An award-winning fiction debut about the value of friendships in present-day Singapore—a surprising and powerful portrait of Asia that shows the unique blend of modern and traditional cultures coming together—for fans of Elena Ferrante and Emma Cline.
“I am Miss Frankenstein, I am the bottom of the bell curve.” So declares Szu, a teenager living in a dark, dank house on a Singapore cul-de-sac, at the beginning of this richly atmospheric and endlessly surprising tale of non-belonging and isolation.
Friendless and fatherless, Szu lives in the shadow of her mother Amisa, once a beautiful actress—who gained fame for her portrayal of a ghost—and now a hack medium performing séances with her sister in a rusty house. When Szu meets the privileged, acid-tongued Circe, an unlikely encounter develops into a fraught friendship that will haunt them both for decades to come.
With remarkable emotional acuity, dark comedy, and in vivid prose, Sharlene Teo’s Ponti traces the suffocating tangle the lives of four misfits, women who need each other as much as they need to find their own way. It is an astounding portrayal of the gaping loneliness of adolescence, the surrealness of the modern city, and the strangeness of living with and loving other people.
Ponti 1 SZU 2003 Today marks my sixteenth year on this hot, horrible earth. I am stuck in school, standing with my palms pressed against a green wall. I am pressing so hard that my fingers ache. I am tethered to this wall by my own shame.
I am in trouble again. I keep finding myself in trouble. It takes me weeks to wade out of it. There is something dishonest about my face, even when I’m telling the truth. What can you do when you’re born with a bad face? I think that’s why most people don’t take to me. Yes, take to me, the way that ducks take to water or kids take to certain talents. The way the other girls in school seem to be best friends in seconds, in-jokes and easy laughter.
When I was eleven I used to hope that puberty would morph me, that one day I’d uncurl from my chrysalis, bloom out beautiful. No luck! Acne instead. Disgusting hair. Blood. I take after my father’s side, apparently, the homely, ashen Ngs, a family of grifters and gamblers, smugglers and runaways. People are superficial, whether they admit it or not. I wouldn’t be stuck here if I looked even a tiny bit more like my mother, who is a monster but so stunning that she can get away with anything. Even when she’s not around, I can feel my mother’s eyes on my back, the pinprick glare of her disapproval.
True horror fans know her as Amisa Tan. Screen name: Amisa Tan Xiaofang. Day to day, she is the kind of woman who never sweats, who wouldn’t be caught dead talking with a mouth full of food. She eats like a bird, smokes like a chimney. Back when she left the house more often she used to get fruit and flowers offered to her (like some sort of pagan goddess) at the wet market, by stuttering men of all ages, who also competed to help her with her bags. She accepted the free gifts but declined the manpower, made me carry all the shopping instead. All the way home, cars slowed in stately reverence as my mother sauntered down the roadside, me trailing behind her. Strained plastic handles cut into my palms; the weight of future dinners ached my shoulders and forearms.
Right now I keep staring at the wall because if I shut my eyes I might fall asleep for a second standing up, like a horse. This wall is the shade of carsickness and cheap mint ice cream. Behind me is the staffroom. I hear the teachers going in and out of the swinging wooden doors. If I strain my ears I tell myself I can make out the scratching of ballpoint pens. Scritch-scratch, wrong answer, incorrect. Right now Mdm. Goh and Mrs. Fok and Mr. Singh are marking our test scripts: Mother Tongue and Elementary Mathematics and Chemistry. I already know it: I have that familiar sinking feeling in my stomach, that I am not going to do well. “You are not doing well, Szu. You need to buck up,” Mrs. Fok tells me, and that is part of why I am in public detention. The other reason is because I am “disruptive,” and also too old, Mrs. Fok continues, to be upsetting my classmates with the things that I am saying.
Elizabeth Kwee is the new girl who transferred over from St. Magdalen’s Secondary School two weeks ago. She is half a head shorter than me and as sweet and manufactured as Japanese candy. She has a cluster of ripening pimples spread across her right cheek, inflicted, perhaps, by a dirty pillow and firm preference of sleeping angle. I thought maybe we could be friends. But she is the one who told Mrs. Fok that I am a compulsive liar and that I spend all day whispering “weird, creepy things” to her.
The part about talking to her all day is true, especially during the draggy afternoon periods. The weirdness I disagree with. I am the most normal person that I know.
