“Dainty, subservient; Singaporean women aren’t like that”: Rosie Milne talks to Sharlene Teo

Sharlene Teo (photo: Barney Poole) Sharlene Teo (photo: Barney Poole)

London-based Singaporean Sharlene Teo is currently finishing a PhD at one of the UK’s premier centres for the teaching of creative writing, the University of East Anglia (UEA). Part of her studies focuses on criticism and theory, and her work in this area concerns the representation of Singaporean and Malaysian women in fiction. But her course also requires participants to write a novel, and presumably she has already passed this unit with flying colors, as the novel she wrote to satisfy it, Ponti has already been read way beyond the confines of the UEA faculty office.

Deborah Rogers was a literary agent who often supported new writers. She died in 2014, when a £10,000 prize was founded in her name, to lend financial assistance to first-time writers to help them to finish their books.

In 2016, Teo won the inaugural Deborah Rogers Writers’ Award for the first 25,000 words of Ponti. Ian McEwan, who played a significant part in the development of the creative writing courses at UEA, was one of Rogers’s clients, and he presented Teo with her prize. He commented at the time:

 

Ponti is a remarkable first novel in the making. With brilliant descriptive power and human warmth, Sharlene Teo summons the darker currents of modernity—environmental degradation, the suffocating allure of the sparkling modern city and its cataracts of commodities and corrupted language. Against this, her characters glow with life and humour and minutely observed desperation.

 

Ponti, Sharlene Teo (Picador, April 2018; Simon & Schuster, September 2018)
Ponti, Sharlene Teo (Picador, April 2018; Simon & Schuster, September 2018)

Ponti has now been published by Picador in the UK, and it will be published in the USA in September, by Simon & Schuster. The novel is set in Singapore, and it concerns the effects down the years of the short-lived but intense friendship between two sixteen-year-old girls, Szu and Circe, and of the death of Szu’s mother, Amisa. In her youth Amisa starred as the Pontianak in a trio of hammy local horror films, but by the time of her death, from quickly-devouring cancer, she is working as a hack medium and living in a decaying house.

I caught up with Teo as she paid a flying visit to Singapore, on her way back to the UK from the Sydney Writers Festival, where she’d been discussing Ponti, and women’s bodies and horror. Ponti is notable for the power of its evocative descriptions of Singapore. When I congratulated Teo on her achievement here she stressed that she was most interested in the emotional topography of her characters, not the touristic representation of Singapore.

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When I read Ponti, I found the name of one the protagonists, Circe, distracting: I kept wondering why Circe was called Circe.

 

Both Circe and Szu are hard to say. I chose them both because of that difficulty. I thought Szu would fox non-Singaporean readers, and, for everybody, I thought wondering about how to pronounce their names would help both Szu and Circe live on the page. If readers find the characters’ names hard to say, then it prods each reader to form his or her own idea of the character.

 

So, there are perhaps not too many links between Ponti’s Circe, and witchcraft. But a Pontianak is a kind of Asian witch; what had so drawn you to write about an uncanny female?

 

The myth of the Pontianak is a radical, subversive one. It expresses social and cultural anxieties about femininity. The Pontianak was originally conceived as a woman who died in childbirth, now transformed into a ghastly femme fatale. Her monstrous, predatory femininity is used as a warning off strategy, to dissuade men from straying. I wanted to explore all the anxieties rolled up in that. Also, a woman who died in childbirth was once regarded as a woman who’d failed. I wanted to explore that idea, and ideas about thwarted maternity.

 

Since the critical component of your PhD concerns the representation of Singaporean and Malaysian women in fiction, it sounds as if there was considerable overlap between the critical and creative components of her degree in the person of the Pontianak.

Dainty, subservient. Singaporean women aren’t like that. None of my characters are like that.

Yes. Women’s bodies in horror movies are always sexual objects and women are always the victims. Women are expected to be desirable at all times but are punished for desiring. The Pontianak challenges all that.

 

It’s not just horror movies which stereotype women, particularly Asian women. In novels, Asian women are often presented as little more than projections of Western males’ fantasies.

 

I wanted to challenge standard stereotypes and tropes of Asian women in fiction—pretty little delicate things with no opinions. Dainty, subservient. Singaporean women aren’t like that. None of my characters are like that. They are messy, temperamental, unbroody. My characters are opposites of fictional stereotypes.

 

What of the stereotype of the Asian woman as a beauty? Neither Szu nor Circe are particularly beautiful, but Amisa is. How are you challenging stereotypes with Amisa?

 

I wanted to explore the ageing Asian female body. I wanted to think about the way we look at women, the difference between having your face on a screen, and truly being seen. Amisa wants to be truly seen. For Amisa, Iskander, who casts her as the Pontianak in the Ponti movies, holds out the promise of perceiving her innate qualities. He sees more than her face and body. In so much fiction, Asian women are nothing more than faces and bodies.

 

Amisa dies when Szu is 16, when the relationship between them is suffering all the stresses and strains usual between a daughter just coming into herself and her sexuality, and a mother whose power is fading. Her death is rapid, and it offers no redemption; there is no final chance for Szu to reconcile with her mother. It must have been draining to write a death leaving so many loose ends in characters’ lives.

 

I wanted to explore grieving when everything is unresolved. We take so many relationships for granted, we assume we’ll be given time to sort things out, but what if we’re not? What if when someone dies we have ambivalent feelings about them? What if we don’t understand. I wanted to have Szu confronting life and woman-to-woman relationships when everything was unresolved.

 

Ponti is not grim. There is plenty of humor, not just in the descriptions of the Ponti movies, but also when Circe, who is herself living with problematic, unresolved feelings to do with how she acted at the time of Amisa’s death, realises she’s playing host to a tapeworm. Why a tapeworm, and not some other affliction?

 

A tapeworm is a horror-movie kind of creature. It summons ideas of guilt, shame, and festering. I wanted to suggest Circe was being eaten up from the inside, by guilt for her actions in the past. I also thought it was funny.


Rosie Milne runs Asian Books Blog twitter@asianbooksblog. She lives in Singapore.