Alice Pung on tragedy, cultural appropriation and the craft of writing

ANDREW LEIGH, HOST: Alice Pung is one of Australia's most talented young writers. The author of Unpolished Gem, the Edited Collection Growing up Asian in Australia, Her Father's Daughter, Laurinda My First Lesson, Writers on Writers, Alice Pung and John Marsden, Close to Home Selected Writings. And then four children's books - Meet Marley, Marley’s Business, Marley and the Goat and Marley Walks on the Moon. Alice also writes for nonfiction publications such as the monthly and has a part time job as a as a lawyer at the Fair Work Commission, when she's not looking after her kids. I have no idea how she manages to be so talented and so prolific, but I'm delighted to have her on the good life podcast today.

PUNG: Oh, thanks so much, Andrew. It's a delight to be on this podcast today.

LEIGH:  So let's start off at the beginning, since he's such a feature of your writing, tell us about your dad.

PUNG: Oh, well, my dad is in his 70s. He's still working. He works at his better electrical store in Footscray. And he came to Australia in 1980. So he came as a refugee. After surviving Pol Pot’s killing fields in Cambodia.

And he saw horrendous things in Cambodia. And so much of Her Father's Daughter is about how somebody who has experienced such tragedy and seen so many people die, then assimilates into a country where things things are safe and clean and played a plentiful.

LEIGH: How do you how do you think he made that? That transition? Because what you describe in her father's daughter is not just the the extent of the brutality, but the the capricious and standard, the way in which Pol Pot's regime killed for for No, no clear reason whatsoever.

PUNG:I think to be honest, my father survived the killing fields just by luck, as you know, people in genocides and Holocaust survive, sometimes by being clever, and often by being lucky. So for my father, it was a combination of both. But how he survived in Australia is a different matter because I have a lot of friends whose fathers were very scarred by the wall drank too much or couldn't function. Normally, in life, you know, had a gambling addiction, they couldn't escape their demons. I think my father had the skill of cleaving his life into two. So there was life before Australia and life after Australia. And he named me because I'm the oldest Alice because he named me after Alice in Wonderland. This Australia was going to be his Wonderland.

So growing up, he wasn't one to lament or one to tell sorrowful war stories like my grandmother and my mother were inclined to, and he survived. Probably the worst of it. He told funny stories actually about his experiences, which I never appreciated as a teenager. You know, I think once he told my best friend, Bianca, that he ate a belt, and I sat there thinking, he can't even speak English properly, you know, and it's about he probably ate about licorice that morning. But he did he ate his, um, his leather belt. And he said, when it expanded in his stomach, he felt full. And he could work because if you couldn't work, you were executed.

And I think that afternoon when I walked my friend home, I begged her not to tell anyone at school because her eyes lit up and she said, this is the stuff that show and tells them aid off you know, I just can't wait to tell the other kids and the reason I said that was because the other kids had been teasing us about eating all sorts of animals. Anything with its back facing the sky. We were accused of eating you know, dogs and cats and family pets. So I didn't want anyone to know that my dad ate a belt because It would be more ammunition. But I've grown to appreciate his stories as I've got older.

LEIGH: And you remark in the book The way in which certain things still set him off the the fear of death from plastic bags, because he'd seen people killed by having a plastic bag put over their head, and then blunting knives because of a fear of what a knife could do to someone. It must be such a transition to come from a context in which you've seen life ended so freely, and then to see people walking around without a care in the world.

PUNG: Yeah, I think it was, it was a huge transition. But it was a great one. He thought he'd arrived in paradise. My father still blanks knives, and he still has bought himself a house in a very safe cul de sac sack, you know, on a hill, the safest place you could exist. But I found that interesting. As he's got older, he's become more, you know, maybe many old people like he's less inclined to go out, and more afraid of the world maybe or what the world's become. But interestingly enough, last year, here, my mother thrived during the pandemic, because they were safe in the house, and they didn't have to go to work. And they had this context where worst things had happened to them, of course, so this was the best thing. The government will give you money to help you out. If you don't have a job, you can stay home, and you just go to the supermarket, all your needs are met.

LEIGH: That's fascinating. I love your your story, too, about when you thought about taking part in the 40 hour famine. And your dad who'd once been able to almost feel his backbone through the front of his stomach, said that he would pay you to eat for 40 hours.

PUNG: Yeah, I guess so. Anyone who handed him that, you know, familiar orange sponsorship book, my father would say, look, if you break all the rules and eat and of course, as kids, we we thought that was a terrible thing to break the 40 hour famine.

LEIGH: And you're right, we've we've got a wonderful Celeste joining us on the on the podcast today. Which reminds me of another curious feature of your upbringing that you did, quote, more parenting of your siblings then many other kids do in Australia? How How did that shape you as a child and and how does it shape you as a parent now, Alice?

