Radio play with ‘ludicrous accents’ being re-recorded following online protests

Radio play with ‘ludicrous accents’ being re-recorded following online protests
After criticism online, excerpts from Balli Kaur Jaswal's book Sugarbread, which features Singaporean Indian characters, will be re-recorded. The author herself was unhappy with the work, which aired last month and was posted on Soundcloud. Photo: Balli Kaur Jaswal
Actors playing Singaporean Indian characters from a book by Balli Kaur Jaswal were directed to amp up their ethnic accents
Published: 2:50 PM, March 22, 2017
Updated: 4:01 PM, March 22, 2017

SINGAPORE — Local independent publisher Epigram Books will re-record an excerpt from Balli Kaur Jaswal’s acclaimed work of fiction, Sugarbread, after an audio recording raised the ire of leading members of the arts community online.

Singapore’s first Youth Poet Ambassador and Young Artist Award Recipient 2016, Pooja Nansi, posted about the reading on Facebook Tuesday evening (March 21), questioning the “ludicrous accents” of the voice actors, who play Singaporean Indian characters. One glaring example is the voice actor playing the protagonist’s mother, speaking in an accent that could be a far-fetched imitation of someone from Chennai, the capital of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, but the character is Singaporean Punjabi.

“The lack of sensitivity with which this recording was done does a monumental disservice to Balli Kaur Jaswal’s work. Everything her narrative ... brings to light, this recording erases and reduces,” Nansi wrote in her post, which also likened the accents depicted as being akin to Apu from The Simpsons. Her post has received 89 reactions and 21 shares.

The recording, aired late last month on 938 Live, can also be heard on Soundcloud. It focuses on an excerpt of Sugarbread, a story about Pin, a 10-year-old girl from a Punjabi-Sikh family in Singapore who embarks on a search of answers about her mother, her family, and her own place in society. One theme in Sugarbread is racism in Singapore, and Jaswal has been praised for dealing with the topic elegantly.

The reading of Sugarbread, a 2015 Epigram Books Fiction Prize finalist, was produced and organised by Epigram Books as part of the #BuySinglit campaign which took place last month (Feb).

Nansi’s post has drawn comments from individuals such as renowned women’s rights activist, Constance Singam, Young Artist Award recipient Marc Nair, as well as the author herself who expressed her embarrassment of the radio adaptation.

“I have made no effort to publicise this radio play on my Facebook page and have untagged myself from everything related to it,” Jaswal wrote in a reply to Nansi’s post.

“Although I’m still thinking of ways to bring up this problem in a meaningful dialogue, I’m quite tired of being placated or dismissed, not the first time I have brought up issues of representation/authenticity with the publisher,” she wrote.

Winston Tay, marketing manager from Epigram Books came forward and took responsibility for the way the recorded reading turned out, apologising to all parties concerned in a comment on Facebook. He told TODAY that he is working on a re-recording of the reading of the Sugarbread excerpt.

Tay explained that during the recording session, he asked actors - who are Singaporean - to amp up the ethnic accents. Jaswal was not there to direct as she had scheduling conflicts, he said.

“The sample recording was sent to her,” he said, adding that she did provide feedback on her dissatisfaction with the accents.

“I took that feedback but I did tell her we had run out of money and time for re-recording,” he said.

Tay declined to share the name of the acting company he hired for the voice actors. He has reached out to Jaswal directly, and said that he takes the situation seriously.

Addressing race and the assumptions even in Singapore of Singaporean Indians, Tay said: “Majority privilege is a serious issue and that’s why Sugarbread exists, and that’s why Balli Kaur is writing.”

Film-maker Kirsten Tan, director of Pop Aye, Singapore’s first winning entry at the Sundance Film Festival, commented on Nansi’s post, saying: “I think what is disturbing to me is that a fairly progressive member of the arts community directed (the recording), with probably good intentions — shows us that we really have a long way to go.”