Balli Kaur Jaswal’s “Sugarbread”

This is only my second book by Balli Kaur Jaswal (though, to be fair, she only has two so far and is currently in the middle of writing a third) and she’s already made it to my list of my favourite authors of all time.

As much as I liked Jaswal’s first novel, Inheritance (my review of it is here if you want to check it out), Sugarbread resonated with me more. I connected more with the protagonist and narrator, Pin. There are a number scenes that hit home and even made me tear up. Sugarbread is a heartwarming and eye-opening story on how the past and a country’s (in this case, Singapore’s) institutionalised morals can greatly shape family values and personal beliefs that will lead to long-held grudges and regrets that could last a lifetime.

I admire how Jaswal keeps her themes consistent throughout her book, despite there being so many of them, from food to all forms of discrimination—gender, race, religion, you name it. Most people, I believe, would shy away from exploring this many topics at once because not only would it clog up the main storyline but it would also be too much to juggle all at once for the author as well as a potential turn-off for the reader. Jaswal, however, nails all these themes right on the head. I love how Jaswal makes food the centrepiece of this book. Maybe it’s just me not reading a lot of books about cooking or food in general as of late, but I do find it quite unique and fascinating which makes the book stand out in my repertoire. How she relates food to the numerous conflicts, particularly those related to communication and confrontation, peppered throughout the plot is genius because food, if you really think about it, can be such a versatile form of communication. We don’t often think of it as such but if you know where to look—as Pin did—it can tell you about so much about a person more than they let on.

Because this book is told mostly from a child’s perspective, a good portion of it is dedicated to Pin describing her surroundings—and it works in the book’s favour in this case. Pin is a precocious child, but also has a dry sense of humour and a penchant for cynicism due to her upbringing. Her words and emotions paint an intimate picture of Singapore. She portrays it in both the broader sense—as in what outsiders might see—but also includes the nooks and crannies of the country—depictions of her Sikh family and Sikh culture as a whole, for example—creating a wholesome sense of presence within her story.

I love Pin’s relationship with her family. Not only because they’re so well-written—it often feels like I’m a fly on the wall, listening in to their many conversations about culture and politics and living their lives alongside them—but also because they’re reminiscent of my own. Pin has arguments with her mum the way I would with mine. We even reconcile in a similar fashion. Pin’s dad has to be the sweetest character I’ve ever had the opportunity of reading so that makes him an instant favourite in my book (heh). Tradition hangs heavy in the air of Pin’s home, as does mine (to an extent), and there were times where I wanted to shake the characters, particularly Pin’s grandmother, Nani-ji, and Fat Auntie, for not being able to accept how change have intercepted their way of living. This is the kind of arguments that would often crop up over dinner—and in both real life and the book I had to take a step back and assess each situation because as much as I want the older generation to change their ways and their perception of the ever-evolving world, I also need to understand that accepting these changes is not always going to be easy.

But above all, I absolutely adore Jaswal’s writing style. It’s atmospheric, how she describes the hustle and bustle of the many Singaporean locales and reminds me so much of what my own hometown—Jakarta, Indonesia—is like. How she elegantly weaves multiple weighty topics such as racism, classism, religion, identity, family values, critiquing patriarchal values, etc.—with the added bonus of telling it through the point of view of a fourteen-year-old child!—blows me away. Not only that, but she successfully blends a child’s wide-eyed curiosity with just the right amount of apathy (but not to the point of jadedness). I highly commend Jaswal for this; it’s difficult enough for me to write a story from the perspective of a character my age with such grace, but Jaswal made it look so effortless. I don’t know how she does it. What I do know is that I need to learn her ways ASAP.

If you’ve made it this far into my post, then thank you for reading. Let me know what you think and if you have any recommendations for any books of this sort, then feels free to share them. I’d love to hear your thoughts on those as well!

Until next time,
Dev.

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