PUNG: Oh, that's a great question. So I was as the oldest. And I think it happens in many in households. You're responsible for the younger ones, just because my parents work crazy hours. So my mother was an art worker in the back shed, she made jewellery and my dad was just beginning his business, his small appliance business. So as they did in Cambodia, they left the raising of the younger kids to the oldest child. I was a constantly anxious kid. You know, like, like that great route. Wise Man, spider man said, With great power comes great responsibility. Well, I had a lot of responsibility as a kid, but I had absolutely no power. So you feel powerless and anxious all the time, because anything could go wrong. And so when I had my first son, I was 34. And I was so worried that I'd be an anxious mum. But you know what, Andrew? It was a piece of cake. because by then I was an adult. And I had complete control over my life. And I thought, Oh, well, this is so much easier compared to when I didn't when I was nine years old. So I was very lucky to go into motherhood this way.

LEIGH: I've heard you say before Alice, that one as you got into being a writer, you look back on your childhood diaries from the time on which you were looking after your youngest siblings. And you were surprised at the extent of vitriol there the anger that you felt having to to look at to look after your your siblings did is do clearly you've dropped dropped that resentment though that that frustration, and having to play an early maternal role. Hasn't hasn't lingered in how you think about your your siblings or your family? Because you write about them so warmly.

PUNG: Oh, no, definitely. It's it was I an even as a young kid. Look, I was not the most enlightened kid. So when you write in your diary, it's with this wonderful perspective. It's worth the immediacy of the moment because I didn't have the wisdom of experience. So we in the immediacy of the moment, there's some funny passages, Andrew, I remember when my mother and father announced their latest pregnancy and one entry was held IV a, they should have asked me first with the first underlyings was no way responsible for what my parents got up to recreationally, but you know, I I knew our I'm going to make me look after these kids. So I was so angry, and I don't see any of that anger. If you force children upon children, and all they want to do is clay, and all you're telling them, you're not praising them for looking after the younger kids, you're saying, Don't shake your baby. Don't let that baby get too close to the healer, don't do this. Don't do that. It's unrewarding. And it's frustrating. And it's, it's a dangerous job.

So anyhow, I was very angry as a young person. And then things changed when I got to travel overseas. So I travelled quite late in my life at the age of 27. And I went to China first. And then when I was almost 30, I went to Cambodia. And I saw what my parents were replicating. I saw kids looking after much younger kids, but they were looking after their kids not in isolation in x commission houses in braybrook, that we're looking after the youngest siblings on mass. So you'd have lots of older siblings with lots of younger siblings in a big group of siblings. So they could hang it around their friends, each person had the same situation. Whereas for me in the suburbs of Melbourne, it was very isolated, and isolating. So that was the experience it wasn't wasn't a good one. Some of the time, and it was great other times as well.

LEIGH: So most great writers, great readers before they start to put pen to paper, your favourite childhood author john Marston is somebody who you've written an entire book about so for those who are less familiar with his work, what do you love about john Marston?

PUNG: Also, this is the interesting contradiction about people who, who think about teenagers. Yes. So in literature, we expect our teenagers to behave in certain ways or to almost infantilized. So what what I mean is, at school, they're reading things like King Lear, they're reading things like the slums of Charles Dickens, England, and yet this distinct category of book in Australia called y A, where you're not allowed to deal with certain subjects because your book sales plummet, teen pregnancies, one suicide, and you're not allowed to deal with certain subjects. For example, drugs, unless it's didactic, you know, there's a good message at the end of it. And yet, the teachers I knew when encountered were fully fledged adults who are for example, john Marston was accused of presenting war to kids at a very early age, but me and my friends read his books, and a lot of my friends had survived war. So those books were completely authentic, and reflective of real life experience.

LEIGH: So how do you go about thinking, thinking about your real writing in? If you were, if you're writing for young adults, do you think those books need to be grittier than what we'd find in a typical library?

PUNG: Um not necessarily because you can write a perfectly wonderful book about a teenager who has a comfortable middle class existence. And I find that interesting as well. As long as the book has momentum, it's, you know, well written, I don't think they're necessarily have to be grittier. But if they are grittier, they have to be authentic. They can't be an adult, looking down on a young person's perspective and imparting this great life lesson. I think books are more to open up questions than to give you answers. And teenagers are savvy, they're just gonna fling away a book that is preaching to them. So yeah, that's how I feel about.

LEIGH: you, as a writer, you're somewhat unusual in being part time is having a we're having work as a lawyer and on the side. does, is that something that you need to do by necessity? Or is there is that an active choice?

PUNG: Oh, it's a little of both, to be honest, then drew, by necessity just for my own mental health. I think if I was a full time writer, and I've tried it for two weeks, and it did not work out. You can't I just can't sit there and write for eight hours straight. Right. Most of my stories are derived from life. So I've got to be living live. And also if I depend on all my income from like books, in Australia, as you know, your level of fame doesn't correspond with how much you earn as a writer. I think it would make me quite anxious. I'm worried about negative reviews, because that might impact book sales. So I've always had this other career that financially makes me be able to write what I want. And the other thing is sometimes feel that Writing is quite selfish because you spend years sequestered by yourself to produce this, this one work. That's that's how I work anyhow. But when I go to work on part of the team, it's not individual. So that's the other thing I like about work as well.

LEIGH” Is there a risk thing that you don't find time to write? So do you have a discipline where there's a block of time every day? You know, if you read Paris Review, there's certain writers who say that they must put it in put in three hours of uninterrupted time from 7am. Do you have a routine of that like that? Do you have a number of words to aim for?

PUNG: Oh, no, Andrew, just because I've got in five years, I had three children. So I've got three kids under six. And I Wow, yeah, this, I don't have the luxury of having a block of uninterrupted time, time is always interrupted, I'm lucky if I have half an hour uninterrupted time, it just means I have to work differently. So I do my writing by hand in notebooks scattered all over the house. And then I try and piece them together at night when I can, if I'm not too tired, and it's changed my writing a bit. I've become more concise, and my sentences are shorter for starters.

LEIGH: So what's the advantage of writing by hand? So because most people would think of it as kind of being inefficient to to have to then transcribe your own work? What is what extra does? Does that give you to handwrite? Your work?

PUNG: Oh, I didn't think of it as extra at all. And I think it's the most convenient and fastest way just because if I have to turn on my computer, unlock it, put it out of sleep to put on my Word document that takes time. And I don't have that much time. So I write it by hand. Sometimes I edit by hand and transcribing by computer, isn't that big a deal to me? Yeah, I can see the words on the page as well, when I write by hand.

LEIGH: You started off writing memoir, and you've moved more into into into novels? How is that? How's it different to write in those two styles? And how's it different to edit the work in those two styles?

PUNG: Oh, well, I always think of nonfiction, especially narrative nonfiction is you have to make it sound like fiction, so that it's engaging, you know, you're not writing a history essay. So the hardest part is trying to make your memoir or your nonfiction read as if it could be, you know, it could be fiction, it could be completely made up. And it's the inverse with writing fiction, because I write realist fiction. So I've got to make sure my fiction sounds real enough that these things could conceivably happen to my characters. So that that's how I work.

LEIGH: Tell me more about that. So you you're, I thought you were going to say that, that somehow the memoir, words were more precious because they were a being drawn from a finite source. Exactly. Yeah. And, but, but your, your main concern seems to be that the fiction words don't have the guarantee of authenticity than the than the nonfiction words do.

PUNG:  Oh, yeah, that's, I guess, because I, I don't write non fiction books. I've stopped that for a while to concentrate on fiction. So my, my preoccupation with fiction is how do I make this sound? Like these are real human beings who are living out their lives, and not just characters who are comprised of a collection of quotes because I see that a lot, you know, people think or you build a character by giving them personality, and a bunch of traits. But that's that's not how you that's not how I do it. Anyhow. Yes. So I start off with what what is character? And then what is story then my questions when I begin a novel? Do you feel you sort of have to live with your with with your characters? Oh, somewhat. They're pretty close to home, to be honest. And I liked living with the characters for a number of years. It's a bit sad when you finish the book, any think of that? That's my journey with this character with Lucy or with Corona because you've lived with them first. Before years, they have occupied a space rent free in my mind for that long, and now they're leaving.

LEIGH: And in terms of how you think about your, your writings, I mean, you're one of the leading Asian Australian voices in both fiction and nonfiction. And when I was when I was thinking about you that seminal book that so many people have read and refer to growing up Asian in Australia. I was reminded if there's a line from the James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice Where Sean Connery dismissively says to someone who's challenging his linguistic abilities, I studied oriental languages at Cambridge, and his idea that causes kind of farcical. But I'm wondering, similarly, is it is it a bit of a stretch to think about a single Asian experience in Australia?

PUNG: There is no relation experience because Asian Australians have been here since the 1850s. And earlier, I think it's the 1830s that the first Asian Australian person came here. So there is no singular experience. That's what I find baffling. And true, is we try and pin these things down. When you you know, and sometimes people say, oh, but there's already been a book about a Malaysian Chinese or Vietnamese Australian. But we never say that about mainstream books. We don't say, Oh, wait, but there's already been a book about a teenager whose mother dies or this or that, so that there's such a diversity of experience that a mainstream perhaps white Australian can have, that an Asian Australian might not be able to have? Or might, you know, in the past that wasn't marketable the ordinariness of our lives?

LEIGH: How do you think the the experiences of some of the groups that Utah that your writers talk about in growing up Asian in Australia have changed since the book came out? Do you feel as though the extent of anti racist racism in Australia has has declined? Or is there a sense in which particularly for Chinese Australians, it's gotten worse?

PUNG: It ebbs and flows, Andrew, things have got better for, for me, of course, because I don't have an accent. You know, I'm a middle class professional. So the irony is that the people who used to yell at us and tell us to stop stealing jobs, sometimes need my advice as an employment lawyer, and they don't see me at that point. They don't see me as an Asian, they're appreciative and grateful for help. And I understand that demographic, because I grew up among them, just you know, poor working class, Australians who felt very threatened in their livelihoods by global forces, they couldn't change. And if things are hard for a specific group of Asian Australians now they've there always be a specific group for now. It's the Burmese because they're the latest arrival. It's the Chinese because this thing to have brought in Coronavirus. Yeah. And the ebbs and flows, doesn't it?

LEIGH: It does. And one of the things I really admire about your writing about race is the way in which class runs right through it. So you're you're very conscious about the the distinction between those who are working as doctors and lawyers and people who are stacking shelves in small, small suburban grocery stores, and thinking about how that experiences is almost entirely different.

PUNG: Yeah, that's true and true, but it's not. It's not confined to people who have come here recently. So it's not confined to Asian Australians or Muslim Australians. I think Anglo Australians have been here generations class is one of the biggest impactors on how they deal with new members of the community. So crystals to focus away says you know, these people in Fitzroy have the luxury of having kind of open hearts and accepting refugees and volunteering at the asylum seekers Resource Centre. But when those refugees arrived, like us, were put in the far flung suburbs or the working class suburbs, so that those Bogan Australians that the inner city people so looked down upon all those racist slogans, they're the ones who put up with us. They're the ones who have to have a sense the neighbours, and they're the ones who have to try and help assimilate us on a day to day level. And I have a lot of respect, and even deep love for some of these people. one of whom was my best friend's father who supported one nation. He had posters of Pauline on his wall, but he loved us unreservedly. So I've never believed that people were their politics.

LEIGH: So a lot of that flows through in your your latest novel 100 days, which is just hit the shelves. You're the main character Corona, experiences people shouting abuse from the from the car at her as she were as she walks down the street. Is that is that something that you experienced as a child growing up in the west of Melbourne?

PUNG: Oh, yeah, yes. So once the car followed us and the window got wound down and these teenage students just yelled at my mom to go home. Stop stealing their jobs. But I didn't understand because I was eight. I thought, what what jobs for my mom works in the garage and we're going home, we live 30 seconds from our front doorstep. I didn't understand politics at that time. But as a teenager, I did have the car load of hands who were probably my dad's age, you know, they followed me home and they yelled out a line from that movie Full Metal Jacket may love you long time and they kept yelling that out till I went to a neighbor's house and pretended it was my own. So those encounters in my novel actually derived from real life. Yeah.

LEIGH: What an awful experience to be going through your read the novel is is also about confinements the the the main character spends 100 days in Insider, a small hot Housing Commission flat. And it it's sort of a kind of anticipating COVID but but I presume you wrote it before COVID came along?

PUNG: Oh, I definitely did. Even the setting the Housing Commission flat was thought of for years before COVID. So it's funny how truth mirrors fiction in this instance? Yeah.

LEIGH: What was it like to be editing the book during lockdown?

PUNG: Oh, you know, my heart just dropped I for all know, people that think I wrote a pandemic book in a space of a year, which was not true in the space of the year was growing another childhood and, and not in the not in the mind to create anything new. So it was an interesting experience to see suddenly, that these Housing Commission blocks were highlighted. And then when this book came out to early readers, a lot of people said, Oh, well, is this is this about last year is this about COVID because of the Housing Commission flats, I thought so we never write about class in literature that often because Housing Commission is normal for such a substantial part of the Australians. And yet, when they read that they linked my book to the Housing Commission flats, because these were the only two instances of Housing Commission, besides the parodies you see on, you know, television, like houses and things like that. So that was that was interesting and disheartening for me to know.

LEIGH: Yes, I was, it was interesting for me to to be rereading a lot of your your your work at the same time. And there's a there's a line from her father's daughter, where you reflect to yourself that you've spent more time staring at a screen than in your life than you have with any other human being. And the fascinating absence from 100 days is screens. Now it's a book that's that so obviously produced in the pre internet era, because it's just replete with boredom of this, this 1616 year old girl who's either pregnant or just just had a baby. Unable to to think think of what what to do. And it's sort of it feels to me a bit like a time capsule, Alice, because no one again, will we'll go We'll go through the dedicated experience. Everyone who had that who was was locked away by their into an apartment these days would have a screen to serve on.

