Sugarbread plunges into Punjabi-Sikh community in Singapore

| Singapore | 6 July 2016 | Asia Samachar |
Balli Kaur Jaswal (video grab from interview at Epigram Books) and her novel Sugarbread – PHOTO / ASIA SAMACHAR

By Anandpreet Kaur

Sugarbread talks about a 10-year old girl from the Punjabi-Sikh community in Singapore searching for clues of her past through her mother’s cooking.

The novel touches on delicate issues of race and religion, and brings light to the colourful Punjabi-Sikh community.

Sugarbread, authored by Balli Kaur Jaswal while she was still studying in university in United States a decade ago, was one of the finalists for the 2015 Epigram Books Fiction Prize.

“I was in America and facing all those questions about where I belong and also the complex sort of dilemma of where should I go next. You know, should I stay in America, should I go back home… Then where is home exactly?” Balli says in an interview shared at Singapore-based independent publisher Epigram Books website.

SEE ALSO: Balli Jaswal shortlisted for inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize

The Singapore-born Balli, who now teaches at an international school in Istanbul, is also the author of Inheritance, said to be the first English-language novel about Singapore’s Punjabi-Sikh diaspora.

The novel got the 33-year old named “Best Young Australian Novelist” in 2014 by Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald for Inheritance.

In Sugarbread, the 10-year old Pin must not become like her mother but nobody is telling her why.

She seeks clues in Ma’s cooking when she’s not fighting other battles—being a bursary girl at an elite school and facing racial taunts from the bus uncle, according to the synopsis of the book.

Then her meddlesome grandmother moves in, installing a portrait of a watchful Sikh guru and a new set of house rules. Old secrets begin to surface but can Pin handle learning the truth?

In the same interview shared at the Epigram Books website, Balli says there are a lot of strong, conservative women in the novel.

“In a conservative culture, in a conservative community it’s the women who’s honour has to be protected, it’s the women who could potentially shame the family,” she said.

Basically, Pin’s mothers struggle was that of embracing the Western culture and feeling guilty about it. Finding a middle ground of integration of the two.

“A big part of the novel is also food, I love food,” she said, breaking out in laughter.

Book Trailer at Epigram Books:


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  1. STRAITS TIMES (Singapore) – ST, July 5


    When the Epigram Books Fiction Prize emerged last year, it sent writers Balli Kaur Jaswal and Wong Souk Yee rummaging for their old manuscripts.

    They unearthed works they had written back in university and abandoned, and with them, got onto the shortlist for last year’s prize. Now, close to a decade after the manuscripts were completed, they have hit the stores as full-fledged novels.

    In both Jaswal’s Sugarbread and Wong’s Death Of A Perm Sec, family ties are tested and dark secrets rise to the surface, against a Singaporean backdrop of hawker centres, wet markets and Housing Board flats.

    The prize was the reason Jaswal decided to dust off her manuscript, which was written as her honours thesis in creative writing at Hollins University, a women’s university in Virginia, United States.

    “I knew I wanted to return to it someday, but without that push, I don’t think I would have done it,” says the 32-year-old, who was born in Singapore and is now based in Istanbul.

    Sugarbread follows Pin, a 10-year- old searching for glimpses of her secretive mother’s past through her cooking. It deftly navigates thorny issues such as race and religion, and offers a colourful glimpse into the Punjabi-Sikh community, whose experiences have rarely been mined in Singapore literature.

    One of the recurring themes in Jaswal’s works is the tension between tradition and modernity. With Sugarbread, she wanted to have different female characters representing these ideals and the conflicts that arise from them being cooped up under the same roof.

    She completed the manuscript in 2007 but, struggling with problems in the narrative and the overall plot development, decided it was time for a break.

    “I put aside the manuscript – I was a bit sick of it – and decided that it was a practice run.”

    She started on a new project instead and that became her debut novel, Inheritance. The book – which traces the lives of a Punjabi family living in Singapore as the nation develops from 1970 to 1990 – was published in 2013 by Australian independent press Sleepers Publishing. It has since been published in Singapore by Epigram Books.

    She returned to Sugarbread just last year, armed this time around with more knowledge and experience. She adds: “The distance also helped. I was able to look at it with fresh eyes because it had been so long since I’d written it.”

    “It was badly in need of some cutting – which first-time writers are so unwilling to do – but after going through the editing process of Inheritance, I was able to be more pragmatic and realistic about what needed to go.”

    Wong, 57, wrote her manuscript, which meshes family drama and political intrigue, for her PhD in creative writing and literature at the University of New South Wales in Australia. It is about the death of a permanent secretary at the housing ministry who is accused of corruption and the blow it deals to his family.

