The Singaporean novelist on giving a voice to the marginalised in society

For as long as she loved reading about imaginary worlds, Balli Kaur Jaswal enjoyed writing about them, too. One of the Singaporean author’s favourite books when she was younger was Roald Dahl’s Matilda, “which had this wonderful mixture of reality and magic that made the real world a less daunting place for a kid”. She was also attracted to how American writer Judy Blume’s fictional characters always speak the truth in her stories, and this would later inspire Balli’s own stories.

“My main inspiration to write fiction has always been to create a world of truth, where the underdog triumphs because we don’t see enough of that in reality,” says the Generation T 2017 honouree, who has three books under her belt with one more on the way. Balli taps on her own experiences for her writing—her internationally acclaimed 2017 release, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, for instance, reflected her Punjabi upbringing and touched on controversial topics such as arranged marriages and honour killings. Her next book, The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters, which hits stores in April, will deal with issues including cultural representation in the media. In a way, she says, “writing stories is empowering because it’s my chance to set the world right”.  

(Related: A Drink With... Charlie Lim)

Building A Voice
“At the start of my career, my work was more autobiographical. Sugarbread, for example, was quite reflective of my experiences growing up in Singapore. My newer books tend to be about seemingly lighter topics that actually have darker implications. I also like to explore the tension between two polarities—traditional versus modern, in particular.”

Creating Awareness
“Through my work, I hope to give visibility to people who feel ‘invisible’. My characters are often marginalised by society, and by writing about them, I can put them in the spotlight and remind people that their stories matter too.”

Words Of Inspiration
“I tend to read books by authors of colour, or those who have experience being a minority in their society. And because of the perspective I prefer to write from, novels about immigrants or people who are displaced or alienated, and novels that grapple with identity in some way appeal to me the most.”

(Related: A Drink With... Rachel Lim)

Balli says…

I write in...
Complete silence.
The best remedy for writer’s block is… 
Taking a walk or petting a dog.
My all-time favourite book is…
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.
My current fascination is…
My one-year-old son.
My favourite drink is…
A classic martini with extra olives.
My favourite sentence from a book is…
“‘No,’ I said, and suddenly knew there was something mean in the world I could not stop.”—this is from a short story called Brownies in ZZ Packer’s book, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.