Thursday, April 30, 2009

Buddha bless Father Government!

Unpolished Gem
When I think of the early eighties, I think of Cambodians. I was a child when the first wave of refugees moved into my suburb, and my parents cared passionately about their plight. So during the week we trailed my mother as she mediated at the old DSS, negotiating their pensions; kicked our feet as she lobbied the local member of parliament for better treatment of refugees; fooled around with kids in strange smelling dimly lit houses; and played hide and seek among old clothes and furniture at The Store, where my mother and her friends collected second hand goods to set up households for families fresh out of the hostel. On weekends, we got underfoot as my father moved people from hostels to housing commission flats, carrying battered sofas and wardrobes up narrow stinking concrete stairs.

I never thought too much about what these mostly quiet, gentle and loving people had gone through. Once, after I'd been particularly ratty, bored out of my brain while my mother painstakingly worked through some forms with a family, she told me that the family included an informally adopted orphan girl, my age, who had witnessed the murder of her entire biological family. And once, when I was idly admiring a Mambo t-shirt with skulls and crossbones (I was going through a pirate phase), she asked me how I could want to wear that when we knew so many people who had been to the Killing Fields, or who had been robbed or raped by pirates on their way to Australia. Unanswerable, really.

Mum was good at making me feel terrible, although she genuinely thought she was trying to educate me. I still resent that a bit! But I don't resent the people she worked with. The families I knew were extraordinarily gentle and generous despite their terrible experiences and poverty. They would visit with boxes of Cadbury's chocolates (some women worked in the chocolate factory), or with an exquisite jacket sewn especially for my mother by outworkers. One man gave my sister and me our first, thrilling, digital watches; he also turned up one Christmas Day with a black tarry ointment especially brewed for my sick father. ('Just put it on where it hurts, then rip it off,' we were instructed. My father, prostrate in bed, went white. He had the mumps.) For no reason other than that we were our parents' children, my sister and I were loved and treated as part of a big extended family.

So it was with great interest that I turned to Alice Pung's Unpolished Gem. Pung's parents were Chinese-Cambodian refugees; the book is a memoir of her childhood. Pung was born in Footscray and grew up in the Western suburbs of Melbourne. The story charts from before her birth through to university.

It is a funny little book. On the one hand, it is full of well-told stories from both before and after she was born. The reader is entertained by the loud exclamations of the women in Pung's family as they encounter the marvels of the West ('Wah!' at pedestrian crossings, 'Wah!' at escalators, 'Wah!' at the abundance of food at the supermarket, not to mention the fortnightly blessings of Father Government, which deposits money into the accounts of useless old people). We are drawn into the world of her elders: her mother's isolation in a new country; her grandmother's grief as children died or were taken away in Cambodia; her father's musings at the Footscray Market as her mother is giving birth. Pung writes compellingly about the rift between her and her mother, exacerbated as Pung's language and thinking shift further and further into English and they are no longer able to communicate freely. Her mother is virtually silenced at the family dinner table as most conversations move into English; she compensates for this by becoming louder and more abrasive everywhere else. And Pung can write. She crafts beautiful sentences, beautiful paragraphs which are vivid, illuminating and intelligent, a sheer joy to read.

On the other hand, at times it feels like we are being invited to laugh at, not with, these funny little refugees who think purple polyester is the ant's pants. While it is clear that Pung loves her family, and includes herself in the jokes, at times the writing makes me uncomfortable. It goes beyond irreverent to a place where I wonder how relaxed Pung really is about her heritage; how much can you laugh at your family before it looks like you are embarrassed by them? There is, at times, a slight lack of respect in the writing; some of the stories make me cringe. Pung's mother, desperately unhappy, looks for a spiritual cause, and I don't feel like laughing when she realises that it's because the family shrine is situated in a room below the ensuite toilet. Yes, it's funny; but what untold losses have refugees experienced? Of course grief will assail them at every turn, disturbing them by day and waking them in the night; laughing at Pung's mother's struggles to understand is not my first response.

The stories also shift uneasily between amusing anecdotes and devastating sadness. I am not sure which way the book is intended; a story about removing headlice jostles against a story about being an outworker, which runs into a story about the sudden death of a beloved young child. Which impression are we to be left with? The small annoyances of childhood: headlice and toilet accidents? Or the terrible grief suffered by those who have lost children? They are weighted equally. Perhaps this is deliberate on the part of the author, who was conceived in a refugee camp but born in Australia; as a child they may have felt equally important to her. Yet it rests uneasily with me.

The book moves from vivid stories about Pung's family and her childhood to her depression in late high school, and here the writing loses some of its strength. The shift feels abrupt, like something has been left out - perhaps the transition was a bit of a mystery to the writer too. But the contrast between the strong, clear writing in the first half of the book with the vague passages and long internal monologues of the second half is disappointing.