Singapore lies just one degree north of the equator and it feels like the bull’s-eye where the sun is aiming a shot at the earth with the intention of killing it. In the afternoons this building heats up like a copper-coil stove. The classroom is so sweltering that all thirty-three of us sweat out half our body weight, a form of suffering which the girls most committed to their eating disorders view as beneficial and beautifying. The cooked classroom smells like Impulse deodorant and soiled sanitary pads. The perspiration makes our starched buttoned blouses turn translucent as onion peel and stick to the skin. Lurid bra straps and push-up cup lines emerge like litmus blooming through filter paper: neon pink, acid green, boudoir red—unorthodox colors for our prim and proper all-girls’ school. My own bra is always beige.
Mrs. Chan, who is in charge of Pastoral Care, has already swapped my sitting partner five times this year. I’ve exhausted everyone. My classmates call me Sadako after the Ringu drowned girl and prefer to leave me alone. That is, until they get intolerably bored and decide to make my life miserable. For now, even the cruelest and most perfect girls prefer to pretend that I don’t exist.
Clara Chua, Lee Meixi, and Trissy Kwok are a three-headed vision of stem-glass necks and crystal-clear skin, branded satchels, and understated sexual experience. They are as idle and cunning as crocodiles. They are unknowable and invincible. Their limpid eyes judge and glint. Every morning, in unison, they twist their shampoo-advert hair gently in their hands and draw it over their shoulders like a rifle sling.
Ours is a convent school, the Whampoa Convent of the Eternally Blessed, but there is nothing pious about the things that teenage girls inflict upon each other. In this place it is not the weird girls, the too freakish to engage with, who are minced meat, but the less well-off, the ones who can’t afford good schoolbags or sports shoes, or else the weaklings, the watery-eyed and too quick to please. I’ve seen girls torn to pieces for agreeing with the wrong thing, I’ve seen girls strung up like joints of char siu or roast duck in the dirtiest toilets, panties exposed, gulping back tears for offending one of the crocodiles or associates of the crocodiles. Always in some minute, impossible way—blinking for too long so as to appear contemptuous, coughing too comically, saying some misjudged, stupid thing.
I don’t believe in holy ghosts, but right at the start of my time here (three forever years ago, at that inauspicious age of thirteen) I used to say this prayer every morning, in time to my footsteps before I entered the gates:
I pray to birdshit,
I pray to the trees,
I pray to the walkway,
I pray to the construction cranes.
Nobody be bad to me,
Let me be okay.
Amen, amen, amen.
The wrought-iron school gates are painted the same shade as banana foam gums, to mimic the pliability of marshmallows when there is no easy escape. A nauseating candy palette forms the color scheme of our school, to soften the blow of the horrors within; mint-green walls by the staffroom, senile lilac by the concourse, blush pink and cloud blue on the tall, tacky spires that make up the east and west wings. I spend more time in this compound than I do anywhere else. I wish it would burn down in my sleep.
Yesterday I saw a mirage on the whiteboard. If I believed in God I would call it a holy vision. Mrs. Fok’s marker-pen squiggles began to jump around on the surface, flow and skip like the volume lines on a monitor; I felt like I was either going to faint or leap up from my chair and start dancing. My blood swelled. My bones brimmed with an overwhelming sense of expectancy, as if the thing I had waited for all my life, without being able to name it, was finally happening. Just then I had the greatest urge to talk to Elizabeth Kwee. Her small pink ear was a receptor of infinite wisdom, invited it. My palms and feet were cold even though the rest of me was boiling.
“Oi, Elizabeth, do you want to hear something?” I whispered.
She kept her eyes resolutely on the whiteboard.
“Oi, want to hear something cool?”
“No,” Elizabeth hissed. She drummed her right hand on the gray plastic table. The fleshy underside of her palm was stained with blue ink. I leaned over to her ear.
“My mother is a monster,” I whispered. I was so close to her. I knew how hot and stinky my breath would be, in this endless two thirty glare, this humidity. Someone behind us shifted in her chair. Elizabeth moved away from me gently. She didn’t want to risk detention.
“Stop talking,” she said under her breath.
“No one can hear,” I replied. “You won’t get in any trouble. So you know about my mother?”
“Yeah. So what?”
“You can still get video copies of her movie, in Malaysia, pirated—”
“The one about the Pontianaks. Yeah yeah, I was sick that day. But I heard you did a presentation.”
