Q&A with Singaporean Novelist Sharlene Teo

Published on 26 February 2018

Credit: Barney Poole Photography

Her debut novel Ponti clinched a £10,000 literary award and was swiftly picked up by Picador. Ahead of its highly-anticipated launch in Singapore, we get to know the UK-based Singaporean author.

By Pamela Ho

“Today marks my sixteenth year on this hot, horrible earth.” – is how Ponti grabs you from the get-go. The year is 2003. Szu is being punished in school again.

Set in Singapore, between 1968 and 2020, the story unfolds through the eyes of three compelling female characters: Szu and Circe, who forge an unlikely friendship in an unforgiving convent school setting; and Szu’s mother, Amisa, a faded beauty and forgotten actress of 1970s horror films who ends up as a medium, performing séances with her ‘sister’.

Written by London-based Singaporean author Sharlene Teo, Ponti caught the attention of publishers when it won the inaugural Deborah Rogers Writer’s Award and drew praises from the judges – who called her first novel “a breath of fictional fresh air” – as well as British novelist and Man Booker Prize winner Ian McEwan, who described it as “remarkable!”.

What ensued was a seven-way auction for publishing rights, with Picador emerging victorious. Ponti is scheduled for release this April in the United Kingdom and this September in the United States. To date, the title has been sold in France, Germany, Italy, Holland, Turkey and Brazil.

“I didn’t expect the seven-way auction; I don’t know what to expect of anything,” says Teo, who was awarded the Booker Prize Foundation Scholarship in 2012 to pursue a Masters in Prose Fiction at the University of East Anglia, where she’s currently finishing her PhD in Creative and Critical Writing. “I hope it resonates with readers, particularly Singaporean readers. I hope I wrote a book that’s true on an emotional register, as well as one that is deeply lived and felt.”

Sharlene Teo with Man Booker Prize winner Ian McEwan (Credit - RCW)
Credit: RCW

It’s hard to shake off the strange and compelling world of Ponti once you’ve stepped into it. You’re drawn into a Singapore past, with its Pontianak films and kampong life, into a mysterious house at the end of the cul-de-sac, and to imperfect characters who elicit your protective instincts. It’s a world you can’t wait to crawl back into at the end of a long day or when you’re waiting for your Uber ride or queueing for your food. It lingers and summons you.

Ahead of Ponti’s Singapore launch in May, we chat with Teo about her writing and get to know the woman behind the words. Trust us, you will want to keep her in your radar.

 


You’re trained in Law. At what point did you decide to pursue creative writing full-time?

I always wanted to be a writer, and I have always written or tried to write. I read Law for the intellectual and academic challenge. But I want to make up good stories my whole life! I don’t regret doing Law as my first degree. If it’d been creative writing all the way, it might have led to some insularity in the work.

How did the idea for this story come about? What inspired it?

The book is inspired by the juxtaposition between grit and glamour in Singapore. Ponti is as much about the evolution of a monstrous woman as it is about the evolution of a modern cityscape. And it brings together things and themes that have always interested me: old horror movies, film making, myth making, the power of cinema, the power and the complexity of female friendship, failed relationships, and the psychic industry. Where’s the line between faith and superstition? Where’s the line between emotional abuse and tough love? These are all things I considered, and they found their way into the book in one way or another.

Writing a novel is like running a marathon. What sustained you? What was your process like?

Blind hope and fear sustained me! My process involves noticing what serves the story and the characters in it, the emotional register… from my surroundings, from other texts, from film, from conversations. I don’t really believe in writing rituals nor our fetishistic fascination with them.

You’ve lived in the UK for 12 years. Does it help that you’re writing about Singapore from afar?

Perhaps, perhaps not. The advantages of proximity and psychic and literal distance vary from project to project, or story to story.

Any plans to return to Singapore?

I live in London. No idea what the future holds. But I’m going to be back in Singapore from 7 to 15 May. For now, I have a book launch for Ponti confirmed for 12 May at Books Kinokuniya (Ngee Ann City) and on 13 May at a BooksActually pop-up at Great World City. Come by!


To keep updated on Teo’s engagements, follow her on Twitter at @treebirds. For more on Singapore literature, check out #BuySingLit, 9 to 11 March.

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