Balli Kaur Jaswal, NOW YOU SEE US: A Novel

Balli Kaur Jaswal, NOW YOU SEE US: A Novel

Zibby speaks to author (and Reese’s Book Club veteran) Balli Kaur Jaswal about Now You See Us, a wildly entertaining and heartfelt novel about three domestic workers in Singapore who band together to exonerate a friend who has been accused of murder. Balli describes the real, suspected murder case that inspired this story and the research she conducted to understand the nuanced lives of domestic workers in Singapore, where she is from. She also talks about her experience as a Reese’s Book Club pick and what she loves to do when she’s not writing.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Balli. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Now You See Us: A Novel.

Balli Kaur Jaswal: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby.

Zibby: Of course. It’s a pleasure. Can you please tell listeners what your book is about?

Balli: Now You See Us is a novel about three domestic workers in Singapore who band together to exonerate a friend of theirs who has been accused of murder, in a nutshell.

Zibby: You do such a good job with setting scenes. I feel like your book is so visual, whether it’s the rainstorm with the bus driving by or people flying into this ministry of — or the markets or checking the phone apps. All these little moments are so real. One of my first questions is, is this going to be a TV show, movie, any of those? It feels very cinematic to me in the way that it’s portrayed.

Balli: I’m happy to hear that because the priority for me is worldbuilding. Especially bringing a world like Singapore to readers who don’t know much about it, I really wanted to get those details down. I’ve written other novels about Singapore before, but this was the first novel that I wrote about Singapore while actually living here and experiencing Singapore. It felt overwhelming at times. There was just so much that I wanted to put into the novel that I had to really pare back in order to make way for the narrative and for the story. As for a movie, conversations are happening, but conversations are conversations. I can’t say much.

Zibby: I feel like it would be really great because I just see it so well. I haven’t been to Singapore. I feel like this is one of those books that really took me somewhere. If you want to go to Singapore… Of course, this is a lot of different parts and a lot of worlds and social strata and all of that. Each character, I felt so sympathetic towards, whether it was — what’s her name? Dora Lee? Who comes in looking all nice with her skin-tight outfits but then gets totally — she’s the rebel character, basically. Cora is the older, more experienced, hiding secrets of her own from the past. It’s all so interwoven and awesome. I read that you did so much research. Tell me all about the research that went into it, not just in what Singapore is like, but also this culture of staffing and help and all of that.

Balli: The basis of my research — the road into it was that when I was sixteen, my family actually moved to the Philippines. We lived there for three years. We moved there from Singapore, where I’m from. There was a very controversial case here of a domestic worker from the Philippines who was executed in Singapore for murdering her employer’s child and another domestic worker. Growing up here with only one source of media, which was state-run media, and very little internet at the time, I just wholeheartedly believed that story. Everyone did. Then we moved to the Philippines. Anytime someone asked us where we were from, we said, “We’re from Singapore.” People would say, “Your country executed an innocent woman from our country.” I heard a whole different side of that story. That was really where the spark began. It’s strange to say because that’s over twenty years ago, but that was really a moment for me where I understood that there are different narratives about one thing depending on where you are and depending on who has stake and who has control over that narrative.

The backgrounds of these women and the circumstances that lead them to come to Singapore, those narratives were very much part of my formative years growing up and living in the Philippines. Then of course, writing this novel over twenty years later, I needed to confirm some of those narratives and update some of those narratives and actually speak one on one with women to make sure that I wasn’t just hearing stories and writing a novel based on really interesting anecdotes that I had heard rather than experienced and witnessed. I contacted a number of domestic workers, some of whom I knew through various writing groups in Singapore. Then once you speak to one and you say, “This is what I’m writing about,” they contact their networks, and they start sharing. I had quite a few people to speak to. I also spoke to a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia, a couple of them, actually, several years ago before I even knew that I was going to write this novel because it was just such a topic of interest to me that I knew that I wanted to know about their worlds and their lives.

Zibby: You should — oh, my gosh, now I’m forgetting the name of it. If you haven’t already, I’m going to put you in touch with this author. She wrote about this, but in India. It’s ten linked short stories, some of which are from the point of view of domestic workers, some from the employers.

Balli: I’d love to read that.