PUNG: That's so true. You're right. Yeah, even the people in the Housing Commission flats would have had at least a phone or something. Yeah. And I deliberately set my book in 1987 for that specific reason, that the sense of boredom that sometimes we are, you know, it we need in our lives, I don't think we would like I think Hillary Clinton when she came to Australia said that we probably it's rare to get great statesmen these days, because they don't have long train journeys, like Abraham Lincoln did to just reflect and think and write a Gettysburg Address, which was only 400 words, but he had hours and hours to think about that. We don't have that luxury. We have sound bites now. So I wanted his 16 year old girl to experience the full spectrum of boredom. And I wanted her not to have technology so that it would exacerbate her sense of isolation being pregnant at that time. She just couldn't Google help him. He just have no idea.

LEIGH: I love that idea of boredom being a spark for creativity. Do you find yourself consciously holding back from technology or making rules for yourself around when you can access it in order to create that? That thinking space?

PUNG: Yeah, yeah, otherwise you're just on technology all the time. You know, things like Facebook, which they call social media, and a way to connect people. But often it's social broadcasting because you're not really connected hockey, you're just broadcasting yourself. There's no right of reply. There's no longer reflection that even an email offers. Email offers infinite space. So people have to email I found wrote longer letters. My friends wrote me longer emails in handwritten letters. And that's that's a positive about email. So I do switch off my phone and switch off the internet when I try and write. And yeah, it just helps clear the mind as well.

LEIGH: This is a nice line from Robert Putnam where he said the question at the outset of the internet age was whether the new technology would be more like a souped up telephone television or a souped up telephone. And I remember talking to Bob a couple of years back and he resigned. Well, we've sorted that one that one out, definitely more like television than telephone. And running through the book, there's Walt Whitman, Walt Whitman, who features as a quote at the start and then it I won't, won't spoil the details, but but Whitman is there all the way through. Why why Whitman?

PUNG: Ah, so I never formally studied poetry at school, Andrew, except maybe a couple of poems maybe can have slessor the Australian poet Sylvia Plath everyone does. So when I discovered Whitman, myself, as a young person, it was accidental, as most things are, if you grow up in a certain demographic, it was almost like a free books pile. And so that that poetry made sense to me, I had no idea he, he had been writing in the 1800s. It seems so contemporary, his sentences were disjointed, but that was the way my teenage hormone or mine seem to work at that time, and something just clicked, without wanting to be wonky about it. Sometimes poetry comes accidentally to people. So So Whitman was one. And because he was W, he was right next to the free book of Judith Wright, who was an Australian poet. So that's why she's featured in there. But I remember coming across her poem, about the glint of metal along the blade, you know, was a punk of woman to man about childbirth, and like, Oh, this is so visceral, this, this has to be in there. So yeah, that's why those two poets are in there.

LEIGH: Yes, and it's funny how different experiences can be shaped by poems. So with weddings, I always think of Liz Mary's wedding at barraco which is got these beautiful lines about the parents moving softly to the rear. And I just, I, that's that shaped how I think of every wedding ceremony. I can't, I can't go along to do a wedding without without thinking of layers and layers. Mary's calm and it's just, it's striking how he's experienced a wedding which of course of people who I never knew and a context I'll never know, still seemed to capture something beautifully universal about the experience of of marriage. That's, yeah, you you have a lovely sort of tension in 100 days, between parental love and and being too smothering. I suppose it's it's sort of summed up for me by story, which I think also appears in another one of your earlier books about a grandmother who, faced with a snotty nose child places her mouth over the nose, sucks the mucus out, and then so then spits spits it away. How do you how do you think about that, that that tension between a mother's mother's love and her overprotectiveness?

PUNG: Oh, it's a hard one to straddle the centre and for and if you go into it, in a sensitive way, you could burden your child with a lifetime of guilt. You know, the this stereotypical joke about the overbearing Jewish mother. Here I just have a very harassed, overworked, overtired single Mama, whose only mode of communication with their deliveries to is to lecture or to criticise, because that instantly gets things done, and she wasn't taught any better. That's probably how her overworked and overstressed mother in the Philippines communicated with her. And that's exactly the relationship my mother had with her own mother. So her mother had 10 kids and just so boiled eggs in the new market in Cambodia. So whenever she had an interaction with a kid, it was to yell at them or to tell them to do And of course, you know, my mother raised me in a in a similar way, she was always very busy. We knew she loved us by the things she did for us, and not in the things she said. And yet as a teenager, some of the things she said could be quite hurtful, because you go to school in Australia, and you're taught that you have individual rights. And if someone calls you a song before or whatever, that's emotional abuse. But culturally, that's, that's what working class parents call the kids. Yeah.

