ALICE Pung has a good, sensible career. She is a lawyer. She works hard. Her parents are proud of her.
And she writes stories. Successful ones, too. Her first memoir, Unpolished Gem, won her Australian Newcomer of the Year at the 2007 Australian Book Industry Awards. Her latest book, Her Father’s Daughter, has just been launched at the Melbourne Writers Festival.
“I don’t believe in living the life of a tormented artist,” Pung once told an interviewer.
And as she tells Meld, writing doesn’t feel like work when you have a nine to five job.
“It helps because I don’t really bother with reviews and things like that. I’m not earning my living from writing,” she says.
“It’s not an all or nothing – you don’t become an artist and give up everything, you don’t become a sell-out and work as an accountant and give up your artistic career. You can strike a balance.”
Unpolished Gem tells with warmth and self-deprecating humour the story of Pung’s childhood in suburban Melbourne, as the daughter of refugees of Pol Pot’s Cambodia.
Her new memoir picks up where the last left off – in her early twenties, preparing to move out of home. Overwhelmed by her father’s overprotective nature, Pung struggles to allay his fear of her being out in the world alone.
She gets a job as a residential tutor at a university college, and he doesn’t understand why she needs to live there.
She makes a misguided visit to a dating agency, and he is offended by her rejection of the suitors he has found for her.
She lives abroad for the first time in her life, and their long-distance phone conversations are peppered with reminders to lock the doors and wear her gloves.
But beyond these conflicts is the story of a close bond between father and daughter.
“I’m very close to my father,” Pung says.
“(He) was never the authoritarian, chauvinistic figure of an oriental dad that you get a lot in the media and books. He was the one who encouraged me to get an education and made sure that I did well in school.”
The assertion of independence is a common theme in many coming-of-age novels, but Pung highlights the cultural differences between her own story and the typical Anglo-Australian narrative of the young adult breaking free.
“It’s a constant negotiation (with your parents), it’s never a black and white assertion of your rights,” she says.
“I’ve worked with a lot of international students (as tutor and pastoral carer) and they might go to the careers office if they’ve chosen the wrong course, and they’ll be told ‘you should follow your dreams.’”
“Now the reality is – because I also live at the colleges with these students – I know what they do day to day. I know that their parents call them up every day or every second day.
“Their parents are paying full fare for these very expensive degrees. There’s no way to break away without disowning your parents. And also financially, you really can’t do it.”
In Pung’s case, her father’s intense desire to guide and protect her was put in perspective after she learnt about his last years in Cambodia.
This story forms a large part of Her Father’s Daughter, but in a deliberate attempt by the author, it does not overshadow the story of her father’s life in Australia.
The refugee story, Pung says, has typically followed a very rigid narrative.
“It starts off with a story of great hardship, and then you make it the new country, to the Australian camps, and then you work very hard for twenty long years and then you triumph in the end.
“So this new book deals with the everyday things, because it’s the everyday things that say much more about a person’s character than this large narrative of success.”
She says if the book were to focus on her father’s experiences with the Khmer Rouge, he would be perpetually defined as a migrant.
“And more pertinently,” she says, “he’ll be defined as a refugee. This would be a refugee story. Whereas he’s been here 31 years – this is more of Australian story. I wanted to show that being Australian can mean all sorts of things.”
In addition to the young author’s many successes, her published works also include articles in The Age, The Monthly and Meanjin, and an anthology she edited titled Growing Up Asian in Australia.
But Pung is adamant that success does not equal happiness.
As she once wrote in The Age, “what matters is perspective, not perfection.”