Unflinching Portrayal of Disability in Balli Kaur Jaswal’s “Sugarbread”

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Myra here.

I bought this book during last year’s Singapore Writers Festival – especially after I listened to the author successfully moderating quite a number of sessions. Her book was also alluded to by some of her panelists about its visceral portrayal of differently-abled individuals that I felt compelled to purchase it.


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Sugarbread

Written by: Balli Kaur Jaswal
Published by: Epigram Books Singapore, 2016
ISBN13: 9789814757300. Literary Award: Epigram Books Fiction Prize Nominee (2015)
Bought my own copy of the book. Book photos taken by me.

This is one of our book club picks for the year, and I am excited to see the discussion this novel would generate. Told in two voices: that of a young Punjabi Sikh girl named Pin growing up in the 90s, and her own mother named Jini growing up in the 60s, this is blessedly a woman-themed novel, as it traces generations of womanity over the years, providing space for their hopes, fears, and anxieties to materialize as contained within their religious background and distinct cultural upbringing. It is a book of secrets and their gradual unraveling, of food and its permutations, and the love infused into the preparation of every single meal.

I could taste anger in the amount of red chilli powder and mustard seeds she sprinkled in a curry and I could tell that she was happy when she roasted chicken with light soy sauce and anise seeds, and served it over white rice. But I ached to find out more about Ma. She was full of secrets. (p. 17)

I initially found the novel to be too insistent in the beginning in its attempt to establish a sense of place (too many needless “this is Singapore” references), yet after awhile I grew absorbed in hearing Pin’s voice, especially as she dealt with a racist Chinese uncle in the bus who called her names, as she struggled with her own sense of lack when faced with a wealthy classmate whom she wanted to impress, and as she tried to make sense of her religion, testing her God and her faith with little questions and signs that she interpreted in her own childlike way to signify something of importance to her.

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The book also made me hungry, so I brought it everywhere with me. When Pin’s mother’s voice, Jini, came into the narrative, I was even more riveted. Her mother, Jini, had a younger brother named Bilu who was described to be “not right.” The relationship between Jini and Bilu was reminiscent, at least for me, of Red Sky In The Morning by Elizabeth Laird, one of the required readings here in Singapore for secondary school. I took a photo of the page (p. 105) and edited it using an iPhone app:

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People’s perceptions of race, womanity, disability as they are tied to self-worth or valuing of one’s self from the eyes of another – are explored fearlessly in this novel, as told in the wondering, often-defiant, wilful voice of the young female protagonist who is coming into her own as she gets to know a Grandmother who is virtually a stranger yet continually judges her and her mother. There is also a harrowing incident of abuse in the end that was so intimately portrayed, it was almost like a whispered shout, screaming in its silent intensity, where victims are unwittingly perceived as responsible for their own abuse, as if by virtue of being female you have brought it upon yourself.

This is, indeed, SingLit at its finest. And I look forward to reading more of Balli Kaur Jaswal’s novels in the future.

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