LEIGH: How's that shaped you as a parent?

PUNG: Oh, well, you know, I? I don't know, that's a great question. I have, I'm conscious of when I'm trying to control my kids. Because when they're born, you realise that they've just complete strangers and human beings unto themselves. And the strangeness about them is the beautiful thing. They're not extensions of you, they're just themselves. And when I feel like I'm trying to control my kid, for example, trying to get him to wear a certain pair of pants that, you know, for keeping warmer than thin pair of leggings, I realised that the coerciveness have, even because it's so small, you're forcing them on him. And one of my very good friends once said to me, she said, our parents, parents can parent their kids, however they want. But you've just got to be aware that in, you know, 15 years time, that child will, if you've done the right job, be bigger than you be stronger than you and be smarter than you. So if you use control as a means of parenting them, who knows what will happen when they're better than you? And they will powerful.

LEIGH: And I find it becomes harder the more kids you have. And so when we had one child, there was an ability to sort of take a bit of time and reason things out. With three now there's just, there's less space to say, Well, you've got a perfectly reasonable point of view, but we're going to do it my way because I because I'm the parent. I feel like with each with each new child, their household became a little bit less democratic. And it's parenting.

PUNG: Oh, that's so true. Andrew, even without household. Yeah. I understand completely. Yeah. But if you add that with them, you know, really stress parents. I just remembered the earlier days. My mum and dad were just constantly so stressed. They're always yelling at us. There's a big gap between me and my youngest sibling. And Arnold sable, that wonderful Jewish Australian writer talks about two sisters who had different parents. They had biologically the same parents, but one was born 10 years after the Holocaust, and one was born during that time. And the one born during that time said our parents were so awful to us, they yelled at us, you know, they're so mean to me. And the youngest one said, What do you mean, there were excellent parents that were kinda were caring. They were patient. And that's because the parents circumstances changed. They lived guess lies. And so I felt that, you know, sometimes we judge parents of a certain class, oh, they're so stupid. They put on orange juice and the kids, you know, milk bottles or things like that, without fully feeling empathy towards their circumstances.

LEIGH: Someone to ask you about the issue of cultural appropriation as somebody who's a Chinese Cambodian Australian who's written a book about a Filipino teenage mum. This has been an issue which has popped up increasingly recently. Jeanine Cummins was criticised for writing American dirt book about a Mexican mum who crosses into the United States because she's white rather than Latin next. And many people will be familiar with Lionel Shriver's speech to the Brisbane Writers Festival in 2016, where she told the story of a the University of East Anglia banning students from wearing sombreros on the basis that that was cultural appropriation from Mexico. And Shriver regards this as as appalling and says every every role as writers is to try on other people's heads and defends the notion of writers telling stories about ethnicities other than their own. How do you feel about this very vexed and high temperature topic?

PUNG: Oh, yeah. It is a very vexed and very knee jerk reaction that people have towards this idea of cultural appropriation. Andrew and a lot of people talk This in with the idea of cultural appropriation stealing from other cultures. I've never seen it that way. I think I'm not sure you can steal ideas. That's the thing. I mean, you can still I scientific ideas have been painted to it. But creative ideas, I don't think anyone has a monopoly over them. And I am aware Lionel Shriver pressed a lot of wrong buttons when she made this speech. But I actually agree with her that as a novelist, you are free to explore whatever terrain you want.

Now, this idea of cultural appropriation to me is more about cultural appropriateness, say, so, who gets to decide what is culturally appropriate. And if you do it badly, then there are dangers of doing that. So, let's say, you know, what Lionel Shriver did was not culturally appropriate, even though the speech was quite reasonable when I read it, that she was trying to be provocative, provocative. She was sombreros, she was saying, Look at me, I'm a very gifted and talented and world famous author. And she's very gifted, and I love her writing. But she was using that to say, I can make fun of you guys with no consequence. And with that, that's, that's concerning. Because certain writers have historically only been allowed to tell a certain certain tiny proportion of this story. So the for Mexicans, maybe the immigrant experience crossing over the border, blah, blah, blah.

For me when I was first starting out, I don't think I could have started writing a book like her father's daughter, I couldn't have written this new book, which was, you know, a mother talking to her mixed race child that didn't exist back then that wouldn't have been marketable. So times change. And who gets to determine what is culturally appropriate is the big issue here. I think not who gets to steal what and when? Yeah, so I don't think we should think about it in terms of theft.

