Balli Kaur Jaswal is the author of three novels. She won the Best Young Australian Novelist Award in 2014 for her first book Inheritance. Her second novel Sugarbread is a finalist for the 2018 Singapore Literature Prize. Her most recent book Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows was published in March 2017 by HarperCollins.
In Erotic Stories, Nikki is struggling to build her independent life in London after distancing herself from the Sikh Punjabi community of her immigrant parents. But when fate and circumstances bring Nikki back to the Sikh temple and community centre in Southall, she believes she has found her calling as she signs up to teach a creative writing class for Sikh women. Her class participants — Punjabi widows — have other plans.
Through the lively imagination of the widows and Nikki’s persistence, Balli Kaur Jaswal crafts a story that is both compassionate about tradition and critical of the taboos surrounding sexuality in South Asian cultures. The book provides a rich account of the strength of its women characters and an insight into the patriarchal institutions that feel threatened by the women’s expression.
We spoke with Balli Kaur Jaswal about the inspiration behind Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, her worldview as a writer, and the characters she found most challenging to write.
Q. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows has an incredibly impressive “What If”. At one point in the novel, Mindi tells Nikki, “Who would believe that a bunch of old bibis would be sitting around talking about sex?” Please tell us how you came up with the idea. How did your observations or experiences of the Punjabi-Sikh diaspora communities help in fleshing out the novel’s premise?
Balli Kaur Jaswal (BKJ): It started with just that – a “what if” question. I had always been curious about how the women in my grandmother’s generation experienced sex and sexual desire, because it’s considered so taboo. I wondered especially about how the women would have come to know about sex; I hoped that they weren’t taken by surprise on their wedding nights, and that somebody informed and explained the logistics, at least. But then what about desire and pleasure?
“I also think that fiction is a great medium for giving a voice to the voiceless, because storytelling provokes empathy, curiosity, and a sense of solidarity between narrator and reader.” – Balli Kaur Jaswal
I spent a year in England between 2007-2008 on a fellowship at the University of East Anglia, working on my first novel, Inheritance. I spent some time in Southall during those forays into its rather insular Punjabi community, I realized that it was the perfect setting for a story about east-west clashes within communities.
The novel’s premise occurred to me only a few years later, and it was just one of those moments where all of my interests and questions about how traditional Punjabi women experienced sex, met at an intersection with my observations of the London Sikh community.
Q. The expressions of sex and desire have become taboo topics for Punjabi communities even though some of our most popular folk tales are love stories (albeit written by men) that speak unapologetically of love and desire. Instead our societies are experiencing ever-severe forms of conservatism based on religious and cultural codes where we are told it’s wrong to even think about desire. The widows also echo this sentiment when Nikki is taken aback by the first story they share with her. How do you think freedom to discuss sexuality and sexual identity can help Punjabi and South Asian societies?
BKJ: The freedom to discuss any so-called taboo becomes an equalizing force, which is exactly what conservatives don’t want. Freedom to discuss something as innate as desire is especially threatening to them because they fear losing their power to define and restrict women’s desire to their convenience. The discussions of sex in the novel may start out as being solely about desire, but the widows become emboldened to speak up about other injustices in their lives. I think this sort of domino effect would happen in South Asian societies, where women would become more empowered to question the status quo without fear of repercussions or being shamed. If women were free to talk about something as important and powerful as sexuality without backlash, imagine all the other inequalities we’d be able to tackle, like the favouring of boys over girls in Indian families, the pressure to marry, etc.
Q. Your novels deal with contemporary social issues and this ties in with the belief that what makes fiction great is it helps readers make sense of their lives in the real world. So I’d like you to talk about your worldview as a writer and any social change that you consciously attempt to contribute towards through your novels.
BKJ: I think I write to make readers aware, but the story always comes first. When I’m writing, the awareness that I strive towards is as simple as: “here are these people, these are their lives.” The social issues that make their way into my writing are consequences of my own lived experience, and that’s probably no different from any other writer. That said, I do think that when you write characters who are marginalized by race or gender, it’s important to consider their baggage and how their place in the margins defines them. I also think that fiction is a great medium for giving a voice to the voiceless, because storytelling provokes empathy, curiosity, and a sense of solidarity between narrator and reader.
Q. The widows’ stories set up a chance to fight the “bigger injustice” of violence against women, especially the cover-ups of honour killings in the community. What compelled you to include this greater goal in the book?
BKJ: The silencing of women happens in many forms. When I lived in England, I came across a few narratives about honour killings and honour-based violence in the Punjabi community and they really haunted me. I included this thread in the story because I didn’t feel I could write about the South Asian migrant experience without also exploring its dark side, especially since I was writing about women. For many South Asian women in traditional families, the fear of violence is very real. Unfortunately, our communities let us down when they choose to gloss over or diminish our concerns about violence.
“I’d like to think that these moral policemen are all talk, and that their notion of morals is very shallow – that’s why they feel the need to intimidate anybody who questions the status quo, and bully vulnerable people, usually women.” – Balli Kaur Jaswal
It also goes back to what I was saying earlier about how the women’s newfound freedom to discuss sex leads to questioning other injustices. I wanted to illustrate that the taboos around sex are symptomatic of wider issues in the community. It’s not just prudishness or tradition that keep people from discussing sex in this community; there are serious consequences for following your desires.
Q. The value conflict of the modern vs. the traditional is a recurring theme in your works. In Erotic Stories, we see many characters arrive at a favourable middle ground by the end of the book. How would you compare this ideal solution with real-life events? Do you think Maya’s fate seems the more likely outcome in reality than Nikki’s close encounter with violence, and how do you see those odds changing? I also got this sense of intersectionality from the book. How do you think the brand of feminism that could benefit Punjabi women is, or needs to be, different based on the multiple forms of repression they might face at home or abroad?
BKJ: Maya’s fate is extreme, so it’s not the most common outcome. It’s deeply concerning that this sort of violence against women persists though, and that the perpetrators continue to think they can get away with it. I do think that more awareness-raising efforts about honour crimes in South Asian communities, particularly in the diaspora, are allowing women to speak up. It’s especially heartening to see some traditional people from older generations denouncing violence against women, where previously it was just unspoken of.
Nikki’s character was fascinating to write because she goes into this community so blinkered and convinced that she’s there to liberate the women. Her journey is really about recognizing that we all start at different places, and that there isn’t a single way to be a feminist, especially for women who discover their voices so late in life, after years of carrying out traditional roles.
Q. In the book, the Brothers represent the moral police we so often witness or hear and read about in South Asian cities and the Diaspora. The Brothers remain a threat in the background throughout the story, but they never appear to crackdown on the widows’ stories circulating across London. Was this your way of saying that if women in South Asian communities unite – to borrow your words – to show the full force of their strength, such moral policing would go away?
BKJ: I’d like to think that these moral policemen are all talk, and that their notion of morals is very shallow – that’s why they feel the need to intimidate anybody who questions the status quo, and bully vulnerable people, usually women. Ultimately, they’re cowards who get away with appearing bold because nobody stands up to them; I think that if the widows fought back, the Brothers’ bravado would easily deflate and they would retreat.
Q. As a reader, I found Tarampal’s character to be extremely complex. She embodies the internalized patriarchy of Punjabi and South Asian societies where women often end up enforcing the honour code on behalf of their men. But she also seems conflicted by her own feelings of love. I felt sympathy for her and I’d like you to talk about how you created Tarampal’s character. Do you think she deserved a chance to redeem herself?
BKJ: Tarampal required a lot of consideration and revision, mainly because her own experiences of oppression made her both a victim and, later in life, an oppressor herself. It seemed likely to me that somebody who suffered these injustices would take the opportunity to abuse any bit of power she had, but I still had to convince the reader of her choices, and her lack of self-reflection.
Although Tarampal wields power over vulnerable people in the community, I feel that she is still governed by the same stifling traditions and expectations from her earlier life as a child bride. In an earlier draft of the novel, I had Tarampal playing a more direct role in Maya’s death, but during the edits, I began to see how wounded she was from her own experiences. I decided to rewrite her in a more sympathetic way because I wanted to explore the roots of her prejudices. I was interested in how a woman could be complicit in hurting other women if she wanted to justify the oppression she experienced in her life.
Q. I kept thinking how the plot might progress differently if the story was set in mainland Punjab instead of the Diaspora. How do you think the opportunities available to your women characters to resist oppression might be different if they were based in India or Pakistan? And would you want to write a story set in the Punjabi homeland?
BKJ: I don’t think I could write a story set in Punjab unless I lived there and spent a lot of time researching. It’s so culturally rich, and there are so many contradictions of life in modern Punjab particularly, that I would struggle to get the nuances right unless I experienced them myself. I wonder if the backlash against the widows would be as severe in Punjab? Diaspora communities in the West can be very traditional because their values are frozen in time; India has progressed a great deal in the meantime. Surprisingly, much of the praise I get for this novel comes from older Sikh men in Punjab who contact me to say, “Well done! Fly the flag!”