“Unlearning And Relearning”: Talking to Writer Balli Kaur Jaswal About Her American Debut, Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows
By Pooja Makhijani
Balli Kaur Jaswal—author of Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, her dark and funny U.S. debut—and my paths crossed in Singapore, as part of the country’s small, tight-knit literary community. I was enchanted by Inheritance, her impressive debut novel that traverses the island-state’s history from 1970 to 1990, the first English-language novel about Singapore’s Punjabi-Sikh diaspora. 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.
Her second novel, Sugarbread, was published in her home country and was a finalist for the 2015 Epigram Books Fiction Prize, the largest literary award in Singapore. In it, Jaswal draws readers into the world of ten-year-old Pin, as she negotiates her Sikh faith and grapples with startling secrets.
In Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, law-school dropout Nikki hastily agrees to helm a writing workshop for women in a Southall gurdwara, which quickly turns into an erotic storytelling club, where otherwise silenced women share their tales about womanhood, sexuality, and the dark secrets within the community.
“I remember being absolutely thrilled by erotic stories when I was in middle school,” Jaswal says. “Somebody would steal their mother’s romance novel and we’d pass it around, giggling and asking questions and answering them with no real knowledge, of course. If I think about where the energy and electricity comes from in the widows’ conversations in the novel, I’m certain it’s from those early experiences.”
I recently chatted with Jaswal via Google Hangouts and email about her genre-bending new book, fiction of the South Asian diaspora, and women’s stories.
How did you come up with the scenario for Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows?
When I lived in England, I visited some family friends in Southall pretty often. It was an intriguing place—on the western fringe of London, yet culturally much further removed from London. There was something very welcoming about this enclave of Punjabi immigrants, so I could see why it would appeal to new arrivals in a country that was hostile towards them, especially in the 1940s and 1950s. But I was definitely an outsider because I don’t speak Punjabi and I’m not into Bollywood music and movies, and it was an alienating experience to in a place where there seemed to be only one way to be an Indian woman. I wanted to write about this place, and to explore the idea of women defying expectations and rewriting their own narratives. I’ve always been interested in the taboos surrounding women’s sexuality in South Asian communities as well, and how women who are silenced in the public sphere end up expressing themselves in private with other women in smaller, intimate groups. I’ve heard some older Punjabi women tell the filthiest jokes—only to their trusted female friends, sisters, or daughters, of course.
A theme running through your novels is a concern with women’s bodies, specifically how they are circumscribed by patriarchy and and policed by society. Did you choose this subject matter or did it choose you?
The subject matter is certainly familiar from my own life. I was always made very aware by female family and community members that I’m a girl, and that girls sat a certain way, talked a certain way, etc. It seemed that women were put in charge of policing girls because we occupied the same spaces, but they answered to the men, and so much of their monitoring was about meeting the men’s expectations of how their daughters or sisters or wives should behave. I didn’t realize how strong a presence it had in my life until I started writing and then it was always there in my stories, this strong invisible force that keeps the female characters submissive and the male characters in control.
Another theme in your work is that of secrets, stories, lies, and mythmaking. What about women telling claiming their own narratives is so compelling to you?
In traditional communities, there’s a common narrative of the family being shamed because the girl/woman did something dishonorable, and women have such a massive responsibility to maintain the reputations of their families. It’s terribly unfair that we have this responsibility, yet we can’t tell our own stories. The stories that are told about women are usually from a male lens—the story of a woman who is sexually liberated becomes a cautionary tale about “loose” (promiscuous) women who bring shame upon their fathers and brothers. If we’re going to be given this responsibility, then the men need to step back and let us tell our stories in a way that rings true to our experiences.
You address womanhood from so many angles, and points of view. All three of your novels include the perspectives of women from different generations. Why is this important to you?
I’m interested in the way women in older generations oppress younger women, and I have no doubt that this is largely about doing men’s dirty work for them. Men want their daughters/sisters to behave a certain way but they’re also afraid of their daughters or sisters, so they pressure their wives or mothers to do the disciplining for them. Comparing the way expectations of women have changed over generations also provides an interesting source of tension and conflict in the story. I’m also interested in how women from different generations define “oppression” according to the scale of their experience. In Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, Nikki considers her parents unbearably oppressive because they wanted her to finish her law degree, but for the widows—one of whom was married at ten, another who was abused by her husband because she craved sex—this wouldn’t be oppression, it’s a privilege. I didn’t want to discount what Nikki experienced, because her struggles are real as well, but they are very modern struggles, and she does learn at one point that perhaps she doesn’t have it so bad. What’s important is that she stays true to herself, and again, it’s an enormous privilege that she can even have a sense of self, unlike the women from the widows’ generation, whose only identity was as wives and daughters.
Like your previous novels, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, tells the stories of the Sikh diaspora; this novel also explores the connections between diasporas—in London, the United States, and Canada, for example. How do these varying diasporic geographies, histories, and identities influence your work?
I was conscious of mentioning other countries with Sikh diasporas because I wanted to add an element of universality to the story. Although Southall is unique, there are similar versions of thriving enclaves like it in other countries—Yuba City in California, I’m told by a friend from Southall, is very similar. That’s why I made Jason’s character American. I wanted him to be an outsider like Nikki so they’d have that in common, but also I wanted to show how the issues of being in the Indian diaspora are not limited to Southall or England. I thought it would be unfair to portray these as a strictly British-Indian set of problems. There are other elements of universality that I wove into the novel as well because they provide that sense of recognition to anyone who grew up Indian anywhere–the ice cream tubs used as storage containers for frozen dal or the morality tales of children causing their parents’ health problems. I was probably aware as well that as a Singaporean writer taking on the British-Indian experience, I should weave in some of my personal narrative into the story.
This is a rather genre-bending novel—on the surface, it is a literary novel, but also includes erotica (in the form of the widows’ stories) as well as the elements of a thriller. How did you pull that off?
It was a process of unlearning and relearning. My two previous books were more solidly literary fiction and didn’t have much intertextual stuff, so I had to really learn how to write in different genres and weave them all together in one novel. I read some erotica books and anthologies to have a sense the language, and also discovered the wide range of subgenres within erotica. There was really a lot of trial and error, even in getting the humorous narrative tone right because it was a departure from my previous work, which was more serious. The mystery part was challenging; I spent more time trying to work out that plot line and the revelations were still a bit knotty right until the end of the editing process. It helped very much to be able to talk out the mystery and Nikki’s discoveries with my editors—they were honest with me about what seemed too coincidental and they were good at asking questions that opened up more possibilities in my mind.
I’m working on a novel about three British-Indian sisters who go on a Sikh pilgrimage to India to reconnect with each other after their mother’s death. All of those things I said above about religious hypocrisy apply to this novel, but I’m also excited to be writing a road trip story that features only women, because so many road trip stories are from the male perspective. Traveling and really just existing in India—especially Delhi and Punjab where the novel takes place—is an entirely different thing if you’re a woman, so I’m focusing on how restricted, threatened, and vulnerable these three sisters feel and how their movements are policed by men. It’s also light-hearted with dark elements, similar in tone to Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows.