Singaporean author Balli Kaur Jaswal’s fifth novel, Now You See Us, opens a window into the inner worlds of three women from the Philippines working as domestic helpers in Singapore. Corazon, Angel and Donita are wildly different in every conceivable way, but fall into a natural friendship bound by their circumstances and the one unifying factor they can never shake off—their immovable position on the bottom rung of Singapore’s hierarchical society. As the three women work, love and fight through a thrilling tale of desperation, fear, courage and hope, Kaur Jaswal invites an overdue conversation about why the humanity of migrant workers often goes unseen.
Some of your past work has stemmed from your own lived experiences. Where did the idea for this book come from?
I lived in the Philippines from the age of 15 to 18, in the mid to late 1990s. It was a crucial time in the diplomatic relations between Singapore and the Philippines because a Filipina woman named Flor Contemplacion had been convicted and executed for murdering two individuals in Singapore, where she had been working as a domestic worker. The perspectives I heard about the case in the Philippines were so different from the ones I saw in Singapore. It made me realise that there are many angles through which you could look at something. With this book, I wanted to put a case like that in a context where there were opportunities to spread information about things that happened around us—like the world of social media that we live in today.
The book lays out the daily lives of your protagonists in rich detail. What sort of research or experience contributed to the world-building you were able to do?
I first became familiar with some of the cultural identity domestic workers share when I was living in the Philippines. I got to see the other side of things: the recruiting agents in their home country, the big banners in the provinces. It’s all couched in this ‘serve your nation, send home money’ sort of rhetoric. You know almost instinctively that these agents are promising the moon but these women are going to be in debt. In my research for the book, I read many first-person accounts by domestic workers— there’s a great anthology by HOME (Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics) which compiles essays and stories written by domestic workers in Singapore. I also spoke to a number of workers here to learn about their experiences.
What was one key thing that you learnt from your conversations?
One common idea that came up was that of the ‘initiation’ you face when you first get to Singapore as a domestic worker, where you have difficult employers who don’t pay you very much and agents who screw you over. There seems to be very little guidance on how to get out of these situations. I’ve also met some women who have been here a while, and they’ll say: ‘I’ve earned my place on the totem pole. Now I’m with an employer who gives me one day off a week, as opposed to my previous one who never gave me any time off.’ I think it’s deeply unfair that being treated poorly when they first arrive is something that they have learnt to expect.
What do you hope readers take away from Now You See Us?
I think that depends on where they are reading from. I’ve always struggled to explain this part of our culture to people in the Western world. But for Singaporean readers, I hope this book adds another narrative to the same few narratives we have been fed about domestic workers. A lot of the official language around domestic workers diminishes their individuality as human beings. I see things in the vein of ‘take care of your domestic worker’s mental health so she can work harder’. Through this book, I’d like to reject the binary where domestic workers are either saints who are sacrificing everything, or they are scheming to take advantage of you. Both these narratives are incomplete. I wanted to infuse this book with the individuality of these women and highlight the broad spectrum of human characteristics that exist within them—giving them personalities and joys and struggles that go beyond their roles as domestic workers.