Festival Muse 2019: Alice Pung in conversation with Sam Vincent

Muse FestivalFestival Muse, a literary festival run by one of our favourite places in town, Muse, now seems to be a fixture on the Canberra Day long weekend calendar. For the last two years Mr Gums and I have attended the Opening event, which this year was titled Moments of Wonder. As Opening Night was also International Women’s Day, the event was dedicated to women: it featured Sarah Avery, Aunty Matilda House, Kate Legge, Alice Pung and Annika Smethurst talking about their moments of wonder. Unfortunately, due to illness in my family, we had to cancel our attendance this year, but social media tells me it was excellent as usual.

However, I did fit in a one-hour Saturday afternoon session – and was accompanied by Daughter Gums, who was in town.

Alice Pung in conversation with Sam Vincent

Alice Pung will be known to most Australians. Based in Melbourne, she has written several books, including  two memoirs, Unpolished gem (read before blogging) and Her Father’s Daughter (my review), a young adult novel Laurinda, and Close to home, a collection of essays which inspired this conversation. She has also edited an anthology titled Growing up Asian in Australia, and she writes for Monthly magazine. Pung was in conversation with Canberra-based writer, Sam Vincent, whose 2015 book Blood and guts: Despatches from the whale wars was short and longlisted for various awards.

Sam Vincent and Alice PungThe back cover blurb for Close to home describes it as covering “topics such as migration, family, art, belonging and identity.”  However, given migration is the major theme running through Pung’s work, the conversation focused on this and the migrant experience in Australia. What was both interesting and chastening was that her family’s experiences were (are?) so very like those of indigenous Australians that are shared in Growing up Aboriginal in Australiaexcept that indigenous Australians get called different names and aren’t told to “go back to where you came from”! It’s particularly chastening because of the generosity with which so many migrants and indigenous Australians respond to the racism they live with on a daily basis. Pung talked about the racist comments yelled at them in the 1980s – the “go back to where you came from” variety – but commented that at the time Australia was going through a recession so the anger was understandable.

Pung talked quite a bit about her family, but much of that is covered in her two memoirs, so I won’t repeat them here. Vincent asked her about the difference between the subjects of her writing and her readers. Pung agreed that yes, her mother’s generation, the subjects of her stories, is not very literate. Consequently, the people she writes about rarely read what she says, and the people who read her tend to be middle-class white-haired white Australians. Guilty as charged! She doesn’t mind, though – as long as people are reading her books!

Alice PungPung talked a little about the traditional narrative arc of the migrant success story – and her desire not to write that. She talked about how when you sit people down to interview them their voice changes into this narrative of success, but she wants their own voices.

What I found particularly interesting was her discussion of racism and class. There’s the obvious racism – the name-calling, the “go back where you came from” shouts, and so on – but there’s also the softer, more patronising racism from people who believe themselves not racist. Questions from university-educated people, she said, such as “your mother has been here for 20 years, why doesn’t she speak English?”, indicate a lack of understanding of migration.

Continuing this theme, she understands, for example, people who follow Pauline Hanson while saying to her, “Youse are the good ones”. People she said are kind individually despite the confronting stickers on their cars. She understands “working class racists” because own parents are working class.

She talked about how “class” underpins racism. As a young qualified lawyer, she was getting nowhere in her interviews for law jobs because she was not dressed the way a middle-class white Australian professional would dress. She appreciated honesty from her friends she said, such as the one who explained her dress issue to her. As soon as she changed her dress she started getting interview call-backs, even though the content of her interview responses hadn’t changed. She realised then how class works.

She referred, during the conversation, to a number of migrant and/or refugee writers including Christos Tsiolkas, Benjamin Law and Anh Do. She quoted Tsiolkas who has said that the middle class can write what they like – be as liberal as they like – but refugees will always be placed in working class communities!

Pung has a broad, historical understanding of racism. Since white settlement of Australia, she said, some group has always been ostracised – the Irish, then Greeks and Italians, then Asians, and so on. (Such racism, she argued, is not confined to Australia.) She also teased out the oft-criticised racism found in migrant communities themselves. Her parents, for example, suffered significantly under the Pol Pot regime before they came to Australia. What settled, established migrants fear, she suggested, is not so much “other” but civic unrest. She also noted that migrants from unstable countries trust democracy and, in doing so, trust and believe Australian newspapers. A newspaper like the Herald-Sun, which the educated middle-class might reject, is perfect for many migrants because it uses simple sentences. Racism, she said, is nuanced – and has less to do with colour than with class.

Vincent also asked her about her voice, her use of vernacular, in her books. She talked about wanting to use the language used by people like her parents, a less formal language. You can talk like Kevin Rudd, she said cheekily, and have only 30% of what you say be understood, or you can talk simply to be fully understood. She appreciated her first editor who left usages in like “youse”. She also talked about her parents’ humour, and their wonderful use of metaphors despite their basic English. She admitted that she was fortunate to have been perpetually embarrassed by her parents! She said she had to write her first books carefully because she “didn’t want to tell a success story, but an Aussie battler story”.

