REVIEW: Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows: A Novel
Author: Balli Kaur Jaswal
Published by William Morrow on June 13, 2017
Hardcover, 304 pages
Genres: Contemporary/Feminism/Social Issues/Fiction

First Impression:
The cover is gorgeous and the title is attention grabbing. My first impression of the book was that the title was ironic: there’s no way Punjabi widows would need true erotic stories, right?

My Review:
Nikki Kaur, a directionless law school dropout, agrees to post a want ad for her sister on the marriage board at the Sikh temple in Southall, London. It’s there that a small flyer catches her eye: a women’s only writing class needs a teacher. She needs the money.  The class is comprised mostly of Punjabi widows, most of whom are illiterate and very lonely. They are marginalized and invisible in their society. Nikki came from a modern and privileged Sikh family, and didn’t make a very favorable first impression:

“She doesn’t like it because she’s just like everybody else”, Arvinder said. “All these people who say ‘Take no notice of the widows, without their husbands they’re irrelevant’”.

As the class soon shifts from a literacy class into an erotic storytelling group, Nikki struggles to find her place in the community. She’s not only lost in her career, she’s lost in her identity in her family, as a feminist, a Punjab, and as a Sikh.

Ballin Kaur Jaswals’ Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows doesn’t neatly sit within a specific genre. While it is solidly in contemporary fiction, and I would suspect that it would get shelved under “chick lit” since the book is very much about women and women’s issues, it also delves into feminism, cultural issues, and even has a splash of mystery. Despite it’s title, it is not a romance at all. Rather, it is a story about the self-discovery and empowerment of a community of women.

The plot and character development were used as tools to address various social issues, such as finding one’s sexuality, domestic violence, honor killings, and the discordance between those in immigrant communities who are more conservative and those who want to incorporate modernity into their lifestyles. As the story unfolded, I was most drawn to the relationships that developed between the different women and the friction that occurred within the multicultural groups. I was glad that Nikki’s role wasn’t to guide these women away from their “repressive” roots. Instead, both Nikki and the women found their place in the community.

Jaswal used language to cleverly convey her story. She masterfully captured bilingual characters using both English and Punjabi to describe what was happening throughout the story. I was impressed with how Jaswal was able to weave in explanations of the Sikh religion without a) assuming that her audience was already familiar and b) without insulting the intelligence of the reader. This is an incredibly difficult balance to pull off and she did it beautifully.

While I thought that Erotic Stories was a compelling book, I never settled into the story for it’s own sake. I enjoyed reading it, but the plot was thin and existed to foster discussion and thought. It’s not a book that stands on it’s own without the discussion of multicultural group dynamics; it’s not meant to be read for the story alone. Jaswal’s focus was to break down heavy cultural topics in a light-hearted and easy-to-read story, rather than discussing the nuances of policy and theory, and quite frankly she did an excellent job.

Everyone has a story that they want to tell; everyone has a story that is worth listening to. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is a book about creating a space for those stories to be heard. Jaswal addressed feminism in a unique and compelling way through this tale. She allowed her Punjabi widows to be free to tell whatever story they wished.

Recommended for: Bookclubs, those who like to tackle social issues though fiction, and those who have in interest in feminism in multi-cultural and immigrant communities.

Grade: B+