Latest UpdatesEmpowermentInspirationsSharlene Teo speaks up in The Universe Writes Nov session...

Sharlene Teo speaks up in The Universe Writes Nov session…

The November session of The Universe Writes hosted Sharlene Teo in conversation with Shivranjani Singh. Sharlene is the highly awarded, critically acclaimed author of Ponti.

A coming-of-age story of female friendships, Ponti is a riveting, visceral read. Diving into the Singapore of the 90s, Sharlene recounted her years growing up, picking books off of her brother and sister’s bookshelves and spending hours at the bookstore, reading books cover to cover. Having grown up on a steady diet of Western literature, she is glad to see the literary scene in South Asia having come so far.

Sharlene attended a convent girls’ school in Singapore and that experience shaped a lot of what Ponti was about. The friendships, the cliques, and all the cruel experiences of growing up. All her characters are painted in shades of grey. The bullied kids aren’t angels and the monstrous mother isn’t the devil incarnate. With each character you explore, there is an immediate sense of kinship, because of how well the characters are written.

Sharlene started out writing the story from the view of the Pontianak, a South East Asian supernatural creature in white that gouges people’s eyes out, with elements of magical realism. Eventually, the writing took a more realistic turn. She writes of a beautiful woman cast in a campy horror film about a Pontianak, at a time when these lurid horror films were going out of fashion, relegating Amisa to play the part of the dissatisfied, shallow yesteryears film actress who can destroy you with one glance.

Circe, a woman nearing her 30s, working in marketing and social media, embodies millennial angst, struggling to fit into a teenage/20-something Instagram world. Szu, whose life you see as a teenager, is in shambles, with no parents and an eating disorder, but when you see her 17 years later, things turned out okay for her. Sharlene’s characters could so easily be you. She wrote the ending to mimic a cinematic jump cut, but one that ends well. Szu is doing just fine, and that is a twist for the reader, because that’s not where the story leaves Szu when she’s in school.

Sharlene dwelt on how India’s literature had been typecast into the Great Indian Novel written primarily by men, while Singapore barely had a recognizable name from its literary scene. For her, these cliches were a post-colonial effect and took a long time to wear off; both countries are only now shedding that colonial burden.

Singapore today is thriving, and breaking away from the colonial burden. Kevin Kwan’s Filthy Rich Asians has drastically changed the way the world looks at Singapore. Writing coming from the East has always needed to be flattened for the Western reader and there is a burden on the author to be a flagbearer of their culture. The move away from these limitations over the past two decades has helped literature as a whole grow by leaps and bounds.

Talking to writers who are just starting out, Sharlene shared some quick tips as a creative writing professor. She talked about breaking free from your own inhibitions and just taking the jump and not writing entirely from the head or the heart, but blending the two and writing from your gut and having enough distance from the story that you can be objective about writing it.

The session meandered through sharp moments of discussing post-colonial literature to lighter moments about Gen Zs and Millennials on Instagram. The audience took the chance to explore Singapore’s writing scene through Sharlene and asked her about writing as an art form. 

Sharlene’s book won the Deborah Rogers Writer’s Award, was shortlisted for the Hearst Big Book Award and Edward Stanford Fiction Award and longlisted for the Jhalak Prize. Her work has been translated into eleven languages and published in places such as the TLS, Granta, LitHub, the Guardian, Vogue and the Daunt Books anthology At the Pond.

The programme was presented by Shree Cement, in association with Prabha Khaitan Foundation and Siyahi.

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