Zibby: I will think of it. I feel like the two of you should be in conversation somewhere. My brain is not working so well. It’ll come to me. Give it time to squirrel around. First of all, why did your family move around so much? How did you end up in Singapore? Tell me your family story a little bit.

Balli: My family is Singaporean. My dad was born in India, but he moved here when he was three, so very Singaporean. My mom was born here. My dad’s job for the Singapore government just required us to move quite a bit. It was sort of fortuitous that we ended up in the Philippines, and at quite an interesting time of conflict between two countries.

Zibby: Interesting. When you wrote from the point of view — there was one scene you had with Ma’am Elizabeth and Cora when she’s basically not asking Cora to do much of anything and is wanting her to just accompany her to places and bring her to the good hospital versus the hospital she’s supposed to use and all of that. There’s this moment where Cora’s like, listen, you think you’re being nice, but you’re actually putting me in this very awkward position. People are looking at me sideways. It’s making me feel uncomfortable in my own community. You’re not being nice. Just cut it out. Tell me about that moment. How did the domestic workers you spoke to feel about that? Did that come from somewhere? Did you make that up? I found that to be very powerful.

Balli: Most of what happens between Cora and Ma’am Elizabeth came from, firstly, my desire to showcase what it’s like to have a nice employer, a good employer. There’s another employer in the book who’s absolutely awful. We hear a lot of those stories here, unfortunately. With Ma’am Elizabeth, I wanted to show the other side of things, but also to show that the other side also comes with its complications and its complexities. A lot of domestic workers want boundaries. They want to draw a line between yourself and them. Even in the conversations that I had with women, even though I said, “Refer to me as Balli. We’re equals in this conversation. I’m not an employer,” they still just couldn’t really shake that. They still referred to me as “Miss.” They were still, in their interactions with me, very tentative in the beginning. When we warmed up and stuff, then we started talking to each other. It changed a little bit, but there was still this sense of, you have power here. You have power in this country. I do not. That said, though, they were very honest. I didn’t feel like they were holding back much when they started talking about what they’ve been through in Singapore.

Zibby: Did you have domestic workers yourself growing up or now?

Balli: Growing up, no, we didn’t have domestic workers. I should say I do have a nanny for my son. He’s turning six soon. Our nanny is going to leave us soon because he’s become more independent. That was something that I didn’t put directly into the book. I wanted to separate a little bit of my interactions with the things that happened in the imaginary world that I was creating. Some moments, things like the boundaries, things like wanting to kind of extend and say, “You can do this. You should sit at the dinner table with us,” for example, “You shouldn’t wait for us to eat and then eat your dinner. That’s absurd,” she got quite annoyed about. She was like, “No, this is what I’m going to do.” We decided to just let her set the boundaries and say, “Whatever it is that makes you comfortable, you decide on what those are. We’ll just leave it that way.” I felt a little bit like the Ma’am Elizabeth sometimes wanting to sort of overreach in my effort to not be like the other employer, like the Mrs. Fann that you hear about.

Zibby: Then even the interactions with the domestic workers and the men, which is highly charged as well — you have one employer boss man who was throwing ashtrays at Cora from back in the day. Even the advice, don’t look too nice or the wife will think that the dad’s going to be staring at you even if you’re alone in your room with the door closed or whatever, it’s a very tricky terrain to navigate and therefore makes the most interesting fiction.

Balli: It didn’t occur to me until I started writing this book, there are so many complications to — I guess it didn’t occur to me until we hired a nanny ourselves that there are just so many things to navigate and negotiate when you are employing someone, but they live with you. In Singapore, their identities are completely linked to yours. Her passport number is linked to my passport number. I had to deal with this thing of, I just had a child, who is completely dependent on me. I suddenly had this new person, this new little human being who is dependent on me. Eight months later when we decided to hire a domestic worker, I also had this woman in her thirties whose life was so intricately linked with mine, even just bureaucratically, officially. It’s a lot to navigate. You’re an employer in your own home, which is very strange.

Zibby: Interesting. I have to say — I’ve been debating whether I should even share this on this podcast. Growing up with my family, we had this wonderful housekeeper from the Philippines named Connie who came over when she was eighteen. She lived with us for a time and then got married. My kids were in her wedding. Literally was with us for twenty-five years and was a part of our family in so many ways. Then she was on her way to a bridal shower in the Times Square subway station. This woman who had just been released from Bellevue pushed her in front of the subway and killed her. Is that the most horrific thing?

