By Alice PungNon-fiction Black Inc. Books
Her Father’s Daughter
Unpolished Gem, Alice Pung’s first memoir, is much loved for its sharp-edged outsider’s humour and poignant characterisation, as Pung enchants the reader with her stories of growing up in Footscray with migrant parents – and forging an identity out of two very different cultures.
At first, Pung imagined that Her Father’s Daughter would be a continuation of that sassy, sarcasm-laced style. But instead, it takes a graver, more reflective tone. This second memoir delves beneath the surface to examine the events that shaped Pung’s family – and especially her father, a man who can’t sleep without a light on somewhere and blunts his kitchen knives to reduce the likelihood of anyone getting hurt.
Pung begins in Melbourne, not far from the events of Unpolished Gem, as she tentatively, guiltily, carves out an independent life for herself, moving out of home to live in a university residence hall; then as she travels to China to find her ‘roots’, but never stops feeling like a foreigner. Her search for meaning takes her, instead, to the killing fields of Cambodia, where her father spent four years, before escaping with her mother. In conversations with her father, Alice revisits that time – and explores the lingering effects of trauma, not just in the generation that experienced it, but also in the generations brought up in that shadow.
Her Father’s Daughter is written through two perspectives, often conflicting, sometimes chiming, as the father and daughter address their stories to one another. This technique highlights the vast gulf between their life experiences, but also their shared desire for connection, the sacrifices each make for the other. Above all, this is a book about love and belonging, and about survival – not just in a physical sense, but the survival of qualities like hope and love, even in the wake of unspeakable horror and loss.
Her Father’s Daughter is the story of the survival of Alice Pung’s parents in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, their relocation to Melbourne, and the concern of her father as Alice Pung makes her own way while discovering his past. This is an immigrant story of unusual power, all the more moving for its careful observation and weaving of temporal perspectives. Pung allows us to hear voices that are seldom found in Australian literature; in their intimacy and their universality they confound the barren terms of refugee policy.
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To know something depends partly on not knowing; the elisions of memory give what you know its defining shape.
Melburnians crossing east across the Yarra over the Princess may pause for the moment and consider the newly renovated Hamer Hall. The building now faces the river with a serpentine weaving of blockish, open forms that occasionally resembles nothing so much as a toddler’s octagonal shape sorter. It’s a pattern primarily described by absences, created when more complex shapes (such as knots) are added to the original and then subtracted – entirely or in part. The result, an unexpected volume of form, doesn’t fully reveal the circumstance of its creation.
Years ago, on the tributary of the Yarra, a father explains to his daughter the number of ways she could die at that very spot: by slipping and drowning, by snake-bite or by sudden bushfire. Alice Pung, her father’s daughter, knows that this over-anxious trilogy of threats doesn’t truly relate to the proximity of danger of the banks of the Maribyrnong. The slowly unraveled, never entirely unknotted, past – and its effect on the voluble present – is the agitated reveal at the heart of Alice Pung’s confident and writerly second memoir.
Pung’s journey into her family history is at once an effort to understand others and to place herself in the world. She begins to carefully loosen the family ties by traveling beyond their proximate chronology to China, visiting two names on the map (the birthplaces of her paternal grandparents). In Macau, she spends three wandering, unconsummated days with a man who promises a connection perhaps too familiar. These experiences are frayed ends, possible life routes denied by geography and temperament.
Even as Pung moves out of the family home to take up a residential tutor’s role at Melbourne University, she remains attentive to the knot at the centre of her father’s anxious querying. The author walks us towards Kuan Pung’s experiences as a young man in Cambodia’s killing fields with a languid, revealing grace, first allowing us to see its reverberating effect: ‘Why do you stay out so late?’ is really ‘I know what it’s like to lose forever the ones I love’.
Her father’s survival under the murderous Khmer Rouge, responsible for the deaths of more than a million of their fellow Cambodians, was due to a combination of fearful caution, diligence and luck. It is a black luck that allows him to live by burying the many who die of starvation. He lives by obeying the logic of survival in the killing fields, by being useful and shrinking from its many blows.
Kuan Pung’s survival and eventual arrival in Australia as a refugee carries the truth of big journeys; that they mix hope and despair into a solid rising (then sinking) block at the pit of your stomach. Her Father’s Daughter succeeds in capturing this, in part because, for much of its length, it alternates between chapters told in the father’s voice and then the daughter’s. This is done with impressive ease, not least because it is achieved by a difference of tone, rather than of splintered syntax.
Her Father’s Daughter tells its tale with considerable sympathy and skill, as well as with the deepest acknowledgement that stories – whatever their narrative power – are not the experiences themselves. Memory and the reverberating blow often hold back the least, the most calcifying, of their secrets.
James Tierney blogs at A Long, Slow Goodbye.
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