While one review describes Unpolished Gem as "virtuoso storytelling", I suggest it's more of a debut. Good stories told with vivacity are weakened by long meandering patches; the second half of the book needs a good edit. It reads like what it is: a book written by a young woman learning her craft in a country with a small editing budget. Yet Pung does have talent, and it will be interesting to see how it develops as she matures. I look forward to reading a more polished gem in a couple of decades.

> Alice Pung Unpolished Gem (Melbourne: Black Inc, 2006).

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Pretend the long grass is the sea

Michael Mccoy's Garden Gardens for Pleasure
I'm nuts about gardens. I love to wander through them; I think about them all the time. When I can't sleep at night, I take myself for an imaginary ramble through a large garden. Awake, I walk everywhere, and find hidden pockets of glory, or even single trees, around my suburb. I cannot get enough of gingko leaves, or lime green euphorbias, or even homely rapa or chicory growing in lieu of a lawn. Just knowing that lots of people are out there Growing Things thrills me.

And I love garden things. Not glossy garden shop accessories, but the old laundry sinks that have become pots; the rusted out bike entwined by a creeper; the faded hammock shivering in the breeze. In one of my favourite short stories, a couple drink beer at the bottom of the garden in an old rowboat surrounded by long grass.

Pity about my own garden. It's dry and dusty, weedy and tired. I make noble vows about working in it for ten minutes a day, and plant out seedlings bought in optimistic moments, but some days it feels like a complete no-hoper.

That's why I need garden books. They are my ticket to dream. But the dreaming becomes ridiculous when I look at gorgeous books of French gardens set on hillsides. Too much beauty makes me despondent. Too much misty rain and photos of mud and I am gripped with envy. I need encouragement and enthusiasm fit for a small dry inner urban block, not the dreams of Northern Hemisphere princes.

Michael Mccoy's Garden, by a Victorian garden writer, is perfect. McCoy writes about developing his own garden on a suburban block over the course of a year. He writes about the labour of digging up lawn and shovelling compost; his backaches and failures; and his delight when things go right. He is an enthusiastic plantsman, detailing the virtues of this plant or that; and he charts the development of the garden with stunning photographs that I return to again and again. These photographs celebrate both the individual plant and the striking combination. They are photos to wander through, an invitation to dream, and yet the concepts are simple enough to influence the way I plant. In my garden, thanks to this book, feathery cosmos flowers pink against rigid grey euphorbias, and I get a thrill every time I see the combination.

Influential too is an older book, Surviving in the Eighties. The first part of the book is about small animal husbandry, and is full of fascinating if, to me, utterly useless information such as how to raise a herd of goats or incubate chickens. But Part Two of the book, Surviving in the City, profiles half a dozen gardens crammed with plants. The focus is on growing one's own food, although many non-food plants are mentioned; and it is startling how much a gardener can squeeze into a city block, whether it's just tomatoes and herbs, or espaliered trees. There are vigorous discussions on how to deal with gardens soured by generations of cats' piss or heavy pollution, or the pests that develop in areas with very few trees. The writing is enthusiastic and opinionated; it makes me feel that I, too, can grow tomatoes and green leaves and have great fun doing so. In fact, this book is responsible not only for my garden full of rocket and rainbow chard, but for the seven espaliered fruit tree saplings I planted last year. I dream of apples yet.

Even if I don't have a prince's budget or a garden on a French hillside, I still treasure whimsy. I love hammocks and outdoor showers, hidden garden rooms and rowboats sunk into grass. Gardens for Pleasure answers this need. It suggests themes such as Night, Butterflies, Reading, Resting, and Tea, then suggests ways to develop a garden around each theme in small, medium or large gardens. Many ideas are do-able, and its plant lists are useful, but it is really a book for meditating on. While few of us will go to the effort of building a small one-person sized island in a pond (in the Resting Garden), the book evokes questions about what we enjoy in a garden; how we might like to rest, or read, or sip tea there; and how we might develop a garden, or even a nook of our garden, in a way that matches our taste and budget. Gardens for Pleasure contains no glossy photographs. Instead, it is so beautifully illustrated that even my five year old curls up with it to scheme and dream of the garden she would like us to have.

Speaking of which, does anyone have an old rowboat?

> Blog title quotes Lisa Merrifield 'What I did with what I knew' in Splash (Ringwood, Vic: Viking, 1998); Michael McCoy Michael Mccoy's Garden (Glebe, NSW: Florilegium, 2000); Michael Boddy & Richard Beckett Surviving in the Eighties (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1980); Brodee Myers-Cooke Gardens for Pleasure (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1996).