The Life Interview With Balli Kaur Jaswal

Writer takes on taboo issues

Rising novelist Balli Kaur Jaswal tackles topics such as mental health, race relations and dysfunctional family dynamics in her books

Balli Kaur Jaswal is one of Singapore's hottest young novelists, but her latest book is one her former schoolteachers would have stopped her from reading.

Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows will be published by international brand HarperCollins next month in the United Kingdom and a few months later in the United States. Movie rights have been sold to Ridley Scott's production company, Scott Free Productions, and Film4.

The title sells itself, but would have been a problem for those who taught her 20 years ago in CHIJ Toa Payoh.

Jaswal says her classmates at the time were huge fans of the Sweet Valley High teen romances. Teachers were worried about how the content might affect the schoolgirls and parents were called in and told to beware such books.

"Reading for entertainment was frowned on. We were encouraged to read storybooks to improve our English," says Jaswal, who turns 34 this year. "It was like watching television. How much could you be learning if you liked it so much?"

Jaswal's novels are both enjoyable and intelligent. They get readers to think about complex issues, from race relations to living with schizophrenia.

Her debut, Inheritance, was about mental health issues, homosexuality and the dysfunctional dynamics in a Punjabi family in Singapore.

She started it in 2007, when she became the first Singaporean writer to win the £25,000 David T.K. Wong Fellowship for writing at the well- known University of East Anglia.

Inheritance was finally published in 2013 by Australian press Sleepers Publishing, while Jaswal was teaching English at the John Monash Science School in Melbourne. The novel was a critical hit in Australia and Singapore. The Sydney Morning Herald named her one of Australia's best young novelists.

Singaporean director K. Rajagopal aims to shoot and screen a film inspired by Inheritance during the Singapore International Festival of Arts from June to September. The author, publisher and filmmakers are working out the details (see story on D2).

Jaswal's second published novel is Sugarbread, which talks about racism in Singapore through the wide-eyed but clear vision of a young narrator. It was a runner-up for the 2015 Epigram Books Fiction Prize, an annual award for unpublished manuscripts started by Singapore press Epigram Books.

Sugarbread was published in June last year by Epigram, which also republished Inheritance for local readers that month.

Inheritance is one of two lead titles that Epigram will use to launch itself in the UK this May.

Jaswal's star is rising overseas.

Last year, British magazine The Bookseller reported that HarperCollins had to beat five other publishers for Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows.

The exact sum paid is not known, but the six-figure deal for that book and another still in progress was strong enough that Jaswal, then a full-time teacher in international schools, gave up her job in Istanbul and returned to Singapore to write full-time.

She now lives in the east with her Australian husband, who is editorial director of human resources publication HRM Asia Magazine. They do not have children.

The rest of her immediate family lives overseas. Jaswal has mostly lived out of the country because of her father's work with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She was born in Singapore, lived in Japan and Russia and studied in Singapore between the ages of eight and 15.

She remembers being upset by her Singaporean teachers' attitudes towards reading. A novel her mother had given her was taken away by a teacher because it had a man and woman on the cover.

"On the one hand, there was this disregard for books and, on the other hand, there was this fear of what it might be teaching us," she says. "People dismissed literature and feared it."

She felt more at home in the international school in Manila, where she studied next. Then it was a degree in English literature at Hollins University.

While in university, she began work on Sugarbread. It was based on her experience of being Singaporean and yet feeling like an outsider because of her ethnicity. Like the character in the book, she heard older people make racist comments.

She says of that early draft: "It wasn't a narrative as much as a bloated mess of scenes. I was still training myself to be a writer."

A severe illness, diagnosed as Crohn's Disease, which affects the digestive tract, made her so weak that she had to return to Singapore instead of completing her master's in the US.

She put the draft of Sugarbread away and, when she was well enough, worked on other ideas as well as jobs such as a writing post at HRM Asia Magazine and a teaching stint at Anglo-Chinese School (Independent).

Then came a postgraduate teaching degree at Melbourne University, a new life and a focus on the manuscripts that would become Inheritance and Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows.

