HARD LESSONS

Award-win­ning au­thor Alice Pung draws on her trou­bled teen years for her de­but novel, writes Rose­mary Neill

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile -

AS a teenager, au­thor Alice Pung bounced be­tween five Mel­bourne high schools. When she was 16, she was ac­cepted into a fiercely com­pet­i­tive state se­lec­tive school and ended up feel­ing like a fail­ure. Pung was over­taken by se­vere de­pres­sion but had no way of recog­nis­ing this; she slept for hours on the boxes stacked in the up­per storey of her fa­ther’s elec­tri­cal goods shop.

“I re­treated. I felt like a fail­ure at most times and I just slept a lot,’’ she re­calls. “I didn’t re­alise what was hap­pen­ing. I thought I was just lazy and tired. Back then, you felt very iso­lated. It (the se­lec­tive school) was the most com­pet­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment I’d ever been in.’’

Alarmed at his daugh­ter’s de­cline, Pung’s fa­ther, Kuan, a Chi­nese-Cam­bo­dian refugee who had sur­vived Pol Pot’s killing fields, shifted his daugh­ter back to a pri­vate school where she had been happy. Pung even­tu­ally re­gained her equi­lib­rium and went on to study law at the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne.

Now 33, she has writ­ten two award-win­ning me­moirs and has just re­leased her first novel, Lau­rinda, which draws on her un­happy high school ex­pe­ri­ences. The story piv­ots around Lucy Lam, a schol­ar­ship stu­dent from a strug­gling Chi­nese-Viet­namese fam­ily, who switches from the work­ing-class Catholic school in Mel­bourne where she feels at home to Lau­rinda, an ex­clu­sive pri­vate girls school where she doesn’t. In­stead of a richly re­sourced, priv­i­leged school be­ing a refuge — as it was for the trou­bled Pung — Lucy Lam starts to un­ravel amid the rose gar­dens and sea of im­mac­u­late, crested blaz­ers.

Lucy is Lau­rinda’s first eq­uity schol­ar­ship stu­dent, and she is quick to see through the school’s clique-rid­den, bul­ly­ing cul­ture, which is semi-dis­guised by a ve­neer of nice­ness. In par­tic­u­lar, a trio of stu­dents is al­lowed to get away with ter­ror­is­ing vul­ner­a­ble teach­ers and pupils be­cause their par­ents are in­flu­en­tial school donors. “You know, teenage girls are ma­li­cious … and schools can be quite dif­fi­cult and ruth­less places,’’ re­flects Pung.

Many of the au­thor’s in­sights come from the hun­dreds of school talks and work­shops she has done — she also has lec­tured at Brown Univer­sity and Vas­sar Col­lege in the US. Teach­ers have of­ten told her they were bul­lied by stu­dents. “I re­alised that no one ever writes about this,’’ she says by phone from her Mel­bourne of­fice, where she works part time as a le­gal re­searcher. “Firstly, teach­ers can lose their jobs (if they com­plain), and se­condly, you have a new kind of par­ent who re­in­forces that kind of hi­er­ar­chy. If they have a lot of power, they can pass that on to their kids.’’

Pung sets her story in the 1990s, when she at­tended high school, and sketches her fic­tional school in ex­traor­di­nar­ily vivid de­tail, but she in­sists it’s not based on any real school. “Peo­ple look at the cover of Lau­rinda and won­der if I’ve ma­ligned their school,’’ she says with a ner­vous laugh. She reck­ons pri­vate schools have “changed enor­mously’’ since then and are more cul­tur­ally sen­si­tive th­ese days.

Best­selling au­thor John Mars­den launched Lau­rinda and calls it “funny, hor­ri­fy­ing and sharp as a ser­pent’s fangs’’. Pung, who still has the broad Aussie ac­cent she de­vel­oped grow­ing up in the Mel­bourne “fac­tory sub­urb’’ of Bray­brook, says Mars­den has “al­ways been one of my lit­er­ary he­roes. When I was an ado­les­cent, his (young adult) books re­ally got me through. Noth­ing I’ve ever read has had such an im­pact, be­cause his char­ac­ters are kind of de­pressed. They’re re­ally trou­bled.’’ She says this with a self-dep­re­cat­ing chuckle, re­veal­ing that her de­pres­sion still “comes in episodes, and I have bad episodes ev­ery three or four years’’.

