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“Ponti,” the debut novel by Sharlene Teo, brings us into the world of Szu, Circe and Amisa.
The novel opens from the perspective of Szu, 16, who feels alone in the world and finds herself in the shadow of her “cruel” mother, Amisa, an actress from a trilogy of low-budget cult horror films about Pontianak, the evil and beautiful cannibal from the Malay myth by the same name. When Szu meets Circe, their intense friendship gives her an escape from her solitude and her mother’s distance.
“Ponti,” set in Singapore — Teo’s hometown — goes on to span 50 years and rotate among the perspectives of all three women.
The book, which is November’s Lily Lit Club pick, is not a classic tale of redemption and friendship among women. Instead, it interrogates our expectations of women and the less desirable parts of our instincts as humans.
Teo chatted with The Lily from her London home about this, the difference between teenagers and adults, and what’s next for her.
The Lily: The teenage angst from Szu and Circe is so real throughout the book. How did you tap into that feeling?
Sharlene Teo: I think that we are not that far from our teenage selves, even though we think we are. By the time you hit the age of 16, you have formed an identity and a kind of self. It’s a lot softer and more vulnerable than our adult selves. We are most honest and naked in our intentions at that time. Inside adults, some of that is still there. We are not that different as the decades pass as we think we are. That’s just what capitalism wants us to think with all these things to do with a generational age bracket and what is suitable for who.
It was just about tapping into a more intensified emotion that we still feel as adults but are just afraid to admit.
Obviously, we mature, but in terms of vulnerability, desire to please, competitiveness — these are things we carry throughout life.
Teenagers don’t have the life experience we gain over time, but they do have those traits and instincts. Adults learn to bury them through that life experience.
TL: When did you first encounter the Malay myth, Pontianak? How did it eventually inspire this novel?
ST: I grew up with that myth. It’s very much tied to my childhood and Singapore and that kind of classic sleepover mythology for me. The Pontianak myth is so deeply part of a Singaporean childhood and I have always been incredibly fascinated with her. In a way, someone like this is more terrifying than just a monster from the ness. It’s the kind of figure that really unsettles people.
I always found that this figure of a young woman — being a menace, being very subversive — forces a reconsideration of our mythical ideas of beauty.
But Pontianak is a subversion of that. She is beautiful but also very, very evil. There isn’t really space in most mythology for that kind of complexity. It draws together a lot of my fascinations: the idea of how a woman should and shouldn’t behave, female agency and the encouragement of domestic space.
TL: What did you want to say about the traditional expectations of women in “Ponti”?
ST: I wanted to really explore and interrogate a particular kind of expectation of women, mainly what defines our expectations of Singaporean womanhood.
I wanted to explore thse specificity of this but also to depict their stories in a way that reminded people that no matter where they are from, there are some parts of growing up female and being a woman that are universal. We are not totally bound by our cultural specificities. There are some things all women growing up in the late ’80s can understand in this book.
TL: Throughout the novel, we see a lot of terms and words that we usually don’t hear from young girls in literature: “Even the gruesome, echoey plop of a turd hitting the toilet would be demystifying,” says Circe. “I don't know how to fix the awkwardness that wafts over the table like a fart,” she says at another point. Why is it important that we hear girls and women talk candidly like this?
ST: Particularly female writers, I think, are feeling a lot more comfortable including bodily discomfort in their writing and that, to me, is trying to put into words the totality of a character’s experience. On a character level, describing the kind of nitty gritty, the things that aren’t commonly touched upon in fiction — I thought maybe it would turn people off — but to me it was an attempt to be evocative and descriptive. I want to be as vivid as possible, as clear as possible, and one way to do that is through sensory description.
TL: Your descriptions of Singapore are vivid, especially the stifling heat. Why was it important that this novel take place there?
ST: I lived in Singapore until I was 19. It’s the most formative place in my life. It’s where I developed a lot of my aesthetic influences.
It is so ingrained in me but it is so geographically distant from me right now. It’s almost a kind of estrangement that comes with being away for so long. It really activates my imagination. I never really feel too far from it this way. I feel very emotionally attached to this writing because it’s an act of trying to stay connected.
Other than that very personal connection though, I just felt like I wanted to write the kind of novel I wanted to read. I haven’t read a book about Singaporean girlhood and tapeworms and cult horror budget movies and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
TL: We don’t really see the characters experience classic moments of redemption throughout the book. Why did you want to take that route?
ST: Because that’s what life is like. Life isn’t always about the happy or the emotional reconciliation.
Life doesn’t always work out like that. I am very interested in the idea of what is unresolved and unsaid — the idea of all the “what-ifs” and what that means for yourself and for other people affected by that.
TL: There are many references to Asian cinematic culture throughout the novel. Why was this an important aspect for you to include?
ST: Kind of around the ’70s and all throughout the early ’90s there just weren’t very many films made in Singapore. Hollywood films were popular, Bollywood films were popular, so there was not much demand. So there was this lull of locally made films. That’s why I thought it would be such a perfect setting for this fictitious project that tried to make it but never really did.
And I have always found the idea of a failed project really, really touching. Everyone cares about Princess Leia and the Bond girls but no one cares about Pontianak. Maybe this was made but we never found out about it.
TL: What are some of your favorite cult-horror films?
TL: You received the Deborah Rogers award before you even finished the manuscript for “Ponti.” What was that like?
ST: The day that I won it, Ian McEwan announced it and I was like “Oh my God.” I was gobsmacked and I remember entering it and just being really demoralized. Being demoralized is really just my default mode. I’m much more of an Eeyore than a Tigger, I’ll just put it that way. I applied to this award with the attitude being very, very “I won’t get it anyway.” But it was just one of those very impressive-looking websites and free to enter so I put together a synopsis of what I had so far.
I don’t want to sound falsely modest but I really still can’t believe it. It really, really put everything into motion and I could not be more grateful, truly.
It goes to show that you really never know when things will work out. It’s so important to not intuitively limit yourself. But yeah, it was incredible.
TL: What’s next for you?
ST: I am working on my second novel and it’s going to be really challenging and difficult and I am quite excited about it. I won’t tell you what it’s about because I’m a bit superstitious about that but the working title is “Escape from Sad City” and I’ll say it will be done some time in the next two to 50 years. [Laughs]