Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Alice Pung on becoming a writer

We asked Alice Pung, author of Unpolished Gem and editor of Growing Up Asian in Australia, "When did you first decide to become a writer?"

Here’s what she had to say:

When I was younger, I did not yet know how to deal with my feelings, or with the seemingly unending plagues of headlice and scabies I used to get, or with looking after younger siblings while my parents both worked, feeling trapped in a horrible domestic nightmare. I had such low self-esteem, I needed to feel like a winner at something. So I began a Guinness Book of Records at thirteen, where I made myself the world record holder in all the categories: ‘Record for the person who has pilfered every single hairstyle Ronald MacDonald has had for the past ten years’ (mum made me get a perm to burn off all the head-lice eggs), ‘Record for the best Ironing-Board impersonation’ (I was flat-chested), and ‘Record for the Worst Face in the history of the Universe’ (self explanatory). I still have that little notebook tucked away in a journal somewhere.

I looked back over my journals when I was eighteen and found them rather hilarious, even though they were unintentionally so. And that was when I decided that I would write a funny book.

I was tired of reading manuals by Asian women on how to feel miserable and oppressed. Young girls - particularly Southeast Asian girls - are socialised not to vocalise any form of anger or annoyance. And girls are not supposed to make fun of themselves because it is meant to do some sort of irrevocable damage to their brittle self-esteem. However, it seemed that Asian women could write countless books on their ten thousand sorrows, and be published, as long as the misery came from the forces of the outside world.

So I was tired of reading Oriental Cinderella stories and migrant narratives of success. Instead of inspiring me, they actually made me feel like an abject failure. When will I ever accumulate enough suffering to be a real writer? I wondered. I had defeated no communists/nationalists/evil stepmothers, did not have a seedy past or narcotic addiction, and the only thing I had ever smoked was salmon (in the oven).

Then I thought, damn it, I'm going to write a book about yellow people aspiring to become white middle class! It's not going to start with the struggles of war, but something more ironically Marxist - it would be about a working class family and their petit bourgeois dreams. And damn those who perpetuate the stereotype of the joyless Asian. My characters are going to laugh. So
Unpolished Gem was begun, a book that was premised on poking fun of my abysmally low, adolescent self-esteem; and a book about my love for my quirky, daggy family.


  1. I'm not commenting on this post, but responding to a Black Inc newsletter asking for general comments on the blog.

    I like the look of the blog, but what is completely missing is bloggishness. All the posts are anonymous. For it to work as a blog, as distinct from a corporate publicity device (not that there's anything wrong with that), it needs to have at least one identified author, who is at liberty to make personal observations, notations, revelations, ruminations, etc. Sophie Cunningham at Spike and Jeff Sparrow at teh Overland blog are good models. When other ariters appear here, they can do so as guest bloggers, rather than beong introduced as writers and presented in distancing italics. The Tor Books blog at http://www.tor.com/ is a whole other way of doing this: no obvious main blogger but lord knows how many enthhusiastic guests.

    Corporate blogging is a contradiciton in terms.

  2. This was a hoot to read, thank you. I'm off to find Unpolished Gem at my local library/book store. Thank you Alice Pung, you are now on my reading list, and my daughter's as well.

  3. Thanks for the post Jonathan. We asked for feedback for exactly this reason – helpful criticism! We certainly agree that most blogs work best when they are from one person and we aren’t trying to remain anonymous as such — the
    idea was to have a “Black Inc.” voice. I think the Alien Onion blog is a good example of this -- http://alienonion.blogspot.com/

    But we will take your comments on board and look at labelling each post from individual staff members in the future.

    And Anonymous - glad you enjoyed Alice's thoughts. Let us know what you think of Unpolished Gem.

  4. I don't know if The Alien Onions blog is all written by one person, but the tone is generally very playful, so that any mention of the books comes across as a matter of personal enthusiasm rather than promotion. I don't know that that's a tone that would work for Black Inc, and maybe it's just a matter of letting the voice develop.

  5. Alice- you dissapeared from The Monthly- my future decision to subscribe or not subscribe might depend on you....

  6. Hello there Alice,

    It's my worst nightmare that I ever remembered having such head lice when I was still 8 years old. My mom didn't care about it. Had this neighbor who is so kind that She managed to remove my head lice manually.

    That experience leads me to have some research about it. I do not want this to happen to my kids actually.

    head lice is actually a nightmare.....