LEIGH: I wonder today whether Thomas Keneally could have written the chance to Jimmie blacksmith, which is, you know, the story of an Aboriginal man told and told in first person. That's beer now nearly nearly 5050 years old. But I think there'd be some some criticism of a white author who sought to write a book entirely from the perspective of an Aboriginal person.

PUNG: Oh, that's a fair point, Andrew. So that's where cultural appropriateness comes in. If he, you know, he might have had heaps of indigenous friends. Like Alex Nila is very close to the indigenous community, he sought their permission. Another writer clear, right? Or so not clear, right? Clear, Atkins wrote a beautiful book called Niner. And me with the consultation of the indigenous community who were very happy with the way they were represented. So that's culturally appropriate, because that was done as a homage to that culture. even closer to home, my friend named Lee, who wrote the boat about a decade ago, which was this international bestseller with different perspectives, I'm not sure he would be allowed to publish that now, or whether it would be marketable. It's just such a pity, because it's such a powerful book is such a powerful book. So I've never believed that we should only write from our own experience, because then I'd be stuck. That's it. I've just got two memoirs. And that's all the writing I can produce in my life. Because you could go in the opposite direction and making writers write according to a very narrow and specific point of view, which we don't want.

LEIGH: Where does cultural appropriateness go? In terms of other identities? I'm guessing you probably don't think about it in gender terms, that you wouldn't be uncomfortable without a man writing a novel from a woman's perspective or vice versa. But maybe it does arise with sexuality with somebody writing, or even with somebody writing a book from a different is a transgender and transgender perspective.

PUNG: Oh, yeah. There was a bit of trouble with that last year with john Boyle writing, he's gay, but he wrote from the transgenders perspective, a book about a young adult. So he wrote The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which he said, I couldn't write that book today because I didn't survive the Holocaust. I'm a white gay British man. How dare I do this, the critics would say, and yet that was a very moving book and, and film for many people. I think the thing is, sometimes people What terribly Hey, and it's so transparent. When you read a book where culture has been rendered in two dimensional terms, you think, Wow, this person is writing about a black American or Jamaican slave, they have no black friends. It's all a bunch of cultural tropes and stereotypes wrapped into these characters, you kind of see it, it's pretty transparent. The danger lies where that becomes definitive because the author is so famous, you know, like Thomas Keneally, or, or john Bourne, that any new voices don't get a chance to urge because the publishers might say, oh, but we've already had a book on the transgender experience written by this person who can sell us 100,000 copies, and you're just a newcomer, what can you bring to the table? 5000.

LEIGH: So you're crowding out the the authentic voices and that sense?

PUNG: Yeah, yeah. I think that's Yeah, just because you can write about a topic doesn't mean you can do it well, and doesn't mean you need to do it.

LEIGH: Alice, I first got it got to get to know you when you were living in Norman college in the apartment next to my dad there. And, and they want of course, they they loved having you as a as a neighbour there my mom when she visited my dad all the time. But you've spent a lot of time in in universities and kind of working with and mentoring young writers, you must have a couple of kind of tips that you often give to young writers. What what what pieces of advice do you find yourself most commonly bestowing on people who want to make a career with a pen?

PUNG: Oh, that's a good question. Because I get asked that a lot. And my biggest tip is, is one elder Huxley gave at a Writers Festival. And it's the Nike slogan, it's just to do it. I find a lot of people, not just young people, middle aged ladies, you know, old older gentlemen, always, I've got a book in me and I want to talk about the book. And I want to talk about the process of writing. And I want to talk and talk, the time you take in talking is the time you should be sitting down and writing. indefinitely. Just do it. It's it's the Nike slogan, but it's worked for me. And especially since I don't have that much time, I don't talk about books, I just do it. That's the only way to get writing. The more you talk about it, sometimes the more doubt you cast on your own self, the the more doubt others might, you know, cast on you or, or they might dilute the purity of your ideas with other ideas I might have. Or make you feel insecure by saying, Oh, I hate to tell you, there's another book like that on the market. Just stuff like that.

LEIGH: So as a nonfiction writer, I've increasingly come to the view that I should show my unpublished work to as many people as possible because they will only make it better. And the the the challenge with writing is not that people steal your ideas. Mostly it's that people don't read your ideas. But I wonder whether that's somehow less true with fiction, is there a risk that, particularly new writers, put asked for comments too early and then find themselves being put off by the feedback?

PUNG: Oh, sure, Andrew, and sometimes actually, what sometimes a lot of the time, they ask for feedback from the wrong people. So you have to you it's a rescue to be an editor. I've been with mine for 20 years. And our relationship is constantly developing, and has given me space to grow and to branch out into different directions. So if you are someone who loves you so much, your mom, your dad, your best friend, you're not going to get honest feedback. And if you're asking a group of students in your first year creative writing class, who were taught that criticism is to be critical, then you got to feel really disheartened. So yeah, you have to ask the right kind of person to read your work.

