Going Local, Not Global
Illuminating glimpse of life through a minority lens
By Priscilla Gan
Who should a writer – in particular, the non-Anglo-Saxon one – write for, and how should he or she write? Setting one's sights on international readership these days more often than not entails a papering over of the "subtle nuances of [one's] own language and literary culture" in one's writing, as Tim Parks writes about 'The Dull New Global Novel' in the New York Review of Books. Indeed, such seemingly parochial details may be perceived as unrelatable or as impediments to the global reader's understanding. Whatever is left of any local traces in these global novels is italicised or footnoted, presented in this form as exotic bites of knowledge palatable enough to tantalise and be consumed, or packaged – diluted, as they may be – as grand, totalising narratives that monolithically represent the countries that are being written about. Contrastingly, writers attentive to capturing the intricacies of particular communities that are foreign to the world at large remain mostly unloved by international publishers but embraced by local readers.
Balli Kaur Jaswal's novel, Sugarbread, sits delicately between the crosshairs of similar undercurrents in Singapore's burgeoning literary scene today. It is, on one hand, one of the deserving finalists of the inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2015, an award with the objective of discovering a Singaporean novel "good enough to co-publish in London and get onto the Man Booker longlist", as has been made known by publisher Edmund Wee. Yet, Sugarbread succeeds the least where its claim to fame might have you believe it excels in – the novel is less convincing in constructing symbolic representations of Singapore that may possess marketable, global potential, for instance. Instead, Sugarbread is of most value to Singapore literature when it makes no pretences to any such grand, emblematic gestures but, rather, adds to a much-needed diversity of literary expression, whether in its delightful portrayal of the prosaic moments of 1990s Singapore or its giving voice to its protagonist, Pin, a young Sikh girl contesting the majority-dominated discourses that still reign today.
Sugarbread intertwines Pin's narrative of growing up as a minority in 1990s Singapore with her mother's darker childhood in the 1960s, the latter's history being a constant source for unravelling by Pin throughout the novel. While these mostly work on their own, corresponding attempts to align the personal with the political and allegorise the nation's evolution and struggles with Pin and her mother's own, however, do not hold up well. Jini, Pin's mother, possesses a love for the variety in Singaporean food, for instance, and the dishes she whips up serve as barometers for Pin to gauge the moods of her usually reticent mother: "Tofu stir-fried in oyster sauce for contentment; crisp deep-fried brinjal slices with fish curry to stifle her anger; glass noodles with shredded cabbage and carrot soup for sadness". The descriptions of these foods are sometimes wanting in detail to foreground to the reader the feelings they ostensibly bring out, but Jaswal clearly draws a parallel here between individual and nation, as the delicacies of a country become not just cultural expressions, but also intimate media for communicating one's deepest emotions. However, subsequent extensions of this analogy to illustrate Jini's background in tandem with Singapore's developments feel forced and less plausible. As a young girl, Jini's preference for the diversity in local food over her mother's insistence on making only roti is possibly intended to correspond with the national move from communalism to the aim of racial harmony. At one point, Jini's mother scolds her for using a "Chinese curse word" while preparing food, muttering that "There's no such thing as 'Singaporean'. You're Indian, Malay or Chinese. If you all mix, you will forget your traditions." It is difficult to imagine anyone making such a categorical declaration in passing, especially in the midst of quotidian kitchen duties, and one gets the impression that the novel is trying too hard to make explicit apparent alignments between the personal and the political here. Besides this, at other moments, characters deliver similar all-encompassing statements about Singapore, with no evident connection to the central narratives and themes and no discernible reason for their inclusion. For instance, while listening to songbirds from their flat window in the aftermath of an altercation with her mother, Jini somehow feels compelled to tell Pin: "Everything overlaps in this city ... Do you see that? Everything merges together.". Such tenuous proclamations emerge abruptly, shedding no deeper insights into Singapore or the novel's characters, and only jut awkwardly from the through line of Sugarbread.
Writing with the aspiration towards an international readership may have also shaped Sugarbread in the image of other successful global writing. It is undeniable that Jaswal's prose is endearing and comfortable in inhabiting the simultaneously perceptive and guileless voice of 10-year old Pin. Further, her writing is arguably more readable and accessible than the average local author partial towards solipsism or pedantry, boding well for the reluctant Singapore reader that literary campaigns and bookstores have been targeting in recent years. Yet, at the same time, one wonders if such stylistic success is not merely evocative of, but has also been constructed in, the shadows of one author, Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy (Roy has been cited as one of Jaswal's influences in an interview elsewhere). Most evidently, the heart-rending combination of innocence and discernment in Jaswal's Pin bears resemblance to Roy's main characters, Estha and Rahel, from her novel The God of Small Things. Compare, for example, the paradoxical, bittersweet mix of a child's understanding and confusion that reverberates across both Pin's reaction to being able to eat for free at the Sikh temple in Sugarbread – "I had to admit that it was quite generous of God to feed everyone. But I still wished He would make His food a bit more appealing." – and Estha and Rahel's questions to their mother, upon her waking up, if she had been having an "afternoon-mare" and "If you're happy in a dream, Ammu, does that count?", in The God of Small Things. Both novels also travel ominously towards a revelation of unspeakable secrets at their close, creating suspense for readers every now and then with cryptic clues and foreshadowing that may feel effective at first reading, but subsequently tiresome and unnecessary at times. If one were to quibble with Sugarbread, one may also suggest the possible mirroring of one antagonist, Fat Auntie, with Roy's own, Baby Kochamma – both being petty and ugly characters with axes to grind. To be sure, writing under the influence of other authors is not new and not discouraged, as T.S. Eliot's remark about how "immature poets imitate; mature poets steal" goes. Still, one wishes for Singaporean writers to perfect the latter part of Eliot's comment, or better still, more confidently eke out a space in literature that is, for the lack of a better phrase, uniquely Singaporean.
Nonetheless, Sugarbread's contribution to Singapore literature, in its vignettes of 1990s Singapore and its valuable showcasing of a young Sikh girl's perspective, cannot be discounted. The novel begins, for instance, with poignant descriptions of an HDB estate that catapulted this reader back to visions of a pre-digital age childhood, somewhat akin to the nostalgia-infused images of local photographer Nguan:
Even more precious than these illustrations is Jaswal's shining a spotlight on the daily tensions that minorities like Sikhs are entangled in in Singapore. While minority experiences have been brought to the fore in drama and poetry by the likes of Alfian Sa'at and Pooja Nansi, respectively, seldom have they been dealt with in depth in the Singaporean novel. It is heartening, then, to finally see such representation in Sugarbread, but heartbreaking at the same time, to witness young Pin having to wrestle with an assortment of problems by mere virtue of her ethnicity and religion, such as the racist perceptions that sneak in some of her classmates' remarks as a result of socialisation, and the outright discrimination levelled upon her by the school-bus uncle. Pin's childlike rationalization of how "Sikhs have a holiday called Vesakhi, but I didn't think it was all that special because nobody got off school or work on that day" is damning of the inevitable yet regrettable concessions to the majority that minorities in Singapore are forced to make.
Sugarbread deserves to be read more for how it complicates and diversifies existing local fiction, than for its capacity to present a symbolic or monolithic narrative of Singapore that may cater to the tastes of global readers. While there is much to be improved stylistically – and Jaswal certainly does so in her later novel Inheritance (published first but, in fact, written later) – Sugarbread still mostly charms and illuminates.QLRS Vol. 16 No. 3 Jul 2017