MEET THE AUTHORS: GLF 2024 - Balli Kaur Jaswal

Nov 30 2023.

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Known as one of Singapore’s internationally well-known novelists, Balli Kaur Jaswal is the award-winning author of “Inheritance” (2013), “Sugarbread” (2016) and the internationally acclaimed “Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows” (2017). Balli was born in Singapore has family roots in Punjab and grew up living in countries such as Japan, Russia, the Philippines, Australia and the US. Her latest book, “Now You See Us” (2023) is the story of three migrant women working in the homes of Singapore’s elite coming together to solve a murder mystery involving one of their own.

Q If you could trace back to a time in your life that got you to start writing the stories that you do, what shifted you from a writer to an author?
If I had to pinpoint a time, it would be the period when I was an undergraduate at university when I discovered that I wanted to devote my life to stories in some form. I was immersed in a creative environment where I could read the works-in-progress of my peers and receive feedback on my own work. It was stimulating and it accelerated my desire to write and have my work read.  

Q Your latest book, Now You See Us is about a migrant worker in Singapore who is accused of murder. Tell us a little about the inspiration behind it.
I wrote Now You See Us to highlight the individual lives of migrant domestic workers in Singapore whose nuances otherwise go largely unseen – until they are spotlighted for wrongdoing that is. I also wanted to capture the collective anxieties of wealthy societies like Singapore and their uneasy dependence on cheap labour. The spark for the novel occurred many years ago when I moved to the Philippines from Singapore as a teenager a few years after a Filipino domestic worker in Singapore was executed for murder. Each country had its own version of the story, influenced by loyalties, power and heightened fears – it was my first moment of understanding of how narratives could drastically shift according to who was telling the story, and why.

Q I think your writing has this wonderful ability to offer perspective into your character. Some writers prefer their readers to truly immerse themselves into the character, be them in the story, while others want their readers to observe from the outside – what would you prefer?
It depends on what narrative perspective the story calls for. Most of my novels have been written in the third person, and the characters’ traits are revealed through situations and their relationships with others. I try to create that sense of interiority but also provide the reader with some distance from them because the narratives call for that duality of experiences – you get to know the character very well, but you aren’t necessarily embodying them.

Q The question of identity is a common and central topic in your work. Given that you grew up moving around different countries from Russia to Japan to now, Singapore, did you ever question your sense of identity and was writing about it therapeutic in a way?
I wouldn’t say it’s therapeutic so much as it raises new questions and more discoveries. I question my national/ethnic/religious identity less these days because I feel that my individual identity is stronger and more multi-faceted than all of those things. My characters have undergone a similar journey.
In the end, they follow their innermost desires and learn to embrace the parts of them that they were taught to bury.  

Q Your background as a Sikh, Punjabi woman is a big influence in your writing, and you are recognised as a voice for the Punjabi diaspora. You have also been equally vocal in criticising parts of the community you don’t agree with. In Asian communities, there is an unspoken rule that we don’t ‘air out our dirty laundry’ or question tradition; has that ever made you hesitate or question your work?
Never. If anything, it makes it more urgent to speak about things. “Don’t air dirty laundry” is a way to silence people who disagree with or question the status quo in close-knit communities. I’m always curious about why there is so much energy and effort put into telling people to be quiet when that energy and effort could be directed inwards, towards confronting those existing problems and creating a more inclusive environment. Writers who expose these things are simply recording and shining a light on them; the criticism should be directed towards the people who perpetuate injustice and cause harm within their communities.  

Q What are you looking forward to at the Galle Literary Festival?
I’m looking forward to my conversations with other authors and meeting readers. I’ll be on two panels, one about writing on community, and another about portraying Asia for a global audience. I’ll also be doing an author dinner, so I’ll have some great opportunities to chat with readers. 



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