It's Lit! Sharlene Teo Shares Her Reading List

Welcome to It's Lit – a series of discussions about books. Join us every month to find out who's reading what.
Author Sharlene Teo has “very specific” reading habits. “If I’ve just read a novel I’ll move on to a short story collection – I’m trying to read more nonfiction and biographies because I think being a wider reader makes you better at writing, I’m trying to branch out more,” she explains. The first-time novelist has been writing since she was a teenager, penning poetry and short stories while she was still at school in Singapore. “I don’t think I could write a short story to save my life now,” she laughs, “I can only focus on one thing at a time. But I always wanted to be a writer, I always tried to write.”
Her debut, Ponti, is a lush, atmospheric tapestry set in Singapore that weaves the tale of three women whose lives intersect across several decades. A multilayered book about friendship, memory and transformation, Ponti won the inaugural Deborah Rogers Writers' Award in 2016 and was described as “remarkable” by Ian McEwan, who presented Teo with the prize.
Ahead of the book’s release, we met with Teo in her west London flat to find out what inspired Ponti, why she’s not interested in reading about her own experience and the novel way she chooses what to read next.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
What are you reading right now?
I’ve become a kind of omnivorous reader. I used to be a one-book-only kind of person but I currently have three books on the go. One of them is a collection of short stories by Nabokov, called Nabokov’s Dozen; one is a nonfiction book by Jenny Diski called What I Don’t Know About Animals, which I love; and the third is a Singaporean historical novel called State of Emergency.
When and where do you read?
The Tube, the bus – I read when I’m travelling, I read on the bed, on my sofa, I read everywhere.
Do you have a Kindle?
I do have one. I was technologically curious to have one but I find I have very limited engagement with the Kindle.
Where do you buy your books? Do you have a favourite bookshop?
In Singapore there’s a big bookshop called Kinokuniya, which I would spend ages just browsing in as a teenager; it was very formative when I was growing up. In London I have a big soft spot for Foyles, there’s something very magical about it. I like something like AbeBooks too because everything you buy has this other life – it comes from a public library in America or something – and also they take a while to arrive so sometimes you forget you ordered it and it’s a nice surprise to come home to.
What were your favourite books growing up?
It was all about Margaret Atwood and Márquez – I remember reading One Hundred Years of Solitude during my exam period when I was in secondary school. I was part of this creative arts school in Singapore and I attended a summer school for writing where we were introduced to a lot of Singaporean authors. Most of them were poets and I really, really loved this particular poet called Cyril Wong when I was a teenager. He’s a really beautiful lyrical poet; I grew up reading his collections and I loved them.
What’s the curriculum like in Singapore for literature?
It’s pretty Westernised; we need to decolonise it but it’s got a lot better in terms of local fiction and there are a lot of Singapore writers that are coming up now, which is great.
Any Singaporean writers you’d recommend?
Jeremy Tiang and Tan Mei Ching – she’s a short story writer, she’s great.
Is there a book you always come back to?
Yeah, I’ve read Love in the Time of Cholera a couple of times and I always go back to No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July. I love that book. I refer to them a lot.
Do you have a favourite author?
I have several but I keep going back to Carson McCullers and Shirley Jackson, I absolutely love her. She’s most famous for The Haunting of Hill House but I recommend starting with We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which I actually mention in Ponti. I just read her biography (A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin) and it was exceptional; that was my introduction to biographies and I’m looking out for more like that.
What book makes you cry?
The saddest book I’ve ever read is Last Words from Montmartre by Qiu Miaojin. It cuts out my heart and eats it for lunch. I love that book.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
How do you choose what to read next?
I’m trying to read in a particular pattern at the moment; I’m alternating between living and dead authors because I’ve come to the realisation that as a debut author you can get into an internet wormhole where you’re just reading other debuts and it’s quite overwhelming. I used to really appreciate the relatable in fiction and obviously there’s been a big discussion about that recently with the viral popularity of "Cat Person", which I think is really interesting but at the same time I’m looking for books that will take me out of my experience. I’m not interested in reading about young women that are trying to write a book [laughs]. I’m looking for things that are more transcendental and teach me about a different sort of consciousness. I’m still very contemporary with my tastes though, and I always have been, I can’t really avoid that. I naturally incline towards women writers; it’s not a conscious decision but I’d say about 80% of my shelves are female writers. I’m also trying to read a lot more in translation and not just Western-centric books.
Do you have a method for organising your bookshelves?
I have a ‘best of’ bookshelf – I’ve read most of what’s on there and I love it all. Everything that I’ve kept I enjoy and I’ve found some value in. I do give away books though – I do culls.
What do you use as a bookmark?
I love this magnetic bookmark but I use all kinds of things; postcards, letters, tickets, and these whale bookmarks I got in Singapore.
Was there a particular book that made you want to be a writer?
Besides Cyril Wong, there’s another poet called Richard Siken who has this amazing collection called Crush.
Were there any books that influenced the writing of Ponti?
I think it was more influenced by film than books actually. Definitely Dario Argento’s Giallo (2009) and the horror movies of the '70s. Also, aesthetically I was influenced by Wong Kar-wai’s movies.
Are there any plans to translate it?
Yes, it’s been translated into seven languages, which is really cool.
Which three books would you recommend to a stranger?
Light Years by James Salter because that’s just one of the most beautifully written, honest, true books. The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, which is one of my favourite books ever, and I think for the third one, in terms of what I’ve found really exciting and moving, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, which is just really beautiful. It’s a remarkable book.
I do an end of year list of what I’ve read during the year and over the last two years there’s been two titles which I’ve found really good: The Border of Paradise by Esmé Weijun Wang – a batshit, proper gothic, modern book – and Flesh and Bone and Water by Luiza Sauma, which is really sensual and evocative but also intelligent. It’s really interesting for me, as someone who reads and writes for a living, which books stick with you and what resonates – it’s so easy to forget.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Sharlene’s Reading List
Nabokov’s Dozen by Vladimir Nabokov
What I Don’t Know About Animals by Jenny Diski
State of Emergency by Jeremy Tiang
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light by Cyril Wong
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
Last Words from Montmartre by Qiu Miaojin
"Cat Person" by Kristen Roupenian
Crush by Richard Siken
Light Years by James Salter
The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
The Border of Paradise by Esmé Weijun Wang
Flesh and Bone and Water by Luiza Sauma
Ponti by Sharlene Teo is published by Picador and available in hardback and ebook now.
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