Kids Corner


Sikh-Aussie Selected One of Four Best Young Australian Novelists:
Balli Kaur Jaswal





Eighteen years ago, The Sydney Morning Herald began naming Australia’s promising young novelists aged up to 35 with the intention of showcasing writers with a clear, original voice and an urgent desire to tell a story.

This year’s judges - academic and critic Peter Pierce, fiction writer and former Best Young Australian Novelist Jennifer Mills, and I - have chosen four writers from entries ranging across many genres and writing forms. All are debut fiction writers, all graduates of university creative writing programs.

The writers’ backgrounds and their storytelling interests wander from Adelaide to Iceland, from Sydney to Fiji, Tokyo to Singapore. Yet, all remain centrally preoccupied by questions of love, human connection and what it means to grow old.

Of the four, fresh to the literary stage is Singaporean-born Balli Kaur Jaswal, who enlarges on social, historical and political themes of the migrant family in Asia in her tale of an ageing Sikh patriarch and his three troubled children.


Inheritance (Sleepers)

Work in progress: A dark comedic novel, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

Awards: David T. K. Wong Fellowship, University of East Anglia

Day job: High school English teacher

What the judges say: Balli Kaur’s story of one Punjabi family’s efforts to contain the unspeakable is utterly engrossing and ambitious in scope.

Balli credits a peripatetic upbringing for creating the distance to step outside her Sikh community and observe the migrant experience in Singapore.

The daughter of a diplomat, she was born in Singapore but estimates she has spent only half her life in the city state. At age five she followed her father to Tokyo for three years, and commuted between Singapore and Moscow, her father’s next posting, for another three years.

Balli finished high school in Manila and attended creative writing programs in the US before moving to Melbourne in 2010 to earn a post-graduate diploma in education. She now teaches high-school English there.

Implicit in Inheritance is criticism of a punishing exam-driven education system, which Balli found suffocating, as well as a state prepared to sacrifice citizen freedoms for progress and prosperity. For the migrant who has embraced the dream, the strictures are intensified by the provincialism of cultural enclaves where ‘‘everybody knows everybody else’’.

South Asians make up about 10 per cent of Singapore’s population and Sikhs a smaller percentage of that.

‘‘It’s quite a close-knit community and there is a sense of comfort and solidarity in that but the flip side is the importance of maintaining appearances and of upholding family reputation.’’

That job often falls to the males of households.

Inheritance is Balli’s second novel, but her first published. When she began writing Inheritance in 2007, she could find few novels set in modern Singapore but has since detected a renaissance in poetry and a softening of government attitudes towards literature.

Her first book, about a mother and daughter connecting during the race riots of Singapore in the 1960s, is more biographical than Inheritance, she thinks, and one she’d like to return to. It’s taken a few battles, but Balli says her parents are accepting of her life as a writer.

Writing has always been a compulsion, even as her parents urged her to academic success in other fields.

“Sometimes [writing is] the only way to articulate the ideas in my head.’’

Please CLICK here to read a review of Balli Kaur’s “Inheritance”.

[Courtesy: The Sydney Morning Herald. Edited for]


Conversation about this article

1: Ameet Singh (Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, India), May 27, 2014, 12:47 PM.

Makes me feel on top of the world. Good for the Aussies to be so open to diversity.

2: Harinder Singh (Punjab), May 27, 2014, 3:04 PM.

A beautiful mind. My congratulations to you, madam.

3: Harinder Singh (Punjab), May 28, 2014, 9:23 PM.

I also have a suggestion: don;t stop at such laurels. Be a prolific writer ... like Enid Blyton or J K Rowling. Dream big.

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