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Sharlene Teo on Putting the Work into Characters & Her Love for Reading
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
September 2018
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
September 2018

London-based Singaporean Chinese, Sharlene Teo, is earning a Ph.D. at the University of East Anglia, among the UK’s most respected education centers for creative writing. With a focus on literary criticism and theory, her work explores the representation of Singaporean and Malaysian women in fiction. But her course also requires participants to write a novel – and that she did with Ponti, which has already received praise in the UK and comes out this month in the US.  

Ponti is a novel that centers on a failed horror movie actress named Amisa Tan who makes a B-horror movie trilogy called Ponti! in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, her misfit teenaged daughter Szu, and Szu's frenemy, Circe,” describes Teo. “It's about friendships, failure, monstrosity, and the things we do on the cusp of adulthood that haunt us years later.”

This excerpt was originally published on NZ Book Lovers. Read the full interview here.

On Creating Robust Characters:

While writing this multi-voice novel, Teo took her time as she thoughtfully composed her characters.

Ponti was hard for me to read, almost too intimate, too knowing, as if the author had seen into my 16-year-old head and laid bare things I would have rather died than ever admitted. It does what the best of books do: sees you, remakes you, makes that which is familiar strange and new again,” wrote one reviewer on Goodreads.

I wanted to challenge standard stereotypes and tropes of Asian women in fiction – pretty little delicate things with no opinions. Dainty, subservient. Singaporean women aren’t like that. None of my characters are like that. They are messy, temperamental, unbroody. My characters are opposites of fictional stereotypes.”

Which of the Asian stereotypes makes a woman a beauty? Neither Szu nor Circe are particularly beautiful, but Amisa is. When asked how she challenged stereotypes with Amisa?

“I wanted to explore the aging Asian female body. I wanted to think about the way we look at women, the difference between having your face on a screen, and truly being seen,” Teo shared.  “Amisa wants to be truly seen. For Amisa, Iskander, who casts her as the Pontianak in the Ponti movies, holds out the promise of perceiving her innate qualities. He sees more than her face and body. In so much fiction, Asian women are nothing more than faces and bodies.”

Amisa dies when Szu is 16 when the relationship between them is suffering - all the stresses and strains of a young woman who is just coming into herself and her sexuality combined with a mother whose power is fading. Her death is rapid, and it offers no redemption. 

“I wanted to explore grieving when everything is unresolved. We take so many relationships for granted, we assume we’ll be given time to sort things out, but what if we’re not? What if when someone dies we have ambivalent feelings about them? What if we don’t understand. I wanted to have Szu confronting life and woman-to-woman relationships when everything was unresolved.”

On Writing:

When asked about her writing routine, she laments the “shaming culture” that dictates “all these didactic rules” one must follow to be considered a writer – like having to write every day.

“Everybody has their own process. You’re not a machine,” she says. “I feel like as long as you’re reading, you’re fine. If you’re a writer and you stop reading things that don’t relate directly to your work, for pleasure, then you’re fucked. What are you even doing? How can you expect people to read your stuff for pleasure if you’re not?”

This excerpt was originally published on The Guardians. Read the full interview here.

On Reading:

“I read everything: product labels, warning signs, and medication booklets. It is an essential part of life to me. I read to enliven and enlarge my understanding of the world,” says Teo. “[I] try and see the good in every piece of writing, even if it’s not to my immediate taste. That being said, I don’t need to finish everything I start, life’s too short. Sometimes I dip in and out of books and take ages to finish them.”

Like most avid readers, reading inspires a flood of emotion for Teo.
“I feel comforted, consoled, envious, enraptured, inspired, revved up, I want to talk about it and rave about it to everybody. I am an enthusiastic and fangirlish reader first and foremost, a hungry writer second,” she offers.

 A few of her favorite authors include Dorthe Nors, Suzanne Ushie, Carson McCullers, Bae Suah, Shirley Jackson, May Lan Tan, Deborah Levy, Miranda July, Mary Gaitskill, Elizabeth Strout, Katherine Mansfield, Helen Oyeyemi, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Ottessa Moshfegh and Jenny Diski.

“I’m too contemporary in my tastes and I’m trying to set a reading program for myself of alternating one living and one dead writer,” Teo admits. “I feel like I have a lot to learn from the greats, but tweet-sized patience, like a millennial cliché.”

These excerpts were originally published on Afoma Umesi. Read the full interview here.

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