Sharlene Teo’s debut book Ponti, released earlier this year, has been much praised, not least from established authors including Ian McEwan who described it as ‘remarkable’. Set in Teo’s home country of Singapore, the novel follows two teenage friends Szu and Circe, and Szu’s former actress mother, Amisa, across a seventeen year period. Told from the perspectives of all three women, and mixing myth with modernity, Ponti is a compelling tale of the complexities of friendship.
Ahead of her appearance at Southbank Centre’s London Literature Festival later this month – where she joins Madeline Miller for a discussion as part of our focus on The Odyssey – we caught up with Teo to ask about the inspiration behind her debut novel, and what a modern female audience can take from the work of Homer.
Where did the inspiration for your debut book, Ponti, come from?
I've always been fascinated by the Pontianak, the creature from Malay mythology who manifests as a scarily sexy female ghost who violently attacks men. The Indonesian animist belief describes these ghosts as women who died while pregnant, but Malay lore describes Pontianaks as the ghosts of stillborn children. The Pontianak folklore's prevailing fixation with thwarted maternity seems to communicate a deep-seated societal anxiety around the familial obligations and bodies of women. So Ponti was born from the impulse to juxtapose these superstitious anxieties with the development of the Singaporean cityscape, and the emotional evolutions of my three narrators over time.
Could the book have worked in any other city? Or did you feel that the setting of Singapore was integral to the novel?
Singapore is completely integral to the novel. My home country is very much a character in itself in the novel. The Pontianak myth is so deeply embedded in Southeast Asian cultural consciousness that it wouldn't make sense to transplant it anywhere else. I set out to write a book about specifically Singaporean superstitions, social dynamics and workplace attitudes.
Should we draw parallels between Ponti’s character, Circe, and the Circe of Homer? Do they share more than a name?
I named my character Circe to fox the reader a little: firstly, it's difficult to pronounce, so how you say it in your head, on the page, and out loud is pretty unique to the individual. Depending on where you're located, whether you're associating her name instantaneously with Homer's Circe or choosing to interpret it as yet another unusual name that some Asian families like to christian their kids with as a sort of status symbol. Google tells me the name Circe is pronounced differently in Greek, for example.
Secondly, yes, Ponti's Circe was intended to share some commonalities with the Circe of Homer, although I wouldn't call her a direct reinterpretation of the character. There's her wiliness and power plays, dry sense of humour, inviting and withholding behaviour and disdain for human beings that masks a historical hurt.
Homer’s The Odyssey is a central strand to this year’s London Literature Festival. When did you first read it and what does it, or has it, meant to you as a reader and a writer?
I first encountered The Odyssey as a story-hungry child, and its complexity, strangeness, textures and iterations of deception and revelation, seduction and love, exile and return fascinate and compel me as a reader and writer. I read a journal article that stated it has spent 2,700 years on the bestseller list, which is staggering - and it has tremendous and enduring cultural influence.
You’re joining us, alongside Madeline Miller, for a talk titled Women Rewriting Homer. Should we be making the case for a rewriting his works, or more for a reunderstanding of them, away from the traditional male gaze and male dominated analysis?
Yes, and the success of recent works such as Emily Wilson's translation of The Odyssey attests to the demand for rewritings of traditionally phallocentric narratives.
To take the previous question further, why should contemporary women care about reading the work of Homer; stories which revolve around heroic male characters with female characters often othered and sidelined?
Because there is a reason why these stories have lasted so long and continue to hold contemporary appeal; stories, myths and the protean processes of myth-making have the capacity to both capture the imagination, arrest one's memory and also reveal timeless patterns of human behaviour. We read about flawed heroes to learn more about ourselves.
Southbank Centre is the home of literature and spoken word events in the UK, and the venue for London Literature Festival and Poetry International. Throughout the year we host talks, discussions, readings and more featuring bestselling authors, award-winning poets and inspirational writers.
Ponti by Sharlene Teo is published by Picador and is available now.