In Balli Kaur Jaswal’s debut novel, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, a creative writing teacher gets more than she bargained for when her class of Sikh widows brings erotic stories to class. When Nikki realizes that her students have plenty of their own fantasies, memories, and desires to share, the syllabus takes a sharp turn and the classroom becomes a safe space for women to bond. Here, Jaswal shares some of her favorite novels that explore the power of female friendship.
Some of my favorite books feature communities of women coming together to create change. Stories set decades ago about the experiences of women of color have renewed urgency and relevance in this era. There are hopeful tales about young women learning about friendship and understanding the power of sisterhood. And what’s more satisfying than a revenge plot about three women joining forces to take their cheating ex-husbands to the cleaners?
Ten women from different generations gather for an afternoon of tea and gossip in Tehran. The conversation quickly turns to love and sex. In Marjane Satrapi’s follow-up to her acclaimed graphic memoir, Persepolis, we are drawn into the stories of her aunts, mothers, friends, and neighbors. This is an insightful account of women unburdening themselves of difficult pasts and discussing their sexuality with unexpected frankness in a conservative society.
You don’t need to have attended a women’s college to identify with the characters in Commencement, but this book certainly brought me right back to those late night dorm room chats. Four students at Smith College develop a close friendship, which sees them through the ups and downs of early adulthood. We follow them into the rocky post-graduation years where they struggle with the challenges of clinging to feminist ideals while navigating relationships, sex, and fraught family ties.
This is one of the first novels to explore the Asian-American experience. In San Francisco, four Chinese mothers form a mahjong group, which becomes a space where they can tell stories of their pasts and preserve their cultural roots. Narrated in interlinking stories that resemble the structure of a mahjong game, the novel’s most tender and difficult moments are witnessed in the strained relationships between the mothers and their American-born daughters.
Written as a series of emails between four close friends in Saudi Arabia, this book gives readers insight into their hidden lives and personal struggles. The women are modern upper-class Saudis who have travelled all over the world but must conduct themselves according to strict Islamic laws when they’re home in Riyadh. This bold and subversive novel is about friendship, love, and the difficulties of reconciling modernity and tradition.
Most readers would be familiar with the film of the same name starring Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn, and Bette Midler, but the novel delivers a more complex portrait of these characters and their realities. Discarded for younger women after years of supporting their husbands’ careers and reeling from a mutual friend’s suicide, three women collaborate to plan their revenge. This is the empowering story that we don’t often hear about the aftermath of mid-life crisis divorces and first wives deciding that enough is enough.
Meera Syal dedicated this novel to her East London kuriyaan (girls) although it is decidedly a novel about any woman who feels pulled in different directions by multiple identities. Chila, Sunita, and Tania are childhood friends juggling their roles as wives, mothers, and lovers in London. When Tania makes a documentary starring her best friends, old secrets and betrayals surface to test their friendship. Actress Syal balances the heavier subjects in this novel with a comic touch that would be familiar to fans of her hilarious characters in the 1990’s British television series, Goodness Gracious Me.
Set in Mississippi in 1962, two black maids working in white households team up with an aspiring writer—also a misfit for pursuing a career while other girls are looking for husbands—to write a book about their experiences. This is a story told from multiple perspectives, which provide insight into the lives of women on the margins. It’s also a page-turner about people who have been historically silenced finding their voices and calling on the world to pay attention.
Balli Kaur Jaswal was born in Singapore and grew up in Japan, Russia, and the Philippines. She studied creative writing at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, and was the National Writer-in-Residence at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, where she taught creative writing while working on Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows. She lives in Singapore.