MS Sharlene Teo has written one of my favourite books not just for the year but for my long list of books that I have read. I was supposed to meet her face-to-face but unfortunately, I could not make the date that she was in town. I reviewed Ponti in Today’s Manager Issue 1 2019 and I am so excited about the next project that she is working on.
IMAGE: PAN MACMILLAN
is set in Singapore and is a character-driven book told from the perspectives of about three women—Amisa, Szu, and Circe between the period of the 1970s to 2020. Ponti
is also the title of a late 1970s series of cult horror movies in which the once beautiful Amisa portrayed the ghost. Szu is Amisa’s daughter while Szu and Circe were schoolmates.
Ms Teo is as honest and witty in her book as she is in the interview. I always appreciate that in an author, in fact in anyone.
Sadie-Jane Nunis (SJN): What made you write decide Ponti and how long did the process take?
Sharlene Teo (ST): Two years in full, four years including the first false start. I dreamt of a woman coming out of a Banyan tree and that kicked off the story in my head.
SJN: Who are your inspirations?
ST: David Lynch, Wong Kar Wai, Helen Oyeyemi, Carson McCullers, and Shirley Jackson to name a few.
SJN: How did you get the publisher deal and did you ever try to pitch to local publishers? Why or why not?
ST: Through my agent, who handles all such publishing arrangements. I grew up reading local literature, particularly volumes of poetry from publishers such as Ethos Books and Firstfruits—I'm excited and inspired by all the new titles coming out.
SJN: With Ponti, I applaud you for creating ‘loser’ female characters who in fact, grow on you. How did you decide on these three female characters?
ST: I started with Amisa and Szu, and Circe grew organically from there.
SJN: How did you react when Ian McEwan gave you such high praise for your book?
ST: I was shocked.
SJN: You have two camps in terms of fans (according to Goodreads)—those who loved the openness and flow of the book and those who felt that the book needed a tighter plot. What is your take?
ST: I think Ponti is entirely driven by emotion, so I get criticisms it is not necessarily the most action-heavy narrative, because I am usually drawn to emotionally-driven novels myself. I like the challenge of trying to be a better writer and being more versatile, so yes, I am actually trying to improve in plotting!
IMAGE: BARNEY POOLE
Singaporean writer, Ms Sharlene Teo's (pictured left) debut book Ponti receives rave reviews. SJN: Did you ever think it would win you awards, etc and how did you deal with the sudden fame?
ST: Spent most of my time writing the draft in a state of despair, I thought it would go nowhere and never be published—that kind of lack of abandon is quite good for creativity, though. As for sudden fame, I am not famous lah.
SJN: I enjoyed the chapters that featured the schooldays, you actually took me back to my own schooldays as your descriptions were spot-on. What I appreciated the most is that reading those chapters, in fact, the book, no stereotypical females are in (THANK YOU!). Was this intentionally done and why?
ST: Yes! I am so glad you enjoyed that aspect, haha. I wanted to challenge stereotypical or one-note perceptions of Asian womanhood as docile and subservient and there in service to the dominant male characters. Singaporean women are complex, contradictory, spiky, bitchy, funny, cool, sexy, vitriolic—we need to see more of them in literary fiction. I'm also aware Ponti is aligned toward the Singaporean-Chinese perspective—let's not forget the limitations and potential of that, we're a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual country with such a dynamic and on-going socio-cultural history. There's so much to explore, and I'm excited for the multi-lingual development of SingLit.
SJN: I loved the wit in the book. Is this your natural writing style or did you decide from the start that you are going to take this route?
ST: I think I am naturally a sarcastic little sh*t (am I allowed to say that?).
SJN: If you had stayed in Singapore and not moved to UK, do you think you would have written Ponti in the same way? How did you deal with your cultural changes?
ST: Granted that the environment, cultural contexts, privilege, and access to education affects how one writes—I deal with cultural changes by listening and learning, one step at a time. Trying not to pander. Being attentive to what's going on, checking my own blindspots and biases.
SJN: How do you think your readers deal with the cultural differences?
ST: Non-Singaporean readers have been receptive to the very Singaporean things in the novel, and some Singaporean readers have told me they like how the book doesn't try to overexplain anything.
SJN: What’s your next project? Any hints?
ST: It's a novel with its heart in Singapore, its feet somewhere else, and its head somewhere incredibly dangerous and risky.