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Haunted Women: A Conversation with Sharlene Teo

The author of Ponti talks female ghouls, writing away from the male gaze, and inhabiting trauma through storytelling.

By Kimberley Lim

The Singapore in Sharlene Teo’s debut novel Ponti is hot, humid, and sticky, the tropical country’s stifling heat a representation of the stuck, turgid relationships among three misfit women—the unconventionally beautiful Amisa, a former actress who is consumed by her old obsessions; her conventional and neurotic daughter Szu, who yearns for but is repelled by her distant mother; and Szu’s best friend, Circe, whose tough appearance and overconfidence both roots and destabilizes a budding teenage friendship. In this setting and with these players, Ponti (short for “pontianak,” the name of a man-stalking female ghoul of Malay legend and the character Amisa portrays during her short stint in the movies) is the story of what haunts three generations of women in Singapore—loneliness, adolescence, trauma, and fate.

I had just flown out from New York, where I work, to my family home in Singapore for my annual vacation right when I was scheduled to speak with Teo, herself based in the UK. As I set up our phone interview just forty-eight hours fresh from the plane, it felt surreal—but entirely apt—to be talking about a novel set in this place we both know intimately as home, but also have the privilege to view from a distance.

—Kimberley Lim

Kimberley Lim: This novel really revolves around the narratives of women—women like Amisa—that very powerfully demand attention. But as authoritative as Amisa’s character is, I noticed that she is often the object of our gaze. She is also subject to the gaze of many other characters in this story. I wonder if you did this intentionally? And I’m curious about this tension that is created, with a character who is at once in control but also at the same time subjected to the opinions of others.

Sharlene Teo: Yes, that was very much my intention. The section with her, it’s in third person—it aligns with her consciousness but you never quite get into her immediate interiority the same way you do with Szu and Circe, for example. So I think the intention was that you understand her without actually being able to fully and sympathetically align with her. It was all about how she was held to the gaze of other people, scrutinized in a very superficial way her whole life. Nobody really gives her the time of day or really sees her. Except maybe for Aunt Yunxi. I think the healthiest friendship in the whole book is between the two of them.

Why would you say that is the case?

With one woman being substantially older than the other, I wanted to make sure that the novel had one healthy small relationship, because my point wasn’t that women are catty and that all female friendships don’t work out. Sometimes there is an uncanny dynamic where one person perceives the other to be like them; often when there are too many shades of similarities, that’s when you get a real tension. I think Amisa and Aunt Yunxi are almost too different, so there’s no such tension there—there’s just a kind, nurturing relationship.

Talking about the gaze and the power of Amisa, as well as her being the object of another’s gaze, obviously brings to mind the male gaze.

Which is everywhere.

Where women’s bodies are basically the passive objects of men’s projections and tensions. Were you hoping to subvert this system? Were you trying to present the women’s point of view from the other side of the male gaze? After all, she is a ponti: a male-stalking ghost.

I’ve always found that with the storytelling tradition—these oral traditions carried across different countries and cultural contexts—the fascinating thing is the kinds of commonalities you find. I suppose in the UK you have the banshee, and in Nigerian folklore there is a similar type of creature: mythological and very attractive. If you really parse why these stories are carried through from generation to generation, I think that they are all underpinned by a fear of the feminine and of what femininity entails. This young attractive woman who enters into a domestic space and does something incredibly, violently subversive in the face of hundreds of years of patriarchal domination. This monster is very threatening but also presented in a very sexy form. There is a constant combination of menace and sex.

So, like the very universal concept of fearing what we desire.

Right. I think it’s quite polarizing to say that “all men are rubbish,” “smash the patriarchy,” and things like that. I’m more interested in the systems in place that consciously or unconsciously work to align us with specifically gendered modes of behavior. For example, I am a Singaporean woman. What is expected of me? How should I be expected to behave? I was interested in depicting something I hadn’t seen much in fiction, this multi-dimensionality that comes with a Singaporean female experience and how that is in reality, vis-a-vis gender relations in Singapore,where there is a whole different culture of sexuality and performance of gender. Boys go to NS [National Service], and if you’re growing up a girl and you express opinions, a common put-down is, “Oh, you’re so random.” That comment is so tepid, you can’t really fight that.

Right. It’s almost like your opinion doesn’t matter. Not that it’s wrong or it’s correct.

Yes. I’m interested in these spaces that we might not be consciously aware of and how they seep into the way we think of ourselves. I think the book is about self-perception and the expectations of being a woman across different time periods.

