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Meet the Singaporean author who wrote her debut novel from a flat in Norwich

PUBLISHED: 15:24 05 October 2018 | UPDATED: 15:24 05 October 2018

Sharlene Teo wrote the first 20,000 words of her debut novel while living in Norwich. Picture: Amaal Said

Sharlene Teo wrote the first 20,000 words of her debut novel while living in Norwich. Picture: Amaal Said

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Sharlene Teo wrote the first 20,000 words of her debut novel, Ponti, while living and studying in Norwich.

A student who died at UEA has been named. Picture: David Kirkham Fisheye ImagesA student who died at UEA has been named. Picture: David Kirkham Fisheye Images

Femininity, film-making and failure are key themes in Sharlene Teo’s debut novel, Ponti – the first 20,000 words of which were written in a flat in Norwich.

“I wrote the first bit of my novel in this kind of haunted little granny flat off Magdalen Street,” says Teo. “It had a really creepy cellar – it looked like where monks used to brew beer and I was so terrified of it that I asked my landlord to put a bolt over the door. But that was the year I really fell in love with Norwich.”

Awarded the Booker Prize Foundation scholarship to study the MA in prose fiction at UEA, Sharlene first moved to Norwich in 2012. It was here that she fleshed out her ideas for the novel – at the time a “first-person, almost speculative feminist horror novella” inspired by the mythology of her home country, Singapore.

“The Pontianak is this creature that is basically represented as a young woman who terrorises men and communities,” Teo says of her initial inspiration. “There were aspects of the mythology that always really spoke to me – the uncanny aspect of a young woman entering into the domestic space. Pontianak is a woman who died in childbirth, who wasn’t given a proper burial, or she’s the child who died.”

But the novel which was eventually published by Picador this year, following a seven-way auction at the London Book Fair in 2016, is vastly different. “That was the original impulse but it was just very technically difficult,” admits Teo. Instead, she developed a fascination with film-making – after watching Berberian Sound Studio, directed by Peter Strickland – and decided to incorporate the theme into her plot about three different women, Szu, Circe and Amisa.

“I did a fellowship at UEA a year after my MA,” she says. “I spent a year writing a failed novel – the one that didn’t work - and it was only when I started my PhD that I started toying with the idea of someone who was a horror movie actress – I really liked that. After they got too old or they failed at acting, their desire for performance seeped into another realm.”

In Ponti’s case, the “other realm” is Amisa’s clairvoyance – although it’s “a little bit of a scam,” says Teo. “There’s quite a lot of cases in Singapore of scam mediums and I had this hunch that everything kind of tied up together – the idea of superstition and systems of belief and also of femininity in Singapore, how it is to be a woman in different transitional phases of the country’s development.”

Teo, who has lived in the UK for the past 12 years, says that she finds it much easier to write about the culture she is from because she’s no longer living in it. “I think the things that really preoccupy me, aesthetically, are the things that are perhaps more interesting if they’re given a bit of time and scope to reflect upon – so my idea of Singapore is one that is stunted, several years in the past, 12 years out of date.

“I think it is something that really works for me because I have such an emotional tie and such a complicated relationship to Singapore. I kind of view it as my own personal artistic project to undo the tourist clichés or one-dimensional representations of my home country because I feel like it’s not represented enough in fiction.”

But does writing about a country you no longer live in create problems when it comes to ideas of authenticity, realism and truth? “I’ve become quite defiant lately about claims that because I don’t live in Singapore, I have less of a right to write about it, or that I’m writing about it in a way that is inauthentic,” says Teo. “That’s just a way of privileging one person’s experience or perspective over another.”

And it is also an issue of gender, she says. “As a younger, female writer I just don’t see men held up to this level of scrutiny. Women’s depictions of fictional reality are always called into question or seen as a thinly veiled form of autobiography, creative autobiography or autofiction, but when men do it, it is considered daring.”

Teo says that she owes a great deal to UEA and its prestigious MA programme – in fact, when we meet she is on her way to Waterstones, where she and fellow alumni will discuss their publishing experiences with programme co-director, Andrew Cowan. “I am so grateful to my MA,” says Teo. “I will never stop being grateful and I will never disassociate. Without their support, I wouldn’t have been able to afford it and it was such an essential time for me.”

Teo, who now lives in London, will take up her own teaching position at St Mary’s University next year, assisting with the workshops for their MA programme and using advice that she picked up during her own student days. “It’s about seeing the merit in every piece of writing,” she says. “If a piece of writing is finished it’s already better than 150 brilliant, half-done things. You don’t have to write every day – I don’t. Most of my writing is reading things and digesting things and feeling things.”

Ian McEwan, who was one of UEA’s first creative writing MA students, described early drafts of Ponti as “remarkable” – but did this create unnecessary pressure? “I write from a position of complete desperation and fear,” admits Teo. “When I’m complacent or smug, that’s just when I don’t do anything.

“So I feel that with the McEwan thing and having won the award, the universe had presented to me all the ways to finish a book after struggling with it my whole life. I had a bit of money, I had a team behind me who wanted me to do well, I had this nice quote – I thought if I can’t write this novel now, then I really can’t. I had nothing to lose.”

Ponti is out now for £9.99 and published by Picador books.

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