Sometimes the pain of being a perpetual outsider can be turned into art. For Balli Kaur Jaswal ’04, that experience has inspired three novels.
By Jean Holzinger M.A.L.S. ’11
All three of Balli Jaswal’s books— Inheritance, Sugarbread, and Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows—contain at least one common theme: what it’s like to be an outsider.
Inheritance (2013) is about Singapore, the country on Jaswal’s passport, although it’s just one of the many countries in which she grew up. Her father’s job as a diplomat sent the family to Japan, Russia, and the Philippines. When Jaswal was a child and adolescent in Singapore, she “was very aware that I was part of a minority,” she says. “We left Singapore and then came back, so it was another layer of being kind of outside and foreign, so I was constantly explaining where I was from, just from my accent.
“There was also the fact that I was Indian, but a lot of Indians and Punjabis [largely from northern India] don’t identify with the south India population of Singapore, and so that took some explaining as well.”
Even though it took place largely before she was born, Jaswal was fascinated by Singapore’s accelerated change after it was expelled from Malaysia in 1965. “The [cultural] leap [during Singapore’s intense period of renewal] was enormous,” says Jaswal, “and I thought it was really interesting that people were expected to catch up. The infrastructure completely changed, the look of Singapore completely changed: the buildings, public transport, the streets. Everything was rapidly modernized.”
In Inheritance, she focused her narrative on what she calls a “minority-minority”—a Punjabi Sikh family—and the problems they faced from the 1970s through the 1990s. The majority population in Singapore is Chinese, followed by relatively smaller proportions of Malay and Indian. Of the Indian population, most are Hindu and from southern India. The minority-minority of which Jaswal was a part—and a central theme to her book—is both Sikh and from northern India.
The family Jaswal writes about struggles with being strangers in their adopted country. They must also come to grips with the side effects of the island’s rapid modernization, a phenomenon that inevitably introduces new ideas that challenge traditional ways of life. Jaswal’s characters deal with loss, homosexuality, mental illness, and what it means to be successful and happy. Writes a reviewer on readings.com.au, “Jaswal celebrates the island’s diversity—its mix of Tamil, Malay Chinese and British influences—and, in doing so, adds texture to a place some Westerners might lazily describe as a melting pot, instead of the boiling pot of class and heritage Inheritance shows Singapore to be.”
Sugarbread (2016) is actually the first book Jaswal wrote. It started life as her Hollins senior thesis. “I was trying to figure out how to write a novel, so it [was] a lot of pages of description and characterization. Sugarbread has a very quiet plot. It was so much about my childhood experiences growing up in Singapore” as an observer in a culture not her own. “It was a very long manuscript, what this girl did, scenes from her life. I put it aside and started writing Inheritance.”
Even after Inheritance was published, however, Jaswal couldn’t push Sugarbread further along. “So I wrote Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows,” she says. “That’s a very plot-driven book. Through that, I learned how to keep a reader in suspense and how to reveal things to the reader.
“Having worked on Inheritance and Erotic, it was so clear to me what needed to be fixed in Sugarbread. The most important thing was being okay with cutting things. And I was merciless. At 21, I wanted to keep everything.” Jaswal was motivated to finish Sugarbread to enter it into a contest sponsored by Epigram Books, a Singapore-based publisher. Although she didn’t win the $20,000 first-place award, she won a publishing contract.
Last April, HarperCollins announced it was publishing Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows in March 2017. This book focuses on a young Sikh woman, born and raised in London, who gets a job teaching creative writing to a group of older Punjabi women in Southall, a largely South Asian community in west London. As the women open up to their teacher and to each other, they reveal some potentially dangerous secrets. “That situation made for a fun plot to write and created this guideline,” says Jaswal. “The characters couldn’t dwell too long on one thing because we had a plot to get to, we had a conflict coming up on the horizon, we had an antagonist on his way.”
With a plot this juicy, it shouldn’t be surprising that the movie business is interested. Jaswal has sold the rights to Film Four/Scott Free, Ridley Scott’s film company. Translation rights have been sold in a number of countries, including Germany, Greece, Estonia, China, Sweden, France, Italy, and others.
Although she has always written, even as a small child, it was at Hollins that she learned to take it seriously. “I learned not to be embarrassed” about writing, she says. “When I was growing up, I always thought it was a silly little hobby that I had on the side, a silly indulgence. Being at Hollins was being around people who grew up loving writing and being in an environment where it was, like, ‘Show me what you’re writing.’”
Living in Near East (located in the East Building dormitory) also inspired her. “You’d be sitting in your room writing a chapter, and you’d get sick of it, and you’d wander out into the hallway” to spend time with like-minded friends. “There was always a buzz in that place, which I loved. I still like to have my laptop open and someone sitting near me, preferably someone I know, just working, not with each other, but together in the same place.”
It was at Hollins, once again adapting to a culture not her own, where she may have discovered the theme that has undergirded her three books to date. “I think it helps to be an outsider,” she says, “because readers are going to be outsiders, so you can go through this process of discovery with the reader. And as you gain more insight and more of a foothold on the inside, then so does the reader.
“If you’re an outsider, then you can say, ‘Let’s go into this together.’”
Jean Holzinger is the retired executive director of marketing.
Photo by Sharon Meador