Over the course of four published novels that include Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows and Sugarbread, Balli Kaur Jaswal has demonstrated the special gift of gently prodding her readers to broaden their understanding of the world and humanity. Born in Singapore but having grown up and lived across various countries such as Russia, Japan, Philippines, Britain and Turkey, it’s no surprise that the subject of identity and what it means to belong has been a constant theme in Jaswal’s life, as well as her stories.
You might see yourself in Nikki Grewal, who perceives a distance between her personal values and those prized by her family, or find comfort in the fact that like Pin, you’re not the only one whose household has a rift in cultural identity. Here, the award-winning author talks about having to figure out where she belongs, why multi-dimensional identities are important and her passion for lesser told narratives.
You lived and grew up in many different countries over the course of your formative years. What was it like for you trying to find a sense of belonging in those places as a young girl?
I think it was quite complicated. If I said I was from Singapore, there was an expectation that you should be kind of a representative of that place. I think most people’s ideas of what Singapore was, was different from what they saw. So, when I said I was from Singapore, there was real confusion in that. Up until the time we moved out of Singapore, I didn’t really have any uncertainty about that, you know? I was born here. I grew up here. Obviously, I’m from here. But overseas, classmates and teachers — adults — would tell me, no, you’re not from Singapore because they thought that someone from Singapore would be Chinese and they only associated one ethnicity with Singapore. That, I found really complicated and very confusing.
Moving back from those places to Singapore was like another thing, because I would have to reinstate my sense of belonging. It wasn’t so much that I thought I didn’t belong, it was that I had to convince others that I did.
You mentioned that there was confusion. Did also you feel indignant, and did it make you question your identity?
That’s probably a good way to describe it. Indignant, and also kind of insistent. I think it sparked the storyteller in me. The desire to tell stories is probably innate, but then certain experiences shape that and inspire certain types of stories. The type of story I really wanted to tell was a very urgent one about identity. It’s because I was like, “But I belong here, and no one’s listening to me.” I thought if I sat down and wrote about it people would understand, and I would understand why people didn’t think I belong either. I think the hardest thing was people in your own country not seeing you as someone who belongs, because they should know.
What then helped you shape your sense of identity — and cultural identity — growing up?
There weren’t many traditions at home, and for me cultural identity came from experience. Knowing other people in our community, and maybe one or two other people at school who shared some of the same traditions or religious rituals. A lot of it felt like it wasn’t really mainstream to me or something that anyone else really understood until I was in my teens, and there were a lot of books about the Indian diaspora. There seemed to be a proliferation in the ‘90s of books about the immigrant experience. That really spoke to me because it was about Indian women who had grown up abroad or Indian people who had grown up in a culture outside of their own that to me, felt very familiar. Indian diaspora fiction in English probably was the thing that really helped me to understand that you could have hyphens in your identity.
“The type of story I really wanted to tell was a very urgent one about identity. It’s because I was like, ‘But I belong here, and no one’s listening to me.'”
Have you gone through any experiences that made you want to distance yourself from your ethnicity?
In my early teens, there was this desire to fit in at any cost with what was acceptable and mainstream. It was like if you did these things, then you wouldn’t be remarkable in a way that you don’t want to be remarkable — you really don’t want to stand out. I think the awareness of being an ethnic minority is something that is always in the consciousness of a person who is a minority.
It’s always in the consciousness of women, in a group or in a work place, and I think it does impact your behaviour, the way you see yourself, and the way you think others see you. The people who have the power don’t really think about all these things, and they can go about doing the work they’re supposed to do, or saying the things they want to say without thinking about how this is going to represent all the women.
Did you ever feel apprehensive of how Sugarbread (which addresses racism) would be received in Singapore?
I started writing it in the early 2000s and I hadn’t lived in Singapore for a while, and it was based on memories that I had in Singapore. I remember thinking: “Are we allowed to say stuff like this?” Then I also thought, but I want to say it, and it needs to be said (laughs). I think what probably made it easier for a lot of people to digest was that it happened in the past as it was set in the ‘90s, and that it was perceived as fiction so there was some distance. I do get people saying that we’ve moved on from that, and then I say, “Well, not exactly.” I really think that we need to stop looking over our shoulders and assume that those things are written about the past and that all the issues are of the past. We [should] use it as a lens to talk about what’s still prevalent now. What I hoped for, for myself as well, is this sense of reflecting of how I am still complicit in these things in some way.
