Finding a Quiet Space: An Interview With Balli Kaur Jaswal
Conducted by Jason Erik Lundberg
On 13 July 2016, Epigram Books hosted a forum called “The Great Singaporean Novel: Fantasy or Reality?” at The Projector in Golden Mile Tower. The discussion was moderated by Adrian Tan (The Teenage Textbook), and featured our 2015 Epigram Books Fiction Prize winning and shortlisted authors: O Thiam Chin (Now That It’s Over), Wong Souk Yee (Death of a Perm Sec) and Sebastian Sim (Let’s Give It Up for Gimme Lao!); I was on the panel as well, representing Balli Kaur Jaswal (Sugarbread) at her request, since I am the book’s editor and she is currently out of the country.
In addition to being a compelling and empathetic portrayal of a young Punjabi Sikh girl growing up in Singapore in the 1990s, Sugarbread is also a celebration of women, and it doesn’t shy away from the complicated relationships between them. Each of the main female characters—Pin, her mother Jini, and her grandmother Kulwant (Nani-ji)—are evoked with such affection that it’s hard to believe after finishing the book that they are fictional. Jaswal shows us how flawed and human they are, and the small (and not-so-small) tragedies that they suffer through, as well as the triumphs that make the reader let out woots of joy.
All of this, plus an examination of Singapore’s endemic racism, especially toward its South Asian community. Pin has to brook taunts by Bus Uncle, an old man who collects money from the students on the school bus (and attempts, and fails, to keep order), as well as vile comments from classmate Abigail Goh and others. Pin’s outrage and how she deals with these encounters illustrate the consequences of this casual racism and how the Chinese majority tends to treat South Asians and Malays, and her endurance of it is a social justice punch right to the gut.
Sugarbread is an important book, especially right now, and I believe that it could easily become Singapore’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
In preparation for the event, I passed along the first four questions below to Balli, which had been sent to us by moderator Adrian, as well as five more of my own.
When did you first start writing, at a professional or serious level?
I started taking writing seriously as an undergraduate student at Hollins University [in Virginia]. Most of the workshops I took were about defining my voice as a writer and figuring out the mechanics of narrative, dialogue and character. Sugarbread was my honours thesis, so it was a bit of a test to see if I had learned how to convey a story successfully. I started making more of a career out of being a writer when I received the David TK Wong Fellowship in 2007. That was my first writer-in-residence position. The daily discipline of showing up to my desk and re-reading old drafts was work, work, work—that was when I started treating writing as more of a profession.
What writers have influenced you?
Judy Blume was a big influence because she told the truth and she spoke to young girls about topics we couldn’t ask adults about. Arundhati Roy is another major influence—the first time I read The God of Small Things, it was a revelation that words could create such movement in the mind. In my adult years, Yiyun Li, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ann Patchett, Anne Fadiman, Marjane Satrapi, Kent Haruf, Nikita Lalwani, Zadie Smith, Andrea Levy and Meera Syal have been major influences.
What is the worst thing about being a writer in Singapore?
It can be challenging to find a quiet space to write in this busy city.
What is the best thing about being a writer in Singapore?
The burgeoning literary scene here holds a lot of promise for writers, with opportunities for us to support and mentor each other. The busy city problem above also works as an advantage—it’s a walkable city, which I find very refreshing when I’m stuck in a story.
How important was it to you to illustrate in Sugarbread the relationships between women in Singapore’s Sikh community?
It was very important because I wanted to explore that tension between traditional and modern mindsets. It was important to have different women representing each mindset so I could demonstrate the clashes between them.
How much of your own life influenced Pin’s in the novel?
I definitely had a racist bus uncle and other people of that older generation say blatantly racist things. I went to a convent primary school, so when I set out to write a coming-of-age novel, these were the details that I really wanted to communicate. My mum’s an excellent cook but I don’t think she ever left hidden messages in her cooking (if she did, I was not astute enough to decipher them). My dad’s a very sweet, kind and gentle man like Pa in the novel.
How much of the blatant racism in the book have you experienced in Singapore?
Oh. See above. That and much more. I should point out that I wasn’t solely the victim of racism—I certainly learned (and consequently unlearned) my own prejudices and stereotypes about other groups of people. We’re hyper-conscious of race in Singapore because we’re not supposed to talk about it for fear that we’ll open a can of worms and there will be riots. But because we don’t talk about it, it’s hard to educate ourselves and others about misconceptions. The majority of us simply know that “saying racist things is illegal” but we practice micro-aggressions towards each other every day and don’t necessarily consider them inappropriate because we’re used to thinking of racism in terms of its most blatant manifestation: rioting against another group, for example, or calling names.
What do you think literary fiction can do that no other genre or medium can do?
Literary fiction is multi-layered. It can use language to engage and ignite a reader’s imagination. Other genres can do this to an extent, but literary fiction’s value is in its precise choices of words to convey a narrative with a powerful message, rather than simply tell a story.
Which book(s) are you reading right now?
I’m reading A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel. It’s one of her earlier works and it really packs a punch (so far).
Sugarbread by Balli Kaur Jaswal is available at all major Singapore book stores and at shop.epigrambooks.sg.