Balli Kaur Jaswal's The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters explores complexity of diasporic identities

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      Singaporean author Balli Kaur Jaswal came to diaspora fiction authentically.

      The daughter of a diplomat, who himself emigrated from Punjab to Singapore at the age of three, she's lived in Japan, Russia, the Philippines, and the United States. 

      In her youth, literature provided somethin constant in her life as she travelled to different countries.

      "It was a place that I could kind of escape into," Jaswal says in an interview at the Georgia Straight building. "I found that very reassuring as a kid, having to move around so much."

      Her fourth and newest novel, The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters, focuses on three British Indian sisters who venture to India at the request of their mother.

      "She wants them to take a pilgrimage of sorts and do some of her last rites in India for her," Jaswal explains. "It's also a way to trick them into spending time together, because they don't get along very well."

      The novel explores not only how they navigate their relationship with India, but also how they come to terms with their personal paths in life.

      "The biggest misconception about Indian women, in particular, is that there's a dichotomy of whether they're traditional or modern," Jaswal points out. "It's very black-and-white. Either you're one or the other. If you behave traditional in some ways, you must be completely traditional."

      In fact, she maintains, Indian women often travel along a spectrum between tradition and modernity.

      They may choose to embrace certain aspects of their ancestral culture—and identify strongly with this—while on other occasions they'll be completely westernized. 

      That's one of the issues that the three Shergill sisters have to reconcile on their journey.

      To research the book, Jaswal travelled to Punjab. And she went out of her way to ensure that any of the humour in the novel did not come at the expense of India itself.

      She points out that people of Indian heritage who grow up with Indian parents in the diaspora may feel that they can fit in when they visit India. But she says that once they arrive there, Indians can immediately tell that they are outsiders—NRIs, or nonresident Indians, as they're called.

      "There's this in-between-ness that came up really strong when I was writing this book," Jaswal says. "Where do these sisters fit in? If they don't fit in England and they don't fit in India, where do they belong?"

      Jaswal's last novel, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, was written over four years while she was a secondary school teacher in Melbourne, Australia.

      It's since been optioned by director Ridley Scott's production company. While she's not the screenwriter, she's had an opportunity to see how the script is being developed.

      Contrary to what the title suggests, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is not a collection of short stories, nor is it erotic.

      "It's a dark comedy, so I think a number of readers have told me that they went into it expecting certain things and came out of it with an understanding about various dimensions of Punjabi culture—and about some of the dark sides as well of community."

      That novel focused on Indian diaspora women living in the London area of Southall—a.k.a. Little Punjab.

      She believes that people who've immigrated to other countries sometimes reveal different aspects of their identity, depending on the circumstances.

      "They have to code-switch, sometimes between languages but sometimes between ways of thinking and talking, and all that," Jaswal says. "It comes very naturally to us.

      "Sometimes people have a sense that we're duplicitous or that we're hiding one side of ourselves or being kind of selected about what we choose [to reveal]," she continues. "We're not confused. We're just complex."

      Balli Kaur Jaswal will be the keynote speaker at the 2019 Dhahan Prize ceremony. It takes place on Saturday (November 2) at the Robert H. Lee Alumni Centre at UBC. For more information, visit the website.

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