Alan Kennedy shares a book about a father and daughter that everyone should read
It's time we talked about Alice – Alice Pung that is. Her memorable name began popping up in The Monthly on quirky little stories that had a particular ‘voice’: appealing, informative and with a fine sense of humour and irony in the undercurrent. Then I saw a speech of hers to women lawyers which, for all its worthiness,
sounds like a stuffy affair and yet here is young Pung making a speech about the law in which at one stage she says: “In the wise words of Spider-Man – ‘with great power comes great responsibility’.”
She went on: “But I think to my first days of practising the law, writing that first tender submission in Dad’s office, and writing that will that made me parent of my siblings if anything should happen to my parents. And my community’s ‘stupid’ and ‘zany’ ideas about what the law should be – practical, useful, helpful, easy to understand. And I am reminded of the words of Charles Lamb – ‘Lawyers too, were once children’ [sic]. And I realised, the practice of the law is not really all about legal texts. It’s not even about words – because sometimes, you have to look beyond the multitudes of words, to see the things and the people that the words don’t cover – those without words, students without conventionally accepted carer status, women without employment contracts, men without shelter.”
Now while some may claim it was Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben or even Voltaire who said that, this is pure Pung, a speech full of humour, humanity and empathy.
Her book Her Father’s Daughter is one I have pressed on everyone I meet. The opening chapters are breathtaking in the projection of this unique voice which takes us on a journey across the killing fields of Cambodia, the migrant experience of two damaged people and the experience of the Australian-born child who wants to grow up in her new world but who feels the pull of her parents who are puzzled, confused and full of unspoken anxieties. It is funny and emotional. You almost have to close your eyes as you read what her father went through in Pol Pot’s Cambodia. How could anyone survive this?
And yet he became the owner of a Retravision outlet, bought a home and educated his children. But his anxieties about separation from his children and an almost obsessive wish to protect them from the world were always there. He doesn’t understand Alice’s decision to live in college. He stresses about her being outside his protective shield. Then you read of Alice’s first nights in college in a room of her own. All her life she has lived in a crowded family home where privacy is a foreign concept and they bunk down like puppies. She slept with her sisters.
It is a magic journey as the young Alice appreciates what makes her tick and what makes her parents tick. Near the end is a chapter I have read and re-read about a birthday lunch in a restaurant in Melbourne’s Chinatown. “Sometimes he looked at his wife and thought this is what I have done to another human being. This is what my love has demanded of her. Three decades and four children later, and she was a middle-aged woman who still could not read or write, but who commanded staff at his store, carried vacuum cleaners and food processors and laptop computers from the warehouse to the shop floor, and sold more stock than anyone.
“And now she was sitting there without thinking feeding him with a pair of chopsticks. ‘My old man, what are you thinking about?’ she asked. Inside he felt the same as when he was 30. That was when he was born again. Not born to Christ or even to the Buddha, but just born and that was enough.” Pung is one of the best young writers in Australia. Her Father’s Daughter is an exhilarating journey. Take it.
Her Father’s Daughter by Alice Pung,
published by Black Inc., RRP $29.95.