Comma have announced that the award-winning debut novelist Sharlene Teo, author of Ponti (Picador 2018), will give the keynote speech at this year’s National Creative Writing Industry Day on the 1st November.
The National Creative Writing Industry Day 2019, now in its fifth year, is the largest conference of its kind taking place in the North of England. Drawing over 150 delegates annually, the event is run in partnership with The Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University, and is designed for all new writers aspiring to publication to gain an insight into the publishing industry from its experts, and to help them hone their skills needed to enter it.
The full programme and ticket sales for National Creative Writing Industry Day 2019 will go live 30th August. Find out more here.
Sharlene Teo, was born in Singapore and lives in London. She completed an MA and PhD at the University of East Anglia, where she received the UEA Booker Scholarship and the David TK Wong Creative Writing Fellowship. She was shortlisted for the Berlin Writing Prize and holds fellowships from the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and the University of Iowa International Writing Program.
The following extract is taken from her debut novel Ponti, which won the inaugural Deborah Rogers Writer’s Award, was shortlisted for the Hearst Big Book Award, longlisted for the Jhalak Prize and selected by Ali Smith as one of the best debut works of fiction of 2018.
She was ten and things were changing. The war was long over; she’d been lucky to miss it. Malaya was done. The year before, there had been a two-month-long violent hartal that halted business on the island, and dust and dis- satisfaction lingered over the shuttered windows and trashy streets of the main towns. The zinc-roofed village where she grew up was still holding on, shrinking, shirking factories and military bases and the tourists who would flood in eventually and litter potato crisp packets and soft drinks all around. Everything would soon be different and all the worse for it. But for now Amisa was a quiet child who wanted nothing more than her own turtle or monkey, this girl who often dawdled, so lovely and seemingly slow.
She was born and had lived her whole life here in Kampong Mimpi Sedih. The houses opened into the slate-green sea that some days slopped and slurred like a drunk, but mostly it was calm, kept to itself. A mangrove swamp slurped every other corner of her neighbourhood. There was no way to escape it, and it was beautiful in its own way, that wild farting water. When the wind blew sometimes her whole house stank of rotting eggs and Amisa wondered if the smell upset the chickens, reminding them of failure. How awful life must be for a chicken, she thought, to have to sit in the scorching yards all day in a downy coat you couldn’t take off, fucking and clucking to a point of focus. Imagine all your life’s work being to crap out food for other people, until you got fat and old and beheaded.
The roots of the mangroves poked out of the water like turnip stalks or witchy fingers. She didn’t play there. Not in the reeds full of stinging insects. Not amidst the secrecy of water snakes. The root palms propped up drooping trees older than anyone. Occasionally she heard big splashes at night, the sound of something flipping. It was crocodiles, or even older creatures, long-snouted or humpbacked or sharp-finned, her father said. She acted afraid, widening her eyes because it amused him when she seemed babyish. But she knew it was just mudskippers, or the corpulent ikan keli that thronged the waters.
She liked to hear ghost stories from her young, hand- some uncle even if she didn’t believe a word of what he said. Sometimes he talked too quickly and she didn’t fully understand, just watched his eyebrows wriggling with animation instead.
‘Watch out for the orang minyak,’ her uncle said. ‘Do you know what he does to pretty little girls like you?’
Amisa shook her head.
‘He’s covered in black oil, so he can slip away if anybody tries to catch him. And late at night, he sneaks into girls’ bedrooms, and creeps under the covers with them. He has shocking white eyes, and greasy hands that go . . .’ He reached out and tickled her. Amisa shook him off, giggling feebly. His hands felt quick and damp. Close by her father stubbed out a cigarette and looked the other way.
On the other side of the island there was a grand, creaking funicular that went all the way up the hill. The lily-livered British forces had used it, and then the brutal Japanese during the war. The carriages had wooden walls and rickety doors you had to use every ounce of strength to pull open. When it wasn’t in use it was haunted, naturally. Part-time paranormal. The tracks were rusted and chipped, the colour of old blood. The wind rattled the holes in the metal. The hill was full of unmarked graves. Ditto the island. Such an old place, prone to disrespect. The teenagers dared sacrilege on each other, breaking into mosques and temples, discarding cigarette butts on tomb-stones, kissing on sacred ground.
