Already praised by Ian McEwan, Teos debut about three Singaporean women a cult horror movie actor, her anxious daughter and her more worldly friend deftly captures the rivalry and jealousy of girlhood
Most narratives about teenage girls, especially those coming from America, follow a pattern. Girls often come in pairs. One will be popular, overtly sexual and self-possessed, and the other is a loser, who pines for popularity and is always secretly attractive, often subjected to a makeover that will unveil their beauty to the world.
And then theyll get deflowered and take lots of drugs and do all these wild things, laughs Sharlene Teo. There are no such stereotypes in her first novel, Ponti, in which teenagers Szu and Circe get no makeovers, solace, or much attention from anyone. Ive never read a book depicting two teenage girls who are equally losers, unknowing and unattractive, Teo says and in Ponti, you can.
The novel follows the lives of three Singaporean women: Szu, initially seen in 2003 as a bored and anxious 16-year-old who lives in a decaying house with her aunt and mother Amisa, a one-time actor who starred in a cult-horror film called Ponti!, and who now spends her days at home, conducting fake seances with her sister; and Circe, a more privileged and worldly teenager who befriends Szu at school.
Leaping forward to 2020, Circe is now a demotivated and aimless thirtysomething, working as a social media consultant (the empty jargon of the industry is hilariously captured by Teo). Having lost contact with Szu after a mysterious falling out, Circe is asked to prepare a campaign for a remake of Ponti! bringing back old ghosts of her time with her onetime friend and her actor mother.
Teo deftly captures the insidious female rivalry often rife in teenage girlhood, but also the passion of that age, in which a short friendship can feel dramatically momentous. With the benefit of hindsight, Circe reflects: Szu felt like my first test of patience: a tenuous, milk-toothed kind of love that evolved into the toil and torpor of a difficult marriage. You could say it was prophetic. Im not exaggerating when I say that we were only 16, but I felt like we had been through decades.
The story of Szus mother, Amisa, is traced over several chapters. An arresting beauty, she is discovered by a film producer while working in a cinema box office in 1977. She is cast in a movie as the Pontianak: a mythological, cannibalistic beauty, created when a deformed girl makes a deal with a shaman to become beautiful. This is a real Malay myth, as explained in the novel, told by worried wives to make their husbands wary of young, beautiful girls walking alone at night.
The shoddy B-movie never takes off, and Amisas dreams of reinvention morph into bitter resignation, having spent too long dreaming of a rags-to-riches narrative, only to be pushed back into rags. Exacerbating her sense of failure is the attention of loyal fans, who still send her letters 30 years later. Even her own daughter idealises her mothers glory days, dwelling on how she cant live up to her beauty, vowing: One day I will learn to be as expertly cruel as she is.
When Teo won a fellowship to work on her manuscript as part of her MFA programme, her first idea was an epic Pontianak novel, narrated by the monster. She ended up discarding it halfway through writing it (I cannot read it now!) when she watched the film Berberian Sound Studio. Teo became fixated by the idea of predestined failure and by the female face in film: If you stake your whole identity on being this visual spectacle, where does that leave you?
Singapore closes in on the characters as much as the past does, Teo calling it a character in and of itself it excludes people and none of them feel quite at home in it. Her vivid descriptions of its weather skyrocketing pollution, repressive humidity leave the reader almost sweating with the characters. Born and raised in Singapore, Teo has lived in the UK for a decade, which helped her write about her hometown. Its very much written in my psyche. When I try to write about London its not that interesting, she says. I guess my imagination works more when theres gaps to fill in, so theres that psychic and geographic distance between your imagination of the place and how it actually is. She wanted to depict a Singapore that is not this exoticised version, of this one-dimensional new liberal metropolis. Its not at all like a travel guide.
Before Ponti was even finished, Teo was already receiving praise; Ian McEwan presented her with the inaugural Deborah Rogers award for first-time writers in 2016 and called the then unfinished manuscript a remarkable first novel in the making. After the award, the writing process became like someone who was running away from a fire. You got this prize, this money, this validation and if you cant write the damn thing [Ponti], youre like a total loser. (Thankfully, she could).
But when I ask her about her writing routines, she laments the shaming culture that dictates all these didactic rules one must follow to be considered a writer like having to write every day.
Everybody has their own process … Youre not a machine, she says. I feel like as long as youre reading, youre fine. If youre a writer and you stop reading things that dont relate directly to your work, for pleasure, then youre fucked. What are you even doing? How can you expect people to read your stuff for pleasure if youre not?
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