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Interview: Balli Kaur Jaswal, author, Now You See Us - “The novel centres migrant workers”

BySimar Bhasin
Jul 14, 2023 07:31 PM IST

On her novel about three Philippine domestic workers in Singapore, who attempt to solve a murder mystery

How did the idea for Now You See Us take shape? The title is also reminiscent of a Netflix series centred on racial discrimination and the flawed justice system (When They See Us), was that an inspiration?

Author Balli Kaur Jaswal (Courtesy the publisher)

The similarity of the titles is a coincidence. I was inspired to write Now You See Us after years of observing certain narratives (especially in the media) about domestic workers in Singapore, and considering how those narratives were incomplete and lacking in nuance. But the first major seed for this novel was planted when I was a teenager and my family moved to the Philippines only a few years after a Filipina domestic worker named Flor Contemplacion was executed in Singapore for murder. The media in Singapore reflected a thorough and fair investigation that undoubtedly cast her as the guilty party, but in the Philippines, it was a different story entirely -- a story about the exploitation of a domestic worker, who was unfairly vilified and disadvantaged by Singapore’s justice system. It was my first lesson in how different versions of the truth can exist according to the source and national loyalties. I wanted to write a story about something similar occurring, but in today’s world of social media where there is more than one narrative, and where state-run media can’t dominate or control the spread of information.

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There is an intersectionality that the narrative maintains when it comes to the representation of different kinds of discriminations based on race, region, class, gender and sexuality. How difficult was it to maintain that balance and to bring out those nuances?

It’s always challenging to juggle highlighting injustices with maintaining a story. The key was to focus on characters and the small details of their worlds, and to see where those larger points could be woven into their day-to-day lives.

From the title to how the central case also unfolds, there is a constant interplay between hyper surveillance of bodies considered the ‘Other’ while at the same time, intentionally invisiblizing their traumas. How did you bring out this idea of migrant domestic workers being constantly watched but not seen?

The novel centres these migrant workers for that very reason; to bring them out from the margins and make them heroes of the story. Their bodies are policed in many ways throughout the novel – Donita’s sexuality, Angel’s privacy and Cora’s boundaries. Again, I wrote about the small interactions that chipped away at these women’s identities and sense of safety so that the reader would also feel that sense of constant agitation on their behalf.

320pp, ₹1918; HarperCollins (Courtesy the publisher)

There is a consistent focus on the ways in which skewed media narratives and misinformation on social media platforms shape popular opinion and give way to a mob mentality. Did you wish to highlight that?

Absolutely. I wanted to show the double-edged sword of social media in that it’s a lifeline for these women to communicate and make connections, but it can also rear its ugly head and create more problems for an investigation.

Poetry, art and cooking become potent tools of protest and resistance, specifically as a means for a migrant worker, who faces daily discrimination, to hold onto culture and memory. What role do you believe fiction can play, in a similar vein, when it comes to the representation of migrant lives?

Storytelling is crucial to our understanding of humanity, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. Fiction, of course, provided me with the freedom to represent migrant lives fully, with the necessary complexities and contradictions that make characters compelling and believable. Those other art forms are ways of conveying and asserting identity and visibility as well.

Towards the end of chapter six, there is a nod to how Langston Hughes represented “a dream deferred” in his poem, Harlem. Was there a connection you wished to draw there?

No, it wasn’t intentional, but I’m pleased to see a parallel between Hughes’s poem and my fictional migrant’s poem.

There is also a self-reflexive way in which English as a linguistic means of narrative composition has been used, making it seem inadequate when it comes to articulating realities that lie beyond Western aesthetics. Is that something that has interested you as a reader as well?

The migrants and their employers live in a world where English is a globalized language. Singlish and Taglish are both used in the novel as forms of linguistic expression and solidarity-building tools. I don’t shy away from using words and phrases that would be unfamiliar to a Western reader; the context provides enough clues about meaning. They can look it up if interested in further knowing the origins or definitions of the words. I don’t believe in footnoting or handholding the reader through the worlds in which my characters reside.

In your earlier works too there is a constant focus on how patriarchal institutions work to control women’s sexuality. Did you intend to work through that in your writing or did it happen organically?

I suppose it’s both. As an Asian woman, patriarchal institutions and the policing of bodies are highly relevant to my life and so they find their way into my fiction because I’m interested in creating worlds where women work cleverly together to resist them. I don’t keep any issues at the forefront of my thinking when I write fiction because it results in a didactic work that prioritizes soapboxing over storytelling.

What are you working on next?

I just gave birth to my daughter, my second child, two weeks ago. I’m focusing on spending time with my family for now. But I also have some ideas brewing for a new novel. It’s just too early to put into words right now.

Simar Bhasin is an independent journalist.

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