DIGGING UP THE BODIES
"Ponti" by Sharlene Teo
“But life just happened and it wasn’t fair, wasn’t my fault. Memory tussled us backwards with idiot hands, just the past insisting on its pastness because it didn’t know what else to do” (Ponti, p.286)
If ghosts are defined by unfinished business, then Ponti is a haunting novel about the ghosts of the past. The novel follows the intersection of the lives of three women: Amisa, Szu and Circe, whose ties are sealed by the unspoken reverberations of the film Ponti! and its two sequels.
The employment of the symbol of the Pontianak is subtle and lingers in the background in a strong metaphorical manner. The superstition is a story on the wind that parents tell their children to scare them, just as the film (which is never ever fully explained but hinted as a typical 1970s campy horror film) is passed down from the leading actor of Ponti! (Amisa) to her daughter (Szu) and then to her daughter’s friend Circe, who has to remake the film in 2020. Told in intersecting perspectives from all three protagonists, the unspoken burdens that are passed from one protagonist to the next is haunting and almost vampiric, as Amisa’s status as an actor in the seventies/eighties that leaves her as an outcast among her family carries forward to her daughter’s status as an outcast because of her mother’s filmic history (or lack of it). Even Circe becomes an outcast in the office because of her inability to play the office politics game, as she is shunned by her fellow staff. The novel rests on a spectre that runs through the book that all the protagonists grapple with, and it is the spectre of unfulfillment.
The strength of the book lies in the three distinct perspectives of the protagonists. The first chapter kicks your teeth in with Szu’s gritty outlook. Her perspective is rough, tumble and cut to the bone in language, and her voice compared to her mother Amisa’s chapters is stark. Amisa is the only protagonist to have her story narrated in third person, which seemingly showcases her lack of control over her destiny as she leaves her family in search for opportunity in the urban jungle only to be swayed into making Ponti! and its two sequels. Circe’s perspective strikes me as the middle ground between Amisa and Szu, possessing the grittiness but with some wilful ambition of trying to salvage her life. These three voices breathe life into a book focused on the unseen, almost existential dread that living brings. Besides the protagonists, Teo also crafts well-bodied secondary characters, particularly Aunt Yunxi, whose presence in the novel is almost as important as any protagonist, and is easily the glue that holds the novel together.
For Southeast Asian readers, this book represents an almost Gaimanesque feel to it, as references to Southeast Asian mythology are constantly made. I chuckled and felt comforted when I saw references to not only the Pontianak myth, but also references to the orang minyak and Chang E, as well as the tangki that I remembered from watching Taoist festivals. Fans of Southeast Asian film history will also rejoice when the production of Ponti! harks back to the silver age of Cathay Kris films, reminiscent of the P. Ramlee era. Even Cleopatra Wong gets a mention. The metafictional nature of the novel serves as a reflection on this bygone age and the rich cultural history of Singapore. International readers will also enjoy the novel’s references to Greek mythology, particularly the reference to The Odyssey through Circe, and the voices of the protagonists sharing a mother-maiden-crone relationship. Make no mistake, this novel is a journey through the underworld, and Teo constantly reminds this to us through hazy indoor spaces filled with doors and fluorescent light-lit fish tanks.
In 1972, the Singapore author Goh Poh Seng wrote If We Dream Too Long as a meditation on the existential dread that came about with Singapore’s development from Third World to First. Filled with intersecting timelines and latent revelations, Sharlene Teo’s Ponti is not only a realisation of that dread, but a coming-of-age narrative on the demons that repeatedly come back to haunt us.
Ponti is available at leading Singapore bookstores and online here.