While we obviously do have a diverse make-up of races and cultures in Singapore, I feel like there’s a general reticence towards talking about it if it veers into non-PC territory. What kind of mindset do you think it cultivates amongst us, towards diversity?
The problem is that we’ve been told and we have bought this idea that we can’t have deeper conversations about race, because we can’t deal with the discomfort and fallout, or that it’ll all just descend into finger-pointing. I just think that we are more intelligent and civilised than that (laughs). That work also has to be done by people who are willing to listen. I don’t know if we have that, but I feel like we’re moving towards it. Often the people who say, “Well that wasn’t really that racist” are not the ones experiencing it. We need to listen to the people who experience it, and believe them. Those of us who have a feeling of defensiveness or discomfort, we need to learn to sit with that. This includes me as well, because I’ve had a lot of privileges as a light-skinned Indian woman. I should just be quiet and listen, accept and make some space.
“I remember thinking: ‘Are we allowed to say stuff like this?’ Then I also thought, but I want to say it, and it needs to be said.”
How did you begin paying more attention to identity in relation to ethnicity and culture?
It was the idea that I had to explain who I was, where I was from, and that my sense of belonging felt very conditional sometimes. When I started writing, I remember thinking that if I’m going to write characters, then they’re going to be grappling with these questions of identity as well.
Were there instances where you struggled with answering what it means to be Punjabi?
If people did have a perception of what a Punjabi person was, I didn’t look like that. For example, a lot of Punjabi people have long hair, and I didn’t. Some people would ask me to say something in Punjabi, and I was like, “I can’t suddenly spew out words without any context” (laughs) and I wasn’t very good at speaking Punjabi. It was almost like this test of who I was, as if I wasn’t enough of something for them. It wasn’t that I felt like I wasn’t Punjabi, but it’s like the world around me made a decision for me that if I wanted to be this, I had to be a certain way. There is such a diverse range of Instagram accounts out there now for intersections of cultures, ethnicities and gender identities that didn’t exist when I was growing up. It was really monolithic in my time.
Why is it important for you to not just have identity and ethnicity at the forefront of the stories you tell, but womanhood, gender inequality and religion too?
I think I’m really fascinated by the idea of community — particularly small ethnic and migrant communities — as they seem really ideal and a haven for people who are afraid to navigate the whole country that they’re in. There’s so much to recommend about that, but that sense of safety and insularity can have another side to it, because it can also be very, very restrictive. It’s almost a function of close-knit, vibrant or religious communities that certain people are considered not a part of it — even though they’re of the same race and religion — because one is gay or has mental health issues or something. There’s this superficial idea of how inclusive these communities are. They don’t work for everyone, and I think that sense of insularity and closeness comes with a real downside of judgement and scrutiny.
“There’s so much to recommend about [close-knit communities], but that sense of safety and insularity can have another side to it, because it can also be very, very restrictive.”
What do you hope your reader takes away from your stories?
Often the stories offer them an opportunity to understand the multiple complexities that some people juggle. I just hope that they get this as they go through that journey with the character, that they then want to look into the stories of the people around them as well, and not assume that people are a certain way or [have] a certain set of values, and to break down those monolithic ideas. To realise that people don’t necessarily have all the answers to their own identities either. The characters I have that start off questioning their identity, it’s not like they know who they are at the end. They’re a work in progress.
What are some issues or key themes that you are eager to shine a light on in your next story?
I’m revisiting some of the things that I always bring up from marginalisation and putting a spotlight on the people who don’t always [get to] control the narrative — that you don’t usually hear about. That was what I did with Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, and with the parents in Sugarbread. To some degree, The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters was that story that you don’t usually hear — travelling in India from the point of view of women, which is so different from the white man perspective where you’re not scared or like, locking your train door at night. It’s just so, so different (laughs). I’m revisiting the same theme, but in a very different story.
A version of this story was first published in ELLE Singapore’s September 2020 issue.