By Sandra Hrášková
Sharlene Teo is a Singaporean novelist based in the United Kingdom whose fictional pieces have appeared in publications such as Esquire UK, Magma Poetry, and Eunoia Review. She has an LLB in Law from the University of Warwick and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, where she is currently completing her PhD in Creative and Critical Writing. Aside from being the recipient of the 2013 David T.K. Wong Creative Writing Fellowship and the 2014 Sozopol Fiction Fellowship, Teo is the winner of the inaugural Deborah Rogers Writers’ Award for her debut novel Ponti.
Ponti is set in Singapore, a city of heat, sweat and stickiness; a place “where the sun is aiming a shot at the earth with the intention of killing it” (Teo, Ponti 3). Teo perceives Singapore as “completely integral to the novel” since her home country “is very much a character in itself in the novel”. Its integrality is associated with Southeast Asian myths and superstitions incorporated into the novel, considering that the faith in these beliefs is intensely potent in her native homelands. While reading Ponti, the sensation of Singapore being an active participant in coordinating the story is noticeable. It does not merely dwell there, it stands guard on every page and manifests itself with every perspiration, haze, canicular day or with every bit of phlegm “the size and colour of a baby chick” (Teo, Ponti 126) coughed up.
The narrative is communicated through three time periods by the three main protagonists – Amisa, Szu and Circe. Sharlene Teo’s inspiration for her characters originates from “emotions rather than real life experiences” which she draws from “the ephemera of daily life – music, books, films, snippets of conversation” (email interview). As a result, she is proficient in devising characters with sensible personalities roaming in a fictional yet sober world.
Ponti is a piece of writing of stagnant ambience with expressive imagery.
It is the year 1975 and strikingly beautiful Amisa is moving to Singapore in pursuit of a life worthy and appreciative of her ravishing demeanor. When the role of Pontianak, a cannibalistic monster ghost thirsting for male blood, is offered to her, she thinks the prominence will be hers at last. However, the film titled ‘Ponti!’ reaps no success. And although “this unendurably lovely girl in full bloom” is still exquisite and referred to as “something mythic” (Teo, Ponti 138), the time with its consequences cannot be stopped. Gradually aging, Amisa grows hostile and resentful.
The year 2003 is when Szu’s mother, Amisa, dies as her cancer finally takes her life. At the age of sixteen and with only one friend, Szu is left living with her aunt Yunxi who “trades in hope” (Teo, Ponti 22) as an operating medium, in a house where the spitefulness of her mother still haunts her. Even after her mother’ death, Szu, being the unwanted child, “never lost the pathetic desire to please her.” (Teo, Ponti 152) Unable to unburden herself from feeling unloved and unable to attain closure, Szu is incapable of getting “the creases out of how [her mother] crumpled [her] up like a ball of paper [her] whole life” (Teo, Ponti 185). Losing the central figure of control over her life, another controlling form reintroduces itself over Szu’s mindset as she steadily develops an eating disorder.
In 2020, a childhood friend of Szu, Circe, has a career in a social media consulting. Newly divorced, she is suddenly stupefied when a new project is assigned to her at work. Obliged to contribute on a remake of the horror film series ‘Ponti’, Circe is involuntarily forced to confront her past. She is struggling with her school-day memories of Szu and Amisa, the two women whose lives define her own more than she is willing to admit; and soon she realizes that she is bound to be sidelined from her stagnant life until she is prepared to deal with her guilt, her conscience and with her images of Amisa and Szu.
Ponti is a piece of writing of stagnant ambience with expressive imagery. The prose is formulated by abrupt, often brief stinging sentences. Teo is profoundly creative with her wording; she selects agile words, links them together in a witty fashion which produces unified passages with both straightforward and concealed analogies and metaphors. These literary devices are oftentimes humorous: “Happy thirteenth accident!” (Teo, Ponti 148), ironic: “[l]aughter, laundry, both duties” (Teo, Ponti 30) and satirical: “[w]e were the target demographic, spoilt teenage schoolgirls with a proclivity for bored buying. We were more powerful than we realized” (Teo, Ponti 89) or openly strategic: “[u]nknowing is as delicate and gradual a practice as its reverse. It deserves the same space and deliberation” (Teo, Ponti 53).
