Singaporean writer wins prize for unpublished novel

Sharlene Teo Wen-Ning receives about $20,000 to complete her debut novel inspired by the haze

Britain-based writer Sharlene Teo Wen-Ning estimates she has a few months to go before Ponti is complete.
Britain-based writer Sharlene Teo Wen-Ning estimates she has a few months to go before Ponti is complete.PHOTO: JOAN CHAN

An unpublished novel inspired by the haze which shrouded Singapore in 2003 has won Singaporean writer Sharlene Teo Wen-Ning a £10,000 (S$19,650) writing award.

The 29-year-old is the first winner of the Deborah Rogers Writers' Award, set up in 2014 to honour the illustrious British literary agent Deborah Rogers, who once represented literary giants such as Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro. She died from a suspected heart attack in April 2014, aged 76.

Teo, who is doing her PhD in creative and critical writing at the University of East Anglia, received the award from McEwan at a ceremony held in London last Thursday.

She submitted about 82 pages, or 25,000 words, of her unpublished work Ponti, which beat 884 other entries from eligible writers living in the British Commonwealth and Ireland.

She tells The Straits Times in an e-mail interview: "I'm feeling elated, grateful and shocked. I still don't quite believe it... When McEwan read out my name, I froze for what felt like a minute. My mouth was hanging open."

Set in Singapore in the early 2000s through to the 2020s, Ponti is a coming-of-age tale of two girls, Szu and Circe. Its title is derived from a fictional horror film in the book, in which the mother of one of the girls acts as a pontianak, which is a female ghost in Malaysian and Indonesian mythology.

Teo drew inspiration from the haze which enveloped the Republic in 2003 as it "cloaked the country in this surreal, claustrophobic atmosphere".

"There was something melan- cholic, mysterious and terrifying about quarantines, the environment acting up, the bird flu pandemic, everyone worried about their health and wearing hospital masks. The evocation of that mood inspired me," she adds.

In a press statement, McEwan called Ponti "a remarkable first novel in the making".

He added: "Teo summons the darker currents of modernity - environmental degradation, the suffocating allure of the sparkling modern city and its cataracts of commodities and corrupted language. Against this, her characters glow with life and humour and minutely observed desperation. I read this extract longing for more."

British author Shena Mackay, who chaired the panel of judges, lauded Teo's "strange and compelling evocation of a misfit adolescent girl growing up in sultry, sweaty Singapore".

Teo, who is single, estimates she has a few months to go before Ponti is complete and is in talks with publishers, but declines to disclose more.

She intends to save what she can of the £10,000 and use the rest to buy more books as "reading begets more writing and you can't be a good writer without being a voracious reader first".

On why she decided to submit her work for the competition, she says: "I really didn't expect anything to come out of it, except that the submission process would help me to organise my material and also forced me to write a synopsis. I viewed it as a prestigious award that I didn't really think I had a shot at. It goes to show it never hurts to try and submit to things."

The Methodist Girls' School and Anglo-Chinese Junior College alumna first headed to Britain in 2006 to read law at the University of Warwick. She says: "Law seemed like the practical thing to do. I decided to do something that was research-heavy and develop my writing outside of the realm of grades and obligation. In truth, I've always wanted to be a writer."

In 2012, she received the Booker Prize Foundation Scholarship to do her master's in creative writing at the University of East Anglia. The following year, she was chosen for the David T.K. Wong Fellowship, which disburses £26,000 to a fiction writer to write in English about the Far East in Britain.

Her mother, retired corporate trainer Germaine Teo, 62, says that Sharlene "has always been quite the wordsmith" from a young age. She is the youngest of three children - her two elder siblings are paediatric dentist Terry Teo, 36, and Dr Wenny Teo, 34, an art historian and lecturer at London's Courtauld Institute of Art. Her father, Teo Kim Chwee, 66, is the chief executive officer of a F&B startup called I-Brewery. 

Although "taken aback" when Sharlene told her parents she wanted to be a writer, Mrs Teo recalls: "We encouraged her to go for it. I knew someday that she would take flight, but I didn't expect it to be so soon."

For now, Teo intends to work at finishing Ponti as well as her PhD thesis and to start work on a second book. She says: "I hope to get a job teaching creative writing, be it in London, Singapore or elsewhere in the world. I like to keep the future a bright and open question."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 09, 2016, with the headline 'Singaporean writer wins prize for unpublished novel'. Print Edition | Subscribe