Sharlene Teo, Ponti (Guest post by Rosalind Moran) (#BookReview)

Last year as in the two previous years of the ACT Litbloggers/New Territory program, I offered the participants the opportunity to write a guest post for my blog. As a result Emma Gibson wrote a post on Randolph Stow’s Tourmaline, while Amy Walters suggested we do a 2018 Year in Review posts on each other’s blogs. This year, Rosalind Moran (check out her website) offered a book review on Singaporean author, Sharlene Teo, which of course I accepted as I’m happy to increase the diversity of authors covered on my blog.

Here is Rosalind’s post …

Book coverI haven’t read many books by Singaporean authors. Nevertheless, I am always keen to read more writing from beyond the traditional confines of the Anglosphere. So when I stumbled across Ponti in a bookstore after payday, I thought: why not?

Ponti was already vaguely on my radar. The debut novel had its London-based Singaporean author win the 2016 Deborah Rogers Writers’ Award before even being published (the award serves to support authors as they finish their first book). Since being released, it has been shortlisted for multiple prizes. Even Ian McEwan called the book “remarkable”. Naturally, my interest was piqued.

Ponti explores the lives of three interconnected women. There’s the cold and beautiful Amisa, who evokes the archetype of an enchantress; her pinched and unhappy daughter, Szu, who struggles to connect with others, least of all her mother; and Szu’s schoolmate, the privileged and acerbic Circe. As Amisa wallows in bitterness and begins to waste away, Szu and Circe develop a claustrophobic friendship – one that leaves Circe reckoning with her memories of it long after it has ended.

The novels switches between the perspectives of the three characters as well as between different points in time in their shared and separate histories. One quickly realises this book is focused not so much on detailing elaborate plotlines, but rather on deepening its characters. That said, it remains an engaging read throughout, simply owing to the compelling nature of the three women telling the story. What’s really behind each of their unique states of unhappiness, and how do their futures unfurl?

As the story unfolds, Amisa’s history emerges as the strongest plotline, perhaps because her experiences sow the environment in which Szu and Circe’s own troubles flourish. Indeed, she is the novel’s pivotal character, with her flaws, frustrations and traumas colouring all those with whom she comes into contact – and she is intriguing from the start. An unearthly beauty, she is introduced to the reader as a reclusive former actress, one of waning fame, whose defining moment was that of playing the lead in a trilogy of cult horror movies: Ponti 1, 2 and 3. Her role as the Pontianak, a predatory monster disguised as a beautiful woman, also comes to mirror her ongoing experience of moving through the world. Amisa is simultaneously desired and despised, even by her own family, and is ultimately a restless figure. She also effectively comes to haunt Szu and Circe.

I enjoyed many aspects of Ponti. Teo’s writing is strong and evocative, with characters frequently seeing their surrounds through a tinge of disgust and criticism; while these emotions do not in themselves make the writing strong, they do render it visceral and memorable. It was a pleasure to read a book where the characters’ homes, from the Malaysian village where Amisa grows up to the cosmopolitan Singapore, were drawn so distinctly. Through these strong descriptions, the book also manages to voice a subtle critique of how quickly and irreversibly the south-east Asian metropolis has changed over a few short decades, bringing both pressures and opportunities. In this sense, Pontiis a treat.

Characterisation is also a highlight of the novel – indeed, one could argue the novel is essentially one large exercise in characterisation. Teo’s focus on her characters’ interiorities makes them lifelike and compelling. Their interpersonal relationships, which often blur the boundaries between love, hate, and co-dependency, are also striking, with Szu and Circe’s friendship in particular standing out. Teo is masterful in her depiction of teen angst and complex female friendships, to the degree that her writing brings to mind a grungier Elena Ferrante. I also greatly enjoyed the book’s exploration of Indonesian and Malay mythology through the figure of the Pontianak, and the way this is used as a springboard into an exploration of broader ideas around perceptions of women and how they relate to men.

In the end, the novel’s only real shortcoming was – regrettably – the plot. For most of the book, this didn’t matter: the writing and characters are deeply engaging and I enjoyed simply following the story as it unfolded. Towards the end, however, it became clear the book was not going to resolve several of the questions that had helped build tension and momentum throughout its pages, or at least not do so adequately. In this sense, Ponti feels somewhat like a missed opportunity – because while ambiguity and character-driven plot can be done well, in this case, the story ended up feeling rushed in its final pages and retrospectively underdeveloped as a whole. It’s a shame, considering the book’s characters, setting, and writing are all so strong.