Unlike Amisa, Circe and Szu weren’t typically seen in an objectifying way by men. In fact, sometimes they wished they were. Though they didn’t make it obvious, they were very conscious of the fact that their peers had boyfriends while they didn’t. You can see this desire for them to compare themselves to the other girls. So, instead of being seen by men, they throw their gaze onto rival women and objectify them, though not in the way men do. Can you tell me more about that?

Well, I think how women view other women is very interesting. Not even just in the comments section of social media, but in daily life women can be very vicious to other women in a way that feels deeply personal. It’s fascinating. For example, in cases of sexual assault, a lot of the time, internalized misogyny can lead women to not believe other women. There are all these pernicious messages that are passed down to young girls through the media which convey a very phallocentric way of reading female behavior. I think it is changing now, with the newer generation, but I’m not quite sure if it will ever be fully eradicated. It would take hundreds and hundreds of years to undo these messages.

Somebody asked me why I had written a novel where the men are so marginal. I said that there are literally thousands of books a year where the women are just there in service to the main male characters. I don’t think these questions get asked to male authors. That’s all I can say.

By the time I got to the end of the book—which took me by pleasant surprise—I began to realize this novel is a lot about fate. Despite our attempts to fight against a laid-out path or break through a mold, the characters in the novel face a lot of stagnation and are subjected to what we would call fate.

I felt what I was trying to do was question and playfully experiment with this trope of the magical sensei character. Not a Mister Miyagi but an eastern mythic—an older lady who is placed within a standard Westernized narrative. I’ve heard Ponti being described as having the qualities of magical-realism, but I disagree. It’s not like Murakami, where you have magical cats, but you do have strange appearances of people that may not be people. I quite like this ambiguity. For example, the kind of connection that Amisa feels for Circe, her daughter’s best friend, is meant to call to attention the idea of the inevitability to things, which I think is both incredibly lifelike but also narratively rich. How much of what we’re doing is self-actualizing? How much of how we behave is informed by how we think we should behave to reach a certain outcome? How much of that is self-help and how much is personal belief? Someone feels an illness in them, and there’s always something along the lines of, “Don’t think bad thoughts, you’ll get ill.” Where does that come from? I find all of that fascinating.

Circe, for example, aspires to be an astronaut. She dreams of leaving Earth and eventually blames Szu for dragging her down. We see Circe as both a young girl and later an adult, where she still seems chained to her old narrative even though she’s very consciously expressing that she wants to break free, literally, from the earth.

Just hearing you talk about fate and how you’re interested in the idea of inevitability, I wonder—and this is purely conjecture—do you think this whole discussion of stagnation and fate is tied to where you grew up? The fact that Singapore is this oppressive, humid place? Its unforgettable heat, its one-track education system—did you feel as if you were stuck?

I think it’s very hard to apply a consistent narrative to one’s personal development. I think the act of remembering your childhood or your upbringing is a creative act—you edit as you go along. What people seem to like to do is think of a unifying thing or a “universal logic,” an organizing principle to how the world turns out, how we turn out. When I was growing up in Singapore, I felt very stuck, but I also think of it as a very universal experience. People can grow up in New York City and think that way; people who grow up in the most exciting boroughs can still be very fenced in. I think Singapore gets a one-dimensional representation overseas, but I feel that one of the most interesting things it allowed me was this constant perception and questioning of belonging. We’re a country made up of immigrants—multicultural and multiethnic. Belonging and the sense of national identity was something that was prescribed to us.

It wasn’t something that was innate—where in China, if you grew up in Pudong, you would have this innate sense of nationhood: I’m Chinese, I’m thinking Chinese, I have thousands of years of cultural history to draw from. Whereas in Singapore, because you have all these different experiences that are all so deeply Westernized, neoliberal, and globalized, you have no choice but to pick and choose. And you also constantly feel like an outsider, which I think is very useful for a writer.

It’s great fodder. You said something interesting, that there is one image of Singapore that is presented elsewhere and that you’re trying to break that mold. What do you think that mold is?

