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More than a decade after her best-selling debut, Unpolished Gem, Alice Pung remains one of Australia’s most beloved authors for her gentle yet forthright prose. She speaks about racism, role models and motherhood. “As a writer, I don’t know if you can really see from another person’s perspective … It is important to try and put yourself in someone else’s shoes, but I’ve realised in the last five years you can never really do it.” By Jessica Zhan Mei Yu.

Writer Alice Pung

Alice Pung.
Credit: Courtney Brown

Over email, Alice Pung says we should meet somewhere quiet in Carlton, so I suggest Brunetti – only realising once I get there that it’s the opposite of quiet. But it would be strange to meet her anywhere, as if we were both real people and not two characters circling each other in a story written by someone else.

Pung arrives, smaller than in pictures, pushing a sleeping baby in a pram.

I remember the first time I saw her, in a double-page spread in The Age’s A2 section, brought into class for me by my year 8 teacher. Pung’s debut, Unpolished Gem, had just been published – a lauded memoir about her life growing up as the daughter of Chinese–Cambodian immigrants in Melbourne’s west.

When I peeled apart the newspaper’s pages though, I couldn’t work out which article my teacher wanted me to read. I couldn’t understand why he thought I would care. At the time, while I wanted to be a writer and I loved reading, my world entailed memorising poems by Tennyson and reading Jane Eyre. At the library, I found Pung’s book and liked it, but at 13 or 14 I was defensive. Did he really think she was the only writer I could become?

We get coffee and tea, and Pung presses me to have some of her pain au chocolat. I say something about her baby. She tells me that she loves having kids but that “it” really is painful. “Childbirth?” I ask, the word conjuring mental images of cornflour blood on the walls and rooms of screaming women. But she is practical, placing it on a recognisable scale of female pain.

“Do you get really bad period pains?” she asks, and I tell her I do. “I used to get really bad ones and it really wasn’t that much worse than that.” I remember a piece she wrote for The Monthly about humming while giving birth.

Talk turns to the place of ambivalence and “seeing both sides of the story” as a writer. It’s the kind of topic that makes many wax lyrical about the way what they are doing leads to empathy. Pung does not do this.

“I don’t know,” she admits. “As a writer, I don’t know if you can really see from another person’s perspective. You can try as hard as you want to, but what I find really interesting … is this whole appropriation movement, that made me think about perspective. I write about my family; I can never be my dad or my mother or my siblings. There’s this quote, it’s often attributed to the Torah, it goes: ‘We do not see as they are, we see as we are.’ But it is important to try and put yourself in someone else’s shoes, but I’ve realised in the last five years you can never really do it.”

Still, Pung seems like someone who feels great empathy for others. She tells me about a student at an upper-crust school in Melbourne who came up after one of her regular talks, asking, “Does it get better?”

Pung recalls: “I go, ‘Does what get better?’ And she goes, ‘The racism.’

“And she was a Caucasian girl.”

We laugh a little. But Pung continues speaking, a little icing sugar on her nose.

“And I go, ‘I’m sorry you’re experiencing racism. How are you experiencing it?’ And she shows me her phone screensaver and it was this Asian boy who was smiling with a pink hat on. I thought that was pretty cute. So, I realised, she had this boyfriend who was Asian, and the girls were making fun of her because Asian men… they are at the bottom of the Tinder hierarchy. And they wouldn’t see it as racism because those girls would be the first to support anti-apartheid and refugees and stuff.

“Sometimes it’s ignorance because you’re so privileged. Does that make sense? And I can never be aggressive to those people because if you are, they don’t learn. There is this movement where people, white people, are meant to all know. And we’re not meant to teach them anything about racism because they are so privileged – why do we have to waste our energy? … But sometimes people just don’t know! People won’t know unless you tell them.”

For me, this sentiment is at the centre of Pung’s writing. “People won’t know unless you tell them” seems to be the place she writes from in her books – Unpolished Gem, Her Father’s Daughter, Laurinda – as well as in her essays and stories. A place of gentleness and honesty.

We speak about interracial relationships and I ask her about hers. She tells me about an incident in which she and her husband walked back across a Bunnings car park to find a poster reading “stop race-mixing” with a crosshair over it on their car.

“It’s interesting, because there are some things Nick will never understand about me,” says Pung, speaking of her husband. “And I guess one of them is just how you react to things. So that ‘stop race-mixing’ poster, for instance, he was baffled, and it was a shock to him because he’d never encountered racism – he’s from the country. And he didn’t understand why it was a big deal. But then some of my friends didn’t understand why it wasn’t a big deal.”

I first read about this incident when Pung wrote about it for The New York Times and then in a more recent essay for The Sydney Morning Herald. Her account is one of the few public discussions of racism that make their way to my parents’ dinner table.

