Monday, February 09, 2009
Bend it like Balli
Just writing something end of the day or being affirmed by the recognition of a fellowship, being recognized by fellow writers and critics, that is very humbling and it makes me feel like I am doing something worthwhile, says Balli Jaswal, the youngest winner of the David T K Wong Fellowship, in a tête-à-tête with Zafar Anjum, editor of Writers Connect.
I was facing a very unusual dilemma when one evening last November I found myself walking to the Arts House to interview Balli Jaswal. While I was curious to meet Balli, who is a young journalist and a first-time novelist, I was not sure how to engage her in a meaningful discussion.
The reason for my dilemma was this: for most writers interviewed, one has the benefit of reading the subject’s works (novels, essays, stories, journalistic pieces, poems) in advance to help form an opinion. In Balli’s case what she has been working on (a sample of that text, not available to me, won her the 2007 David T K Wong Fellowship at the University of East Anglia, UK) is not in the public domain yet; at the same time, her winning of the prestigious fellowship establishes her credentials as a ‘writer’ beyond doubt and the potential she embodies as a successful future writer.
That’s why when I met the vivacious Balli, I started with a very basic question—one that sprang from my mind with a tinge of Naipaulian determinism and determination: When did she ‘decide’ to become a writer?
“I don’t know if I ever decided it,” Balli said, attentively noticing the nuances of the word ‘decide’ that I had used in my question. “I think it occurred to me as something that I was good at doing, something I really enjoyed doing …I just kept doing…”
“I don’t think I can still be defined as a writer,” she said putting the matter to rest.
At one level, Balli had stated the absolute truth. Her first book was yet to be out (Naipaul once said that he did not think he had become a writer until he had published five books). At another level, she was being humble. Like the past David T K Wong Fellowship winners (Balli is the youngest winner), she too has been marked, destined for a literary stardom.
The making of a writer
Balli had a childhood that spanned across many countries in Asia, including Japan, Russia, the Philippines and Singapore. That experience, of living and growing in many cities, of dealing with people of different cultures, informed her ways of seeing the world. “I gathered a realization that communication is very different for me than other people,” she said. “The word, the language that you choose becomes very important (in a multicultural setting). You tend to listen to dialogue differently.”
Out of this body of experience, according to her, schooling in Singapore played a significant role. “Schooling in international schools, writing competitions in Singapore really honed that drive for writing,” she said.
After schooling, Balli decided to pursue her dreams of becoming a writer. Not everyone agreed that this was a good move. Nevertheless, she carried on and got to study creative writing in the USA at Hollins University and George Mason University. In fact, she ended up attending the same creative writing course (at Hollins University) that was attended by Booker Prize-winner Kiran Desai.
But did the creative writing programme really help her? “I think more than anything it gave me confidence,” she said. “It gave me some affirmation that what I was writing was important. You do a lot more criticism than writing and you tend to learn what other people are doing right and wrong. So that sort of training was important for me to become a writer.”
But not everybody is fortunate enough to study creative writing. Can such unfortunate people still become writers, I meant to ask her. “As long as you instill that discipline (of writing) for yourself and have a community that you can turn to and have a sense of confidence in your writing, you can do it,” she said.
“It can never hurt you to be in a creative writing programme,” she added matter-of-factly. “Even out of your assignment you get a volume of work, even if it is crap that you don’t want to look at again.”
Winning the fellowship
After finishing her creative writing course, Balli returned to Singapore to work on her first novel, When Amrit Returns. She also took up a teaching assignment. That’s when she was awarded the 2007 T K Wong Fellowship.
“I was in complete shock,” she said on her getting the fellowship. “And I was just elated. It was exactly what I wanted or needed. I couldn’t have asked for anything better. I think it is the highlight of my life.”
Balli said that when she was shortlisted for the fellowship, she thought ok, she had got that far. “But when I got it, that was really beyond my expectation,” she said.