Regarding her intentions for her writing, she strongly rejected having a didactic aim – no one wants a message, she said. However, she hoped her books did inform and educate. She reiterated this during the Q&A when she was asked what she would say to Pauline Hanson if she ever met her face-to-face. She said that she doesn’t believe you can change someone by saying something to them in a one-off situation like that, but that books might change people.

She agreed with Vincent’s suggestion that there’s a dearth of working class voices in Australian literature.

Q & A

There was a Q & A, but I’ve incorporated the main points into the discussion above. However, Daughter Gums’ final question went down a different path. The question was inspired by the work Pung does with school students, and concerned whether school students ask different questions to those asked by adults. Yes, said Pung, they don’t have the filter that adults have, so can ask bald questions like “how much money do you earn?” Pung gave us her answer, explaining the numerical and thus economic difference between an Australian best-seller (10,000 books sold) and an American one (10,000 sold per week!)

She shared some entertaining and enlightening anecdotes throughout the conversation and Q&A, but I reckon we should all read her book(s) to enjoy those!

I must say that I found thirty-something Pung articulate, warm, and grounded. She makes serious points, and tells difficult stories at times, but with a grace that’s inspiring. A big thanks to Muse for including her in this year’s event.

Alice Pung Close to home
Festival Muse
Saturday 9 March, 2.30-3.30pm

23 thoughts on “Festival Muse 2019: Alice Pung in conversation with Sam Vincent

  1. I love literally festivals. I am sorry that you had to miss the opening event.
    Pung sounds so interesting and seems to be delving into compelling topics. I agree that books can change people over time.

  2. I’ve got a little anecdote of my own about the lawyers’ dress code…
    When The Ex went to the bar, there were social events to go to. Although we’d been married and I’d had a career for years, and I was dressed ‘professionally’ I discovered that I had somehow acquired the status of ‘wife of’ as if I had no identity of my own. When I was introduced and asked what I did for a living, conversations would inevitably falter when I said I was a teacher, or people would look right through me as if I weren’t there and drift away.
    So I went shopping and bought what I called my Lady Barrister Suit. Dead plain, discreet styling, but expensive, worn with a dead plain white round-necked blouse, no jewellery except a small gold chain and black court shoes. And lo! I found that no one asked me about my work, it was just assumed that I was one of them, and since I was studying law myself at the time, I had the jargon at hand if I needed it. But the really interesting aspect of this was that the conversations were not about the law, they were just like conversations everywhere: politics, travel, house renovations, children etc. I was the suit that gave me the entrée to it.

    I found this tribal behaviour very interesting!

    • That’s a great story Lisa. Stories like this reminds me that we make these sorts of assumptions all the time. The difference I suppose is how we act on those assumptions. Are you truly interested in people – as in if you are a barrister and someone says they are a teacher you really want to know what teaching is like, what the challenges are, why the person likes or doesn’t like their career vs you are not interested because it’s not a status career.

      • Well, of course, I was acting on assumptions of my own… that they were so shallow that they would let me into the ‘club’ if I wore the uniform!
        I do also notice this sort of behaviour amongst older people i.e. 80+. Introduced to an older couple, I often find that the men immediately establish their identity and hence the pecking order through talking about their careers, but nobody asks what the women do, meaning that they have to be ‘pushy’ in order for their careers to become part of the conversation. I think this sort of sexism is dying out because as Jane Caro points out, it was our generation that challenged the stay-at-home stereotype and we expect that women will be just as interesting as men are.

        • Yes I think you’re right about our generation. We would never think of not asking a woman about what she did. But that’s political too because these days women who choose to stay at home feel lesser if we are not careful about how we respond to them.

        • Yes this, ‘what do you do?’ drives my husband wild. It’s an instant boxing once they know your profession and not a true representation of who you are.

  3. Lovely write up, Sue. Thanks for sharing. Alice Pung is one of my favourite Australian writers and a truly good human being. I wish I could emulate her combination of warmth and strength.

  4. I read Alice PUNG’s Unpolished Gem – back in my final couple of years in Japan 2007, 2008. Impressive – and written by a young woman born around the time my interest in Australian Literature of a contemporary and diverse cultural focus was born! This is another of your excellent reviews, WG – of an interview! Thanks. Just to-day I read John BIRMINGHAM’s moving tribute to his Dad and what facing grief can mean – On Father. An extended essay.

      • John BIRMINGHAM On Father – published in small book format MUP just last week. Hard copy only – not e-reader (I think) $AUS15.

      • John BIRMINGHAM: On Father – published in small book format MUP just last week. Hard copy only – not e-reader (I think) $AUS15.

  5. It’s hard to argue with Pung when it’s her experience I’m arguing about, but it seems to me that a great deal of Chinese in particular, but also Indian immigration is solidly middle class, probably based around business visas which have a monetary qualification.

    • HI Bill, that might be more now – in fact, probably is for Chinese migrants – but her parents came out of a Thai refugee camp, and lived in a working class suburb. They had minimal money and were certainly not here on business visas. They were refugees. We are talking the very early 1980s.

  6. I hope that she makes it to the literary festivals in this area someday. This sounds like a terrific event.

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