Last Friday for National Education I did a PowerPoint presentation on my mother’s film career. My voice shook the whole way through my introduction. The girls in the back row sniggered. Ponti! (not to be confused with Pontianak 1957, The Pontianak, Curse of Pontianak, or Return of the Pontianak) was the best and most underappreciated film to come out of Singapore in 1978.
Ponti! is a cult movie. It is the first and undeniably finest of a trilogy, even though hardly anyone knows about them and it’s difficult to obtain copies. But film fanatics find a way. My mother has received four letters from America, three from Indonesia, two from Japan, one from Holland, from these superfans telling her how much they love her. Once in a while she takes the letters out from their manila folder, smoothing the creases, and rereads them silently. I told her if we got a computer she might get even more fan mail, but she doesn’t trust the Internet and neither does my aunt. My aunt says that too many wires will piss off the local spirits, and when I tell her it doesn’t work like that she gives me a small smile and waves me quiet.
In the best (and only) role of her working life, my mother, in cheap prosthetics, plays a hunchbacked, congenitally deformed girl named Ponti who makes a deal with a bomoh to become beautiful. She will do anything, pay any price. A lifetime of ugliness is unbearable. My mother was nineteen when she filmed it, close to my age. Please, Datuk, I beg you, she says to the camera—and the voice that comes out is a total stranger’s: an American dub, sweet and small and foreign.
The witch doctor grants her wish. Emerging from a dust cloud she looks as radiant as a pearl, even in the grainy footage.
With Ponti’s beauty, however, comes a thirst for male blood. She is the Pontianak now, a cannibalistic monster. She must find and feed on victims in order to maintain her looks. She wears an off-white dress that hugs her hips, and seduces men who are traveling alone along the lampless dirt roads of Pantai Dalam. It’s all in keeping with the Pontianak myth, told by worried wives to make their husbands wary of young, beautiful girls walking alone at night. Of course, the men don’t listen. And she looks so alluring. She brings her victims right up close and gives them a long, wet kiss that sucks the soul and youth out of them. The sight of my mother kissing an actor makes me squirm in my seat. Blood splatters. And then the camera pans to the tops of palm trees. You can see the leaves shaking. The sound of hungry slurping offscreen. They didn’t have the budget for more gore, so we are spared the actual defilement.
In the next shot she’s standing alone in the artificially lit glade. This is the clip I showed in class, rather than the seduction and murder before. It’s a wordless scene, and my favorite. My mother is breathing heavily and looks clammy and defeated. Her shoulders are uncharacteristically slouched. The front of her dress is drenched in diluted corn syrup, more pink than red. She peers up slowly, and when she’s facing the camera straight on she blinks like she’s coming out of a trance. And then her expression crumples; she’s too tired even to cry. I always want to hug her here. At this point the projection flickered, as if in agreement with me. I glanced around the darkened classroom, trying to make sure everyone was paying attention. Trissy grinned at her phone. Meixi had her eyes closed. Vanya and Lin, however, were staring impassively at the screen.
My mother raises her hand to brush some dirt off her left forearm. She’s trembling; it’s not just the jolty camera. Her long dark hair is flared in that style so popular in the seventies. Backlit in milky light, she looks like she’s on the moon. Up close, her face is soft and unguarded. I’ve never seen this expression in real life. She seems like someone I might get along with, a girl full of worries and affection who will one day solidify into my mother, but not just yet.
Ponti! ends with a chase scene. My monster is pale and frantic, but still proud. She keeps her chin up as she tears through the lalang field. The long green stalks shudder around her. The hero is in close pursuit. I used to watch this through my fingers. I never wanted him to catch her. But he’s the one cut out for victory. He knows how to defeat the Pontianak: a sacred rusty nail, driven into the hole in the back of her head, the one the bomoh drilled to curse her beauty. The legend dictates he must also stuff a bit of her own hair into her hole. The actor finally does this with the bored purposefulness of someone pushing pizza flyers through a letter box. I have memorized the final frames: the rustle of rain-soaked leaves; my mother’s bare, dainty feet pattering through the mud, followed by heavy boots. There is a clap of lightning as our hero overcomes her. He raises the hammer, drives the nail in, along with some of her hair. And then an awful crunching sound as my mother’s eyes widen.
