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