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

Delicious descriptions from Down Under: Alice Pung and Haruki Murakami

Regular readers here may know that I like Haruki Murakami and so will understand that I was tickled when, out of the blue, Alice Pung alludes to Murakami in her book, Her father’s daughter, that I reviewed earlier this week. It appears in her description of a prostitute who has come into her father’s Retravison store with a pimp. Pung writes:

It was summer and the girl, Diep, wore a long white smocked dress. She looked like a Murakami heroine – there was an anaemic delicacy to her face and a butterfly clip in her hair.

If you’ve read much Murakami, you will immediately have a picture of this girl, and you will think, too, that she may be a little lost, a little, shall we say, not of this world. But, hmm, maybe not. She does speak to Alice before she leaves with her pimp:

‘You have a good smile. You don’t have to sell phones, you know.’

Pung has a lovely sense of humour!

Alice Pung, Her father’s daughter

Pung Her Fathers Daughter Black Inc

Bookcover for Pung's Her father's daughter (Courtesy: Black Inc)

Her father’s daughter (2011) is Alice Pung‘s second memoir – if you can quite call this book a memoir. Unpolished gem (2006), her first, established Pung in the eyes of both critics and readers as a writer to watch. I agreed with them, but with some minor reservations. She certainly demonstrated the ability to write and tell stories – plenty well enough for me to be happy to read more of her – but, it was a young person’s memoir about a family that had experienced things (such as the Pol Pot regime) that most of us couldn’t imagine. And Pung, born in Australia, didn’t seem to quite have the maturity then to fully appreciate this fact in the way she wrote of her family. Five years, though, have made the difference and I would happily apply my favourite Marion Halligan quote to this book:

Read a wise book, and lay its balm on your soul.

Because, this book is the whole package.

The first thing that stands out is the voice. The book is, in a way, a hybrid, a memoir-cum-biography, and Pung has chosen to write it in third person. This decision reminded me of Kate Holden’s The romantic: Italian nights and days in which she too chose third person to tell her story. But, these are very different stories, and the reason for using third person reflects the difference rather than suggesting a similarity. The difference is that this is not just Alice’s story as Unpolished gem was, but also her father’s story. It is Alice’s attempt to understand the things that clearly frustrated her in Unpolished gem, such as the over-protectiveness of her parents. In this book, her father has a voice. In fact, the book’s chapters see-saw between those labelled “Father” and “Daughter”, so that it reads almost like a conversation.

This conversation style is one part of the narrative structure. Another is the movement in geographic setting from Alice’s time in China, to her return to Melbourne, to her father’s life in Cambodia and then her much later visit to Cambodia with her father, and finally back in Melbourne again. This geographic movement is overlaid with the third significant aspect of the structure, its chronology. The book moves back in time from the present, from when Pung’s family is well-established in Australia with a successful business, with, that is, the life Pung wrote about in her first memoir. At the beginning of this book, Pung, in her late 20s, goes overseas for the first time and her father, as is his wont, is fearful:

It panics him whenever any of his children are far away.

He can’t understand why she must go away to write. After all, she can see these other places on Google Maps, so

why couldn’t she just see the world through these satellite pictures. It was safer.

Alice, being Australian-born, doesn’t understand the full extent of his fears but, as she writes the book, she learns why her father believes that

To live a happy life … you need a healthy short-term memory, a slate that can be wiped clean every morning.

We’ve all read and/or seen about the killing fields of Cambodia so I’m not going to detail here her father’s story of survival through one of the world’s terrible genocides. I will say, though, that for someone looking from the outside (me, the reader), Pung seems to have captured her father’s story authentically and conveys it in a way that we can understand why he expresses his love for his family in the fearful and sometimes controlling way he does. The result is a greater understanding from daughter to father, and, if Pung has got it right, from father to daughter too.

There are some lovely touches in the book about the business of writing memoir. Pung refers briefly to her parents’ reactions to Unpolished gem. Her father is proud but says that if he’d seen it pre-publication “there would have been parts we wouldn’t have let her include”. Pung continues:

She waited for more reproaches, even excoriation. It seemed impossible that this would be the extent of it, but it was. She started to see her mother and father in a new light. They had a sense of humour! They knew their private lives were completely separate from the world their daughter had described in another language.

Then, on different tack, comes this one, late in the book, on the writing of Her father’s daughter:

‘Do you think [says her dad] there’s too much suffering in the Cambodian part? Maybe white people don’t want to read about too much suffering. It depresses them.’

Ouch! There are a few ways to think about this one. Anyhow, Pung’s reaction is:

She didn’t know what to say about that. She knew exactly what he meant though. Her first book had been filled with the sort of sardonic wit that came easily to a person whose sole purpose in life was to finish university and find her first graduate position, knowing she was well on the way to becoming comfortably middle-class …

She decides that the time has come to look back and confront this part of her/their identity that her father had wanted to hide but that had heavily affected his parenting … In fact, it was around this point that I started to realise that my uncertainty about Unpolished gem might be more due to her father’s desire for “dismemory”, that is, to deliberately forget, than to her youthfulness. And the astonishing thing is, through all the description of people who did unimaginable things to other people, of people who suffered horrendously, of people who’d “lost their minds and did not bother to retrieve them”, the overriding emotion she conveys is that of love:

There’s no vocabulary
For love within a family, love that’s lived in
But not looked at …
(Epilogue, quoted from TS Eliot‘s “The elder statesman”)

 This is a fine, fine book and I’d recommend it to anyone – for its story, its writing and its humanity.

Alice Pung
Her father’s daughter
Collingwood: Black Inc, 2011
ISBN: 9781863955423

(Review copy supplied by Black Inc)