Articles of protest, memory, and wonder: Alice Pung's non-fiction
My relationship with Alice Pung’s writing was a love-at-first-read scenario. Pung’s YA novel Laurinda was her first book I encountered, and the voice felt entirely fresh, sharply insightful, heartbreaking at times, yet unexpectedly funny and poignant, too. These qualities were immediately evident in Unpolished Gem, Pung’s memoir, which was my second experience of her books. And they abound in Pung’s latest, Close to Home: Selected Writings.
This newest work is a collection of essays, memoir pieces, and social and political commentary. These writings examine Pung’s family history, the shadow of war and suffering, her own teenage years in suburban Melbourne in the 90s; they explore Australian and world culture, politics, education, mental health, grief, literature, and motherhood. The pieces are written from and about such locations as Melbourne and New York, China and Cambodia, and in this way create an out-of-order chronology of Pung’s life that nestles so well alongside Unpolished Gem.
This approach means that Pung’s writing never completely separates the personal from the observational, the philosophical, or the critical, and that is what gives this writing such heart. Even when commenting on the state of Australia’s education system or comparing the killing fields of Cambodia with the American Civil War, Pung does so through the lens of her own experience, drawing links between past and present and bringing warmth to important, impassioned discussions. In this way, what seems intangible and far off draws near and is able to be touched.
It is difficult to choose standouts in a book that is full of them, but among a host of favourites I particularly loved “Writing About My Father” (an honest and gentle peeling-back of the intentionality Pung takes into her writing work, fused with a discussion of her relationship with her father), “Executing History,” and “Two Cultures and a Baby,” which considers the cultural taboos and traditions of maternity while exploring the emotional and mental value of support for new mothers.
Alice Pung is a gifted and intelligent observer, and these works of truly creative non-fiction offer an insightful, incisive look at human nature and our world. Pung’s voice, grounded in her family’s migrant past, is deeply Australian, humorous, and reflective. It is razor-sharp but infused with kindness, tender yet a call to arms. These are articles of protest, of memory, of discovery and of wonder, but the thread that unites them is Pung’s distinctive voice and the sense of a woman uncovering the stories that make up her identity. Her eyes are wide open looking out at the world in a way that is both deeply analytical and deeply human. This is a collection I will be dipping into again and again.
Published October 2018 by Black Inc. Books
Non fiction, memoir, 288 pages