From old manuscripts to new novels

Sugarbread by Balli Kaur Jaswal (above) offers a glimpse into the Punjabi- Sikh community in Singapore.
Sugarbread by Balli Kaur Jaswal (above) offers a glimpse into the Punjabi- Sikh community in Singapore.PHOTO: COURTESY OF BALLI KAUR JASWA
Wong Souk Yee (above) with her book, Death Of A Perm Sec, about the death of a permanent secretary at the housing ministry who is accused of corruption, and the blow it deals to his family.
Wong Souk Yee (above) with her book, Death Of A Perm Sec, about the death of a permanent secretary at the housing ministry who is accused of corruption, and the blow it deals to his family.ST PHOTO: MARCUS TAN

When the Epigram Books Fiction Prize emerged last year, it sent writers Balli Kaur Jaswal and Wong Souk Yee rummaging for their old manuscripts.

They unearthed works they had written back in university and abandoned, and with them, got onto the shortlist for last year's prize. Now, close to a decade after the manuscripts were completed, they have hit the stores as full-fledged novels.

In both Jaswal's Sugarbread and Wong's Death Of A Perm Sec, family ties are tested and dark secrets rise to the surface, against a Singaporean backdrop of hawker centres, wet markets and Housing Board flats.

The prize was the reason Jaswal decided to dust off her manuscript, which was written as her honours thesis in creative writing at Hollins University, a women's university in Virginia, United States.

"I knew I wanted to return to it someday, but without that push, I don't think I would have done it," says the 32-year-old, who was born in Singapore and is now based in Istanbul.

Sugarbread follows Pin, a 10-year- old searching for glimpses of her secretive mother's past through her cooking. It deftly navigates thorny issues such as race and religion, and offers a colourful glimpse into the Punjabi-Sikh community, whose experiences have rarely been mined in Singapore literature.


Sugarbread (above) by Balli Kaur Jaswal offers a glimpse into the Punjabi- Sikh community in Singapore. PHOTO: COURTESY OF BALLI KAUR JASWAL

One of the recurring themes in Jaswal's works is the tension between tradition and modernity. With Sugarbread, she wanted to have different female characters representing these ideals and the conflicts that arise from them being cooped up under the same roof.

She completed the manuscript in 2007 but, struggling with problems in the narrative and the overall plot development, decided it was time for a break.

"I put aside the manuscript - I was a bit sick of it - and decided that it was a practice run."

She started on a new project instead and that became her debut novel, Inheritance. The book - which traces the lives of a Punjabi family living in Singapore as the nation develops from 1970 to 1990 - was published in 2013 by Australian independent press Sleepers Publishing. It has since been published in Singapore by Epigram Books.

She returned to Sugarbread just last year, armed this time around with more knowledge and experience. She adds: "The distance also helped. I was able to look at it with fresh eyes because it had been so long since I'd written it."

"It was badly in need of some cutting - which first-time writers are so unwilling to do - but after going through the editing process of Inheritance, I was able to be more pragmatic and realistic about what needed to go."

Wong, 57, wrote her manuscript, which meshes family drama and political intrigue, for her PhD in creative writing and literature at the University of New South Wales in Australia. It is about the death of a permanent secretary at the housing ministry who is accused of corruption and the blow it deals to his family.

With the novel, she also spins a tale fraught with suspense and tussles for political power as she re-examines and reimagines the decisions the men who led Singapore through its turbulent years as a fledgling nation may have made.

She completed it in 2004 and later approached a local publisher, but the manuscript was rejected.

"I didn't try again until Epigram offered the $20,000 prize. Then I thought, what the heck, since I already wrote it, I'll just give it a shot. I have nothing to lose," says Wong.

The novel taps on her interest in rediscovering Singapore's history and the 1986 death of the former National Development Minister Teh Cheang Wan, who overdosed on sleeping pills during a probe into allegations that he had accepted bribes.

Wong, a former political detainee who stood in the last General Election as a member of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), says: "I want to find out more about my own country's history and write about our political history and the what-ifs and what-could-have- beens, while also looking at how political developments can have personal consequences."

She has another manuscript she has yet to excavate, written when she was doing her master's in creative writing at the University of Western Sydney. She is thinking about how to rework it, but is not likely to submit it for this year's prize.

Meanwhile, Jaswal - who this year nabbed a two-book deal with publishing giant HarperCollins - is starting on the second book in the deal. The first book, Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, follows a young woman who teaches literacy to elderly women in London's Punjabi community. She soon learns the widows have other plans: starting an erotic storytelling club.

Jaswal says the book, which will be out next year, has also attracted the interest of a number of film and television production companies in Britain. Translation rights for the novel have been sold to France, Germany, Poland, Estonia, Israel and China, and there are still ongoing deals to sell to more territories.

The response far surpasses her expectations. "Of course, I'm thrilled about having a wider international audience because I'm exploring some truths about a silenced and hidden group of women.

"I hope readers will walk away with a greater need to recognise society's invisible women as multi- dimensional, full-blooded people with a strength of their own."

‚ÄĘSugarbread ($24.90) by Balli Kaur Jaswal and Death Of A Perm Sec ($24.90) by Wong Souk Yee are available at major bookstores and epigrambooks.sg.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 05, 2016, with the headline 'From old manuscripts to new novels'. Print Edition | Subscribe