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Singaporean novelist Balli Kaur Jaswal shares her secrets for success

Perhaps best known for her work, Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, Jaswal has gone on to international acclaim.

Good things, they say, come in threes.

In the case of novelist Balli Kaur Jaswal, they began when her third novel Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows had its rights purchased by publishing giant HarperCollins for release in 2017. Subsequently, Ridley Scott’s production company Scott Free Productions and the UK’s Film4 bought the film rights. Then, to make it a hat-trick, Hollywood star and bibliophile Reese Witherspoon picked the novel for her online book club – which sent sales through the roof in the US, India and Singapore.

Jaswal is now the most internationally well-known Singapore novelist after Crazy Rich Asians’ Kevin Kwan. She recently published her fourth novel also with HarperCollins titled The Unlikely Adventures Of The Shergill Sisters. It attracted glowing reviews in international publications such as USA Today, and a healthy reader rating of 3.9 out of 5 stars on book aggregator site goodreads.com.

The novel tells a funny and moving tale of three sisters who travel to India to perform the last rites of their late mother. It has a lot of heart, humour and emotional suspense, and the story builds to a satisfying conclusion. As with Jaswal’s previous titles, it also displays her unerring understanding of family dynamics.

Jaswal, 35, is married to an Australian editorial director of a human resources magazine; they have a one-year-old son.

How did your love of books begin?

From a very young age, I just really liked storytelling. I liked escaping into narratives and seeing those ideal scenarios work out. My father worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so we lived mostly outside of Singapore, in countries such as Japan and Russia. When you’re moving from place to place and you have to deal with culture shock and feeling lonely and anxious about fitting in, it’s very reassuring to have books to escape into. The characters are always there and things always work out in the end.

Many authors find it hard to thrive in Singapore because of the small audience. A book is considered a fair success if it sells just a few thousand copies – but it doesn’t bring the author much income. You’re one of very, very few authors here who’ve cracked the international market. What’s your strategy – deliberate or otherwise?

I suppose I’ve been lucky that my last two novels have tapped into the global market. My first two novels, Inheritance (2013) and Sugarbread (2015), are set in Singapore. They contain many autobiographical elements that felt like training wheels to teach me how to write. But I remember thinking that for my third and fourth novel, I didn’t want to write something in Singapore. So I set the third (Erotic Stories) in Southall in London, where there’s a large Punjabi community, while the fourth novel (The Unlike Adventures) mostly takes place in India. And the happy consequence of my doing so is that these later novels have found a bigger global market… It’s funny though – Erotic Stories may be set in London, but it’s sold amazingly well in the US, India and Singapore and not so well in the UK. So I don’t know if you can really be that strategic about these things. I feel like your book takes on a life of its own once it’s out in the world. And you have little control over it.

I do think, however, that the stories set in this part of the world are making headway in the mainstream, for which I partly credit Crazy Rich Asians and mostly credit the many migrant stories that have been told over the years in global literature. We do have other Singapore novels that have hit the mainstream, such as Sharlene Teo’s Ponti. And when you think of the broad success of Malaysian authors such as Tash Aw and Tan Twan Eng whose novels are steeped in Malaysian history and locales, you realise that there is interest in stories from this part of the world. And anyone who’s trying to break into the wider market should be trying to ride that wave. You don’t have to necessarily have a western context – it just has to be a good, intriguing story.

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The arts system, like the entertainment and sports systems, is a superstar system. It rewards the top 1 percent of talents, while the remaining 99 percent are between doing just okay or struggling to get by…

Yes, absolutely. The system is a brutal one. You could be the darling of the literary scene one day, and then you could write something that everyone dislikes and suddenly you’re back down.That’s why I don’t take for granted the popularity of my books. I know that I just have to keep on working.

How then does a struggling writer stay hopeful when the odds are against her?

That’s a good question. I don’t know how I’ve managed to stay hopeful. I guess you need to make a commitment to just show up and do the work, whether it’s just writing for a few hours everyday before you start your day job, or after it. I mean, I held various teaching jobs when I was writing my first three novels, and it was only with the success of Erotic Stories and the birth of my baby boy that I quit teaching – although now I’m also doing my PhD in creative writing at Nanyang Technological University.

It’s hard for any writer to not worry about where this is going and if it will be worthwhile. Writing is very hard and very lonely. But I think that the best way to stay hopeful is to just lose yourself in the work that you are making and keep at it till it takes you somewhere. Sometimes, the unexpected does happen.

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What are your thoughts on the Singapore literary scene? What could boost it? What holds it back?

It’s a really supportive and enthusiastic community, and the fact that there’s government funding for our literary culture is just amazing. But I also think that sometimes the bodies that do the investing and funding are limited by this fear of free speech, and of letting go of the reins in case people will just run amok and say critical things. I think that’s a shame because people here often stop themselves from exploring certain truths…

In fact, that was why I put the manuscript for Sugarbread in my drawer for a while because the novel is about a Punjabi girl’s experience with racism in Singapore, and I thought no one’s going to be okay with this because it’s such a volatile topic. But I’m glad it got published by Epigram Books, because I‘ve since had a number of Singaporean readers who’ve come up to me and told me how much they loved Sugarbread and how it opened their eyes or comforted them to know they weren’t alone. Never mind that Erotic Stories is a global bestseller endorsed by Reese Witherspoon – for them, Sugarbread is their favourite among the novels I’ve written.

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This article was originally published in The Business Times.

Photos: Yen Meng Jiin/BT