“Watermelons. That’s the trick,” my mother said. “If you chop the center of a watermelon quickly, with a long knife, it sounds like stabbing a tummy. If you drop a watermelon from three meters it’s just like a skull being cracked open. If you rattle coffee beans in a tin drum it sounds like a rainstorm. But everyone knows that last one.”
This was many years ago, when I was still a cute kid. We used to sit together and watch the trilogy over and over until I knew each film down to the minute, and she would tell me stories about the making of them, back in that free, wonderful life she enjoyed before me.
“Wah lau, they made such a mess on set,” I whispered to Elizabeth. “Watermelon pulp everywhere, hacked-up brinjal and white carrots and tomatoes and radishes all over the floor, so sticky. They filmed in a sound stage in Johor, in June, when the weather was damn hot. The whole place stank of rotting vegetables.”
“Don’t care,” Elizabeth said. She looked ahead, eyes glazed, and had stopped drumming her hand on the table; instead she pushed her chair closer to her desk, as if to tuck away her whole body. The metal legs made a screeching sound on the floor.
“Anyway, even though my mother dies in Ponti!, she gets resurrected for Ponti 2. And even though she gets beheaded at the end of Ponti 3 it’s left a little open-ended. You know how it is in horror movies? Always leaving the potential for sequels.”
Elizabeth swerved her head towards me with a pinched, decisive expression.
“Can you please just shut up?” she hissed.
“Fine, fine,” I said. We both turned to the whiteboard. Nothing written on there made any sense. Maths and other people were a foreign language. I heard the low, labored hum of the ceiling fan whirring above us. A mosquito hovered near my left ear and moved along. Even the mosquito couldn’t be bothered with me. I felt a skittering in my ribs, rising up into my windpipe. I didn’t know if I was angry or sad or glad or all of the above. I tried Elizabeth one more time.
“I can lend you the VCD, you know. Mrs. Chong helped me convert the footage . . .”
Elizabeth clamped her hand over her left ear, the one closest to me. Her other hand smacked the table. The classroom fell silent.
“Elizabeth and Szu. Is everything okay?” Mrs. Fok asked, pointing the uncapped marker pen at my face.
I felt the entire herd of classmates turning towards us. Now it was their stares that were like heat rays on the back of my neck, on my reddening cheeks, across my clammy shoulders.
I nodded and gulped, mute again.
“Madam, she keeps talking when I’m trying to pay attention,” Elizabeth said, in a wronged, sniveling voice.
“Szu Min, remember last week?” Mrs. Fok said, waving her pen. “I gave you two warnings already. What did I tell you, girl?”
I looked up at her from under my eyelashes. I tried to embody a sheep. Why do teachers ask these dreadful rhetorical questions? I could see Meixi in the corner of my vision, flicking her shiny, ever-obedient hair. She looked disgusted but mostly bored by me.
“Public detention,” Mrs. Fok continued, answering her own question. “Tuesday, Green Post B, by the staffroom. Be there at two. Stay still and quiet. You girls need to learn stillness and quiet. Don’t try anything funny. I’ll come check on you.”
“Oh, Szu, you’re still here,” Mrs. Fok says. Her shadow crosses the green wall. “You can put your arms down.”
I turn around and look at her. My arms ache and I hate her for it. She’s shorter than me; most people are. Her hair is greasy black with strands of gray, and lies flat against her skull. Her skin is sallow crêpe paper. She looks like a houseplant that has been neglected over the holidays.
“Your continuous assessment is in five weeks,” she says. “Not long to brush up.”
“Yes, Madam, I know,” I reply, and leave it at that.
“Five weeks,” she repeats.
She fixes me with a glare and her eyes are two black beads. Because she teaches maths all day I think of the counters of an abacus. I think about the Elementary Mathematics scripts lying on her desk, right this moment, unattended. I think about how my own script is sitting there, marked and graded, and I wonder how low that number could be. She knows, and I don’t. My failure dangles like a dripping laundry line between us.
“Szu, you’ve got to apply yourself,” Mrs. Fok says. “I know you have it in you.”
I blink slowly at her. “It,” I think. What is this “it” she is referring to? A parasite? She doesn’t know “it” any more than I do, but right now I am practicing how to lower my heart rate. I quieten my breath. I imagine that I am a spread of butter, applying myself to my examination paper, smearing it in oily yellow. I picture the scrawny number on my script bending and warping into something magnificent. An impressive 88, a stately 92, perfect 100 for all the right equations, or even beyond that—if she gave me 120 percent, because I was exceptional and also because she adored my personality. I could then carry the extra 20 percent over into another one of my weak, wheezing grades, boost it stronger. Everyone would be happy.
