Thursday, 22 September 2011

Interview: Alice Pung

What are you reading at the moment?

I am reading a book called Number Our Days: A Triumph of Continuity and Culture Among Jewish Old People in an Urban Ghetto by Barbara Myerhoff, who is an anthropologist looking into the ordinary but remarkable lives of some elderly Jewish people from Venice, California.

Can you tell us about your new book, Her Father’s Daughter?

Her Father’s Daughter is about an unspoken relationship between a father and daughter. It is unspoken because I wanted to convey that love is not always through words, but actions. Sometimes some of the actions of your parents are completely unfathomable to you as a young adult, and perhaps true maturity only arises when you can finally see your parents as people with their own fears and frustrations, rather than just your ‘parents’. 

My father is an incredible human being. He used to sit us on his laps when we were very small children, and brush our baby teeth with a small Colgate toothbrush. Years later, I realised those same hands buried bodies of loved ones in the killing fields of Cambodia. It was then that I came to realise how extraordinary this man was, to be able to love and care for impermanent things like our baby teeth, when he had seen so many parts of his world which he once believed were permanent, disappear. 

How did the book come about?
My father has anxieties over things which might seem excessive. For example, when one of my sisters got a blood nose, he called an ambulance. He has filed down the sharp tips of all the knives in our house. When I was overseas, he would call me up almost every evening to see that I was safe. It was then that we began to have long talks over the phone, and I realised that I was then the same age as my father when he survived Pol Pot’s Cambodia. And it was then that I knew I was ready to write this book.

Did you find it challenging to write about some of the issues in the book, such as genocide? 
Yes. When you think of it as a theme – the holocaust - it sounds monumental and depressing. But when you think about it in terms of the individual – a young man of twenty-seven, for instance, as my father was then, then it becomes a story. 

Writing this book must have been quite a journey of discovery for you and your family. Do you have a different perspective on life now?
I understand my parents a lot better, am more patient about their anxieties. Surviving the Killing Fields was not a miracle. The real miracle was being able to love afterwards, and I have come to understand that love is a verb and not a transient feeling.

How has your father reacted to the book? Did he help you along the way?
My father was very generous, he told me all about his experiences in Cambodia, which makes up the second half of the book. I kept showing him chapters as I progressed but he never told me whether he liked them or not. Then, at my book launch he got up to say a few words. The most moving thing he said was, “I learned a lot from my children. I learned about tolerance and forgiveness.”

Unpolished Gem and Her Father’s Daughter are very different books. Did you approach them in different ways?
I was nineteen when I started the stories in Unpolished Gem, so it has the voice of a young adult believing that wit and humour makes all things good and palatable. But as I’ve grown older, I realised that in laying these weapons down, a more pure voice emerges, and a more earnest one. While Unpolished Gem was written to understand myself, Her Father’s Daughter was written to understand another human being, my father. 

What do you hope people take away from your writing?
Hopefully, for survivors of genocide or children of survivors, a sense that they are not so alone, their parents are not so strange, and that the world is still filled with wonder. And for any reader, I hope that they will, even for a small moment, see the world with renewed gratitude for the things we take for granted every day, because that’s how I felt while writing this book.  

What are you working on next?
I haven’t yet thought that far!

Her Father's Daughter is available now. 

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