(From Electric Literature. Link to the complete article given below)
Ponti, a debut novel by Singaporean-born writer Sharlene Teo, weaves dark, arresting narratives about the lives of three women: Szu, her distant and beautiful mother Amisa, and her high school friend Circe. Spanning between 1968 to 2020 in hot and humid Singapore, the novel traces the intimate and vicious ways in which the women’s lives are entangled to one another. Szu and Circe are drawn to the memory of Amisa and her short-lived career as an actress of a cult horror series, Ponti! As characters try to cope with loneliness and failure, the uncanny dimensions of Amisa’s film role as Pontianak, a bloodthirsty female ghost in white dress, seep silently into their daily lives. Winner of the Deborah Rogers Writers’ Award, Teo crafts each sentence with precision, evoking vivid imageries of how women experience their bodies and space, dream and reality, connection and disconnection.
I met Sharlene at the 2017 Sydney Writers Festival, where we spoke in the same panel and exchanged views on women, horror, and Southeast Asia. As an Indonesian writer, I was immediately captured by the universe of Ponti, which felt very close to home; similarities can be found in language, food, cultural expectations, and even in how our actions are structured by what Szu calls “a hot, horrible earth.” The Malay legend of Pontianak, known in Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, could be seen as a projection of the fear towards women who refuse to conform to the societal norms. Ponti explore the rich cultures of Singapore and Southeast Asia while offering a fresh perspective on relationships between women, history, and (screened) memories.
A recipient of the Booker Prize Foundation Scholarship and David T.K. Wong Creative Writing Award, Teo is currently completing her Ph.D in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of East Anglia. Prior to the U.S. release of Ponti, we conversed over email about the Orientalist connotations of Asian femininity, myth-making as ciphers of fear, and turning the pockets of weirdness and decay in cosmopolitan Singapore into its own character in her novel.