It’s 2020 in Singapore and Circe, a recently divorced thirty-something, finds herself drinking at trendy Chinatown bars and obsessing over her mysterious tapeworm. A reluctant “social media consultant,” she feels old and invisible at her PR firm. When her boss announces their next project—a remake of the 1970s cult horror trilogy, Ponti!—Circe is unsettled, though not by the man-eating vampire of Malay legend, but by memories that flood back from her adolescence. She remembers her friend Szu from high-school, lonely and alienated from their peers, and Szu’s mother Amisa, the star of the original Ponti! series. Braiding the perspectives of the three women, Sharlene Teo’s debut novel examines the wonders and anxieties of adolescence, the bonds that haunt us into adulthood, and the flaws we never manage to shake off.
Born and raised in Singapore, Teo recently completed a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of East Anglia. She is the winner of several awards and fellowships, including the Booker Prize Foundation Fellowship and the Deborah Rogers Writers’ Award for Ponti. She is currently based in London.
Our conversation began over FaceTime, where we spoke at length about pop music and multi-voice narratives, the angst and joys of being a teenager, and the ways the film industry has changed since the 70s.
The Rumpus: Although I wouldn’t consider Ponti a coming-of-age novel, much of the book narrows in on the relationship Szu and Circe develop when they’re sixteen and still in school. From the first chapter, Szu narrates her experience in the first-person present, evoking the immediate, visceral discomfort of girlhood. What do you think distinguishes Ponti from a typical coming-of-age narrative?
Sharlene Teo: The characters in Ponti evolve psychologically and to an extent morally, but this growth is neither linear nor entirely positive. It circles backwards and snakes sideways and hits cul-de-sacs of guilt and self-recrimination. I’m interested in the ways that people don’t fundamentally change, when instead of meaningful or productive epiphanies, they make the very flawed human decision to remain set in their ways. Ponti explores what’s at stake when this happens with the accrual of time but not necessarily wisdom.
Rumpus: When I think of my own coming-of-age, I think a lot about the music I was listening to and my relationship with music at the time. Reflecting back on it, I was very much like Szu: if you’d asked me, then, I would have answered that I listened exclusively to shoegaze and punk and garage rock. What was your relationship to music as a teenager and how has it changed? How is what you listen to now different from what you listened to then, if it is at all?
Teo: Music evokes an emotional intensity that language can’t reach sometimes. It evokes not just memories but entire epochs in a couple of opening bars. As teenagers I feel we develop such strong allegiances to bands, genres, pop idols, etc., and this fades with adulthood, or we grow embarrassed and learn to muffle our stannishness, our sheer adulation. Music taste is culturally informed and almost completely learned; you’ve got to develop and refine your ear, mostly deliberately. For that reason, it’s a useful signal of character in fiction. Sitting and appreciating music speaks to a kind of attentiveness to life; it’s a form of artistic enjoyment that really complements reading and/or writing. Although active reading and active listening are equally transportive, they demand different things.
Rumpus: I agree that both reading closely and listening attentively are transportive. I found myself listening to Slowdive and Ride and My Bloody Valentine while reading Ponti, and I felt like I could almost hear Szu, like we too had been friends as teenagers. What music were you listening to, especially while you were writing in the voice of a teenager?
Teo: That’s so great! Szu would have loved to have one more friend. [Laughs] I make a writing playlist for every long project I work on; there were definitely some shoegaze bands on there, as well as some Mandopop (Stefanie Sun, Tanya Chua, Jay Chou) and a lot of ambient electronic stuff which is what I focus best to. Very usefully I made a playlist for Largehearted Boy that captured the essence of the book.
Rumpus: Ponti is brimming with a teenager’s biting humor and descriptions themselves are filled with references to farts and pimples and bodily fluids. None of it is forced, though; if anything, the humor provides color and richness to the voice of each character. How do you approach writing humor? Would you consider yourself a funny person, outside of your writing?
Teo: I approach writing humor as a question of balance; in the long-form story that is a novel, where do I want the reader to take a breath after a sad part, or how do I keep the reader engaged, or reveal something about the characters in a less heavy-handed way? Humor can be dark and heavy, too, and I really appreciate the knife-edge that separates pathos and humor. The incredible human complexity of laugh-crying, or feeling like something is sad in a funny way, or funny in the most tragic sense. I like to think I am a funny person outside of writing. I am quite clumsy and have no spatial awareness. I often make myself laugh by getting up too quickly and accidentally hitting my head on things, which Google just told me does not actually result in the loss of brain cells.
