For the Love of Stories: Interview with Balli Kaur Jaswal

June 23, 2017

Balli Kaur Jaswal is the celebrated writer behind "Inheritance", the inspiration for K Rajagopal's Lizard On The Wall. She shares about her books, her writing inspirations and more.

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Image courtesy of Balli Kaur Jaswal

Looking back, what propelled you to write “Inheritance”, your debut novel? 
I was interested in family dynamics, particularly families in migrant communities where certain codes and unwritten rules governed women’s behaviour. The tension between tradition and modernity is a common theme in my writing because I find it endlessly fascinating, being from such a modern city where we also cling to traditional (and superstitious) beliefs. The landscape of Singapore changed so rapidly between the 1970s and 1990s, and there was an expectation that everybody’s mindset should progress just as quickly to match the pace of development. But, of course, cultural beliefs take generations to change. I wanted to explore the story of a family whose circumstances (having a mentally ill daughter) made it difficult to catch up. 

What were the most challenging scene/s to write in “Inheritance” and why? 
All of Amrit’s scenes were challenging to write because I wanted to portray her impulsiveness and her highs and lows without patronising the experience of people with bipolar disorder. I don’t suffer from a mental health condition, and I was aware that mental illness is often romanticised or portrayed in extremes in literature and popular culture, which I wanted to avoid. I had to do some research to maintain the authenticity of Amrit’s symptoms and also place them in the context of the Singapore setting and the overall story.  

K. Rajagopal’s new film Lizard On The Wall is based on “Inheritance”. What was it like for you to work on the first film adaptation of your books? How different has this process been for you, compared to your writing? 
The film is loosely based on a scene that happens off-stage in the novel, so to speak. It’s Amrit’s wedding, which doesn’t actually happen in the novel because her engagement is broken off when the groom’s family discovers her “other side”. Rajagopal and I discussed the creative liberties that would be taken with the story in the very early planning stages, and I’m excited to see where it goes. The process of working on an adaptation is different because there’s collaboration and somebody else’s interpretation involved, but as long as the integrity of the piece remains true to the novel, I’m quite open to directors/screenwriters taking creative liberties. 

You are known for infusing your personal experiences into your fiction works. How do you do this, and how does “Inheritance” reveal this? 
Most authors draw from their personal experiences, particularly for the first novel. My most relevant experiences to this story were about women being policed by male family and community members to preserve the honour of the family. I found it a fascinating concept that women in many traditional families don’t get much say in what they do, but they also bear this heavy responsibility of maintaining the reputations of the men. A great deal of “Inheritance” is fictional though – I think real life can be a lot stranger than fiction, and if I wrote some of the things that I have actually observed and experienced first-hand, they would seem too implausible to fit into a narrative! 

What larger discourse do you hope your work reflects? Why are these themes important to you? Or, to put it simply, why do you write? 
I write for the love of stories, because I think there’s so much we can learn about one another from stepping into different lives. Stories also give us a chance to slow down time – think of all the people we pass in this busy city, and we have no idea about their experiences and pasts, but reading gives us a chance to follow them and truly empathise. 

How does “Inheritance” fit in the body of your work thus far, that is, the novels “Sugarbread” and “Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows”? Does it stand alone or, looking back, is it part of a connected body of work? If so, what continuation of the theme can we look forward to with your future books?
I think I’ll always write about marginalised people and their struggle to be heard over the majority. So far, all of my writing has focused on the roles of women in the Punjabi-Sikh community, but I might expand my scope beyond this group in the future. 

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  • 2017