Balli: Oh, my goodness.

Zibby: I know. Not to bring the mood of this podcast down. It was horrific. Then it turned out that woman got put into prison where she then killed herself. It was terrible. She was such a part of my world. She helped me so much when I was on bed rest, actually, to be honest, when I couldn’t do anything when I had twins. This is now almost sixteen years ago. She was so sweet and just the nicest, most wonderful person. That’s my sad story of the day.

Balli: I’m so sorry, Zibby.

Zibby: Thank you. That was maybe 2014 or something.

Balli: That’s quite recent.

Zibby: ’13, ’14, something like that. Anyway, moving on to writing. This book came after your last, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, which was a Reese’s Book Club pick. Then this came next. Had you written this prior to that being selected? Did you feel enormous pressure to write something? What was that like in the aftermath of that? How did that whole thing go down? How did you feel about all of that and then going back to regular writing? Tell me .

Balli: I’ll have to correct you there. There’s a book in between Erotic Stories and this one.

Zibby: Oh, I’m so sorry.

Balli: That’s okay. Erotic Stories came out in 2017. Two years later, my novel, The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters, came out. That was the second part of a two-book deal. Part of the reason we hired a nanny was because I couldn’t cope. I had a newborn, and I couldn’t cope with meeting this deadline. It’s been a couple years since that novel came out. The Reese’s Book Club pick was just massive for the novel. It was published in the UK first. There was a deal between the UK and the US, so it was always meant to be released in the US. Something about Reese Witherspoon holding it up and saying, “You guys should read this book,” really boosted it and really created this audience that then wanted to hear more and wanted to read more, which was just every writer’s dream. With the follow-up book, I got to have that. I did have the idea for this novel a long time ago. Like I said, that pivotal moment when I was a teenager made me think — even though I didn’t know then that I would write novels about anything, I did think, something special has happened here. Something that has opened up my world a little bit more has happened here, and I want to hold onto it. For years after that, I would come back to this idea of, I’d like to tell the stories of people who work in other people’s homes. The story of that epiphany, that realization, that someone who is cast as guilty in one place or by one group of people can be the innocent by another group, I’m thinking that, but it wasn’t formed yet.

I’m really glad that I didn’t push myself to write it as a follow-up to Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows because I think that it would’ve been under-researched, quite melodramatic. It would’ve followed the line of a lot of the narratives that are out there about domestic workers. There seemed to be only two. They’re real binary narratives. There’s either, they’re villainous. They’re here to take advantage of you. You have to watch them all the time. Or they are these noble women who sacrifice and are complete angels. The complexity and the nuance between those two things, the fact that — Donita, for example, her character, she is unapologetic about being quite sexy. She doesn’t fit into this angelic role of sacrificing everything. They have selfish moments. They have moments where they lose their temper or where they sometimes are dishonest. I wanted to put all of that in there to be like, it seems so simple, but the domestic workers are human beings. There’s a great deal of nuance. There’s a whole lot of spectrum when it comes to morality, depending on the circumstances that you’re in. What do you have to do to survive? It’s just not as simple as those two really black-and-white narratives of what we know about domestic workers. I’m quite relieved that it took a longer time to write this book.

Zibby: Not just a complication between people, but at least in this book — I don’t know if this is actually the case. You actually have to go somewhere and have them released from your employment. It’s like the DMV type of situation as if you need to register a new car. It’s ridiculous. I shouldn’t say ridiculous. It is the way it is.

Balli: It’s pretty ridiculous. Another narrative that we hear all the time here and that I see in a lot of the ads and messages that I get from the government here — there’ll be a campaign. Sometimes it looks really well-intended. I think it is. It’ll be like, make sure that your domestic helper is getting rest days. Make sure that you are looking out for her mental health. Things like that. Right after that, it’s like, because she’ll be able to work harder for you then. She’ll be able to do more for you. They’re really, really seen as these productivity machines. When we first hired our nanny, there was a time when I went to the supermarket one day, and I got into a conversation for some reason with someone in the checkout line who was wondering why I was buying a particular brand of a powdered drink. I said, “My helper likes this one.” He looked really confused that she had put something on the shopping list for me to get for her. Finally, he tried to justify it to himself. He went, “Well, if you get her the one that gives her more energy, then she’ll work harder for you.” It’s a thing she likes. Why not just do the thing for someone for the sake of doing it? It doesn’t all have to lead back to, this will then make me more productive. This will make our nation more productive.