I think of William Gibson’s article where he talks about Disneyland and the death penalty. People like to have this idea of Singapore as a very autocratic, very strict, slick, spotless city—where you chew gum and the second you throw it on the ground, you get whipped or arrested. It’s quite an outdated image. And obviously there is a lot of censorship, so I’m not saying that all of these things aren’t true—they very much are—but I think the more interesting conversation comes from trying to make art out of those spaces without being enforced by this binary. I think it’s lazy to just condemn something and be in stark opposition to it. I think that fiction arises from really hemming yourself in to a very binary way of thinking, something that’s self-limiting. Being too quick to criticize and call out what is or isn’t Singaporean, who has or has no right to tell certain stories—I find that all pretty boring. I’m trying to just write stories that are true, but also located in a very Singaporean consciousness. I also feel that as a writer of color, and a female writer of color, you get held to scrutiny much more often.

Like Szu and Circe, I attended an all-girls’ school, Singapore Chinese Girl’s School. Elements of the book, where you talk about Szu and Circe’s relationship, rang so true to me—I can totally smell, feel, and taste this all-girl experience. I would classify myself as a loner, so I definitely understood how both girls felt. How were your school years?

I was an art kid, so we were always painting, sketching, hiding in the library, drawing. I had a small group of artsy friends. I think secondary school was occasionally terrifying because I was so bad at some of the subjects. I think it was a very intense period of time. My experience doesn’t directly relate to Szu’s—I did have friends that were nice, but there was a very strong sense of helplessness. You’re young enough that you depend on adults, but at the same time you’re too old not to feel impatient about things. It’s a very interesting emotionally charged time where all your feelings are big feelings. There is just so much potential, but the possibility of potential is overwhelming.

I feel very tender-hearted and sympathetic about that. How you feel about your body at that age is different to how you feel about it in your late twenties. At the age of 16 or 17, infatuation, rage, and jealousy are big feelings. And we engage with art and culture in a way that we don’t do now. Now you might just hand yourself in, but at the age of 20 or 22, you’re a sponge.

In Ponti, this main female relationship is a tense one, filled with complications. I saw this friendship as the kind that was transacted by necessity. There was both empathy and disdain on both accounts. It was almost like they were friends because the other one was the mirror of the other part of you that you hated.

I think female friendships is in a bit of a cultural moment, with Ferrante and stuff like that. I think it’s really calling attention to contemporary culture—that there is a lot more understanding and a lot more interesting things to be had in these friendships that isn’t governed by sexual rivalry or attraction but something much more fascinating, almost a narcissistic reflection of the self. Toward the end of Ponti, and pardon me for remembering my own line, there is a line that says they were almost “symbiotic in this intensely irresistible way.” Because they weren’t fully formed adults at the time, they nurture each other. [At that age] you find a real constellation in someone who really gets you. At the same time, you hate this person because you hate the person you’re becoming at the time.

Two people who are codependent, whether with an addiction or tearing each other down, they depend on each other but also hate each other. I also wanted to make sure there were fluctuations in how they talk to each other. Circe very clearly admires things about Szu but she is a lot less direct. And because she is more overtly and outwardly confident, a lot of times she appears to have more of a control over their dynamic. However, what she knows innately is that Szu is more interesting than she is, more of an individual that she is. There is one part where her brother calls her out, saying that she doesn’t actually listen to all this indie, hipster bullshit and that she actually listens to Britney Spears. Circe is always pretending to be someone else. Adult Circe literally does that for her job, using other people’s voices on the internet.

I absolutely got that, the whole “trying to be something else.” She was not satisfied with who she thought her basic self was and tried to push herself beyond that. This thought process prevented her from escaping; she was literally boxing herself into all these categories when all she could have done was not see herself that way.

Right, exactly. Which is easier said than done. I mean, I really like Circe, I think she’s funny. The thing is, she didn’t really do anything wrong on paper. She didn’t do anything catastrophically wrong.

Tell me more about the ending. It came so suddenly that I had to calibrate myself and reorient the characters. Was your intention to jolt the reader?

I like a sense of mystery. I think that’s why short stories are so great—the best raise more questions than they give answers. I think it’s harder to put that in a novel without feeling like a cop-out, but I was going for a sense of intrigue and unexplainable mystery. I don’t want to be a spoiler for anyone, but I think what happened definitely happened and it’s quite easy to interpret it in a logical way—that her parents didn’t believe her. It’s realistic in that these things happen all the time. Children are vulnerable.

I’m also interested in the stories we tell ourselves, how we inhabit our traumas. Do we use that as something that enables us to be cruel to others and justify how we behave? Or do we hide in the trauma? What actually happens to Circe? I wanted to leave it ambiguous, and in my mind, I’m not entirely sure the woman Circe encounters at the end is who she says she is.