Rumpus: That knife-edge separating pathos and humor reminds me of what you said earlier, about the ways your characters remain fixed in their ways, never quite reaching that transformative epiphany or revelation. In what ways was it challenging to write in each of these flawed and sometimes troublesome voices? I’m especially interested in what writing Szu was like for you, having to put yourself back into the perspective of a sixteen-year-old.
Teo: “Flawed and troublesome” is a good way to put it! I wanted to convey life and complexity and make each voice distinctive, without boring the reader. I’m always thinking of a reader who likes the same books as I do and wants the same things out of fiction: that is, an affective resonance, whilst still finding the narrative engaging. It is hard to figure out how to pull that off (and I’m still learning). I tend to make my characters stand there and think a lot, or remember things, which isn’t exactly riveting. To write a sixteen-year-old’s consciousness, I tried to bear in mind that adulthood is not as transformative as we think. Inside, many of us are still unsure, anxious, and eager to please. I think it’s a lifelong project trying to figure out where we stand in the world and “fitting in” or finding our safe place in society is often parlayed into an adolescent struggle and dismissed in that same breath. We underestimate those even a decade younger than us when we have more in common inter-generationally than we think. Hype culture, consumerism, and market demographics would like us to think otherwise, so we buy more stuff “for our gender” and “for our age”.
Rumpus: Ponti follows Szu, Circe, and Amisa over several decades: the 1970s, the noughties, and the 2020s. The novel doesn’t bounce or skip around, though: the narrative strands braid so beautifully together by the end, as if their experiences were running parallel to each other the whole time. In what other ways did you attempt to tell this story before the final structure came about? What draws you to multi-voice narratives?
Teo: I feel my way around as I write and don’t plot things. I think it’s human nature to strive for a sense of coherence in what you can control, though, and therefore most stories end up harmonizing into a kind of rough, finished shape. A novel is so long, and can feel unwieldy. Toward the end of writing Ponti I had to make a very rudimentary table and color-code it in order to see how the different decades and strands fit together, and whether the three voices had equal turns to talk. I love a multi-voice narrative because it is fiction performing what is absolutely impossible in reality: allowing us to hop across the minds and memories of different people and assume that as narrative fact.
Rumpus: I just thought about Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, how she vines in and out of her character’s thoughts, impressions, and memories, following them across decades. What books did you read or return to, looking for multi-voice models?
Teo: It’s hard to consider this non-intuitively! I think we absorb the books that move us without referring back to them like guide or textbooks. Off the top of my head and in their own ways: The Vegetarian [by Han Kang], The Heart is a Lonely Hunter [by Carson McCullers], A Visit from the Goon Squad [by Jennifer Egan], Too Much Happiness [by Alice Munro], Divisadero [by Michael Ondaatje], Unaccustomed Earth [by Jhumpa Lahiri]…
Rumpus: Amisa’s Singapore—the Singapore of the 70s—is vastly different from Szu’s and Circe’s. The film industry, alone, has changed immensely in the last five or six decades, and we see this throughout the novel: for instance, the descriptions of the props and stage makeup used in the production of Amisa’s Ponti are hilariously outdated. Moreover, we see—between Amisa’s and Circe’s narratives—how much our notions of stardom and fame have changed over the years. What kind of research did you do when you were first drafting the novel?
Teo: I watched sections of Pontianak movies from the 50s, 70s, and early 2000s. I read up on Malay mythology and tried to make sure I got the different variations and details of the myths right; there are different variations of different creatures, and the fictional Ponti movies take on a composite. I read up on anecdotal army camp stories on the Internet and remembered Russell Lee’s True Singapore Ghost Stories which were so formative when growing up in Singapore. The Pontianak myth is enmeshed so strongly with childhood in Singapore; she’s a localized superstition and an expression of social anxiety about adultery and interceptors, a symbol of thwarted maternity and a potent, iconic combination of scary and sexy. I am a big fan of the giallo film aesthetic (Lucio Fulci, Dario Argento, etc.) and the tragi-comic cheesiness of B-horror movies. I also read a couple of books on Chinese spirit mediums in Singapore. I was fascinated by performative modes, not just on a screen or onstage but at work, during transactions, in school, in social performances. How we assume different guises around different people and acting in a literal sense could very well mean simply displaying a mood or sentiment that is not quite congruent with your true feelings or intentions.