She only thought of Sugarbread when Epigram started its prize for unpublished manuscripts in 2015. "The prize was motivation to return to it. I don't know if I would have otherwise," she says.

Sugarbread won Jaswal $5,000 and spoke to Singaporeans of different ages and races.

Young people still come up and tell her what it means to have their unspoken hurts revealed. Others tell her it opened their eyes to Chinese privilege.

"If this resonates with one Punjabi girl in Singapore who's felt this way, I'd have done my job," she says.

Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows also focuses on a minority community.

During her fellowship at the University of East Anglia, she often visited family friends at Southall in West London, where there is a large Punjabi community. Station signs are in Punjabi script as well as English. A local pub takes rupees as well as pounds.

"It pulled me in two directions. It was comforting to be in a place with so much familiarity. British Punjabi girls get it when you say things about the pressure to get married or what would people say?

"It was also really restrictive because this was a place cut off from the rest of England."

She also began thinking about the taboos about sex in the Indian community. "The Punjabi women I saw in the temple didn't seem to be sexual beings. They were meek and stooped over and dominated by men," she says.

So she created a world where these women had a safe space to talk about things that mattered.

"This could absolutely happen. If you get a group of women in a room, there's a power to talk about things that have been silenced."

She wrote Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows while working as a teacher in Melbourne. It took discipline and careful time management.

Jaswal's friend and fellow teacher, Australian Prithi Rao, 30, was an early reader.

Ms Rao says: "We often take it for granted that becoming a writer is as simple as just writing a book and then getting published, but Balli has worked really hard for a long time to make things happen for herself."

She recalls nine-hour workdays which left her flat on the sofa at home.

In contrast, she knew Jaswal would continue writing and editing into the night. "I think people don't really know how hardworking Balli is," she says.

Jaswal's husband Paul Howell, 40, says the same. They used to be colleagues in Singapore and began dating when they were both in Australia.

Of her writing habits, he says: "She does prefer to be alone, although that could be a cafe or co-working space. Finding that time was challenging when Balli was working full-time and she became very disciplined at getting the writing done whenever she did have the flat to herself."

A few times, she asked him to find something else to do outside their home so she could concentrate on her writing. Nowadays, she finishes her allotted word count for the day before he returns from work.

In 2008, the University of East Anglia had matched Jaswal with literary agent Anna Power at Johnson & Alcock. Ms Power liked what she read of Inheritance, but did not represent it.

"When I first read Balli's work, it was obvious that she was a talented writer," she says via e-mail. "The novel she was working on sensitively portrayed the complicated dynamics and secrets that can exist within a family, especially an immigrant family."

They stayed in touch and Ms Power "cheered her on from the sidelines" until Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows was completed.

"As soon as I heard the title, I was intrigued and, when I finally read it, I was so impressed and quite surprised because although this novel dealt with similar themes with Balli's usual warmth and insight, it was also extremely funny and uplifting."

Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows is one of two books Ms Power helped Jaswal sell to HarperCollins. Jaswal is working on the second: a road-trip adventure featuring three sisters on a pilgrimage.

She says: "I treat writing like a full-time job."

She is committed to writing "1,000 words a day, regardless of quality".

The morning begins with "butt-glue" time, when she sticks to her chair in her home office and writes. To help grease the creative wheels, she builds in two hours of exercise, including a 40-minute run.

She ends the session with a visit to the nearby Toast Box outlet. "The auntie sees me coming and starts making my drink," she says, laughing. Her preferred beverage is tea with less sugar.

She admits the irony in writing a book titled Sugarbread. "I don't really like things that are too sweet," she says.

She takes with a pinch of salt the praise Sugarbread has won her here. Yes, people stop her to say they are proud of what she is doing for the Punjabi community.

However, how might they react to a book like Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows? "It takes only one or two people to change the tide of opinion. I'm aware of that," she says with a laugh.

"It's universal, this revulsion we have when we think: 'My mum did that. My Nani-ma (grandmother) did that.'"

• Books by Balli Kaur Jaswal are available at major bookstores. Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows will be released on March 9.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2017, with the headline Writer takes on taboo issues. Subscribe