Balli Kaur Jaswal: It never hurts to think about who your audience will be
Balli Kaur Jaswal grew up in Singapore, Japan, Russia and the Philippines. She attended the creative writing programs in Hollins University and George Mason University in the US. In 2007, she won the David TK Wong Fellowship at the University of East Anglia, where she wrote Inheritance, her first novel, published by Sleepers Publishing in February 2013.
Currently, Jaswal teaches VCE English in a secondary school in Melbourne.
Inheritance is a story about a traditional family grappling with their rapidly modernising surroundings. It is a nation’s coming-of-age story, seen through the sharp lens of a traditional Punjabi family as it gradually unravels. Set in Singapore between the 1970’s and 1990’s, Inheritance follows the familial fissures that develop after teenaged Amrit disappears in the middle of the night. Although her absence is brief, she returns as a different person.
In this interview with Kitaab’s editor Zafar Anjum, Jaswal discusses the journey of her first novel from its genesis to its publication.
Inheritance is your debut novel. How did the idea of this multi-generational saga come to you?
The characters came to me before the story did. When they started interacting with each other and conflicts began to arise, the story was born. In rising Asia, there is a palpable tension between tradition and modernity. The characters from different generations play out these tensions – they’re living proof of one country’s uneasy balancing act of past and present. As the landscape of Singapore changes, the characters have to decide between adjusting to them or completely retreating.
When did you start writing your novel? How many years did it take you to see your work in print? Were there any special challenges that you had to face in the process?
I wrote a shorter version of the first chapter in response to a task in a creative writing workshop: write an entire story in three pages. I failed miserably in this task because the story had barely started by the time I got to the end of page three but I really wanted to see where it would go from there, so I kept on writing and it became the introductory chapter to my novel. This was in 2005. I added to it here and there but only felt confident in it two years later when I received the David TK Wong Fellowship.
When the manuscript was finally ready, I went through the same challenges that many first-time writers do – it was hard to convince publishers that they should take on this story, especially in a time when publishers were accepting fewer new writers. Many publishers wanted a bigger, louder hook to convince audiences. My novel was never going to be about car chases or international espionage though, so I started researching publishers who had invested in novels with similar themes to Inheritance, and found Sleepers.
While working on the novel, did you feel any unnecessary pressure because you were a winner of the David TK Wong Fellowship at the University of East Anglia? Did that raise the bar for you?
Receiving the fellowship didn’t pressure me so much as provide an endorsement of my work. Here was someone saying, ‘there’s potential in this story, and we want you to commit to it.’ Personally, it was a boost of confidence in my capabilities as a writer. However, it did make my writing endeavours more public, and this was scary. Suddenly people knew that I was writing a novel, and they had their own expectations of what this involved. There’s a misconception that a work must be completed during a writing residency, and I came to dread those questions: ‘So you’re back from England. So your novel is finished?’ I was always going to complete this novel, but whenever I was asked about it, I felt as if I should have something polished and finished to show for my time away.
How many drafts of the novel did you do? When did you know that you were done writing the book?
There were about three or four major drafts, and over the course of revising, some pages and sections were re-written more than others. I knew I was done when I read through the novel and nothing made me cringe.
How do you feel after the publication of the novel? Are you happy with its reception?
I’m thrilled with the reception. Reviews have been very positive, and more importantly, readers drew meaning from it. I couldn’t ask for a better gift as a debut novelist.
Like many writers, you write and you teach. Does being a teacher help you as a writer?
Absolutely. I love being a teacher. I love discussing texts and language with teenagers. Reading and de-constructing is a lovely relief from writing, but it also feeds my brain – who could ask for a better day job? At the end of each day at school, when I’m tired of teaching, I feel energised and ready to write.
How has your life changed after publication of your novels?
I can’t say it’s changed much! I’m just a little busier with writer’s festival gigs, and the occasional reading.
Tell us one thing that you thought would change after the publication of your novel but it didn’t.
I thought that I would know how to write a novel, but all I know is how to write THAT novel. I’m writing my second novel and starting from scratch – I have to learn all the rules again.
What kinds of stories are you drawn to?
Stories about families and identity, coming-of-age stories. I love linked stories as well, where characters’ lives intersect over a common problem but they’re not conscious of their connection to each other. Multicultural literature and immigrant literature as well.
What books have had the greatest impact on you?
Too many to name so I’ll focus on one: The God of Small Things. It was a huge influence when I was in high school, because here was an assured Indian female narrator commenting on social issues through the lens of a fictional family, and doing it so beautifully. I remember reading it and thinking, ‘if this is what writers do, this is what I want to do.’
What qualities are necessary to be a writer?
Perseverance is necessary. You can have all the talent in the world but it comes down to doing the hard yards – writing, revising, realising your eighteenth draft is still terrible and returning it anyway. You need to be optimistic almost to the point of stupidity; tell yourself, ‘of course I will finish writing this 300-page manuscript even though it took me three years to write the first paragraph. It will happen.’ And it will.
Your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
My friend and teacher Richard Bausch always reminded me to do my day’s work. You’re not always going to complete the same number of pages or words each day; you might spend one day writing an entire chapter and another day trying to perfect a sentence. You know you’ve done your day’s work when you feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.
What is your advice to writers struggling to get a break?
It never hurts to think about who your audience will be. Picture them sitting in their reading chairs or on the train with your book in their hands. When you write, direct your narrative towards them. This ability to know your reader comes in handy when you’re pitching your novel to publishers.
What do you plan to write next?
My next novel is a dark comedy tentatively titled ‘Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows.’ It’s about a group of elderly Punjabi ladies who write a series of racy stories and circulate them in the London migrant enclave of Southall, to the outrage of the traditional members of their community.
Inheritance is available in bookshops across Australia and Singapore as well as online booksellers for international readers.