Nevertheless, Ponti remains an intriguing and thought-provoking read, and one that will rightly earn Sharlene Teo many avid fans; while her debut novel may not be perfect, it’s still well worth reading and suggests a great deal of promise. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for whatever she writes next.

Sharlene Teo
London: Simon & Schuster, 2019
ISBN-13: 978-1501173127

Thanks to Rosalind for an engaging and interesting review. Novel endings are a challenge, we know. Just ask EM Forster who wrote about it in Aspects of the novel. How many authors have changed the endings – even Jane Austen did for Persuasion – and how many readers question endings? Rosalind and I would love your thoughts on her review and/or on endings in general.

Monday musings on Australian literature: New Territory 2019

New Territory LogoFor the third year I am a mentor for the ACT Writers’ Centre arts writing program, which was called in its first year, ACT Lit-bloggers of the Future program, but rebadged last year as New Territory or, Adventures in Arts Writing. It was broadened then to include theatre, when the Street Theatre joined the National Library of Australia and the Canberra Writers Festival as program partners.

I’ve greatly enjoyed my role, as I’ve met some wonderful people – Angharad and Emma in 2017, and Amy in 2018. This year, we increased the number of participants to three, but one has since withdrawn due to being offered work in Kyrgyzstan! Canberra, Kyrgyzstan, Kyrgyzstan, Canberra … What would you choose?

So, to recap the program before I introduce this year’s participants. Its overall aim, as the Writers Centre says, is to develop:

a deeper conversation about the arts: why we make art, how do we engage in art, and to what end? We aim to develop the arts writers, thinkers and provocateurs of the future.

This is done by providing for the selected emerging ACT-region writers to attend events at the National Library of Australia, the Street Theatre and the Canberra Writers Festival, and post their responses (which “document/explore/critique the experience”) on a blog. And this year, we have a dedicated New Territory Blog for the writers. It is still managed by the Writers Centre, but is separate from their own blogWe expect each blogger to write around 6 posts over the 6 or so months that the program runs. The Writers Centre plans to populate this blog with all the posts that have been written for the program since its inception.

The three writers were chosen in May, and the program is now well under way, so I’d like to introduce the two continuing writers to you:

  • Shelley Burr is working on a novel, and took part in the ACT Writers Centre’s well-regarded Hard Copy program last year (the same program, though a different year of course, that helped Michelle Scott Tucker with her biography of Elizabeth Macarthur, which I’ve reviewed.) She is particularly interested in what she calls “drought noir”, which term sounds perfect for some of the crime coming out of Australia at present. Shelley has had her writing place well in the Stockholm Writers Festival First Pages program. She hasn’t posted to the blog yet as she wants to focus on the Canberra Writers Festival, which takes place at the end of August.
  • Rosalind Moran already has quite a CV, having written for anthologies, websites, and journals including Meanjin, Overland, Feminartsy, Demos, and Writer’s Edit. She has also featured in several festivals – the Emerging Writers’ Festival, the National Young Writers’ Festival, the National Multicultural Festival, and Noted Festival. Oh, and she’s the co-founder of a new literary venture, Cicerone Journal. Rosalind has already written three posts on the blog: on the National Library’s Inked cartoon exhibition; on a puppet show titled BRUCE at the Street Theatre; and on a play at the Street Theatre, A Doll’s House, Part 2. Rosalind has her own website, here.

As in previous years, I plan to ask Shelley and Rosalind whether they’d like to write a guest post here during the program. Regardless, I will also report back later in the year, but meanwhile please do check out their posts on the blog (linked above).

Until then, thanks again to the ACT Writers Centre, the National Library of Australia, the Street Theatre and the Canberra Writers Festival for sponsoring this program – and a special thanks to author Nigel Featherstone for initiating and overseeing this program. I love being involved. I reckon I gain as much, if not more, from meeting and talking with other local arts writing enthusiasts, as they do from my involvement.