That year, her mother was pregnant again. Amisa’s mother was a dour former teen bride who always acted like her life was nearly over. Surely she had known how to be happy once. Was happiness something that couldn’t be unlearnt, like swimming or riding a bicycle? Amisa suspected she was at least partly instrumental in her mother’s misery. Every sibling was, but especially her. Her mother was the type of person it was impossible to imagine as having once been a child, and she imposed a laboriousness on even the smallest of things. Laughter, laundry, both duties. But who could blame her if she felt both clammy and corpse-like all the time and her sparking nerves signalled hurt hurt hurt? This trimester she sprawled on the divan near the stove breathing heavily as pain bloomed and seized inside her. Because there was a small wooden step-ladder to get in and out of the house she could barely leave.
Amisa’s older sister, Jiejie, was also expecting. Jiejie was seventeen and had recently married the piggish lout who manned the cones at the charcoal factory. Seemingly over- night Jiejie had switched from a fun, cussing prankster to a grave woman with one hand always balanced on her growing stomach. Pregnancy scared Amisa; this swell of fear that entered through the navel and ballooned painfully outward, finally erupting in the guise of a small human.
Amisa had six brothers and they never stopped moving. They clambered around and shouted the house up to its rafters and were always getting into tussles. She liked her second youngest brother, Didi, best of all. He was a wry little shit with a capuchin countenance and a knowing way about him. Until recently, Didi had followed Amisa everywhere. From the moment he could walk he sucked his thumb with one hand and held onto her T-shirt with the other. Initially annoyed, she soon warmed to his eyes like brown marbles, and the gap-toothed ineluctability of his smile. Hand in small hand they had roved the nearby marshlands, but Amisa always made sure not to take him anywhere unsafe. No deep waters, or mud holes.
Xiao Gui, she called him, Little Ghost, until her mother told her to stop because it was inauspicious. But even though now at aged eight Didi considered himself too old to be trailing her everywhere, he was still her best friend, her toddling shadow. They had a similar temperament; both were mischievous, and liked to steal secrets. Somebody’s shiny metal earring, taken from a windowsill, became a promise half kept. A crumpled ledger book left on a neighbour’s wooden stool was a business secret. Buttons and bottle caps pilfered from countertops were secrets that would spoil a blouse, sour fresh milk. Secretly everywhere they found these scraps of other people’s lives, the things they didn’t mean to relinquish. Didi and Amisa liked to take and share the items, turning them over in their palms, cackling at the free thrill of theft.
Nowadays, Didi made less of a show of worshipping her every move and stealing secrets with her, and he often vanished down the trail of the fleet-footed games of the other boys in the kampong. Every night before bed, however, her Little Ghost still came over and hugged her until she thought she’d run out of air, and she never got tired of his small, skinny arms around her.
Some early mornings the two of them went on bird-watching expeditions with Khim Fatt, the kindly, patient old uncle who explained to them that every flutter over- head could signal the arrival of something remarkable. Maybe a bank swallow, or a blue-eared kingfisher, or a bay owl with its serial-killer stare and tawny sheath of feathers. She liked the stillness of their pursuit, the way she and Didi would move as a unit, crouching down, taking nimble steps back when instructed, both relishing the slow, orotund voice of the uncle as he named birds, reciting when which had migrated from where.
Amisa was becoming beautiful, even at ten, but she had something cold about her – everybody could feel it. This coldness was incongruous in the syrupy heat. It was plain to sense, even though she was so pleasing to look at with her dark hair that curved into a doll face, and that neatly stitched smile. She had the consciousness and poise of a cute child aware of her own cuteness, which unsettled both adults and peers. There is the same unforgeable alchemy to being dislikeable as to being universally loved.
Even without her accomplice, she still crept into other people’s houses and stole small tokens. Nothing of consequence: balls of hair, onion peels. She kept these on a little shelf in her room. Working alone, she was less infallible. After she was caught a few times, the family became unpopular. They were like the irresponsible owners of a cat that thieved. Even her own mother didn’t trust her. She preferred her panoply of brothers and trustworthy older sister. Amisa more closely resembled her grandmother, a haughty Peranakan beauty who had never hugged her children because she didn’t want her kebayas crumpled.
‘That one has the face of a princess but the heart of an ugly sister,’ Amisa’s mother whispered to her father after yet another thieving incident, and he just shook his head. The other kids in the village shied away from her. She stared too much, took too long to respond. She looked pretty, but was she a bit stupid, they wondered? The girls called her Doll behind her back, Xiao Wa Wa, meant it meanly.
