I realized that I’ve spent the past few weeks just letting the universe decide what I should read. Either it’s something somebody mentioned that sounded interesting, or an author went on The Daily Show and pimped her book, or a book that publisher sent me. I haven’t gone actively looking for a book in a while, and since the variety that the universe has sent my way has been REALLY interesting, I’m just going to keep on letting this happen for a few more weeks.
This book is about all of the things we talk about here: creating a space for women to talk about emotions and desires and sexual fulfillment, and in exploring that, finding confidence in other parts of their lives. It presents that examination through the lens of the Punjabi Sikh community in Southall, near London, and through the eyes of Nikki, a British-Punjabi woman in her early 20s, who is trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life.
The temple in Southall posts an advertisement looking for a writing teacher for women. What Kulwinder Kaur, the adminstrator, thought she was looking for was someone who could literally teach women how to read and write. What Nikki thought they were looking for was someone who could lead a writing workshop, with the idea of perhaps publishing a book of stories from the women. Her class is full of widows – some young, some old, but all women who, due to the deaths of their husbands, have largely been assigned a role of perpetual mourning.
She accidentally brings in a book of erotic stories, which prompts the women to begin telling their own erotic stories and actually discussing their ideas of sexual desire and pleasure and what that means to them.
There are a number of other through lines: Kulwinder’s relationship with her husband and the story of the death of her daughter, the personal stories of the women in Nikki’s class, Nikki’s own relationship with her mother and her sister and her culture, Nikki’s romance with a man in the community, and the young men in Southall who have taken to policing women who they feel don’t adhere to Sikh religious customs enough.
I felt like this book had a bit of a slow start, but once the erotic story plot kicks into gear, all of the other subplots start moving and then the momentum builds until I could NOT put it down. I loved the way Jaswal wove the erotic stories into the narrative, and she’s got a talent for dropping hints of threads that’ll be picked up later.
One of the scenes I liked the best was when the class was just beginning their discussion of erotica and what they liked. They were speaking in Punjabi, and Nikki notes that they’ve used a whole produce section to describe a penis. The women all admit that they don’t know the Punjabi words for anatomy: no one thought it was necessary for them to know what anything was called. There are a number of times where Nikki and other British-born Punjabi women are talking in Punjabi but use English for words they don’t know in Punjabi, or one person is speaking English while the other is speaking Punjabi. I am given to understand that this is incredibly common in immigrant communities and families with multiple languages (Jane the Virgin is another example). The narrative indicates whether a conversation is in Punjabi or English, or a mix, and it was a nice detail that added to the texture of the whole book.
I don’t know very much about the Punjabi culture, or the Sikh religion (other than Sikh temples serving as places of refuge after terrorist attacks), and I feel like this was written in a way that keeps in mind that the reader may need some explanatory commas. I didn’t feel lost or confused, and I learned a few things, as well. I didn’t realize that “Singh” and “Kaur” are names that all Sikhs have as a surname or middle name, for example.
We talk so much here and elsewhere online and off about the importance of being able to express our desires, and that starts with being able to express our desires to ourselves. Acknowledging what we want and what we need doesn’t begin or end with sexuality, either. Stating desires becomes a habit, and figuring out what we want in one part of our lives helps in figuring out (and asking for, and expecting) what we want in other parts of our lives.
I’ve been really interested in books about immigrant communities and the tension between first and second generation people and how things are resolved between them. I liked the exploration of that tension in both Nikki’s relationship with her mother and sister, and the widows’ relationships among themselves. Plus there’s the whole concept that older women still feel sexual desire. That was the part I enjoyed the best, that these women still have this inner spark, even when their culture is telling them that they should not. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is not a romance first and foremost, though there is a romance plot among the many others. It is, however, a story about women’s self understanding, and turning against the definition and enforcement of their sexuality to discover it for themselves.
This book is available from:
Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal
June 13, 2017
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