Which goes to show that crit­i­cal praise and recog­ni­tion is not nec­es­sar­ily an an­ti­dote to this in­sid­i­ous ill­ness, for Pung has en­joyed sig­nif­i­cant lit­er­ary suc­cess since her mid-20s. Her first book, Un­pol­ished Gem, about her fam­ily’s pur­suit of the Aus­tralian dream, Cam­bo­dian-style, won the Aus­tralian Book In­dus­try new­comer award, was short­listed for five more prizes and was pub­lished in­ter­na­tion­ally.

Her sec­ond book, Her Fa­ther’s Daugh­ter, was another fam­ily mem­oir that re­vis­ited her fa­ther’s har­row­ing ex­pe­ri­ences as a forced labourer un­der the Kh­mer Rouge. It won a Western Aus­tralian Premier’s Award and was short­listed for the Vic­to­rian, NSW and Queens­land pre­miers’ prizes.

Crit­ics noted how nov­el­is­tic th­ese me­moirs were be­cause of the au­thor’s sharp eye for de­tail, her glint­ing hu­mour, her el­e­gant turn of phrase. Those qual­i­ties are mag­ni­fied in her novel, which is part satire, part rite-of-pas­sage nar­ra­tive. At one point, she de­scribes a well­heeled Lau­rinda mother as look­ing like a ver­sion of her daugh­ter “that had been taken out of the fridge and left to thaw for too long’’.

If she skew­ers a pri­vate school cul­ture of en­ti­tle­ment and com­pet­i­tive­ness, she also ques­tions the work-ob­sessed val­ues of some Asian mi­grant fam­i­lies. Lucy’s mother works so hard in the fam­ily’s poorly ven­ti­lated garage, she puts at risk her in­fant son’s health. And one of Lucy’s Chi­nese-Aus­tralian friends seems leached of vi­tal­ity; she does a lot of after-school tu­tor­ing but is not al­lowed to play sport, take drama classes or read news­pa­pers’ arts sec­tions.

Pung set out to satirise “in­sti­tu­tions and in­di­vid­u­als who pri­ori­tise suc­cess at all costs. I guess that is what makes the whole in­sti­tu­tion (Lau­rinda) and those in­di­vid­u­als in it such nasty char­ac­ters; their lack of per­spec­tive.’’ She says that stu­dents of Asian her­itage who come un­der great parental pres­sure to do years of tu­tor­ing and win schol­ar­ships or se­lec­tive school places can also lack per­spec­tive.

Now mar­ried, and an artist-in-res­i­dence at a Mel­bourne Univer­sity col­lege, she is an en­ter­tain­ing speaker, with a play­ful and some­times po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect sense of hu­mour. At one re­cent writ­ers fes­ti­val, she be­gan her ad­dress with a slide that read: “This story does not be­gin on a boat.’’ She showed the au­di­ence her baby pho­tos and said that as she grew, she looked less like “a chim­panzee’’ and more like “a World Vi­sion ad’’.

Even as a child, Pung was aware of want­ing to es­cape Bray­brook, where “you were sur- rounded by peo­ple who were ei­ther on wel­fare or work­ing in fac­to­ries ... It was also a lit­tle bit racist back then.’’ But, like Lucy, she was obliged to spend much of her free time look­ing after her younger sib­lings. Her mother, Kien (again, like Lucy’s mum), was an out­worker, toil­ing away for sub-min­i­mum wages in the half-dark of the fam­ily’s garage.

Her par­ents were pleased with her decision to be­come a writer — so long as she did paid work as well. She jokes: “I’ve never said, ‘I’m

PEO­PLE LOOK AT THE COVER AND WON­DER IF I’VE MA­LIGNED THEIR SCHOOL

ALICE PUNG

go­ing to take a year off to write.’ They would have had a heart at­tack if I did that.’’

In­ter­est­ingly, she avoided giv­ing her Lau­rinda pro­tag­o­nist Cam­bo­dian par­ents so Lucy would not “have to con­tend with that whole his­tory (Pol Pot’s geno­cide)’’. She says her fa­ther “has nightmares about that ex­pe­ri­ence, but I don’t think he’s de­fined by it’’.

As her fa­ther’s re­tail store ex­panded, the Pung fam­ily for­tunes im­proved dra­mat­i­cally. Fif­teen years ago, her mother fi­nally packed up her sewing ma­chines and joined the fam­ily business.

It seemed this re­source­ful refugee fam­ily had tran­scended the dark times — well almost.

Pung notes wryly that her mother “still has her tools in the garage. I think it’s in­surance or safety in case we some­how go back into poverty.’’

Lau­rinda by Alice Pung (Black Inc) is out now.

Alice Pung has en­joyed sig­nif­i­cant lit­er­ary suc­cess since her mid-20s

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.