Previous posts on the program:

New Territory Litbloggers’ Year in Review, 2018

When my 2018 New Territory blogging mentee Amy (of The Armchair Critic) suggested that we do some sort of joint end-of-year blog post I loved the idea. The only question was what would we talk about, and how would we do it? It wasn’t too hard to decide former, as the subject matter was obvious: we would write about our favourites reads of this year, what we’d like to read over summer, and the ACT Writers Centre’s New Territory program which brought us together

As for how, we tossed around various formats, but settled on something simple: each of us would write a post responding to our agreed topics, and would then post the other person’s answers on our own blog. This means that you can read Amy’s responses below, and mine on Amy’s blog.

I do hope you enjoy Amy’s thoughts. We would both love to hear your comments on her reading.

Amy’s highlights

Best Fiction

Penelope Lively, Moon tigerI’ve managed to narrow it down to three. All of them happen to have won prizes but this is a coincidence; I take an interest in prizes but I don’t let my reading habits be defined by them. First up is Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. This won the Booker Prize in 1987. It tells the story of Claudia, a journalist, who mentally revisits her life as she is dying. The fluidity of Lively’s prose reminds me of Virginia Woolf, and, like Woolf, it encapsulates multiple perspectives of the same event. It is a short book but extremely dense, though in a good way – it is emotionally and historically rich, spanning events throughout the twentieth century including the second world war.

My other favourite novel was The bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald which coincidentally is also a previous Booker winner. I read it after seeing the movie, which I reviewed on my blog. I loved Fitzgerald’s witty turn of phrase and the sense of quiet devastation that her understated prose leaves you with. A hard-hitting meditation on justice, personal culpability and the cost of pursuing a life in art.

My final fiction read is The museum of modern love by Heather Rose which won the 2017 Stella Prize. This book centres around a performance work at MONA in New York by Marina Abramovic and weaves aspects of Abramovic’s life with the contemporary life of the protagonist, Arky Levin, whose wife is seriously ill. It explores themes including the purpose of art, and the nature of human connection.

Best Non-fiction

Again I have to pick the top three. First up is Murder without a motive by the Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent Mart McKenzie Murray. Murray investigates the murder of schoolgirl Rebecca Ryle in Perth’s northern suburbs in 2004, and how her family manages to live in the knowledge of what happened to her. Mckenzie-Murray and I both grew up in Perth’s northern suburbs around where the murder took place, so I identified strongly with his (not so flattering) evocations of it. What clinched the book for me was how Mckenzie-Murray explored how the life trajectory of Ryle’s murderer was conditioned by his stultifying surroundings which were characterised by toxic masculinity.

Next up is Draw your weapons by Sarah Sentilles. I heard Sentilles at this year’s Adelaide Writer’s Week, and I highly recommend these podcasts for summer listening. Sentilles, a pacifist and former art history professor, writes about the ethical entanglements we all have with our society’s violent structures, and how we can take both a moral and practical stand against being implicated in perpetuating such violence. The book is held together by the stories of two men; a conscientious objector from World War Two and a soldier who worked at Abu Graib. Saying a book changed your life can be a throwaway line, but in this case it is true.

Lastly is Small wrongs: How we say sorry in life, love and the law by Kate Rossmanith. Rossmanith is an academic with degrees in theatre and anthropology. The book is “hybrid,” as she examines remorsefulness and redemption in her own life, as well as in other spheres such as the law. Her writing is beautiful and she is brutally honest about her own actions, which is very compelling and refreshing. I literally could not put this book down.

Best biography

I reviewed Do oysters get bored by Rozanna Lilley for New Territory. Lilley is such a talented writer, and I enjoyed the way she teased out her complicated relationships with her parents and the artistic community she grew up surrounded by. As I wrote in my review, I really believe Lilley has done Australian society a major service by demonstrating the moral conundrums and aftermath of artists’ delusional or egocentric behaviour.

My other favourite was Twin by Allen Shawn. Shawn is a composer and musician whose father was William Shawn, the long-serving editor of the New Yorker. Like his father, Allen has many anxieties and phobias which he has also written about. Twin is an account of how Shawn’s autistic twin sister Mary was removed from the family at the age of five and has spent her life in an institution. The dynamics of Shawn’s family are complex – there is a major twist about his parents’ relationship, and it really demonstrates the extent to which self-deception and sacrifice, mostly on the part of mothers, are necessary to maintain a bearable home life. Shawn’s writing is poetic and devastating.