My mind goes to the symmetries, and deviations, of our experiences. Both children of immigrants who grew up in the “bad” suburbs of Melbourne. For her, Braybrook; for me, Gladstone Park. Pung spent much of her teen years working at her dad’s electronics shop in Footscray; I spent my Sunday afternoons following my mum through Little Saigon Market, gorging on free samples of fruit and helping her carry the bags. Both writers. Both married to kind white men, which opened us up to accusations of miscegenation. Both grew up with parents who saved everything: plastic bags, rubber bands, the lot.

Alice moved schools five times, mostly for the sake of upward mobility. As her dad’s business did better, her schools improved in kind. I went to an inner-city public school, skipping the zoning through an accelerated program both affectionately and passive aggressively described as “the smart-arse class” by students, which helpfully quarantined the nerdy, bookish types to grub for grades together.

“I kept getting interviews,” she says of looking for work after finishing her law degree, “but I kept getting rejected from bigger law firms. One of my best friends, whose father was a lawyer, I love her because she’s honest to me, she said, ‘To be honest, Alice, people like you, we see them in the reception but… you know…’”

She trails off, symbolically.

“It wasn’t just about race; it was also about class. My father gave me a Panasonic briefcase ’cause it was made of leather. He said, ‘You take it, you impress people.’ It had gold letters on the side. Just little things like that.

“My mum said, ‘Oh, wear gold jewellery because you won’t look poor.’ I just looked like some blinged-up try-hard. My friend, she was very good with me, she lent me her Oroton bag, which was tasteful and other things… little things that I couldn’t tell. But I’m sure all the interviewers could tell, ‘Oh, you’re that kind of person.’”

I tell Pung about how I think of clothes as the only chance I have to intercept a person’s assumptions around my non-white body. She makes a joke about how I probably try to avoid “looking too Asian”.

“I like Asian clothes though,” I say.

“I am quite proud of Asian clothes,” she replies. “I’ve always been quite proud, even before they were in and even before we were allowed to wear them because other people were wearing them.” I say nothing because I don’t know if I have always been proud.

“I don’t mind other people wearing Asian clothes,” she continues. “I think it’s appreciation. I don’t think it’s stealing at all. Did you see that news article about that poor girl at the prom? Oh, that poor girl. And she looked great in that dress. She wasn’t stealing anything. Leave her alone. This is what I mean by people attacking people too young to understand. She had no idea.”

I don’t feel the same way. But then, this is where difference comes in. When I talk to Alice, I get a sense of her pragmatism, her older-sisterness, her lack of sympathy for herself and her abundant empathy for others. I remember how she says that when asked by a friend if she had called the cops on the person who left the “stop race-mixing” poster on her car, she replied, “What a waste of human resources and taxpayers’ money.”

Her baby begins throwing pieces of pain au chocolat onto the ground and she shifts the pastry away from him. She offers me some of the blueberries she has been feeding him; I eat them. I’m trying to phrase my next question carefully, conscious of how reductive questions about juggling writing and motherhood can be for women writers. But, at the same time, I am genuinely curious. Thinking and talking about motherhood is a form of speculative fiction for me. I ask her how her writing process has changed over the years.

“In my 20s, when I was just working and single, I had lots of time to think and daydream and I used to think, ‘Nah, don’t have much time to write…’ I used to think in my 20s, ‘Oh, because I’ve got writer’s block I won’t do this anymore.’ Now life is so busy that if I have maybe one hour a week to write… So, I don’t have writer’s block because I don’t have time to have it. But I don’t have those long, prolonged daydreaming sessions where you generate some of your best ideas and stuff like that. That’s why it takes me much longer to write a book than it did.”

I tell Pung about my year 8 teacher showing me the newspaper clipping, admitting that at the time I was thinking: “What, just ’cause she’s Asian, you think I’m like her?” I feel embarrassed to bring it up, but I also feel I have no choice.

“I do remember the defensiveness as a teenager,” she says. “It’s a horrible thing, isn’t it? To see ourselves always compared to other Asian Australians, because there were so few public role models back then. Like, I got Dr Cindy Pan.”

“Who is that?” I ask her.

“Well, she’s older now, but she was in the PhysiCAL, the milk ads. She was on the television giving sexual health advice. My parents said, ‘Oh look, that’s Dr Cindy Pan.’ I had no desire to be in medicine. We cut down our role models.”

This defensive adolescent impulse is something that we talk about more over email after our interview. It brings to mind Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, his idea that the poet must commit acts of patricide to the poets who came before him in order to self-actualise. I remember thinking, flippantly, when Harold Bloom died last year: Who killed him? Who is self-actualising now?

His theory never made much sense to me. The sense of jostling among so many others, of fighting for a space somewhere, which Bloom wrote about – it’s a problem and a luxury I have never had. When you are one of so many white men writing after other white men, you might suffer from claustrophobia. When you are a young Asian–Australian woman writing, you long for others like you. I love Pung’s writing, funny and honest and straight like an arrow into your soul – how lonely the path I am treading would be if she hadn’t trodden it before.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 25, 2020 as "Tea and empathy". Subscribe here.

Jessica Zhan Mei Yu
is a writer and PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne.

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