MEET THE WRITER

Writing fiction about Sikhs in Singapore: if you don’t know her, you should

An interview with Balli Kaur Jaswal, author of ‘Inheritance’, a novel about a Punjabi family’s efforts to contain the unspeakable.

Singapore-born Balli Kaur Jaswal was raised in Japan, Russia, and the Philippines, and is the author of Inheritance, an impressive debut novel that traverses the island-state’s history from 1970 to 1990. In it, a Sikh family wrestles with the unexplained loss of its matriarch, the dismissal from the army of the eldest son under suspicion of homosexuality, and the misdiagnosis of its lone daughter “to devastating consequences” against the backdrop of a newly independent country’s search for identity.

Inheritance is the first English-language novel about Singapore’s Punjabi-Sikh diaspora. “Diaspora fiction is my favourite genre,” Jaswal said. “It speaks to my experience and helps me understand ways of communicating that experience to a wider audience. To write that sort of fiction is such a privilege.”

The novel was published in Australia, where Jaswal lived and worked as a secondary-school English teacher, to great acclaim – she won the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Novelist Award 2014. “Jaswal’s story of one Punjabi family’s efforts to contain the unspeakable is utterly engrossing and ambitious in scope,” the judges wrote.

Jaswal and her partner are leaving Melbourne for Istanbul where she will join the teaching staff at an international school. Scroll spoke to her via Google Chat in the midst of her packing for an international move.

How do you situate yourself in writing of the diaspora, and in Singaporean and/or South Asian Singaporean writing more specifically?
As an individual, I identify very much as a Singaporean/Sikh. My aim was to write a story about a traditional Singaporean family grappling with their rapidly modernising landscape. Writing what I knew, I ended up writing about a Punjabi-Sikh family in Singapore. I think the book fits into the category of migrant/diaspora fiction because it's about that sense of cultural alienation that occurs when people are living as minorities or hyphenated identities.

To be honest, I didn't come across many Singaporean South Asian English-language novels when I was writing Inheritance. Meira Chand's A Different Sky features an Indian immigrant character during a turbulent time in Singapore's history. Roopa Farooki’s novel, Half-Life centres around the love story of a Singaporean-Indian couple. Jolene Tan's recent novel, A Certain Exposure tackled racism quite deftly by portraying a relationship between a Chinese boy and an Indian girl. One of my favourites, though, is Preeta Samarasan's Evening Is The Whole Day. It's set in Malaysia, not Singapore, but it’s about an Indian family and it is just breathtaking.

Not novelists, but some poets from minority backgrounds in Singapore do a great job of addressing that sense of dislocation and alienation; Tania De Rozario and Pooja Nansi come to mind.

On the topics of migration and dislocation, a key theme in Inheritance is the examination of narratives of success (in both the Singapore hyper-capitalist context and in migrant communities more generally). Can you speak to this?
The common immigrant narrative is that people leave everything behind to come to a new land, and although they face incredible hardship at first, they end up succeeding. It's the story everyone likes to hear and so it's the story everyone starts to believe. In the Indian diaspora in particular, stories of families overcoming the odds and achieving success in their adopted countries form a benchmark by which everyone else is measured.

I was really interested in the idea of a family falling short of the expected narrative. What if all of that hard work didn't quite pay off? What if children disappoint their parents? I think these unexpected narratives occur much more often than the linear immigrant success stories.

Your complex and tender portrayal of a bipolar personality and the stigma of mental illness is the highlight of the novel. How important was it to you to write about an issue so often misunderstood and/or ignored in the South Asian community, especially in the diaspora given those narratives of “success”?
Amrit’s mental illness is central to the novel – her behaviour has a ripple effect on her family members and subsequent generations. The story revolves around a “problem” that is so taboo, nobody knows how to handle it and when they do attempt to “resolve” it, the results are disastrous.

The novel is also based on the tension between tradition and modernity. With Amrit's mental illness, I could address that tension by exploring how cultural concepts of mental illness differed from scientific concepts. One is very traditional, with traditional cures and deeply rooted in spirituality. It speaks to the family’s past. The scientific concept of diagnosing a problem and sending Amrit to hospital, prescribing medicine, etc., relates to their present and future.

I wanted to make it clear, though, that I saw the relevance and reasoning of both sides. I don't think that traditional concepts of mental illness are always wrong, or that Western medicine is the solution to everything.

How does Singapore, the place, influence you and your work?
Writing Inheritance allowed me to see Singapore with a sense of wide-eyed wonderment. Once I started considering how quickly this nation developed in such a short span of time, and what that meant for all of its people racing to catch up, a lot of details became apparent to me, particularly those contradictory ones. I think that anyone who writes about Singapore would have to consider its complexities before telling a story about its people.

Perhaps that’s why I consider Inheritance a Singaporean story, despite its being told from the point of view of a minority family, and Punjabis are a minority within the minority Indian community. I've seen Inheritance shelved in bookshops under “Indian Literature”. And I did hear talk that some readers didn't see it as a Singapore book, which is weird to me. There's an HDB block on the cover!

Many non-White authors find themselves having to play “native informant” for White readers. How do you negotiate the demands of telling your story with the expectations of the uninformed reader, and what expectations did your original Australian publishers have?
As a writer, I was very conscious of this. I reminded myself constantly that the story came first, and that readers could infer details about Singapore the way I inferred all my life when reading American and British books. If I did catch myself explaining too much, I took a break from writing and tried to think of how to weave that information into a scene. It meant the novel took a lot longer to write. Lots of drafts were thrown out because they read like essays.

My publishers in Australia – Sleepers – were really good. I don't remember them asking for any explanations actually. They are interested in representing more diverse stories and they have a well-informed audience.

I think there is such a diverse array of diaspora fiction these days that the uninformed reader can find books that appeal more to them, while the readers who are a bit more aware will tackle a novel that doesn't read like a Lonely Planet guide. I hope so anyway.

What's next? What are you working on now? Can you give us a preview?
I’m writing a novel titled Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows. I've finished a draft and I'm in the middle stages of editing it. The novel is about a group of Punjabi widows in London who start an erotic storytelling club.

I'm also finishing up some edits on a young adult novel I wrote in college titled Sugarbread, which is also centred around a Punjabi family in Singapore, but narrated from the point of view of a young girl named Pin who is trying to find out a secret about her mother. I’d love to have this novel first published in Singapore.

Pooja Makhijani writes children's books, essays, and articles, and also develops educational media and curricula. She divides her time between Singapore and the United States. Follow her at twitter.com/notabilia.

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