LEIGH: This is Chris Feak - You're talking about your your editor. Yeah, I mean, I remember Robert man saying to me when I got to work with Chris that he is just one of the great Australian treasures. And my experience when I first got a manuscript back from him, was every time he had changed a sentence, I thought to myself, yes, that is exactly what I was trying to say, but couldn't quite find the words for the experience of going through Chris's track changes, which was unlike anything I've ever experienced as a as a writer.

PUNG: Oh, he's so wonderful, isn't he? Andrew? He did. You know, he discovered me at the age of 20. And he's just looked over every book I've done, but he taught me an important thing. We were at an editing conference together almost seven years ago. And he said, He's very modest guy. He's I said, How do you do it? Chris, you edit Simon lays The light Simon laser presented everything in hand writing in pencil and you edit other people Gen X's How do you do it and he said his first rule is the Hippocratic oath that doctors take is to do no harm. And that's exactly how he edits my manuscripts. He, he doesn't put words in that you wouldn't put in. He says he just peels it back. So the truth of the story can emerge. He's never rewritten whole passages for me. And I think he does it so well.

LEIGH: Yes, I'm sure he has to do more work with my prose than yours. But it's a it's a it's a treat to treat either way. Alice, let me wrap up with a handful of questions. I ask all my guests. So what advice would you give to your teenage self?

PUNG: Oh, that's that's a good question. I think I'd tell her that things get better and not take life so seriously, because it's not permanent.

LEIGH: You experienced a nervous breakdown during during your final exams didn't share it? Is that? Do you have you? Have you made a full recovery there? Are there still certain triggers that you need to look out for?

PUNG: I don't know. I mean, he happened when I was 17. But you know, about five or six years ago, my brother died. So he, he lost his battle with depression. And that that was that shook me up. It was shook me up you measurably it's the The last thing I wish upon anyone. So I'm very conscious about taking or finding joy in small things where I can? Yeah.

LEIGH: When are you most happy?

PUNG: Oh, when am I most happy. Or when I've, you know, when I'm fully engaged in my creative work, when I have my kids and family around me. And when I have something to look forward to.

LEIGH: I imagine the first two of those are mutually contradictory that it's difficult to write with the family all around you.

PUNG: It is but you know what, they both coexist wonderfully. Because if I can't write, and I spend time with my kids, it's not time wasted. And if I get sick, if my kids and equal cut looks after them, and I get time to write it's that's not time wasted, either. So it's a wonderful thing to have these two great loves.

LEIGH: What's the most important thing you do in your life to stay mentally and physically healthy?

PUNG: I try and get out every day, go for a walk. do spend time with with our kids and and with the family. And also this is important, but try and get enough sleep. Because that changes the course of a whole day.

LEIGH: Yes, I found my sense of humour is the first thing to go if I don't get enough sleep. It's just hard to to see the light in in a dark situation if you read too tired.

PUNG: Oh, that's so true. Yeah, yeah.

LEIGH: Do you have any Guilty Pleasures?

PUNG: Yes, yes, I eat a lot of chocolate as in more than probably your average person I can. Sometimes I get three kilos in a week.

LEIGH: Wow, that is a good amount of chocolate.

PUNG: Yeah. But I don't you know, I don't drink and I don't smoke. So I guess that that's advice I can sustain. It's probably cheaper than alcohol.

LEIGH: As a chocolate connoisseur, what's your favourite kind?

PUNG: Oh, what's my favourite time? I'm not a snob about chocolate just as long as it doesn't taste like brown crayons. You know the type I'm talking about.

LEIGH: Finally, Alice which person know which experiences most shaped your view of living an ethical life?

PUNG: Oh, well, I'mvery lucky. I have a wonderful husband, Nick, who is very quiet. And very, it's an old fashioned word, but he's very stoic and steadfast. And so he's he's shaped my view of life because sometimes I I get anxious about small things or, you know, sometimes I get stressed with the kids. But steadfastness was not a quality I had on my list when I was maybe 90, or 25 or 27 of things in a life partner. But I think that's one of the most important things.

LEIGH: That's beautiful. Alice pung writer extraordinaire. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your wisdom on the good life podcast today. Thanks so much, Andrew.

LEIGH: Thanks for listening to this week's episode of the good life. We love getting feedback. So please leave us a rating or a comment on Apple podcasts. Also, I want to ask you a favour. On the sixth of June I'll be competing in the cans on man to raise money for the indigenous marathon Foundation. To make a donation, just go to my Facebook or Twitter page to find the link. Thanks in advance. Next week, we'll be back with another inspiring guest to discuss living a happier, healthier and more ethical life.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.

Stay in touch

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter


Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.