In her critically-acclaimed novels, Inheritance and Sugarbread, Balli Kaur Jaswal reveals a fascination with identity. Both stories took on topics of cultural and gender roles within the Punjabi community of Singapore.
In her new book, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, Balli moves her setting to London and her gaze to sexuality. And that caught the eye of Hollywood: Sir Ridley Scott’s film company bought the rights to the story, which is set to be a kind of Punjabi-British Calendar Girls.
In this podcast with Jo Furniss, Balli says that as a (in her own words) “Punjabi-Singaporean, International School-educated, sometimes-American, sometimes-British, Western-ish citizen”, her writing was destined to be dominated by issues of identity.
BKJ: I’ve definitely always had a sense of being an outsider, having to explain myself, especially coming from Singapore as a minority. I think that trained me from a very early age to tell the story of my identity.
JF: As a child, you lived in Russia and Japan. Then you’ve been to universities in the US and the UK. How did your time away from Singapore affect the way you write about it?
BKJ: When I was a teenager and we came back for summer vacations, I noticed people did ask me where I was from. And sometimes I was to blame because I was quite lost; Singapore was developing and changing very rapidly in the 1990s. Sometimes, even before they heard me speak, people would comment that I must not be from here.
I’ve always felt that being away from Singapore helped me to write the details. I think that wherever memory resides, imagination also resides.
I started writing Sugarbread when I was studying in America and the story came from that sense of wanting people to know where I’m from, wanting them to know what my life was like, how the smells of certain foods evoked completely different settings for me compared to my American friends.
And the same thing with Inheritance; I wrote a lot of it in Singapore but I found that the details were right up in my face. I didn’t have the narrative perspective, so I had to go away to figure out what story I wanted to tell about the place.
JF: You’re building a reputation as a writer who is willing to tackle complex subjects. Your first novel, Inheritance, dealt with mental health and homosexuality, while Sugarbread focused on racism between the majority ethnic-Chinese and minority Indian communities in Singapore. How have your books been received at home?
BKJ: I’ve had a surprising number of people come up to me and say that [the inequality depicted in Sugarbread] was also their experience. And then I’ve had a number of Chinese people say that the way we so casually use racist language needs to stop, that they already believe this but the book affirmed it.
I found that really powerful because sometimes when you’re writing you feel like you’re preaching to the choir, that I’m in the margins and someone in the margins is going to read my book and say ‘yeah, we’re all in the margins’. It’s just an echo chamber of sharing this experience, but not really being able to reach out.
My hope is that although my stories are specific to Singapore—and my next story is specific to the Punjabi community in London—there are universal ideas there and I hope people from the wider readership can connect to them.
JF: Another important theme in your novel concerns womanhood. Sugarbread depicts a close relationship between a young woman and her elderly grandmother, while Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows also digs into a sense of sharing knowledge and experience across the generations. Does that relate to your family?
BKJ: My writing has been about correcting experiences that I had! I grew up in a very patriarchal community, and in a family where you had to defer not just to the men but to male ideas. I definitely always had a very strong sense that prejudice existed.
My parents grew up in an in-between stage, meaning their childhood was very conservative and traditional, so they themselves were striving for more progressive values and ideals, but every time they moved forward they would have a kind of knee-jerk reaction. So reading was a good escape for me because there were worlds where people like me triumphed.
JF: The film rights to your third novel, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, sold to Ridley Scott’s company. What was it about the story that caught his eye – and (to indulge in a #fangirl moment) what’s he like?
BKJ: I haven’t met Ridley Scott yet but I understand he sends his approval, which is very exciting. I’ve spoken to the producers for [his film company] Scott Free and I think they were very intrigued by the premise of this migrant community that exists in London which is cut off from the rest of England. It really feels like a preserved village in India.
And then they were interested in the quirkiness and the humour in the idea that these elderly women, who are so invisible in society, want to explore their sexuality and talk about things they haven’t been allowed to talk about. Rather like Calendar Girls. There’s also an underlying mystery about a girl who goes missing in the community and the women find the courage to address that. So there’s an element of suspense that might make for good movie scenes.
JF: There’s a young female character who runs creative writing classes for older women in her community, assuming that she will somehow liberate them, but she quickly discovers that they don’t want liberation the way she experiences it. This reminds me of times in my own life when I was convinced I had all the answers! Again, is that tension between the generations something you have experienced?
BKJ: Nicky, the protagonist, has got very heady ideas about liberation, what it is and how everyone needs to accept it. That’s a very common experience a lot of us have in our early 20s and we don’t realise that we’re actually being quite narrow-minded in the other direction by assuming that everyone wants to take on the same ideals. And so she learns a lot of lessons in humility.
I felt that as a young modern woman she needed to accept that she’s had a lot of privilege in being able to embrace those ideas while the older women are taking tiny steps forward – but even a tiny step is a huge change for them and she needed to respect that.
JF: All of your novels have gained critical approval. The Sydney Morning Herald named you as one of Australia’s best young novelists. You were a runner-up in Singapore’s Epigram Prize. You were the first Singaporean writer to win the David T K Wong Fellowship to study at the prestigious University of East Anglia in the UK. And this endorsement from Ridley Scott takes your star higher again. How are you coping with the pressure?
BKJ: When I start to think about all the expectations, I do get overwhelmed. I have to continue to write about my core interests, such as identity, and I have to dip back into that time before I was published and remember that’s where I am with each novel. People assume you get better and better, but it’s like starting all over again each time. All you’ve become an expert in, is writing that last novel.
Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is released on March 9th.