Thursday, August 25, 2011

An interview with Alice Pung

Alice Pung is the author of the bestselling memoir Unpolished Gem and the editor of the anthology Growing Up Asian in Australia. Her new memoir, Her Father's Daughter, is available now in all good bookstores.

Can you tell us a little about your new book Her Father’s Daughter?
My new book is an unspoken conversation between a father and a daughter, about growing up and growing old. In writing it I was not searching for easy epiphanies but an understanding of what it means to risk love again when you have lost almost everything.

The story started to emerge when I was living overseas for the first time, in Beijing. My father would call me up and give me updates about the Victorian bushfires which were raging through our state at the time. He couldn’t believe that the government allowed people to stay and defend their houses.

When I was younger, my father was my hero. He used to make us toys with things he found around the house, and sit us on his lap and brush our baby teeth with the same hands that had buried starved bodies and ploughed the fields as a slave labourer for four years under the Pol Pot regime. If our house burned down, he always reminded us, we were not to take any photographs. We were to take ourselves, and that was it.

In researching this book, I read many accounts by psychiatrists, historians and sociologists about the children of Nazi Holocaust survivors, as not many studies have yet been collected about children of parents who have survived more recent genocides. What intrigued me was that some Cambodian people dealt with trauma by deliberately cultivating goldfish memories, where if you don’t talk about something, it disappears and then you believe you can start from scratch again, in a new country.

You wrote Her Father’s Daughter in two voices from a third-person perspective. Why did you choose this style?
Although I interviewed my father many times for this book, we speak Teochew to each other. If I had written his chapters in first person, I would have had to do a literal translation to capture his voice and that would not have worked. My father has a warm and funny way of telling a story, but a direct translation would have sounded stilted and awkward. So that’s why my father’s voice is in third person.
Oral story-telling is not the same as writing. When you transcribe a story on a page, you render the living, breathing, laughing person in front of you to two- dimensions; and you risk creating a caricature of an Asian dad to non-Asian audiences. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to portray a man who was my father, but could remind anyone of their own dad too. Because being a father is not a distinct ‘cultural’ thing - love is instinctive.
As for the daughter’s voice: I knew I couldn’t pull off the voice of a sixty-year old man unless it was ‘in conversation’ with his twenty-something year old daughter. Then it became the father I knew, filled with the same anxieties and deep-seated fears of any loving dad - although his were just more magnified. The daughter’s voice also had to be in third person, otherwise it would have then just been a story about a daughter who tells a story about her father.
How is your new book different from your first book, Unpolished Gem?
I’ve seen my father in lecture-theatres filled with university students - he used to be asked to be a guest speaker for a subject on genocide at Melbourne University - and he makes them laugh. The alternative, of course, would be to make people cry. I wasn’t going to do that in this book, but I also realised that I couldn’t tell my father’s story the way he tells it to the students. Because when I became a writer and storyteller myself, I realised that I started doing exactly the same thing: making horrible things palatable to audiences through black humour.

Yet the more I delved into the research for this new book, the more I realised I couldn’t take the satirical approach to say what I wanted to say anymore. For this book, I knew I could not look at the blackness through rose-coloured glasses. All you get is a colour like clotted blood, a scab. A thin layer to keep in the red, pulsating life beneath.

But I also knew I was not going to start off with the Year Zero chapters and then lead to triumph, security and fireworks. That would make for a nice screenplay, and would have made the book a hell of a lot easier to write; but I’ve always been wary of writers who exploit easy emotion – making people laugh and cry too easily. I wanted to explore the other residual emotions that come afterwards: hyper-vigilance, acting like a haywire motion detector that goes off when it senses nothing but the rain, and loving your children too much.

Also, having laid down the adolescent weapons of satire and myopic self-regard, the capital ‘I’ narrator has disappeared to be replaced with a more mature voice, and one that recognises that self-doubt can serve as a good guide.

What is the hardest part of writing? And the most rewarding part?
The difficult part of telling this story was that I had to learn to write all over again, to keep the lightness of the voice in contrast to the heaviness of some of the subject matter, without being flippant. I felt like I was starting from scratch, a beginner, because I could no longer hide behind wit or sardonic humour, which is much easier to do than to say what you really have to say. Every decision about each word counted in this book.
But the best part about writing this story was remembering how loved we are by our father, how much he trusted me with his stories. What a gift that was, and I knew I had to do justice to this, even if it meant that the story is told in an unconventional way.
Which writers and books have influenced you most throughout your life?
I particularly admire writers of young adult fiction. This was the part of my life when I had very little life experience but lots of time for absorbing ideas. I read John Marsden, Sonya Hartnett, Lois Lowry, James Maloney, Robin Klein, Cynthia Voight and Paul Zindel. They were never condescending towards young adults, and their characters were three dimensional. You almost felt that you could be friends with them.

What has been your most memorable moment as a writer to date?
Living in Alaska in a house in the woods, and befriending a 65 year old lady named Joan Vanderwerp next door.
The future of the book has been a hot topic in the media of late. How do you feel about this issue?

My mother doesn’t read. My father had no books in Democratic Kampuchea. I grew up for the first seven years of my life with Safeway and Bilo ads as the ‘literature’ of the house. Many areas of the developing world don’t yet have paper-books, let alone kindles and e-readers and all the rest of it. E-books aren’t going to ‘take over’ the world yet, maybe just trendy inner-suburbs in large cities!

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