‘I realised women cannot be silenced’

‘I consider Singapore and Australia my homes equally. I can move between both places and feel quite comfortable.’   | Photo Credit: Susan Gordon-Brown

Balli Kaur Jaswal’s third book, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, is a warm, funny and dark look at the lives of the Punjabi community in Southall. Talking on the phone from Singapore, the 33-year-old writer speaks of the immigrant experience, the film deal with Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions, and the place she considers home. Excerpts:

HarperCollins won a bidding war for your novel. How does it feel?

It was quite exciting to see so many publishers throw their hat in the ring for this book. I was particularly impressed with HarperCollins’ proposed publicity campaign, so I was pleased to go with them.

You said you are a full-time writer now. What was your day job earlier?

I was teaching English full-time in a high school in Australia for five years. After that I taught in an international school in Istanbul for a year. I still do school visits and I lecture once a week at a university, but the majority of my time is spent on writing.

Inheritance and Sugarbread are set in Singapore, Erotic Stories… looks at Punjabis in Britain. Is the immigrant experience different in the two countries?

Some aspects are universal — cultural alienation, learning a new language and its idiosyncrasies, etc. But I think it is a bigger leap to go from Punjab to Britain than it is to go from Punjab to Singapore. In one scenario, there is a very distinct east-west divide but, in the other, there are overlaps between the cultures, climate and societal expectations. So the shock of being in a new place is not as pronounced, although it is still there.

How did the novel come to be?

The novel came about from my numerous visits to Southall in 2007. I was fascinated by the Punjabi enclave in London. I knew I wanted to set a story there.

Later on I was thinking about women’s sexuality being policed by men. Southall proved to be an ideal setting for the story. It is rich and apt. I have always been interested in marginalised people.

Whose story is it?

There is a shifting perspective. The main protagonists are Nikki and Kulwinder. While Kulwinder has a traditional approach, Nikki, even though she is westernised and modern, is also blinkered, thinking there is only one way to look at things. I wanted her to get a few humbling lessons as well. She needed to realise there are different perspectives.

Who is your favourite widow and why?

I would say Aravinder, (laughs) because she is, for want of a better word, ballsy. She is practical and just a little fed up and dismissive of her daughter, Pritam, who is addicted to soap operas and a bit of a drama queen.

Are the characters based on real people?

They are not based on particular people. But based on characters I have met over the years. As I wrote the book, the widows’ individuality and voices got clearer.

What has been the reaction to the book?

This book is just out, so I wouldn’t be able to say. For my earlier two books, where I called out some of the hypocrisy, the responses have been positive. I have noticed that those who would have a problem with the books usually ignore other viewpoints.

Film rights for the book have been acquired by Scott Free Productions and Film Four…

There was a lot of interest in the book and I had the luxury of meeting and talking with different production houses. I was impressed with Scott Free because they were clear that they were not going to sensationalise or exoticise the matter. They didn’t want it to be a white gaze. I would not be writing the screenplay, however I will be on board as a consultant.

Could you talk about the research process?

I made a trip in 2014 after I had written two-thirds of the book — because that way I would have the story down and I could fill up the gaps rather than get bogged down with details at the expense of the story.

Is there a collection of erotic stories by Punjabi widows?

You know when I started, it was a joke. Like a ha, ha “what if” kind of scenario. Later on as I became more invested in the widows, it became more plausible. I realised women cannot be silenced; they will speak out if they are given a safe environment.

You have lived in different places across the globe, which place do you consider home and why?

I consider Singapore and Australia my homes equally. I can move between both places and feel quite comfortable, and when I’m in one country, I don’t miss the other, but when I return, I forget about where I was!

You have mentioned that religion and language are the easiest ways to keep a culture alive. Could you elaborate?

I think religion and language are a lifeline for many diaspora communities because these are two things which have built-in rules and structures. If you are a migrant settling in a new country, nothing is routine or familiar for a long time. So religion and language become important in maintaining your identity. Parents usually pass down their religious beliefs and language to their children (not just in diaspora communities, this happens everywhere) because that’s how they preserve that sense of who they are and what they believe in.

While food is an important motif in Sugarbread, it doesn’t have a starring role in Erotic Stories... Why is that?

In Sugarbread, food is about communication between members of three generations. In Erotic Stories... the women use language more directly (and arguably, food does have a starring role if you count the number of references to aubergines!)

Is the literary scene in Singapore looking up with more narratives from the diaspora?

I think the literary scene here welcomes the voices of minority communities. There has been a lot of support for migrant worker narratives in recent years, and certainly Inheritance and Sugarbread were received well by Singaporean-Chinese and Malay readers as well as those in the Indian community.

What next?

My next book is about three sisters going to India to immerse their mother’s ashes and what follows.

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Printable version | Jul 26, 2021 1:12:13 AM |

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