Occasionally you are fortunate enough to stumble upon a book that transports you to a world beyond what your dreams could conceive of and glues you to a couch until you finish it. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal is one of those kinds of books.
Erotic Stories is not, as the title might suggest, a number of short stories intended only for Punjabi widows to read. It is instead a novel about Nikki, a young Indian first-generation immigrant from London who agrees to teach a creative writing class in Southall, the predominantly Punjabi community in London, and quickly discovers that her students, a number of Punjabi widows of various ages, are more interested in sharing erotic stories they’ve come up with than learning how to write in English. We follow Nikki’s journey as a lost law school dropout raised outside of Southall who explores her identity as a woman, first-generation immigrant, activist, writer, teacher and community organizer through her experience teaching the widows, and who gets closer to herself with each word shared.
Those who pick up this book because of its intriguing title will not be disappointed. The book is, indeed, full of luscious and evocative erotic stories told by hilarious, earnest and inspiring Punjabi widows—stories that reveal the inner nature of various characters and allow them to explore their vulnerability and desires. Jaswal’s choice of erotica as the storytelling genre for these women makes their journeys to embracing their identity and sexuality that much more empowering. Erotica also enables the storytellers to develop their artistic craft as they wrestled with the best ways to describe the act of making love in a way that paralleled the beauty inherent in it.
In a time when debates over refugee and immigration policies engulf the world, narratives surrounding the experiences of immigrants abound. Jaswal takes advantage of this perilous time in contemporary society to craft a unique tale on the immigrant experience, contrasting the experiences of the widows as they confront the differences and similarities between their home country of India and their predominantly immigrant community in Southall and exploring Nikki’s experience as a first-generation immigrant who feels isolated from that very community. Ms. Jaswal also grapples with the contradictions inherent in the immigrant identity: Nikki views the predominantly Sikh community of Southall as “backwards” at the same time that she must accept her sister’s decision to seek the traditional Sikh custom of arranged marriage. Throughout the novel, Jaswal explores the tension between home and country of origin, individual and community and conservative and modern ideologies using vivid metaphors and playful dialogue, and identifying when her characters switch between English and Punjabi.
At its heart, this novel is about how these women become empowered by celebrating their desires, becoming vulnerable with each other and supporting each others’ passions. The widows’ embrace of feminism through collaboration and mutual support enables them to see the beauty and strength within themselves and their community.
Jaswal does not paint Southall as an immigrant community that openly embraces gender equality and diversity. In fact, the main adversary of the novel is the Brotherhood, an organization comprised of Sikh men in Southall who harass women who they perceive as being too “modern” and challenging the status quo. But by painting this immigrant community as one constantly battling over its identity, the widows’ struggle for self-affirmation and dignity as immigrant women is even more triumphant.
“People see us and assume that we’re just filling our empty evenings with gossip,” one character says in the book, “but how much of that can one do? It’s far more fun to discuss the things we miss.” Another responds dryly: “Or what we were never given in the first place.”
Struggling to find a home is an experience all readers, regardless of immigrant status or national origin, can understand. Jaswal uses it to build empathy and understanding for a community—in fiction and in our physical world—that too often is rendered invisible or brought to life only through stereotypes. We develop empathy and understanding as readers—for the widows, the Southall community and the unique experiences each woman carries.
Part mystery, part romance and part comedy, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows captures the complexity of an immigrant experience—and the empowerment one can find in celebrating their own identity.