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September 4, 2018

Sharlene Teo's Playlist for Her Novel "Ponti"


In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Sharlene Teo's novel Ponti is a stunning debut, a coming-of-age story that deftly explores the relationships of three women.

The Guardian wrote of the book:

"At once a subtle critique of the pressures of living in a modern Asian metropolis; a record of the swiftness and ruthlessness with which Southeast Asia has changed over the last three decades; a portrait of the old juxtaposed with the new (and an accompanying dialogue between nostalgia and cynicism); an exploration of the relationship between women against the backdrop of social change; and, occasionally, a love story—all wrapped up in the guise of a teenage coming-of-age novel."

In her own words, here is Sharlene Teo's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Ponti:

Ponti centres around three B-horror movies that never existed. Music plays as much of a part in the story’s development as its cinematic influences. I make writing soundtracks for myself based on the mood I’m trying to phrase. Most of the time, I write to electronic albums by artists like Nils Frahm, Jefre Cantu-Ledesma and Grouper. Steve Reich, Mica Levi and Dustin O’Halloran compose cinematic scores that shift sweepingly yet subtly between moments of longing, melancholia and intensity. William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops sounds like being at the bottom of the sea. Shuffle Drones by Eluvium works very well too: it is designed to be played in random order, and it’s perfect to leave on repeat for hours. I think the best soundtrack to a film ever is Morvern Callar. It features great bands like Can and Stereolab and is queasily evocative without being too distracting (at least not after five hundred repetitions).

My novel Ponti takes place in Singapore and Malaysia, from the late sixties through to the year 2020. Szu and Circe, the two Singaporean schoolgirls who take turns narrating the first person sections of the novel, love listening to shoegaze as well as sixties rock bands like The Velvet Underground and The Kinks. The playlist below describes their companionship; it is dimmed lights, inside-voice music.

1. MOLLY & AQUAFINA by Dean Blunt
This track has always sounded like the gentle, dreamy prologue of a story to me. I think of Szu and Circe listening to it and forecasting their ideal selves.

2. Mimpi Sedih by Tetty Kadi
The first time I heard “Mimpi Sedih” it was the cover by Teresa Teng and it stopped me in my tracks. The original is by the Indonesian singer Tetty Kadi. Both versions are tempered with doomed, mournful nostalgia. Mimpi Sedih is Indonesian for “sad dreams” and I named the village where Szu’s mother Amisa grew up after it.

3. Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now by The Smiths
Teenage ennui suspended in humid Singaporean air and distilled into music.

4. Beautiful Hair by Broadcast
When the amateur actress Amisa puts on prosthetics and slowly and excruciatingly becomes Ponti, she begins to inhabit her campy monstrosity. “Beautiful Hair” is the theme tune of a fully realised giallo temptress: both alluring and creepy, like scarlet nails tapping on a counter or the flash of a smile from behind a mesh screen.

5. Deadheat by The Observatory
The Observatory is a veteran Singaporean avant rock band, with an extensive experimental discography. “Deadheat” evokes the CBD at rush hour; twisting traffic, hot trains, and a million dreary, irate faces glued to smart phone screens.

6. Sea of Sound by Pale Saints
Classic wispy shoegaze: shimmering chords and a voice announcing longing- already looking backward even though it’s still going on.

7. Island Song by US Girls
There’s something invigorating about “Island Song” despite its somewhat muted siren-grotto vocals. The evocatively gloomy synthesizer organ that fades in and out of focus forms the track’s anthemic, resolute heartbeat.

8. When The Sun Hits by Slowdive
When the sun hits in Singapore it is scorching, blinding, formidable. This track captures the overwhelming exhilaration and sensory overload of adolescence.

9. Class ‘A’ Love Affair by The Great Spy Experiment
The quintessential sound of mid-2000s Singaporean indie rock: “Class ‘A’ Love Affair invokes the hubbub and humidity of now-defunct nightlife along Boat Quay and the wavering sheen of skyscrapers and shop houses reflected on the Singapore River.

10. Landslide by Fleetwood Mac
“Landslide” plays a huge (and rather horrible) part in Ponti, and it would be remiss to leave it out. Whilst finishing Ponti I played it over and over, as well as the Smashing Pumpkins cover, and read various accounts of how Stevie Nicks wrote the song in Aspen in five minutes after an argument with her former lover and fellow band member Lindsey Buckingham; not necessarily relevant but an example of the kinds of anecdotal factoids one learns via extensive internet procrastination.

11. No Hope by The Vaselines
Charming, disconsolate and rather twee. “It all went wrong the day I was born/and I can’t give it up” might very well be Szu’s refrain.

12. Mysteries-1 by Beth Gibbons, Rustin Man
Having listened to Out of Season around the same age as when Szu and Circe would be, it seems apt to end on an enigmatic and tender song that I always found more befitting of the end of an album than the very beginning. “Mysteries of love/where war is no more/I’ll be there anytime”- a really bittersweet and optimistic note to close on.

Sharlene Teo and Ponti links:

Financial Times review
Guardian review

Guardian profile of the author
Publishers Weekly profile of the author
Refinery29 interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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