Balli Kaur Jaswal: Singapore Girl, Social Commentator, Acclaimed Author of Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows
For a Little Red Dot, Singapore has not been in short supply of literary heavyweights. Local author Balli Kaur Jaswal, 35, however, is that rarity among them, having earned not just literary recognition but also international commercial success. Her third book, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, published in 2017 by one of the world’s largest publishing houses HarperCollins, caught the eye of actress and bibliophile Reese Witherspoon who picked the novel for her book club. Even more exciting, the book may soon hit the big screens. Its film rights have been sold to Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions and Film Four in the United Kingdom. Scott Free Productions is responsible for Hollywood blockbusters like The Gladiator, Blade Runner 2049, and The Martian, also adapted from a novel. To say, then, that Jaswal has hit the big times would not be an overstatement.
Singapore Girl at Heart
Yet, in person, she is as authentic and endearing as they come. Asked, probably for the umpteenth time, why she became a writer, Jaswal still manages a heart-felt reply: “I have always felt like I had a story to tell. There was a sense of conversation and I wanted to keep that conversation going.”
Born in Singapore, the voracious reader lived in the Republic till she was 15. Then, her father’s work (he was employed by the Ministry of Home Affairs) brought the family around the globe. Jaswal has lived in Japan, the Philippines, Russia, Australia and Istanbul.
At heart, though, she is a Singapore girl. Her first two novels – Inheritance, about a family wrenched apart by secrets; and Sugarbread, a coming-of-age tale that also explores the complexities of mother-daughter relationships – are both set in Singapore. Now, this Singapore girl has come home.
“It was always on my mind to come back to Singapore to have kids. This is a great place to raise children,” says Jaswal who is married to an Australian editorial director of human resources now working in Singapore. They have a two-year-old son.
“I love the hawker food and how shops don’t close by 3pm.”
Her desire to pursue a creative writing PhD at the National Technological University also helped tip her decision as did the fact that her parents, who had lived abroad, chose to move back to Singapore.
Family, Community, Society
That family is important to Jaswal should come as no surprise. Her novels, including her latest The Unlikely Adventures of the Shegrill Sisters, all centre around family and the Punjabi community.
“I write about what I know, not just my experience but also the experience of my community,” she shares.
“Growing up, I felt like an outsider [in terms of my] race, gender and nationality. [When I lived abroad], I was often the only Singaporean at school and the only Punjabi. Kids and teachers didn’t understand. How can you be Singaporean, you’re not Chinese? they would ask. I had to do a lot of explaining about my culture inside and outside of Singapore.”
That dissonance is a recurrent theme in her books which also surfaces weighty issues like mental illness, homosexuality, abuse, women’s rights, sexuality, gender selection, discrimination, and religion. Woven into each book is mystery as well. Whether it is a well-guarded family secret or an unsolved murder, each of Jaswal’s stories has a whodunit element that keeps reader hooked. This flirtation with the dark side comes from one of the author’s not-so-secret obsessions.
“I’m a huge fan of My Favourite Murder,” she confesses. “it’s a true crimes podcast done by two women interested in macabre things. I’ve even written an article about how the podcast helped me overcome postpartum depression.”
Despite the difficult issues raised, her novels are layered with plenty of humour, too.
Jaswal explains the seeming incongruity: “When we joke, we are also bringing to light serious topics that are hard to talk about. It’s like giggling away that tension.”
Fifth Book in the Works
Jaswal fans will be glad to know that there is a fifth book in the works and this one is set, once more, in Singapore.
“I’m writing a novel set in Singapore that might have a wider interest outside of Singapore,” she reveals. “It takes readers into the households of everyday Singaporeans and is about three Filipino domestic workers who join forces to prove the innocence of another implicated in a murder.”
Jaswal seems to have married all the best elements of her last four books in this next literary offering. Like Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, it has the big premise that wows. Like her earlier novels, it is set in the place she calls home.
“My first two stories are quieter stories but it resonated more with Singaporeans. I feel proud that people could relate to those characters. It’s a sense of success.”
Does Jaswal herself have any favourite characters from her books?
“I really missed the widows. I feel quite close to the characters and I was quite sad to leave them.”
But readers are unlikely to see a sequel, at least not in the near future.
“I was tempted to stick with the same characters [after Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows]. My agent gently steered me away and told me I should broaden my repertoire.”
As to what she has to say to aspiring authors, Jaswal says: “Carve out time to write and protect that time.”
Her husband is particularly supportive of her writing and makes sure she has time to write every day.
“He knows I get grumpy when I don’t write,” she laughs.
Pressing on is another piece of advice.
“It is very easy to start something. It’s getting past the first barrier. There is a point when you’re writing where you go: oh, oh, it’s not working; I’m sick of the story. That’s when people put down their pens and stop writing.”
Jaswal has hit that roadblock before and when it happens, she simply tells herself to press on because some day it would result in something complete. That is surely advice worth following. After all, her determination has given the world four wonderful stories that have won awards and acclaim, and given insights into the real Singapore.