Readers of this novel are immersed in a static atmosphere where the aura of all objects appears to perish. The vividness of this process is regularly exhibited and stressed in fine detail. Teo takes ordinary everyday items and events, and transforms them into a putrid simile. In particular a simple egg is described as “an alien embryo preserved in rotten jelly” (Teo, Ponti 27), or the cheerful activity of celebrating birthdays is sabotaged with thoughts like: “[h]ow could anyone actually enjoy being one year closer to a bad back, to sleeplessness, to gums drawing away from yellowed canines?” (Teo, Ponti 14) and “[y]ou are supposed to celebrate, not to complain; to ripen like a bottle of wine, not a banana; to thrive, not to rot” (Teo, Ponti 191).
Products of emotional taunting, Amisa, Szu and Circe are imperfect, raw and lost. At times they are weak, at other times they are strong. They are no heroines, yet they are something more – they are us.
The entire story is interlaced with traces of folklore from which the two most prominent are the Pontianak and Kumari goddess myths. The mythical yet secular framework in which they are illustrated is notably peculiar. When asked whether she has any personal affinity with folklore and why she choose these two myths to be a part of Ponti, Teo responded:
No personal relationship to either, but I chose both because of what they seem to convey about the societal pressures on women to conform to certain roles or present in certain ways, and the degree of agency that girls and women are given. Both the Pontianak myth and the Kumari goddess tradition mobilise the female body as a vessel to propagate religious belief or superstition (email interview).
The characters and the relationships portrayed in Ponti are both realistic and relatable. Every single personal conflict or battle the main female trio has to undertake is authentically construed. A substantial influence on shaping the protagonists’ personalities are their psychological traumas and unconventional upbringings. Teo agrees since for her “that’s what the whole book explores. All three narrators are very much moulded by emotional and psychological traumas, their environments and family settings” (email interview). Products of emotional taunting, Amisa, Szu and Circe are imperfect, raw and lost. At times they are weak, at other times they are strong. They are no heroines, yet they are something more – they are us.
Filled with passive aggressiveness, unintended manipulation and defective relationships, the novel explores themes related to family, neglect, alienation, aversion, femininity and many more. Ponti is a novel which delineates the lives of three women who seek to understand their worth and place in the world. With no stability in their lives the only certainty within their control is the “active introspection” (email interview), that Teo believes to be the female greatest strength. All things considered, the novel is a manifestation of self-analysis; and presentation of characters who actively reflect on their past choices, deeds and thoughts. Nevertheless, Ponti is not solely a demonstration of active introspection; it is a book about anybody who suffers under the burdens of social roles.
Sandra is a double-major BA student of English Language and Literature, and Theory of Interactive Media. Alongside her studies, Sandra’s mind is filled with prose, poetry and many other lores. She finds delight in analyzing enigmatic stories, and she often creates poems loosely inspired by the figures of world mythology and folk tales. Her other poetic compositions are mostly influenced by her personal experiences. Sandra does not believe in picking favourites. She acts upon her most sudden and unusual impulses, yet she also overthinks the simplest decisions. Her only unchanged ambition is to publish a book or a poem collection. In essence though, Sandra is a nocturnal creature whose body system runs strictly on caffeine and irony.
Teo, Sharlene. Ponti. Picador, 2018. Kindle ebook file.
Teo, Sharlene. “Re: Interview Questions.” Received By Sandra Hrášková, 23 October 2018. Email Interview.
footnote: the hot period between early July and early September; or a period of inactivity is sometimes referred to as canicular days
footnote: In Malay mythology, the Pontianak is a female vampiric ghost spirit. The spirit is either that of a woman who died while pregnant or of a stillborn child. The Pontianak preys on men in a bloodthirsty and carnivorous manner. She is usually depicted as pale-skinned with long black hair, red eyes, and white dress smeared in blood. She is also said to be able to take on a beautiful appearance.
footnote: Kumari is the tradition of worshipping young pre-pubescent girls as manifestations of the divine female energy or devi in Hindu religious traditions.
footnote: active examination of one’s own conscious thoughts and feelings