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).

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