One day, Didi and her younger brothers were in the yard kicking chickens and deepening their male dialect; sniggers and innuendo they were too young to understand but absorbed from the older boys. The neighbouring kids did not invite Amisa to come and play marbles. She watched them hatch their plans and when one of the girls glanced towards her window, Amisa backed away and went to help her mother peel shallots. Who needs all that? she thought.
Still, when she left the house an hour later there was a sullen sinking in her chest, and she kept away from the beach where she might find them and went to the forest instead. Here the green hum filled her ears and did not rebuke her. She liked the stilt-rooted trees and the bird’s nest ferns with their splendidly obscene undersides of brown spores, and the deep, spongy smell of vegetation. Amisa breathed out slowly until her stomach domed a small curve, and she tried to keep walking this way with her tummy stuck out, imitating her pregnant mother and sister. After a few minutes it felt uncomfortable and she stopped. She heard rustles. Monkeys were as unavoidable as air with their pelts of faded grey and their harried expressions. She didn’t flinch when the leaves stirred, not until something clamped her shoulder.
When she turned around her heart jolted. There was a glistening pitch-black figure standing behind her. Amisa gulped. Her mouth went dry. Oily man. Slicked to his eyeballs. He was sinewy and loomed up like a pillar. He took his hand off her small shoulder. The whites of his eyes stood out, but the rest of his body glistened like fresh black ink. She remembered the orang minyak, the naked man who slipped through trees and fields covered in oil so he could elude the authorities. Her mother had warned her that the orang minyak could only be seen by young girls.
She wasn’t sure what he did to them, only that it was bad, and that one way of fending the oily man off was for a girl to leave a pile of unwashed men’s clothing around the bed, or even to wear a man’s shirt. But it was too late for that. ‘What time is it?’ the man asked her in a hoarse voice.
He spoke in Malay and then switched to Penang Hokkien. He had a creased face under the oil; he was older than her father. He stank like cars and sweaty feet.
‘Four,’ Amisa replied.
The man’s eyes darted from her head to her toes. Her hands were empty except for a marsh stalk she had been twirling idly, which she now dropped. Amisa wore a dirty white T-shirt and frayed khaki shorts with pockets, but they contained only a garlic husk and a bobby pin. She clenched and unclenched her hands. Something rustled on the other side of her. She felt like an animal alert: hairs standing, her hands and feet cold despite the heavy heat.
A woman emerged from the foliage. She too was covered in oil, her flattened hair trailing past her shoulders. She looked like she was wearing similar clothes to the man under the mess. Now Amisa was truly scared; with that hair the woman could have been a langsuir, or a hantu pontianak. But when she smiled, she displayed a mouth of straight, shiny teeth and her eyes twinkled. She said to the man in Hokkien:
‘She’s just a little girl, she’s got nothing.’
The man glanced from the woman to Amisa with a look that wasn’t hostile, just tired. It was not only oil that covered them; they were caked in mud, swamp detritus, possibly shit, judging from how they smelt. She stared at their bare feet. The man’s toenails were all smashed up.
The woman put her hands on her knees and leaned in to Amisa.
‘Listen, what’s your name?’ she asked in a light, calm voice. ‘We don’t mean to scare you.’
‘Xiaofang,’ Amisa replied. Her face reddened; she should have lied.
‘You’re such a pretty girl, Xiaofang. Can you do us a favour? We really need your help. Do you live far from here?’
Amisa hesitated, and then shook her head.
‘Can you bring us something to eat? It doesn’t have to be much. And a rag if you can find it, just a long piece of cloth. If you’re a good girl, I’ll give you a reward.’
The man turned to the woman abruptly and shot her a glare. He threw up his hands, noticed Amisa watching and put them down. The woman nodded, as if to shush him.
‘Do you think you can do that for me? Can you keep a secret?’
Amisa nodded seriously. She could keep secrets very well.
‘Good,’ the woman said, and beamed again. She jutted her chin out as if to indicate permission to leave.
Amisa backed away one step at a time, snapping tiny twigs as she retreated. The oily man and woman watched her, eyes ablaze, still as statues. When she was eight paces away she turned and broke into a run, helter-skelter non-stop, no chance if she could help it for four oily hands to grab her. She went so fast her breath heaped ragged. The undergrowth was uneven and unkind, scratching her shins.
By the time she got back to the kampong her T-shirt was drenched in sweat and her legs were covered in cuts.
‘What’s wrong with you?’ her mother called out without looking at her.
