Every year, The Singapore Women’s Weekly gives prominence to 18 distinguished and powerful women who are successful in their own right as part of the Great Women Of Our Time awards. Meet 2020’s Arts & Media Nominee, Balli Kaur Jaswal, an award-winning novelist.

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Meet Balli Kaur Jaswal – Great Women Of Our Time 2020 Arts & Media Nominee

As an avid reader at a young age, Balli grew up with the underdog stories of Roald Dahl’s Matilda triumphing through obstacles, and the truthfulness of Judy Bloom’s books. And though she never thought of writing like them when she started her own stories, she knew that she wanted to write truthfully. 

“I guess I’ve always been kind of an inward-looking person. I’ve always liked dwelling in my imagination and just participating in stories in some way. I’ve always found the fictional world more interesting or more hopeful than the real world. Also, there was something more reassuring about a world where the underdog could kind of succeed and triumph. You know the stories and narratives have this trajectory arc, whereas real life has lots of uncertainty and unpredictability. You don’t always get justice.”

Balli Kaur Jaswal Great Women Of Our Time
In 2014, her first novel, Inheritance, won the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelist Award. Credit: Jon Gresham

As an author of four novels, Balli is accomplished in her own right. In 2014, her first novel, Inheritance, won the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelist Award. Sugarbread, her second, was a finalist for the 2015 inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize and the 2018 Singapore Literature Prize. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, her third novel, was bought by Ridley Scott’s production company Scott Free Productions and the UK’s Film4 for film rights. If that weren’t impressive enough, it also made a splash in international waters and was picked up by Reese Witherspoon for her book club in 2018. One thing that holds true in all her stories is that her novels give a platform for the voices of the displaced and marginalised to be heard.

Having lived in Japan, Russia, the Philippines, Australia, and the US, the 36 year old author was exposed to a huge melting pot of cultural experiences. “When I moved to different places, it wasn’t always immediately apparent what the cultural roles were. The languages were unfamiliar, the people were unfamiliar, the food and the customs and all that.”

“I think books kind of gave me that refuge and then because of that, that feeling of always being an outsider is sort of a good feeling to have if you want to be a writer. Because as a writer you do kind of have to be an outsider looking in. So that kind of periphery helped me to be an observer of things.”

Balli Kaur Jaswal Great Women Of Our Time
Balli’s third novel, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, was picked up by Reese Witherspoon for her book club in 2018. Credit: Wirasathya Darmaja

It had always made sense for Balli to tell those stories, to look at things from the perspective of people in the periphery, the outsiders. “I guess it also comes from the idea of ‘write what you know’ because I’ve always known that minority position. That has always been the lens that I look at things,” explains Balli, “I think we don’t hear enough narratives from people in the margins and that is one big impetus, to write about people we don’t hear from. Because of the current narrative throughout society, the current narrative that we always get by default is from the perspective of the majority or from men. So we don’t always get a clear idea of what society is like. I think it is so important, especially now even more so because we are talking so much about the fact that diversity matters and the people in the margins matter.”

“As I continue to write and continue to read, I’ve sort of reinforced the idea that that is really important. It is the only way to learn about society and to learn about what is wrong and what needs to improve in society: if you turn to the stories of the people in the society who aren’t necessarily benefitting from everything in that society.”

Balli Kaur Jaswal Great Women Of Our Time
Her novels all give a platform for the voices of the displaced and marginalised to be heard. Credit: Sharon Meador

For the young aspiring writers in Singapore, Balli advises “Read widely, and also write without really thinking about quality. If you’re trying to get something out there, just write that really bad first draft first. So at least you have something. I think too many of us get bogged down with the idea that it has to be perfect, it has to be a certain way or a certain mood, or certain circumstances. But everything in life will conspire to keep you from writing what you want to write. Like the pandemic or like your job or friends or children. Things will always place themselves as being more important and you will always feel like writing can take a back seat. Even if what you are writing seems like nonsense at the time, it’s still moving forward rather than putting it aside.”

The Great Women Of Our Time Awards 2020 is brought to you by the presenter, Lancôme.