervasive. It doesn’t just affect women, but also the entire family in a ripple effect that spans generations. Saving face is a big deal and creates a very oppressive state of mind for individuals. I wanted to explore those layers of oppression by having my character experience them.

INTERVIEWERS
Is there a particular reason as to why you’re drawn to taboo topics in your novels?

BALLI
I think I want to question why they are taboo in the first place, as well as the double standard: why people who claim to be religious and claim to love everyone and claim to be for peace don’t say anything when domestic violence happens or when someone homosexual is cast out. Hypocrisy really bothers me. I think particularly because I’ve been told so many times that there are [clear-cut] ways of being “good” or “bad.” It was also very much about visibility. Writing about injustice and hypocrisy was my way of making the invisible visible.

INTERVIEWERS
Your novel Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows incorporates events that have shaken the South Asian community, such as honor killings and rape. Do you find that the characters of Maya and her mother bring justice to these stories?

BALLI
I think they help bring these stories into the mainstream. Although, in the UK at least, there is already quite a bit of open conversation about honor crimes and forced marriages. So, I don’t think it was too surprising for UK readers. It was a bigger surprise for readers in America, though.

INTERVIEWERS
We understand that Scott Free Productions and Film Four in the UK have acquired the film rights to Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows. What are your thoughts about bringing the novel to life on the screen?

BALLI
I am really impressed by their ideas, by what inspired them about the novel, and by how they want to translate it to the screen. They’re being very considerate about the cultural elements. One thing that really appealed to me was that they don’t want it to be a film where you’ve got your majority white audience experiencing that world as outsiders. They actually want the audience to feel like they are in that world. They don’t want a film that encourages a predominantly white gaze. This is important to me because I didn’t want to put Punjabis on the stage and put Southall [multicultural West London neighborhood] on this little diorama where people can point and say “look at the funny immigrants and all of their ways and silly behavior.” I want people to recognize that, despite their own cultural background, this is the multicultural world they live in. I look forward to seeing what the filmmakers come up with.

INTERVIEWERS
Last but not least, we hear that you are currently working on your next book. When will it be released and what can we look forward to?

BALLI
The book comes out sometime next year. I just submitted my first draft and will submit the second draft by the end of May. The rest of the year will be spent mostly on edits. So, it should be out at around this time next year or a bit later. The story is about three British Asian sisters who go to India for a pilgrimage to honour their late mother. And they are about to solve family secrets that get revealed throughout their journey. They actually don’t get along, so it’s quite funny that they’re travelling together! n