Rumpus: I can see how your characters enact the kind of performance you’re describing, how Szu and Circe act in ways that often mask their interior thoughts, feelings, intentions. This ends up being a source of friction in their relationship. You moved to England a few years ago to study writing at the University of East Anglia. Between public and domestic settings, relationships with lovers or loved ones, work and school, in what ways are these performative modes—these guises—different in Singapore and the UK? In what ways did you have to adjust to these cultural differences?
Teo: That’s a huge question! And one I think I’ll spend my whole life negotiating, considering, and answering contextually. Being neither here nor there is both a boon and a pain to a writer. So far, the stuff I try to write that is set in the UK is a bore. Something happens to imagination when it is telescoped and stretched over thousands of miles, years, given both psychic and emotional distance, space to breathe. Having spent most of the first nineteen years of my life in Singapore, having grown up there, makes it the site of my most formative ideas and preoccupations with isolation in urban spaces, juxtapositions between progress and decay, bureaucratic speak, things like that. My subconscious is buried in Singapore, always will be, and having left doesn’t change that. In fact, it makes it more interesting to see how time will warp or deepen these long-held aesthetic and emotional imprints and fascinations. I’ve been in England for the entire duration of my twenties, so in a way I’m largely inured to jarring cultural differences. But I am always attuned to being a minority here and the nuances of that; it’s not always easy but you get used to it, and also, that’s the experience of immigrants everywhere. It’s something you can bond over with both a wince and a smile and a look of understanding and recognition.
Rumpus: Speaking of mediums, I was wondering if you could talk a bit about your relationship to magic, the supernatural, liminal experiences. When we talked a while ago, you shared that Ponti began as a sort of speculative piece. What was your relationship with folktales and superstitions growing up? To what extent are you still a believer in any of these things?
Teo: I tried writing Ponti as a speculative piece narrated by a Pontianak, but I felt that wasn’t my story to tell—it didn’t feel right and didn’t work. Growing up we had the Hungry Ghost Festival, the Buddhist and Taoist festival where ghosts and spirits come up from Heaven and Hell and ritualistic food offerings are left for them. So superstition was very visibly a part of my Singaporean upbringing, as observed by my father’s side of the family. You have all kinds of Singaporean folktales passed down as well, mostly drawn from Malay myths and legends, such as the story of Sister’s Islands, or the legend of Bukit Merah. I love these stories. They are as much a part of my childhood as the Chinese, Greek, Norse, and Middle Eastern myths, and of course Grimm’s fairytales. Such stories are a child’s first introduction to the uncanny, the sense that there is the potentiality for strangeness, menace and risk lurking just under the surface of the everyday. I don’t consider magic and the supernatural in my everyday, but I wish I had more of that childlike wonder, that I wasn’t so busy feeling cynical and worried all the time. I love the idea of liminal experiences, either dreams so real they feel lifelike, or long, tiring journeys that drag out and blur and take on an almost epic, fantastical dimension. I loved watching The X-Files growing up and I always found the tagline so profound—the artist Cai Guo Qiang even used it for the title of his retrospective: I Want to Believe. I think it applies to a lot of things.
Rumpus: This year has been rich with retellings of ancient myths and stories, from The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley to Everything Under by Daisy Johnson. When it comes to any of these Singaporean folktales, have you ever tried your hand at writing a retelling? Is that something you’d be interested in doing in the future?
Teo: Massively. Retelling is a form of reliving, especially the more well-known a story is, the more someone feels it in their narrative backbone. I’m so interested in undoing our Eurocentric biases about what makes the conventions of a story; I’m still trying to unknot that through lived experience, even outside of the remit of calling myself a writer, i.e. someone attentive to the peculiarities of a fable’s moral, a beginning, a middle, an end.
Rumpus: Congratulations on the US publication of Ponti and submitting your PhD thesis, all in a week! What’s next? Celebration and then back to work?
Teo: What’s next is the next novel, that I am a quarter through and is top secret. Who knows if it will sink or swim. In a way it’s impossible to intuit if the thing in your head will connect with someone else. I can only hope so, sincerely. I can only try and convey what is true to the bounds of my experience. That’s all I can do and to take on more than that is limiting and impossible, in a sense. I just want to write good stories that are emotionally true as much as I can muster and I’ll keep on trying and trying and trying.
Author photograph © Amaal Said.