Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Balli Kaur Jaswal
By Yong Shu Hoong
Balli Kaur Jaswal first made her mark on the Singapore literary scene, when she clinched the prestigious David T.K. Wong Fellowship at the University of East Anglia. It was there that the Singapore-born author wrote her debut novel, Inheritance, which won the Sydney Morning Herald's Best Young Australian Novelist Award in 2014.
Her second novel, Sugarbread, was a finalist for the inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2015. Philip Holden, one of the judges for the prize, described it as a "sensitively written" book that "raises important issues subtly" from racism and racialisation, to patriarchal values and class.
The year 2017 should trigger even greater recognition for Balli. Her third novel, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows (Harper Collins/William Morrow), was released in March. Translation rights have been sold in many countries, including France, Spain, Italy, Israel, Germany, Sweden and China. Film rights to the book have also been snapped up by Scott Free Productions and Film Four in the UK.
According to her official website, "she is currently working on a fourth novel about three sisters who go on a pilgrimage to India to reconnect with each other after their mother's death."
1. What are you reading right now?
I'm reading an advance copy of All the Little Children by Jo Furniss. It's a debut novel about a woman who goes on a camping trip with her kids when a sort of apocalyptic disaster happens outside the forest and she ends up in charge of all these other children who were left behind. It's a riveting story.
2. If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play, or poem, who would you be, and why?
I always identified with Roald Dahl's Matilda because her love for reading helps her escape from people around her who disparage intellect and independence in young girls. Margaret from Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret is another literary soulmate because of her questions about her religious and cultural identity.
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
That I like writing. I love having written, but the process of actually getting the words down on paper is tedious and painful. The only thing that keeps me going is knowing that there will be a final product. And then I naively start something new in the hope that writing it will be easier (spoiler: it's not).
4. Name one living author and one dead author you identify with most, and tell us why.
Judy Blume, because she knows all my secrets from adolescence. And for similar reasons, I was a huge Sylvia Plath junkie when I was a teenager. I was certain we were friends in a past life. She had such self-doubt about her role as a woman, and when I read her published diaries, I was stunned that somebody else (albeit, somebody far more articulate than myself) had these private thoughts.
5. Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
I believe that you can be burned out from writing a particular novel or short story, but personally, I've never been so blocked that I just couldn't write anything. When I start to feel burned out, I take a break from the project and work on something else. If it feels like a quick passing phase, I take a walk, run some errands, clean the house essentially, I do things that make me feel like I'm in control and productive again. It usually helps.
6. What qualities do you admire most in a writer?
Risk taking and sharp observations that make me say: "Wow, that's exactly what that feels like, but I had no idea somebody else felt that way too."
7. What is one trait you deplore most in writing or writers?
I suppose any writing that panders to stereotypes or exoticism really riles me up. I try to avoid doing that, but I do wonder if some generalisations are inevitable in small doses if you're writing for an audience outside your own cultural group.
8. Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
This line from ZZ Packer's story 'Brownies' (in which the young female narrator is just beginning to understand some uncomfortable truths about anger, oppression and her potential role in victimising others) always gives me goosebumps: "No," I said, and suddenly knew there was something mean in the world I could not stop."
And this brilliant advice from Anne Lamott: "You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should've behaved better."
9. Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I
have a strong irrational dislike for the following things: anything peppermint flavoured; the sun shining while it rains; shoelaces.
10. At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy, or an action thriller to watch, which will you go for, and why?
Can I go with tragi-comedy? I think life is both sad and funny. Actually there's a great Woody Allen movie, Melinda and Melinda, which explores whether life is a comedy or a tragedy. I must watch that again.
11. What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
"Conundrum" is my favourite word because it just bounces, almost like you only have to say the first two syllables and the last one will echo back. My least favourite word is "necessary" because I cannot spell it. I usually just type a combination of "n", "c", "s" and "r" with some vowels (all the wrong ones) and hope that autocorrect can take it from there.
12. Write a short-short story in three lines that include the following three words: "ultra", "kiss" and "recipe".
The recipe book was collecting dust on her kitchen counter. She hadn't opened it in months, not since her kiss with the man from that ultra-conservative religious sect who came knocking on her door with pamphlets and promises of eternal redemption. What happened afterwards was accidental the fumbling, the passionate moans, the baby that kicked away in her belly now as she flipped through the pages and became inspired to cook again.
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
Ear plugs. My upstairs neighbours have two children who spend the entire day chasing each other around, and the noise of the footsteps is very distracting.
14. What is the best time of the day for writing?
I start writing in the morning because I want to feel like I've accomplished something even just a paragraph or two by lunch time. But the thoughts flow much more easily at night.
15. If you had a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
I'd be most comfortable with writers I know, so I'd pick Pooja Nansi, Tania De Rozario and a Mystery Guest. (Because this is a last supper, I'm guessing something biblical will happen, which will be the Mystery Guest's responsibility. Turning water into wine, maybe? I know that didn't technically happen at the Last Supper, but lots of things that Tania, Pooja and I get up to would not make it into an accurate version of the Bible anyway.)
16. How did you come up with the attention-grabbing title for your latest book, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows?
This is the first time a title has come to me easily, and at the same time as the story. Usually, I have a very hard time with titles. The process was very straightforward I thought: "I want to write a novel about Punjabi widows who start an erotic storytelling class. I'll call it
Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows!" I did toy a bit with "Erotic Stories BY Punjabi Widows" instead, but then I realised the novel was more about the widows building a support network for each other through these stories, so the initial title made more sense.
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?
QLRS Vol. 16 No. 2 Apr 2017
"I was supposed to be cremated."