Singaporean with Sikh Roots: The highs and lows of a footloose writer

Balli Kaur Jaswal

Born in Singapore and raised in Japan, Russia, and the Philippines, Balli Kaur Jaswal studied creative writing in the United States. She has received writing fellowships from the University of East Anglia and Nanyang Technological University and was named Best Young Australian Novelist of 2014 by the Sydney Morning Herald.

Balli Kaur Jaswal's work represents unique species of writers experiencing the corners of the globe. Her culture persists in her experiences as her characters encounter new realities with ancient eyes. Connected to India's Garima Kapil spoke to a young writer about her life and work.

CtoI: How and when did you decide to be a writer?

Balli Kaur: I always loved stories. I loved reading or listening to them, and I loved creating them. I can’t remember a time before I loved writing – I think I was born wanting to be a writer. Stories allow us to live multiple lives and experience reality from other points of view.

I started to see writing as more than just a hobby when I was an undergraduate in the creative writing program at Hollins University in the US. I was immersed in a world of writers there, and most of my courses were either writing workshops or literature classes with a focus on writing techniques. If there ever was a point or a place where I made the “decision” to do this, it was there.

Balli Kaur's first novel Inheritance

CtoI: You were born in Singapore and lived few years there, what did you gather from there? Any specific memory of childhood? How many years did you live in Singapore?

Balli Kaur: I was born in Singapore and have lived here on and off for about one-third of my life. My first novel "Inheritance" was based partly on my observations that Singapore, like so many countries in Southeast Asia, is constantly straddling this line between rapid modernization and traditional beliefs. I find the tension between tradition and modernity endlessly fascinating, and it's a recurrent theme in all of my work. My second novel "Sugarbread" is based on some of my childhood experiences growing up here and facing questions about identity and belonging. 

CtoI: You have lived in different countries, which one is your favorite?

Balli Kaur: I just moved back to Singapore from Istanbul, Turkey, which is an amazing place. I lived there for only a year but I still miss it.

CtoI: How does Singapore, the place, influence you and your work?

Balli Kaur: Singapore may be small but there’s a lot of material for fiction here. Beneath the surface of ordinary lives, people have very interesting stories. There’s the conflict between being an advanced and pragmatic society versus relying on superstitions and traditional beliefs. I’m particularly interested in how people in the margins find a place in such a compartmentalized and ordered country.   

CtoI: How important was it to you to illustrate in Sugarbread the relationships between women in Singapore's Sikh community?

Balli Kaur: It was one of the main ideas in the book. I like stories that follow different generations of women because we learn so much about how far we’ve come, but some limitations on females from decades ago still prevail. There’s also this notion in South Asian communities that women are relied upon to maintain their family’s reputation and honor – I think that’s a huge responsibility (and a burden) to place on a girl. The whole idea of being a sister/mother/daughter before being an individual is quite perverse. All my fiction features women challenging these roles.

Balli Kaur's second novel Sugarbread

CtoI: How much of your own life influenced Pin's in the novel (Sugarbread)?

Balli Kaur: There are bits and pieces from my own experience, but Sugarbread is very much a work of fiction. Many of the observations about living in Ang Mo Kio in the 90’s is directly from my childhood there.

CtoI: How much of the racism, you mention in the book, have you experienced yourself?

Balli Kaur: The racist Bus Uncle was lifted directly out of my own experience, unfortunately. There were many other moments and incidents with racial, religious and gender prejudice that I drew from. Most of them were subtle encounters that didn’t occur to me as wrong or unfair until I recalled them years later. I didn’t set out to write a book about racism, though – I think Sugarbread is about much more than that. It’s about a girl’s identity, and in questioning who she is and where she fits in society, she faces some uncomfortable, alienating moments.  

CtoI: What do you think literary fiction can do that no other genre or medium can do?
Balli Kaur: Fiction allows us to connect language to our own experiences. You can read anything and personalize it in some way – you have to, because writers give you that space between how they describe a situation and how you would imagine it. Fiction is always more relatable to me than other media for that reason, although I do like to read non-fiction and watch films as well.

Balli Kaur Jaswal

CtoI: How do you situate yourself in writing of the diaspora, and in Singaporean and/or South Asian Singaporean writing more specifically?

Balli Kaur: My novels explore issues of the Indian diaspora and "Inheritance" and "Sugarbread" are also very Singaporean stories, so I would say they can fit into more than one category. I've seen my books, particularly "Inheritance" described as Indian fiction, which isn't entirely accurate because it's about an Indian family in Singapore, and the context of migration and alienation as minorities play a major role in their story.

CtoI: How do you feel about the East Anglia Fellowship you received?

Balli Kaur: The best thing about having a fellowship or writing residency is being given time and space to write. I was at the very beginning of my writing career when I got the fellowship – it was before I had published anything, and the seeds for "Inheritance" were just starting sprout in my mind. I was really fortunate to have had the time to figure out what the novel was about. It still took me a number of years after that to finish the book, but the fellowship gave me the time to establish good writing practices and listen to my intuition.

CtoI: Belonging to a Sikh family, born in Singapore, raised in different Asian countries, where do you group yourself?

Balli Kaur: I consider myself Singaporean and describe myself that way when I'm outside Singapore. Inevitably, people are confused by that label because I don't "look" Singaporean (a lot of people outside Singapore, even in neighboring Asian countries, don't realise that it's a multiracial country), so I find myself explaining that my grandparents migrated here from India decades ago, and that Indians make up part of Singapore's population.

CtoI: Who are the writers you admire or draw inspiration from?
Balli Kaur: Arundhati Roy was very inspiring to me when I was a teenager – I loved the way she used language and reading "The God of Small Things" was a revelation to me at a very impressionable time. As a young girl, I also loved Judy Blume because she was honest and was one of few adults who "got it." There are so many more though – Meera Syal, Yiyun Li, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Monica Ali, Elena Ferrante just to name a few.

CtoI: Who is your favorite Indian writer?
Balli Kaur: Arundhati Roy

CtoI: Which book(s) are you reading right now?
Balli Kaur: I am reading a book called "The Watchmaker of Filigree Street" which I picked up during a recent trip to the UK. It's set in London in the late 1800's and it's pretty fascinating. I like any book that can transport me to a world I don't know.

Balli Kaur's upcoming novel Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

CtoI: What's next? What are you working on now? Can you give us a preview?
Balli Kaur: I have just finished edits on my novel “Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows” which will be available internationally in March 2017. Right now, I am working on a novel about three squabbling British-Indian sisters who are forced to reconcile their differences during a Sikh pilgrimage in India in honour of their recently deceased mother. I will be going to India in a few weeks to do some research. The novel is still in its infancy, though, so no previews available.

Read more Singapore News and Indian Diaspora News here