Amisa shook her head and shivered. Her mother had shuttered the windows. Outside the sun still exclaimed from the middle of the sky, winking through the slats from time to time.
She winced. One of the cuts on her right leg was deep and it smarted. She sat on the wooden floor with its slanted boards and sole-prints, one filthy leg curled towards her and the injured one extended. She examined the cut on the inside of her leg, just by her knee, pressing it together with her thumb and index finger: blood oozed. She kept pressing until it stopped, the pain sharp and hypnotic.
‘Ah!’ Amisa cried out.
Her mother shifted and clicked her tongue. ‘Be quiet. Stop disturbing me,’ she muttered in Hakka. ‘Just leave me alone.’
After a few minutes Amisa heard her mother’s breathing even out and deepen. One of her brothers – it sounded like Didi – cackled from the alleyway. She heard the hyper- happy thwack of slippers hitting the floor as the boys chased each other outside. She reached for the rag lying by the stove and used it to wipe her leg. And then she stood up and moved as lightly as a whim, even though a serious impulse had overcome her. She took the rag outside and descended the small ladder carefully, landing lightly on the dirt. The giant hen, Goreng Pisang, bobbed her head out and stared with beady eyes rimmed in red. Amisa stared at Goreng Pisang’s sagging comb and parted beak and felt tenderness for this poor, jurassically stupid bird stuck in the coop.
Her father would be out until late tonight, drinking beers with his fishermen, and the boys would come and go as they pleased. Right now her sister was likely preparing a meal for her husband, in her own home, so close yet so private.
Just around the corner from their house lived an ancient shoemaker named Ah Huat, whose family had gradually moved away or died. When Amisa was tiny she remembered him as sprightly and cantankerous, prone to drunken rows in the common yard. Now he lived alone, too old to work or bother anyone. Amisa peered into the house with its rusty grinding wheel in the corner and bare, tidy shelves. She saw him asleep as she expected, head thrown back over the wooden chair with its faded batik cushions, white hair as fine and fluffy as a chick’s feathers, his bony chest rising and falling.
She stepped nimbly over the threshold. In here, she was an old hand: she often studied her neighbour as he slept, on late afternoons such as this when a stupor over- came Kampong Mimpi Sedih and even the animals napped. Ah Huat had one of those faces for which being at rest was transformative, conferring a quiet dignity, elegance in sleep. She stared at his smoke-stained mouth set in wrinkles. Times like this she imagined him as one of her grandfathers whom she had never met, both murdered in wartime. When she left she usually took a handful of peanut shells or a tab from a beer can as a souvenir for her own shelf: nothing he would miss, but today she boldly eyed the plate on the counter. Four slabs of watermelon, one half eaten, piled up in imperfect slices. She tiptoed towards the counter and eased the pieces into the plastic bag beside them one by one. Ah Huat stirred and she paused, but his mouth just opened and closed like a fish trying for air.
It was finally getting dark. The switch in the sky always happened like that: ridiculous sunlight all day, no segue, and then thin watery blues and browns as night-time settled and the flying insects emerged from their hiding places. She walked through the forest with slow, deliberate steps. Monkeys stared and chattered from the branches above but kept their distance. She carried the plastic bag in one hand and the rag cloth in the other. Her blood had dried and the smaller cuts didn’t ache either. Perspiration cooled on her back. She remembered the path, straight through the trail and bearing left on the rickety wooden bridge, past the mossy old gravestones and through the thicket.
Amisa found them in the same spot, sitting opposite each other. They might have been easy to miss amidst the fronds if not for the seal-like shape of the woman’s skull and the glint in her eyes as she turned to face her. The man started at the sound of her footsteps and the corrupt jiggle of her plastic bag. In the dimming light she saw that the oil on his skin had faded and rubbed off in places: a shoulder, a spot on the chin. Both their features were coming through with the insistence of injury, like pus through gauze. The orang minyak seemed altogether more human, as familiar as two factory workers she might have passed some time in town.
The woman got up first, followed slowly by the man. When she got closer he snatched the plastic bag from her with canine impropriety, opening it so forcefully he ripped the handles. She flinched. He held up the slice of watermelon with Ah Huat’s bite mark parallel to his own mouth and set on it like he hadn’t eaten in years. The juice dribbled down his chin and on to his sunken belly as the oily woman fixed Amisa with a look of pure gratitude.
Ponti by Sharlene Teo was published by Picador in April 2018. This extract has been used with permission from the publisher.