Zibby: I also think with so much spotlight right now on privilege and differences and wealth and all of that, to have a narrative like this is really very important, especially now. The nuanced way in which you did do it was really wonderful. I don’t know how you feel about acknowledging privilege and all of that, but if you wanted to speak to that at all.

Balli: It’s interesting to see the reactions and way, as well, that the book is marketed in the US. I think there’s this perception, certainly in the US and in England and in most Western countries, you only really have help at home if you are quite privileged and you do have that wealth. Whereas in Asia, it’s quite different. The way that the systems are here are just different. There’s an economy of scale that makes it quite mutually beneficial for women to come from Indonesia and the Philippines and earn in Singapore dollars and then remit those earnings back. There’s also the fact that we don’t have the same sorts of structures that — how do I say this? We don’t have flexible working, for example. We don’t have it as much. Your boss is riding you to work all the time. You have to go back to work after a maternity leave. There’s an assumption that someone is there looking after the kids. There’s an assumption that someone is there making them meals. Because of that, because everyone’s got that, then it means that you can stay longer at the office. There are things like that. There’s a huge fear, as well, that people have of taking time off to be with their kids, like taking their kid to the doctor or something. All of that gets eliminated if you’ve got someone at home. You know how it is with kids. They get sick all the time.

Zibby: I have one in the next room.

Balli: I’m sure you do. There’s always the rotation. There’s always someone.

Zibby: Yes. You don’t even want to know.

Balli: For the people who are like, I won’t have a domestic worker, for whatever reason — I don’t have the space. I just don’t want my privacy intruded on like that, or anything like that. It ends up being the default way of getting on with your life and getting back on that treadmill because there are just not many options for pulling your kid out of school and then staying home with them and working from home. We just don’t have those sort of employment protections in the same way. I forgot what your original question was.

Zibby: That’s okay. Did the book come out in Singapore and/or the Philippines?

Balli: It has come out in Singapore. I’m not sure about the Philippines, actually. I think it would be exported to different countries in Asia. I’m not sure when it hits the shelves in the Philippines.

Zibby: How was the reception in Singapore?

Balli: It’s only been out for a month now.

Zibby: Still.

Balli: It’s been a good reception so far. The reviews that I’ve gotten in the national newspaper have been very positive, so that’s good. Singaporean readers, it’s interesting, there’s a difference, again. American and British readers or people that I’ve spoken to who are hosting podcasts and things like that have described it as so dystopian. Wow, the way you portray — it just feels so dystopian. It feels satirical. Then people in Singapore have gone, it feels really real. It feels very much like the world that we live in. I don’t know what that says. It doesn’t feel that satirical when you’re here, I don’t think.

Zibby: What are you working on now?

Balli: I am just working on having some rest. I do have the beginnings of some ideas about a novel, but it’s really early. I’m not sure how much I can say because I really don’t know if I’ll commit to it. I’m still writing.

Zibby: Sounds good. What are some of your favorite things to do when you’re not writing? What do you like to do on the weekends?

Balli: I take long walks. Again, I guess that feeds back to the writing. Something just clears my head. Something about movement just does something to my sense of creativity or my sense of groundedness. Then also, just hanging out with my kid. Going swimming because it’s so humid and hot in Singapore. Doing a lot of that. Very simple pleasures.

Zibby: No judgement. That sounds lovely. I walked a little bit this morning. Not a walk, maybe fifteen minutes or something. I’m like, wow, this is exercise to me now. This used to be my walk to the gym. Now this is exercise itself, but that’s fine. Balli, thank you so much. Thank you for coming on and talking about Now You See Us. I’m excited to follow along. I’m sorry again about missing that other book. I didn’t do enough research, but I was reading the book, so there you go.

Balli: It was really great to talk to you, Zibby. Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Thanks for coming on. Have a great day. Bye.

Balli Kaur Jaswal, NOW YOU SEE US: A Novel

NOW YOU SEE US: A Novel by Balli Kaur Jaswal

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