Host Christopher Merrill talks with London-based Singaporean writer Sharlene Teo about her award-winning novel Ponti. They discuss how her novel utilizes the Southeast Asian mythical creature of the Pontianak, a cannibalistic entity that kills and eats men, to explore a cultural reassignment of fear.
Sharlene Teo Interview Transcript
I’m Christopher Merrill and you’re listening to Origins.
Origins: The International Writing Program Podcast is an interview series with writers from around the world addressing the origins of their creative works, the literary and social cultures in which they write, and the art of language.
The International Writing Program is the oldest and largest multinational writing residency in the world. Since 1967, over 1,400 writers from more than 150 nations have taken part in the Fall Residency here at the University of Iowa, where writers participate in literary and cultural exchange. Last year, the Program celebrated its fiftieth-year anniversary; visit the fiftieth anniversary website at iwp50.grad.uiowa.edu. To learn more about the International Writing Program, visit us online at iwp.uiowa.edu.
This episode of Origins features Singaporean writer Sharlene Teo.
Sharlene TEO is the winner of the inaugural Deborah Rogers Writer’s Award for Ponti, her first novel, to be released in 2018 and translated into six languages. She received the Booker Prize Foundation Scholarship and David T.K. Wong Creative Writing award at the University of East Anglia, is a 2014 Sozopol Fiction Fellow and was recently shortlisted for the 2017 Berlin Writing Prize.
We are recording from the University of Iowa on Thursday, October 26th, 2017. We had the chance to sit down with Sharlene, who is here as a participant of the International Writing Program’s Fall Residency.
MERRILL: Welcome, Sharlene. Congratulations for winning the inaugural Deborah Rogers Writer’s Award for your first novel! How and when can American audiences read this novel? And what can we expect from it? Tell us about it.
TEO: It’s coming out in the US around August 2018 but it’s available for pre-order because it’s available in the UK on nineteenth of April, 2018. It’s called Ponti and it’s about a failed horror movie actress. Her name is Amisa Tan, and she’s trying to build a film career in Singapore in the 1970’s. She stars in a trilogy of films as a Ponti, a Pontianak, basically a Southeast Asian mythical cannibalistic entity who kills and eats men. So, on one level, you have the film within the book, the film trilogy within the book which is really schlocky, sort of B-horror. On the other level, you have the very human story of her daughter Szu in 2003 who is dealing with her mother’s sort of neglect and cruelty. And a third strand of narration which is Szu’s friend Circe. They meet as teenagers and she’s narrating from seventeen years into the future as an adult, looking back on their sort of adolescence.
MERRILL: And how long did it take you to write this novel?
TEO: I think from start to finish of the novel as it is, it took me two years. But in terms of the gestation of it and the ideas, I think like around the end of 2012.
MERRILL: So, you went to the University of East Anglia with this idea in mind?
TEO: I thought it while I was there because I’ve always been interested in this particular South-East Asian myth about the Pontianak, about this really sexy woman who climbs out of trees and you know, men should be afraid of her walking alone at night, as opposed to the other way around. So, I like the real sort of gender reversal in that.
MERRILL: And the novel will also the basis for a six-part series with HBO Asia. How much creative control will you have during the adaptation of Ponti?
TEO: I think that it’s very much its own animal, the adaptation. I mean, I’m really, really excited that it’s happening that I try to kind of bear in mind that I wrote it as a book, so the kind of manifestation it takes in other forms, I’m just excited to see what people do with it creatively. I think it’s scheduled to be ready, hopefully, by the end of 2018, but we’ll still see. We’re still sorting out the details of that.
MERRILL: Will they write a little part in there for you?
TEO: Oh, no way. No, no thank you. But it’s a six-part limited TV series and it will be available, I suppose, for streaming? Yeah.
MERRILL: Do you expect to be on set while they’re filming?
TEO: No, I have no idea.
MERRILL: You want to stay separate, okay. So you set your novel during a specific time in Singapore, when the bird flu was rampant. And that leads me to ask how important the place was to the writing of your novel?
TEO: Well I mean, Singapore around that time, so the early 2000s, 2003, there was a really particular atmosphere. I was a teenager and I remember the skies weren’t clear and people would go around with like hospital masks and there would be kind of PSI warnings over the radio. It was incredibly sort of dreamlike but there was a real air of sort of environmental and physical menace to everything that I just wasn’t used to. I mean, I’m Singaporean born and bred, I’m so used to everything working really sort of efficiently and you know, all of a sudden there was this sort of uncanny atmosphere to the city. So, I think the setting is everything, it’s sort of a, it’s almost like a very fundamental component of the novel. It wouldn’t be the same novel without Singapore.
MERRILL: Then how do you imagine yourself or see yourself fitting into Singapore’s literary scene?
