Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Alice Pung’

Growing Up in Australia

Growing Up in Australia is a collection from Black Inc, who have also published the collections Growing Up Asian, Growing Up Aboriginal, Growing Up African, Growing Up Queer and Growing Up Disabled in Australia. The authors are a who’s who of Australian writing and arts.

The collection started off with a story by journalist and writer Stan Grant, who in my opinion wrote ‘the’ piece of the book. Talking to My Country focused on Grant’s childhood and education. I cringed when I realised that I had been shown at school the same black and white films of Aboriginal people as Grant had, of bedraggled and pitiful men, women and children while an English accented narrator (for some reason, people on Australian television up until fairly recently all had English accents) described them as being an almost extinct race. Grant summed up by saying that the lesson was that Aboriginal people’s history did not matter or exist.

Grant says bluntly that he ‘had no illusions of equality.’ His family were Aboriginal and poor. They were surrounded by violence, poverty and the constant possibility of an early death. Funerals were part of everyday life.

Grant’s father taught him to fight. As Grant said himself, his father couldn’t teach him how to play golf or to sail, but fighting was a survival skill.

Grant and his fellow Aboriginal classmates were expected and encouraged to leave school early, without qualifications. Regardless, he remembers his early teenage years with joy, a time when he and the other Aboriginal children around him were invincible.

I have already read Reckoning by Magda Szubanski, but still enjoyed the extract from her book which told of her childhood exploring her Melbourne suburb as newcomers to Australia who didn’t know about the dangers including ‘bushfires, floods, heatstroke, poison berries and sharks.’ (Snakes weren’t mentioned until later).

I had also previously read and enjoyed Piano Lessons by Anna Goldsworthy, but was also happy to revisit her childhood in Adelaide where Goldsworthy’s music lessons with the wonderful Mrs Sivan took centre stage in her life.

Tourism by Benjamin Law was a funny glimpse into his family’s holidays, which usually included a trip to a theme park. (Clean, safe, designated activities, souvenirs to buy and photos opportunities galore). Things stopped being so funny after Law’s parents separated, but the visits to theme parks remained a constant in his life.

The Game is to Hide by Rick Morton told of his attempts to hide his sexuality throughout his childhood and adolescence in a small town, and how hiding something so big has affected his adult life. I hope Morton takes comfort in knowing that future generations are less likely to experience the trauma that he did. I took pleasure in being reminded by Morton of making ‘Mixtapes’ of my favourite songs from the radio and am now wondering where the shoebox with all of my old cassette tapes might be.

Vanessa Woods’ story about straddling two cultures was titled Perfect Chinese Children while Uyen Loewald wrote a poem called Be Good, Little Migrants. Can you spot a theme here? Reading these storys and many of the other contributions made me realise how free and easy my own childhood was. Nyadol Nyuon told of her childhood in Her Mother’s Daughter, watching her mother working as a cleaner in Melbourne and struggling with Centrelink, before realising on a visit to Kenya that there, her mother was respected, honoured and recognised amongst her community.

Tara June Winch discussed her Aboriginal heritage and ended by looking to the future of her own daughter with joy, Sam Drummond told of a childhood filled with physical pain and surgeries, Sara El Sayed remembered the culture shock she and her family experienced on arriving in Australia and Christos Tsiolkas talked about being gay in a heterosexual world.

More than thirty writers shared their own stories about growing up in Australia in this collection, but I didn’t recognise my own childhood on a coastal farm amongst them. The closest experience to mine was probably Tim Winton’s Land’s Edge, where he wrote about Western Australian summer mornings spent at the beach then reading all afternoon after the wind got up.

The authors include an extraordinarily diverse group of people who truly represent Australia, rather than the uniform, straight, white, fully-abled people of British descent who we watched on Neighbours, as Alice Pung pointed out in the book’s introduction.

My purchase of Growing Up in Australia continues my New Year’s resolution for 2022 to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of this year (March).

I purchased this book from Cow Lick Bookshop in Colac.

One Hundred Days by Alice Pung

I’m an Alice Pung-fan. I liked Unpolished Gem, Laurinda and can now add her latest novel One Hundred Days to the list.

One Hundred Days is set around the mid 1980s in Melbourne. Karuna, the narrator, was 16 years old and pregnant when she began telling her story to her unborn baby.

After Karuna’s parents separated she and her mother moved into a two-bedroom flat on the fourteenth floor of an inner city Housing Commission tower in Melbourne.

The first time I saw one of these towers, I was horrified. At that time I was a child living on a farm and I found the height of the towers and their bland appearance to be frightening. Neither could I imagine how anyone could live in such a small space, boxed in with people living in flats on top of them, underneath them and beside them. I can’t imagine living in such close proximity to so many other people but now I realise that the apartments in the towers are people’s homes, that the residents benefit from being close to the CBD and public transport and that for those with mobility issues, finance issues or for a myriad or other reasons, the towers provide the opportunity to be part of a community.

At first, I thought Karuna’s mother was crazy, and not just because she insisted on sharing a bed with her teenage daughter, leaving the other bedroom in their apartment for storage. Grand Mar, as Karuna called her in the story, locked Karuna inside their flat for what she said was her own good and was extraordinarily tight with money, refusing to give Karuna a birthday party or allow Karuna to buy junk food. When Karuna’s father gave her money, Grand Mar stole it from her.

Karuna hid her pregnancy from her mother for as long as she could. Grand Mar was horrified when she realised, and insisted to anyone who would listen that Karuna had been tricked by a boy. Surprisingly, Grand Mar stood by Karuna, all the while lamenting her own bad fortune at having married a no-good man herself, then having her daughter do this terrible thing to her.

Worst of all though, in Karuna’s eyes, Grand Mar insisted that when the baby was born she would be the mother and that Karuna would be the baby’s sister.

Karuna told her story as if it was a letter to her baby. She explained how she fell pregnant – not quite by accident, but not exactly meaning to, either.

As the story went on, I realised that Karuna’s mother was living her life according to the values she had brought with her from the Philippines and that she loved and wanted the best for her daughter. She worked two jobs and spent her hard-earned money on delicacies such as Balut, a steamed, fertilized bird egg for Karuna to eat during her pregnancy, believing that such food would be nourishing for her daughter.

The one hundred days of the book’s title refers to the hundred days after Karuna gave birth, for which her mother had been saving her money so that Karuna and the baby could stay at home, safe and loved and protected.

Karuna’s story was sad, but the book was also filled with humour and love and hope. Grand Mar may have been one of the most annoying and deluded women in Melbourne, but as Karuna matured she found herself able to stand up to her mother when it counted, and was able to negotiate with her mother for what she thought would be better for herself and her baby, while still allowing her mother to love her and for her to love her mother without being abused, coerced or controlled.

My purchase of One Hundred Days by Alice Pung starts off to meet my New Year’s resolution for 2022 to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of this year (January).

I purchased this book from Ironbird Books in Port Fairy.

Unpolished Gem by Alice Pung


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 blessings and 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.

Laurinda by Alice Pung


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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