“How are you coping?” Mrs. Fok asks.
“How are you coping with revision?”
“Um. Revision is okay.”
This is a lie, because in order for revision to happen one must have gone through everything at least once over. My workbooks and file folders remain untouched under my desk in the classroom. I can see the crisp, clean papers gathering dust and bacteria.
The guilt makes my tongue fatten in my mouth. Saliva pools underneath it. Perhaps I will drool. I glance away from her, I am a hangdog; Mrs. Fok knows it. She sighs and crosses her arms and I stare at her scuffed black shoes. Her tired feet and angry arms have made the right assessment: I am Miss Frankenstein, I am the bottom of the bell curve, I can’t even string long words together. What does this girl know about anything? she must wonder. I hope my daughter doesn’t turn out as useless as her.
She dismisses me. We draw our faces into small, straight smiles. We say good-bye and walk in different directions—I towards my schoolbag, she towards her mountain of scripts.
The eyes in the back of my head narrow at Mrs. Fok. The mouth in my brain hisses at her: I hate you and your stupid subject. I hope you get cancer. I hope you don’t survive it.
As I walk out of the yellow gates my palms ache and my legs are heavy with the weight of my birthday. How is it possible that anyone could celebrate this, throw a party where people look at them, giving a thumbs-up as they crookedly cut a cake? How could anyone actually enjoy being one year closer to a bad back, to sleeplessness, to gums drawing away from yellowed canines? Even with the bait of wisdom, old age still depresses me. I dread the day when my mouth is frozen into a life-formed snarl and I can no longer keep up with shitty pop music.
My bus arrives with a hiss. As I get on I think, How about this for a change—if every year, instead of wearing out and scarring the same awkward skin I could wake up with a fresh one. Shed my tall self like a snake. It would be the best present. I wish I could go away and become someone else, again and again. But I have at least two more years of necessary education, and it is only Tuesday.
Sharlene Teo is a Singaporean writer based in the UK. She is the winner of the inaugural Deborah Rogers Writers’ Award for Ponti, her first novel. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Esquire UK, Magma Poetry, and Eunoia Review. She is the recipient of the 2013 David T.K. Wong Creative Writing Fellowship and the 2014 Sozopol Fiction Fellowship.
“With brilliant descriptive power and human warmth, Sharlene Wen-Ning Teo summons the darker currents of modernity – environmental degradation, the suffocating allure of the sparkling modern city and its cataracts of commodities and corrupted language. Against this, her characters glow with life and humour and minutely observed desperation. I read this extract longing for more.” –Ian McEwan, author of The Children Act and Atonement
“This haunting debut hopscotches between decades and cultures, eschewing the usual moves of the coming-of-age story for something truer to the desperate, surreal stakes of adolescence. Sharlene Teo is a daring and genuinely original novelist.” —Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You
"A radiant, achingly beautiful novel about relationships between women." —Megan Hunter, author of The End We Start From
"Ponti is darkly hilarious. It offers up all the anxiety, snark, sadness, and wonder of being a teenager. Teo guides us through the grunge of growing up. She asks what it means to be a monster and what it means to be beautiful. Is it possible to be both?" —Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, author of Harmless Like You
“Witty, moving and richly evocative, Ponti paints a portrait of a country and a people negotiating the throes of modernity. It also announces a major talent — Sharlene Teo has produced not just a singular debut, but a milestone in South East Asian literature.” —Tash Aw, author of Five Star Billionaire
“Sensuous . . . The Singapore in Sharlene Teo’s Ponti is vivid and immediate, its people complex, beautifully sketched and captivating.” —The Times Literary Supplement
"Everything about Ponti suggests it’s the rare, real deal and Teo’s a writer we’ll be reading for many years to come.” —Financial Times
“At once a subtle critique of the pressures of living in a modern Asian metropolis; a record of the swiftness and ruthlessness with which Southeast Asia has changed over the last three decades; a portrait of the old juxtaposed with the new (and an accompanying dialogue between nostalgia and cynicism); an exploration of the relationship between women against the backdrop of social change; and, occasionally, a love story—all wrapped up in the guise of a teenage coming-of-age novel. . . . Teo is brilliant.” —The Guardian
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