TEO: Well I think that the literary scene is really sort of developed and I’d say that it kind of flourished and bloomed over the last decade. So now there’s a whole sort of constellation of really exciting talents working across different forms. I think there’s a lot of experimentation going on and very many sort of different voices, both writing from within Singapore and also people like me who’ve kind of moved away, and we have that point of removal which is both sad but also you know distinctive in its own right. I think we’re all coming to it with slightly different perspectives, so yeah.
MERRILL: In your case, a kind of double vision.
MERRILL: So, in a presentation you gave at the Iowa City Public Library on “The Mode of High Emotion,” you said, “cultural assumptions affect how we express emotions… [but] seemingly affectless narrators can elicit tonal affect too, but only if the narration is bolstered by an undercurrent of emotion.” With this in mind, I wonder how you translate emotion into different cultural contexts, using that double vision if you will?
TEO: Well, it’s the kind of thing where there’s certain expressions to kind of connote emotion. In particular cultures that are untranslatable or there are so, so finely nuanced that they’re kind of almost entirely sort of contingent on the cultural and social context. So, I’m thinking of, there’s an Indonesian term “malu.” It’s a particular expression of shame which we use quite commonly in Singapore as well, and there are other sort of untranslatable words that people use to indicate affect and emotion. But I think in something like a novel, you should be very attentive of how people kind of express themselves. And that’s so dependent on, you know, their background, where they’re from, how old they are, where they’re coming from, where they’re speaking from.
MERRILL: In that same presentation, you posed an intriguing question. You said that, “If we assume that good art is emotionally hardcore, what is softcore emotion?” Which leads me to ask if you expand on that? How can these types of emotions be defined, you know when you’re writing a novel, do you rely on different types of emotion in your work, when you’re writing a schlocky scene or a schlocky script for the actress, compared to her dealings with other people?
TEO: Yeah, definitely. I feel that writing is much more of an intuitive process and that you can start out kind of planning and making sort of considered decisions or preempting those decisions, but ultimately, you kind of move through a piece of work intuitively. I happen to be guided very much by emotion or atmosphere, some kind of sense that I have. I’m just forever fumbling really clumsily to sort of get there. I don’t think that I know any better.
In terms of the term emotionally hardcore, that came from the panel discussion when I was researching into the word “emo” which was our sort of provocation. “Emo” was born sort of out of the punk scene, and it stands for “emotionally hardcore.” And there’s something I really love about the juxtaposition of those two words, emotion, which we immediately kind of associate with feeling, tenderness, and hardcore, which we associate with something a bit more punk, a bit more extreme, a bit more pornographic. So, I loved that contrast. So, in terms of something that is emotionally hardcore, I would think of, in fiction, something that really delivers a resonating punch to your gut. So certain kinds of books or stories that you read and years later that keep coming back to you, whether it’s an image or a mood that you can’t even quite put into words.
MERRILL: So, before we wrap up our conversation, I wonder if you could tell us what you’re working on now, how you spent your days in Iowa?
TEO: Well I’ve spent my days in Iowa doing a mix of different things. I’ve done a couple of short essays which I really enjoyed. I proposed that I would finish a first draft of my second novel which hasn’t really quite happened. I mean, I made a lot of notes on it, and I kind of know the direction it’s going in. I’m really hesitant to sort of describe something that isn’t finished, isn’t fully articulated in its form, but it’s the second book that I think is very, very sort of different thematically to Ponti, the first one. And yeah, that’s what I’m doing moving forward.
MERRILL: And what are you reading?
TEO: What am I reading…I’m currently reading a novel called Notes of a Crocodile.
MERRILL: And who’s that by?
TEO: By Qiu Miaojin. It is a really kind of unusual, experimental, very sort of, evocative, daring novel. And it’s sort of stylistically brilliant. I read something and on every other page it kind of shocks me or moves me, which is exactly what I want out of fiction.
MERRILL: And do you have any recommendations for our listeners?
TEO: Recommendations in terms of books?
MERRILL: What do you think they should be reading?
TEO: In terms of stuff that I’ve read while recently, Conversations with Friends: A Novel by Sally Rooney, that’s an incredible sort of contemporary novel with really sharp snappy dialogue. She kind of reminds me of like a modern [J.D.] Salinger. And what else recently? I was reading Bolaño. Roberto Bolaño, his story collection.
MERRILL: Well that’s good. It’s always useful to read Roberto Bolaño. Sharlene Teo, thank you so much for making time for us.
The International Writing Program is a nonprofit organization supported by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. To donate to the IWP or to support a writer, please visit us online at iwp.uiowa.edu.
Origins is edited and produced by Kathleen Maris Paltrineri, with research and editing by Ashley Chong, design by Donna Brooks, and production by Todd Johnson; music composition is by Noel Nissen with pianist Trevor Polk and music production with Brandon Darner and Micah Natera. I’m your host Christopher Merrill. For a transcript and more information about this episode, please visit us online. Stay tuned to our next podcast available October 15, 2018 on ApplePodcasts and SoundCloud where I talk with Ugandan writer Dilman Dila.