Published on 23 December 2016
With two successful novels under her belt and a third due for international release, author Balli Kaur Jaswal reflects on characters in conflict.
BY PAMELA HO
“Even if I thought something was terrible, I’d never scrunch it up into a ball and throw it away — like that cartoon image of writers, with balls of paper strewn around a wastebasket!” says Singaporean novelist Balli Kaur Jaswal with a chuckle. “I would always come back to it. It was like a puzzle I had to solve. For me, the idea of all the pieces falling together is very motivating.”
Writing a novel is the epitome of every writer’s dream. But for Jaswal, not only did her debut novel Inheritance — written while she was in Melbourne — win the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelist Award in 2014, her second novel Sugarbread was a finalist for the 2015 Epigram Books Fiction Prize.
As a Sikh-Punjabi growing up in Singapore, Jaswal offers a refreshing perspective on Singapore life. But she also grew up living in different countries around the world (including Japan, Russia, Australia and the United States), thanks to her father who worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Her unique experience invariably colours her stories. She has no qualms calling her works “diaspora fiction”.
“I always write about characters who balance more than one identity, whether in terms of race or nationality or sexuality,” says Jaswal, who has taught English in Melbourne and Istanbul. “If you create characters in that context, you immediately have conflict already; and that conflict follows them in whatever challenge they’re facing, in whatever journey they’re on.”
Her third novel Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is set in London’s Southall, where a creative writing class attended by Punjabi women in the community unearths more than expected. The title was swiftly picked up by HarperCollins, who fought off five other publishers at an auction to seal the six-figure deal. While it will only be released internationally in March, it has already secured translation rights in countries like France, Italy, Israel, Germany and China. Film rights have also been acquired by Scott Free Productions and FilmFour in the United Kingdom.
“Some people are saying, ‘Well, sex sells, doesn’t it?’ But it’s also about women empowerment, inter-generational conflict between women, and double standards on honour in the Punjabi community,” reveals Jaswal, who cites Arundhati Roy and Sylvia Plath as influential authors.
Jaswal is currently working on her fourth novel, to be released by HarperCollins in 2018. Reflecting on her success thus far, she says, “A novel is very much a marathon, isn’t it? For me, it’s about keeping consistent and maintaining your passion for the story.”
For more on Jaswal’s work, visit www.ballijaswal.com.