The fellowship took her to the University of East Anglia (UEA) for about one year. “It was an interesting experience,” she said recounting her experience. “I had just a vast amount of time all of a sudden. Before that I had been teaching in Singapore. Very busy all the time. Didn’t have much time to write as anyone with a full time job would. And suddenly I had the entire day, the whole day to sit and write and I knew I was prone to freezing up – OMG what do I do now. So I tried to work myself out of that a lot. I took it one day at a time which I realized it was a good step to take.”
But there also was a downside to the experience. “It was a very isolating experience in a lot of ways,” she said. “That is the nature of that kind of position I guess.”
During her time at UEA, apart from writing, she also got to meet other students doing their Masters. “They were really nice” she said. She also had a mentor who was supposed to guide her. “But it was a flexible relationship,” she added.
In UK, most of the time she was working on her book. Between breakfast and lunch, she cooked her own meals. She used to sketch out what she was going to write in the day, know where to start and know where to stop. “I tried to churn out something everyday,” she said. “I thought it was important to do.”
An Indian writer?
Taking a break from writing related questions, I asked her how she saw herself, what kind of writer she thought she was. Did she think she was an Indian writer or a Singaporean writer or a hyphenated one?
“The writing that I do I can’t just call it Indian writing,” she said. “It is not based in India but my characters are mostly Indian. I am a Singaporean Indian writer who wrote the only Singapore Indian book so far and hopefully there will be more so I will be in the company of others who have done the same thing. If not, I would like to be described as an immigrant writer.”
Whatever way publishers and critics will pigeonhole Balli in the hierarchy of writers, she is certainly interested in the stories of immigration like many of her contemporary expat Indian writers. “I am very interested in the background of immigration and how it is represented in literature and how multiculturalism shakes that landscape,” she said. “I have been an immigrant in so many different contexts.”
Balli also likes to explore issues of cultural isolation. “You can be a part of a culture and be still outside it,” she said.
In the same vein, she finds language very interesting, how in different ways language is used and how people perceive language.
Her first novel
The conversation now veered towards a new topic: Balli’s first novel, When Amrit Returns. “It takes place between the late 60s and the early 90s,” she said about the temporal setting of her work in progress. “It centres around the life of a Punjabi family in Singapore whose lives start to unravel when their youngest daughter changes and goes missing. That is the first part of the book. Physically she comes back but mentally she is not all there. From any reader’s point of view it is quite clear that she has a mental illness. But the family does not recognize it as such because they are still rooted in tradition. Singapore becomes third world to first very rapidly in that timeframe bit people don’t catch up with that. So, they think she is not well raised or she is possessed. And even when they realize that she has a mental illness they don’t want to deal with it because of the taboos surrounding it. But there is a twist in the end” (she laughs).
“In a lot of ways, Singaporeans have lost their homeland. I left Singapore for nine months and when I can back, there were new buildings. My parents who were born here also talk about the loss of their homeland. They lived in very different circumstances than they are living now.”
Many interviewers and readers would want to know how other writers or their writings have influenced a budding writer. I am no different, so I asked Balli about her favourite writers. I tend to like books than writers, was her reply. Fair enough, I thought. Then she took some names. On top of her list is the Indian writer (who now lives in Canada) Rohington Mistry. “If he wrote the phone book, I would read it,” she said about Mistry. She waxed eloquent about Satnam Sanghera’s biography of his mother (the best biog I have ever read), wowed about Margaret Attwood’s Cat’s Eye and raved about Yiyun Li’s short stories.
Towards the end of the interview, I again took Balli to the elemental question—what did she feel about her journey so far, what did it all mean to her? Her reply showed the depth of her understanding of the state of being a writer. “Just writing something end of the day or being affirmed by the recognition of a fellowship, being recognized by fellow writers and critics, that is very humbling and that makes me feel like I am doing something worthwhile,” she said. “Though I wouldn’t refuse a huge advance” she said with laughter that I will always remember her for.