An Interview With Sharlene Teo, Author Of Ponti
Hi Sharlene! First things first, I love old Pontianak films! Did you watch any as part of your research for Ponti?
Yes, I watched all the scenes from the BN Rao Pontianak movies and various schlocky remakes / short films about Pontianaks including Roger Sutton's from 1975. I also watched scenes from P Ramlee films.
The choice to feature a Pontianak in your story is an interesting one. The Pontianak is alluring and beautiful, yet her appearance is a facade for who she truly is - a bloodthirsty hantu who preys on unsuspecting men. You couldn’t have picked a more subversive female figure! Care to elaborate on that?
Exactly, there's an incredibly subversive quality to the outwardly attractive and highly feminine figure of the Pontianak actually being a bloodthirsty man-murdering monster. The forms she takes and the mythological associations with difficult or deadly childbirths or misbehaving female corpses also speaks to societal anxieties about how women should behave and present themselves. And suspicions / antagonism towards young women.
Conversely, the other female characters in the novel, with the exception of Amisa, are hardly stunning beauties. I find that refreshing. Can you tell us a bit more about the theme of beauty in Ponti? Was your choice of featuring plain-looking main characters a deliberate attempt to represent the ordinary?
Definitely, that's a really insightful reading. To paraphrase Eka Kurniawan, beauty is wounding to both the beautiful and unbeautiful because, due to the media, we are socialised to value certain aesthetics or ideals of beauty and everyone who doesn't fall within those conventional parameters suffers for it. Particularly as adolescents. I also wanted to examine the context of beauty in the family, proximities to beauty and how withholding or limiting defining people through external beauty really is.
Another theme that stood out strongly for me is how powerful female friendships are. I did not doubt for a second that a close female friend from one’s teenage years could still exact the same influence on one even as an adult. Why do you think female friendships are so powerful? Was Ponti an attempt to represent that?
Female friendships are having a cultural moment catalysed, I think, by Elena Ferrante's supernaturally insightful Neopolitan novels and I think also by a widespread popular consensus that interpersonal dynamics not necessarily fueled by overt sexual tension or rivalry are in some respects a whole lot more barbed, contradictory and chaotic. Ponti is very concerned with the emotional impact of formative friendships for sure, which makes it fairly introspective, not that plot-centric, but that was the point really, how we circle backwards and keep returning to the same patterns of anxiety and nostalgia.
Ponti is partly about making a film that never quite takes off. There is also an undeniably cinematic quality that pervades the entire novel. Have you ever thought of adapting Ponti to film? If so, who would you cast as Amisa, Circe and Suz?
I definitely intended the ekphrastic scenes of the films to be cinematic! I'd be open to it being adapted. I think Circe and Suz would be unknowns, nondescript and surly girls. Amisa I'd always imagined as an icy-beautiful hybrid of Maria Menado and Jacelyn Tay (my favourite Channel 8 actress growing up- those cheekbones!)
Can you share a bit more about your writing process with us? Do you have a problem with procrastination, or are you one of those disciplined writers who sit down and write everyday?
I write in the mornings, I put on ambient or electronic music (no lyrics), I am a champion procrastinator and definitely not the person to be asking for productivity tips! I'd definitely say I have a kiasu, nervous energy but sometimes that goes into worrying instead of writing. lol!
Lastly, who is your favourite horror movie character and why?
Su-mi from A Tale of Two Sisters. She's really put through the wringer and that film has scarred me forever.