Friday 14 July 2017

Q & A: Balli Kaur Jaswal

Balli Kaur Jaswal is a Singaporean novelist of Punjabi extraction.  As a child, she lived all over the world, thanks to her roaming diplomat father. After studying for an undergraduate creative writing degree in the US she continued work on her first novel, Inheritance, during a year spent in the UK, where she was a recipient of the David TK Wong Fellowship at the University of East Anglia – an award made annually to a novelist whose work deals with some aspect of East Asia. She then moved to Australia to do a postgraduate teaching degree in Melbourne, where she met her partner. She ended up staying in Melbourne for 5 years. In 2014, Inheritance won the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelist Award. She then moved back to Singapore, and in 2015 her second novel Sugarbread was a finalist for the city-state’s richest literary prize, the Epigram Books Fiction Prize.  Her recently-published third novel, Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, was the subject of a hotly-contested auction won by HarperCollins, in London, for a six-figure GBP sum.

Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows follows members of the Punjabi immigrant community in the UK as they struggle to negotiate between two cultures. It is set in London, in Southhall, an area which is home to a large Punjabi population. Balli says her novel is about “a group of Punjabi widows who sign up for a literacy class, which quickly evolves into a space where they can speak freely about things that their community considers taboo. At first, their discussions are centred on erotic fantasies but as the trust builds, the women become empowered to break their silence about other injustices in the community.”

If an interviewer were allowed to ask you only 1 question about Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, what question would you recommend her to ask?   Why?  And what would be your answer? 
Readers often want to ask if a story is based in reality. I’d like to propose a slight variation of that question: “Could a group of invisible women really start a feminist revolution in their conservative community?” To which I would reply: “Yes.” Everything that happens in this novel is possible, because when the right combination of women find each other and find a space to speak out, there’s a lot that they can change.

Yours is a teasing title. How early on did you decide on the title? Were there other contenders? If so, what were they and why did you reject them?
This is the first time that a book title came to me so quickly and clearly. At the time that this novel started to take shape in my mind, I was in conversations with Sleepers Publishing, the original publishers in Australia for Inheritance, about changing the title – the original title was When Amrit Returns but they felt that the name Amrit would alienate readers, as names in titles often do. I actually agreed with them, because whenever I told people the title, I had to say it slowly – it didn’t roll off the tongue very easily. So, when embarking on this next project, maybe I was thinking about making my title very clear, catchy and literary. The only internal debate I had was about whether it should be “for” Punjabi widows or “by” Punjabi widows since the latter is more accurate, but I decided that the stories were as much for serving the widow community as it was by them, so I stuck with that.

What did you think of Fifty Shades of Grey? As you were writing, did it ever worry you that erotic stories for women could be considered cringe-worthy wish-fulfilment fantasies? 
I’ve never read Fifty Shades of Grey, although some press outlets have claimed that I was inspired by the novel. I’m not sure where they got that idea from, but I do remember that Fifty Shades of Grey was selling like hotcakes around the time that I started writing Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows and I joked with people that I was going to write the Punjabi version. Erotica is not a genre I know much about, to be honest, and I had to do some research to figure out the language and tone of the women’s stories. There’s a whole range out there, from the very direct and crass to the more coy and suggestive. I decided that the widows wouldn’t shy away from being a bit vulgar but their stories would also maintain some measure of decorum. Realistically, that’s how they’d communicate with each other because they were opening up and discussing intimate details, but a sense of propriety had been instilled in them for too long to suddenly vanish.

You take on the disregard of older women, particularly of older women’s sexuality, in the Punjabi community. Do you see the disregard of older women in the Punjabi community as being much different from the general disregard of older women worldwide, in any community? 
I don’t think it’s very different, although women’s sexuality, especially outside of marriage, is already quite taboo in the Punjabi community, so the idea of elderly Punjabi widows having sexual fantasies is an even bigger leap to take.

You also take on honour killings, and violence against women. Which is more important: for a woman to be able to talk openly about sex, or for a woman to be able to talk openly about honour killings in her community? Can the two be separated? Are they equally important? 
In the novel, the women’s frank discussions of sex give them the confidence and sense of empowerment to speak up about other injustices against females in the community. The shattering of one taboo leads to others. I can’t see the two as separate because there’s a domino effect in this context.

One of your widows, Tarampal, is damaged, but not redeemed. What did you yourself think of Tarampal? How did you expect readers to respond to her? Perhaps you had no expectations?
She was a complex and challenging character to write, because she was so wounded and indoctrinated, but she’s also very conniving – she benefits from the same community structures that oppressed her. I expected readers to pity her to some extent but also recognise that ultimately, she made the choice to use her power in an insidious way, and to continue to perpetuate the silencing of women. Some of the other widows have had traumatic pasts as well but they decided to unite, while Tarampal’s interests were in dividing and conquering.

Traditionally-minded Kulwinder, who sets up the widows’ literacy class, is a much more sympathetic character, as is your main protagonist, Nikki, the modern miss who Kulwinder appoints to teach the widows to read and write in English. What did you yourself think of Kulwinder and Nikki? How did you expect readers to respond to them? Perhaps you had no expectations?
Kulwinder and Nikki both grow so much in this novel, and while they sit on nearly opposite ends of a spectrum in the beginning, this journey brings them closer to meeting in the middle. Before the novel opens, Kulwinder’s beloved only daughter, Maya, has died in horrible circumstances, and I really sympathised with her, even when she was being too stern with Nikki, because she had lost her daughter in the one place that she thought she’d be safe as a migrant in England. Kulwinder followed cultural expectations, albeit blindly sometimes, and paid such a hefty price for it with Maya’s death. I expected readers to connect with her, to see that her prickliness has more to do with circumstance than personality, and to cheer her on when she decides to come through for Nikki in the end.

Your widows have to contend with a fundamentalist Sikh group, the Brothers.  Are the Brothers based on a real network of men in the London Sikh community?
The Brothers are fictional, but there have been recent cases of fundamentalist Sikh men in smaller cities in England interrupting interfaith weddings and considering it their duty. I find it despicable that these people have taken it upon themselves to become the morality police – their actions aren’t about morality, they’re about insecurity and control.

Who has the greater need to read Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, Punjabi widows, or conservative Punjabi men inclined to join organisations similar to the Brothers? 
Although I’d love to see those men read Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, I doubt it would do them much good unless they’re educated first in a number of ways.

Have any less-bullying men in the Sikh community read your novel?  If so, how have they reacted? 
I haven’t heard from many men in the Sikh community, but those who have reached out have been very positive and encouraging. A number of Sikh men from India and other parts of the world have gotten in touch to say how much they learned from the book, which is wonderful and unexpected.

Debarring “what other titles has Balli Kaur Jaswal written, where can I get hold of them, and how many copies should I buy for my friends?”, what questions do you hope linger in readers’ minds after they’ve finished Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows?
I hope readers continue to seek out novels and stories that explore the complexities of managing expectations within cultures as well as across cultures. One question might be: how can I find out more about migrant communities in the West, and what can I do to gain a nuanced understanding of them? What are my impressions of people from these communities, and how might these impressions be flawed or one-dimensional? I think we all have a great deal to learn.

Details: Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows is published by HarperCollins in paperback and eBook, priced in local currencies.