    With the novel, she also spins a tale fraught with suspense and tussles for political power as she re-examines and reimagines the decisions the men who led Singapore through its turbulent years as a fledgling nation may have made.

    She completed it in 2004 and later approached a local publisher, but the manuscript was rejected.

    “I didn’t try again until Epigram offered the $20,000 prize. Then I thought, what the heck, since I already wrote it, I’ll just give it a shot. I have nothing to lose,” says Wong.

    The novel taps on her interest in rediscovering Singapore’s history and the 1986 death of the former National Development Minister Teh Cheang Wan, who overdosed on sleeping pills during a probe into allegations that he had accepted bribes.

    Wong, a former political detainee who stood in the last General Election as a member of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), says: “I want to find out more about my own country’s history and write about our political history and the what-ifs and what-could-have- beens, while also looking at how political developments can have personal consequences.”

    She has another manuscript she has yet to excavate, written when she was doing her master’s in creative writing at the University of Western Sydney. She is thinking about how to rework it, but is not likely to submit it for this year’s prize.

    Meanwhile, Jaswal – who this year nabbed a two-book deal with publishing giant HarperCollins – is starting on the second book in the deal. The first book, Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, follows a young woman who teaches literacy to elderly women in London’s Punjabi community. She soon learns the widows have other plans: starting an erotic storytelling club.

    Jaswal says the book, which will be out next year, has also attracted the interest of a number of film and television production companies in Britain. Translation rights for the novel have been sold to France, Germany, Poland, Estonia, Israel and China, and there are still ongoing deals to sell to more territories.

    The response far surpasses her expectations. “Of course, I’m thrilled about having a wider international audience because I’m exploring some truths about a silenced and hidden group of women.

    “I hope readers will walk away with a greater need to recognise society’s invisible women as multi- dimensional, full-blooded people with a strength of their own.”

    •Sugarbread ($24.90) by Balli Kaur Jaswal and Death Of A Perm Sec ($24.90) by Wong Souk Yee are available at major bookstores and



    Balli Kaur Jaswal

    Finalist for the 2015 Epigram Books Fiction Prize


    Pin must not become like her mother, but nobody will tell her why. She seeks clues in Ma’s cooking when she’s not fighting other battles—being a bursary girl at an elite school and facing racial taunts from the bus uncle. Then her meddlesome grandmother moves in, installing a portrait of a watchful Sikh guru and a new set of house rules. Old secrets begin to surface but can Pin handle learning the truth?

    Advance Praise:
    “This novel is sensitively written, and raises important issues subtly: racism and racialization; religiosity and its relation to identity; patriarchal values; class; and the intersection of Christianity and capitalism in the wonderful speech about ‘spiritual bank accounts’. All the characters have depth and complexity and the two layers of the narrative (the experiences of Pin and of her mother Jini) are skilfully blended. There are some beautiful descriptive passages, and I like the way in which metaphors are used sparingly, but to good effect.”
    —Philip Holden, editor of Writing Singapore and Epigram Books Fiction Prize 2015 judge

    “Pin is an earnest and enchanting child, through whose curious and clear-sighted eyes we see family life and complications and childhood cliques and racism. But this entertaining book also has touching insights into love, hope and wisdom, and characters that will stay with you long after you finish it.”
    —Ovidia Yu, author of Aunty Lee’s Chilled Revenge

    “This is the most glorious mic drop moment in Singaporean Literature. Sugarbread is such a tender and powerful response to the many celebrated voices in Singapore that represent minority experiences through tokenism or ignore them altogether. Balli Kaur Jaswal has made me feel like my ten-year-old self could be someone’s protagonist, like my skin belongs in the pages of books in my country. She’s turned the mirrors on Singapore and our conversations about identity in a spectacular fashion. Her prose is delicate, precise and aching. Her storytelling lingers with you for days. This novel is triumphant and absolutely essential reading for anyone who cares about living in this city.”
    —Pooja Nansi, author of Love is an Empty Barstool

    About the Author:
    Balli Kaur Jaswal is the author of Inheritance, a universal story of family, identity and belonging, newly re-released by Epigram Books. Born in Singapore and raised in Japan, Russia and the Philippines, she studied creative writing in the United States. She has received writing fellowships from the University of East Anglia and Nanyang Technological University, and was named Best Young Australian Novelist of 2014 by the Sydney Morning Herald. She is working on her third novel, a dark comedy set in a Punjabi immigrant enclave in London.

    ISBN: 9789814757300
    Format: Paperback
    Size: 225mm x 153mm
    Pages: 280pp
    Published: June 2016