In a Sep. 2018 Vice article by Nisa Kreems, the Pontianak is “ghost that avenges women who die in childbirth. Her fearsomeness is linked to her femininity, and she’ll rip your eyes out if you look at her the wrong way.” Found in Southeast and South Asian mythology, the Pontianak is a central source of inspiration for Sharlene Teo’s debut novel, Ponti. Ponti is told through the perspectives of three women: Amisa, a B-list movie actress who famously played a Pontianak in a horror film triology from the 1970s; Szu, Amisa’s daughter who is struggling to forge her own identity in the shadow of her mother; and Circe — an allusion to the Odyssey— Szu’s classmate and friend who, as an adult, is assigned to market a reboot of the Pontianak film series Amisa originally starred in. Each perspective is told at different times, unfolding a story that spans the late 1960s to 2020. When Ponti begins, we first get to know a teenaged Szu and the oppressive humidity and heat of Singapore in 2003: “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?” She goes on to tell us that when she was 11 years old, “…I used to hope that puberty would morph me, that one day I’d uncurl from my chrysalis, bloom out beautiful. … 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.” Physical beauty is a constant theme throughout the novel and impacts each character differently. For Amisa, it’s what ironically leads to her acting career as a Pontianak, and for Szu, it’s a source of teenaged turmoil as she struggles to relate with her mother: “A lifetime of ugliness is unbearable.” Throughout Ponti, it’s hard to summarize what the central plot of the novel is, as its nonlinear storytelling resonates as a multigenerational study on ennui through different planes of existence and multiple layers of time. This is what makes the novel and Teo’s incredibly descriptive style of storytelling so compelling; memories are ghosts that stay in parallel with our present lives and moreover, transform over time. Teo is also gifted when describing boredom, dread and a predicted future of unhappiness, just as Szu shares her struggles in the shadow of a beautiful and famous mother.
Through each character, Teo describes Singapore in all its glorious density — its woods, cities, humidity, societal pressure, emotional devastation, boredom and death, and Teo works even the fake blood associated with making the Pontianak films into this thickness. Circe, who in 2020 is a social media consultant and going through a divorce, writes, “There must be a word — some German or Inuit term — that describes the stuck, dreadful feeling of disliking a beautiful view just because it is overfamiliar, and synonymous with work and daily boredom. I’ve lived on this island all my life, and I often forget it’s just a speck on a map of the world.” Circe’s feelings of existential dread are compelling and as a reader I found it was easy to identify with them, especially in the context of urban settings where anonymity and daily grinds become a regularly maintained process of everyday life. This sensibility seemed to be a strong presence for each character, who seems to experience ill effects and the dull pain of boredom and dread. In 1978, Amisa is struggling with her performance on set of one of the Pontianak films and the director admonishes her, “Go deeper. Channel all the shit you want to shout about. You feel a lot, Amisa, I can tell. It’s all seething under that perfect face of yours, waiting to be coaxed out. Life is loss, right? You’re only 20, but don’t you have regrets, don’t you worry where the time has gone? … Because everybody has regrets. And everybody wonders where time has gone.”
As Circe learns about the film reboot, memories of Szu come surging back. Szu and Circe had an angst-ridden relationship that both depended on and resisted a link with Amisa. While Szu struggled to find positive emotional connections with her mother, Circe approached Amisa with fascination and awe, which at times ignored Szu’s struggles. In their school years, these opposing viewpoints of Amisa suggested a superficial friendship between Szu and Circe, with a woman embodying both cult celebrity and mother in between them. Amisa also acted as a medium with Aunt Yunxi, a questionable family relation that brought together and divided Szu’s family. Circe was always fascinated and haunted by Amisa, which strained her relationship with Szu. In rewatching the Pontianak films, Circe reflects on her memory of Amisa, “I can’t place my finger on what else is so uncanny about watching Amisa onscreen — and then I realize. It’s because she looks so happy. … She was nothing like that in real life. Whenever she entered the kitchen or the sitting room, I couldn’t take my eyes off her because she was so glamorously sad. Always something heavy to ponder.” Teo expertly navigates the oscillations of emotion — sadness and the appearance of happiness — through three different women. Additionally, the mythology of the Pontianak and each character’s own relationship with its mythology makes Ponti a darkly relatable work about the unanswerable realities and complexities of being a woman.