Tag Archives: Alice Pung

Unpolished Gem by Alice Pung

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I read Laurinda by Australian writer Alice Pung some time ago and quite enjoyed the story of a Chinese-Australian girl from the western suburbs of Melbourne who won a scholarship to an exclusive girl’s school. When I found a copy of this author’s biography, Unpolished Gem, I was very happy to have the opportunity to read her story of growing up in Footscray, a suburb in western Melbourne where I have worked. Footscray is home to a great many Asian-Australians and this story gave me an insight into a world I can see but not be part of.

I suspect the author was able to tell her Chinese-Cambodian family’s story so openly because her parents do not read English, so she was quite safe from getting into trouble with them after telling all of their secrets. I suspect her parents would say “Wah!” if they realised she had written so openly about their faults and failings.

The family’s life in Australia was in complete contrast to her parent’s lives in China and Cambodia, from the atrocities of Cambodia under the Pol Pot regime in particular.

Some of the stories are funny and absolutely gorgeous. I loved hearing about the author’s grandmother blessing Father Government for giving old people money in the form of a pension, and the joy that came from shopping at supermarkets and stopping traffic with the little green man at the pedestrian crossings. It made me laugh to hear that the Chinese people call white Australians ‘ghosts.’ The happier stories also reminded me of how much I take for granted as a white Australian.

Other stories were more difficult to read. A number of generations living together has its’ blessings and its’ curses, and I felt terribly sorry for Alice as her mother and grandmother used her as a tool to make each other angry or unhappy. Sharing her bed with her grandmother must have been difficult for Alice too, possibly not so unusual for a child visiting a grandparent but quite unusual in everyday life in contemporary Australia.

The story which most made my heart go out to the author was an incident when Alice’s younger sister rolled off the bed and had to be checked for brain injuries while Alice had been looking after her. Luckily the baby was fine, but the blame and guilt heaped on Alice, who was also very young, was excessive.

Alice was diagnosed with depression as a teenager, and did amazingly well to end up studying law at Melbourne University. In Australian, Chinese parents are known for expecting their children to do well at school and I found it sad to read stories of families treating their children with contempt when they failed to achieve what was expected of them. Often these ‘failures’ were just shy of achieving the marks to do law, so in reality, they had achieved very good results in school.

The story ends with Alice about 19 or 20, breaking up with her Skippy (white Australian) boyfriend.

I preferred the fiction of Laurinda, but Unpolished Gem was an interesting read.

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Laurinda by Alice Pung

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Australia has some really good writers of Young Adult fiction; John Marsden, Melina Marchetta, Maureen McCarthy and, drum roll please, Alice Pung, who wrote Laurinda.

The heroine of Laurinda, is Lucy Lam, a teenager whose family were refugees from China, via Vietnam. Lucy and her family live in a low socio-economic area, (if anyone else who has read this book is from Melbourne, do you think Lucy’s fictional suburb is modelled on Sunshine?), where Lucy attends the local Catholic school. Lucy’s life changed completely when she won a scholarship to an exclusive girls’ school called Laurinda.

Lucy’s education quickly extended to dealing with privileged school girls, the worst of whom is a social group is known as ‘The Cabinet.’ The trio of girls who make up The Cabinet rule their classmates and horrifyingly, some of their teachers, with some very nasty antics.

Lucy is a great heroine, whose greatest strength is that she is able to see straight to the heart of an issue. Lucy is not indulged in any way at home, instead her parents rely on her assistance to look after her younger brother, to interpret bills and official correspondence and to contribute to the running of their household in a great many other ways. Lucy is portrayed as a respectful and dutiful member of her family and community, although sometimes her values and behaviour become confused when another side of Lucy tries to assert itself.

The contrast between Lucy’s parents, (her mother sews clothing in the garage for below the minimum wage and her father works in a factory) and the parents of other Laurinda girls is extreme. The author gives a lesson about valuing things you work for, in comparison to not appreciating that which you are undeservingly given.

Laurinda is set in the 1990’s, and some of the references to popular culture may seem out-dated eventually, but on the whole, people were the same then as they are now, which is probably not that much different to people at any other time during history.

The lack of understanding of character’s class and race differences is interesting, and is shown when Lucy’s teachers and the parents of her schoolmates fail to appreciate the differences between Lucy’s background and that of other Laurinda students. The reverse is also true, as Lucy’s father thinks a meal of McDonald’s is a wonderful treat for Lucy’s rich schoolmates. Racism is also treated with humour.

In my experience the world is divided up between people who would rather drink rat poison than relive high school and those who remember high school as the high point of their lives. Kurt Vonnegut is quoted in Laurinda saying, “Life is nothing but high school,” but Lucy definitely shows that even if this is all we have to look forward to, she has managed her school experience and prepared for a glorious future by working hard and remaining true to herself.

Laurinda may be aimed at Young Adult readers but I enjoyed the book very much and recommend it as a thought provoking read.

 

 

 

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Filed under Australian Author, Author, Book Review, Pung - Alice