Highlights of my summer reading list

  • Michelle de Kretser, The life to comeThe life to come by Michelle de Kretser and No more boats by Felicity Castagna: I heard these two authors together at Adelaide Writers Week and am really looking forward to getting into their work
  • The helpline by Katherine Collett: Collett is co-creator of the podcast The First Time and this is her first book. Apparently it is hilarious, and revolves around a mathematician who works on a senior citizens’ helpline …
  • Shell by Kristina Olsson: set during the building of the Opera House, a building I am fascinated by. It is billed as a moving reflection on art and shame.
  • Giving up the ghost by Hilary Mantel: I came across this while researching Mantel’s views on historical fiction for my first New Territory piece. It is about her relationship with her family history.
  • Any ordinary day by Leigh Sales: I picked this up in a bookshop and was totally compelled by the first few pages.

What has New Territory meant to me?

New Territory has been great for many reasons. I’ve spent time with the amazing Sue Terry and have built relationships with the wonderful staff at the ACT Writers Centre, whose advice I really value. I’ve been exposed to rehearsals at The Street and have come to understand what it takes to produce theatre. I have attended some great events at the National Library, not to mention being able to speak to Rozanna Lilley courtesy of the Canberra Writers Festival.

From a craft point of view it was helpful to have the experience of being edited, and seeing how a good editor can really improve your work. I was also really privileged to attend the Hard Copy conference, where I heard from writers, agents and publishers about the publishing industry and how to get people to read your writing. This was invaluable, and helped me develop my goals for next year, which include pitching to a writers festival as a presenter, and networking with the writing community both online and at events.

Monday musings on Australian literature: New Territory 2018

New Territory LogoLast year, some of you will remember, I was a mentor for the ACT Writers’ Centre ACT Lit-bloggers of the future program. It was great fun, and I really enjoyed working with Angharad and Emma over the six-months the program lasted. I wrote a couple of posts about the program, but if you’d like to refresh yourself, this one soon after it started would be a good place to start.

Well, it’s on again this year, but newly branded as New Territory: Adventures in Arts Writing, and with the Street Theatre joining the ACT Writers Centre and the National Library of Australia as program partners. The program, as last year, provides for two emerging ACT-region writers to attend events at the National Library of Australia, the Street Theatre and, in fact, the Canberra Writers Festival, and post their responses on the Writers Centre’s Capital Letters blog.

The ACT Writers Centre’s advertising of the program described it as follows:

[It] is a program that is committed to developing a deeper conversation about the arts: why we make art, how do we engage in art, and to what end? We aim to develop the arts writers, thinkers and provocateurs of the future.

In other words, the writers are encouraged to explore the arts in Canberra – and particularly the events offered by the partner organisations, which they can attend at no charge.

The two writers were chosen in June, and the program is now officially under way, so I’d like to introduce this year’s bloggers to you:

  • Amy (armchaircriticoz): like last year’s Angharad, Amy has a full-time job, and is developing her blog and critical writing skills on the side. Currently her blog roams across film, television, exhibitions, books and other topics that grab her fancy. Do check it out.
  • Siv Parker (On Dusk): and like last year’s Emma, Siv has some writing credentials behind her. Indeed, she won the  David Unaipon Award in 2012, and, in fact, I mentioned her twitter fiction piece in my post on the Writing back anthology last year. She is keen to rekindle her writing career, particularly in this arts writing area, and wants to explore how social media can be harnessed to this purpose. Check out her blog too.

I have asked Siv and Amy whether they’d like to write a guest post here during the program, as Emma did last year, and both seemed keen so you will hopefully see them here sometime in the not too distant future.

I will report back mid-program and point you to some of the work Amy and Siv have been doing, but meanwhile please do check out their blogs and Capital Letters (links above).

Until then, thanks again to the ACT Writers Centre, the NLA and the Street Theatre for sponsoring this program – and a special thanks to author Nigel Featherstone for overseeing this program and gently, encouragingly, shepherding us all through it. I am thrilled to be involved again. I loved getting to know, and spending time with, Angharad and Emma, and look forward to developing a similar relationship with Amy and Siv. Writers – of all sorts – are such fun to be around.

We’d love to hear if you know of any similar programs in your neck of the woods.