Alice Pung is an award-winning Melbourne writer who found a few minutes to speak to us during Melbourne's latest lockdown. Alice was at home with her newborn child, and you can hear them in the background of this short bonus interview.
Alice is the bestselling author of the memoirs Unpolished Gem and Her Father’s Daughter, and the essay collection Close to Home, as well as the editor of the anthologies Growing Up Asian in Australia and My First Lesson. Her first novel, Laurinda, won the Ethel Turner Prize at the 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. One Hundred Days is her most recent novel.
Alice previously appeared at a live event on The Garret, alongside Hannah Kent and Clementine Ford.
ASTRID: Hello, Alice. Welcome back to The Garret.
ALICE: Thank you so much for having me back, Astrid.
ASTRID: This is very exciting for me. We are talking via Zoom, as is the way of the world these days, and your daughter has joined us on Zoom too.
ALICE: Oh yeah, she goes everywhere with me because she's just a baby.
ASTRID: So that will explain if listeners hear any little child talking to us as well, but this is also very appropriate because your recent book, One Hundred Days, is the story of a new mother and her Mum. Congratulations.
ALICE: Oh, thanks so much, Astrid.
ASTRID: Now this is a very new book. Can you give the elevator pitch to our listeners who, when they listen to this interview, won't yet have read your latest novel?
ALICE: Oh, of course. My book is about the 16-year-old girl named Karuna who lives with her mother on the 14th floor of a block of flats. She gets pregnant and her mother, a working class, overstressed, harried mum tries to protect Karuna by locking her up so she can't get up to more mischief.
ASTRID: I wanted to ask when you wrote this book. I mean, we are now in 2021 and so many books were delayed last year. I wondered, were you writing last year, was this delayed last year? When did you create this book?
ALICE: Some people have thought that I wrote the book last year. I'm not that talented. Because they saw parallels — the young girl locked up in a housing commission flat for 100 days, we were all locked up for over a hundred days last year – but no. I started the idea four years ago and I finished editing the book just early this year. It wasn't delayed by the virus. In fact, last year we had a happy accident. I was heavily pregnant, and I think that actually enhanced the book because I was living through what it was like to be pregnant as I was finishing the book up,
ASTRID: I did want to ask you about if there had been a potential impact on your work or on your editing of your work because of what Melbourne experienced last year with lockdowns. As you said, we were all inside a lot and so much of this story is Karuna inside against her own will and how she emotionally reacts to that and the pressures of being inside and the claustrophobia of being inside.
ALICE: Oh, that's a great question, Astrid. Because I began the idea four years ago and the lockdown last year was almost a blessing for me. I was pregnant, I was safe, I was finishing off a book, and I was still working at my day job in the public service. I couldn't have been in safer circumstances. But when I was younger and growing up, myself in a lot of my friends, we experienced very similar scenarios to my main character. If we were the oldest, we were not exactly locked at home, but not encouraged to go outside. As girls, we were responsible for younger siblings. Even today, when I visit some schools, some of the Sudanese girls, the Burmese girls tell me exactly the same thing. They're not allowed to go anywhere, they have to go home straight after school, and they have responsibilities. I guess that's what inspired the book, not so much contemporary events, but the situation that thousands of young adults face all around Australia.
ASTRID: What was your motivation for writing the book? I mean, you are a beautiful writer and you are a teller of stories, but for this particular topic, what drove you to tell the story of Karuna?
ALICE: Oh, well, just a straight from my experience working with young adults and even children who have such adult responsibilities at home. Especially last year, you could see it during lockdown when I'd do virtual school visits. Some schools were very willing to have their cameras on each child in their bedroom, participated, and some schools didn't let their kids turn the cameras on because they probably shared the same room with, you know, three other siblings, the houses were not the best houses. You could see all these different economic circumstances and how they affect a child's sense of freedom, their sense of responsibility, and what kind of adult they might turn out to be. I found that so interesting.
ASTRID: I also teach, Alice. I teach at university, so it's a different age group. I have spent a year looking into people's kitchens or bedrooms, and many people choose not to turn their camera on. I think the last year will be with us for a long time. We have seen into people's lives at home in a way that we never have before, apart from in fiction and movies.
ALICE: That's so true. That's so true, Astrid. Yeah.
ASTRID: It really is. I guess, you work with students of many ages and you are a teller of stories. Alice, in your novel, Karuna escapes into books. She does her best to go to the library or access free books wherever she can. When she is stuck at home, she is even reading the junk mail. She's desperate for any kind of contact with the outside world, any kind of stories. Big philosophical question for you here, Alice. What for you is the importance of story?
ALICE: Oh, it augurs your place in the world, Astrid. I grew up at a time when there was no internet and I was very lonely as a child, most writers are, but I had a lot of responsibility as well. Reading, it was a huge, important thing for me. Not to become a writer. It was just a means of escape and a way of seeing different lives that hopefully were better than mine and some that were worse. It put my life into perspective even as a younger person. So, the importance of reading for Karuna, I made her character specifically... when you hear of an Asian character, usually they're academically gifted or they're good at school in some way. She doesn't care that much about school so reading is her thing. That was important to me, that you don't need to be good at school. Reading can still contribute to your life immensely.
ASTRID: One Hundred Days also explores class and race. Karuna's mother is from the Philippines, ethnically Chinese, and her dad is Australian. She grows up calling herself a half-ghost or white people ghosts. We see Karuna's mother and her experiences in her childhood and coming to a different country really do affect the way she parents and the way she mothers Karuna. I wanted to ask a funny question. Has your mother read this book?
ALICE: No. My mother, she can't read or write.
ASTRID: Have you read parts to her?
ALICE: This is a difference between the world of being illiterate and the world of being literate. She will always say, ‘Oh, I don't want to waste time listening to readings’. She'll say, ‘If you ever, any of your books get made into a film, I'll wait till the film comes out’. It's a completely different mentality. It's different way of seeing the world. For example, she's like Karuna's mother, except Karuna mother doesn't drive and my mother does. And I think how do you drive if you can't read street signs? But she can because she memorises landmarks. So, everything you do in the world is different, including your relationship to books. Does that make sense? I hope that does.
ASTRID: It does, absolutely, Alice. I don't want to be that person who says, how do you do it all, you have a career and a long publishing record and you are obviously an active Mum. But I want to ask how do you take your work, your writing, and squish it into the bits of time that you do have. Many writers I know think they have to have the perfect setup or the perfect day to come up with anything good. I suspect that you don't normally get the perfect day, so I guess I'd like to ask how you do approach your writing and your creativity?
ALICE: Oh, that's an excellent question, Astrid, and I think you already know the answer. There is no such thing as a perfect day, and my writing has changed. As a younger writer, I understand the younger writers, sometimes you have whole days to daydream when you're not at uni and you can't come up with anything and you've just wasted a day. But the more finite my time is, the more urgent it seems to get the ideas down. I might only have two hours to write in a week. I never get writer's block because when I have those two hours, I sit there and I just get everything out. It doesn't matter how shoddy it is, it just has to get down on the page. Guess that's the greatest cure to writer's block is to have... your life is so full but your writing time is actually kind of a privilege and a joy to do. I've found out ever since... I had three kids in five years, so my writing has changed. My sentences are shorter, but they're also more carefully thought out during the week before I plumped them down on the page. I don't have time to meandering stuff around, so my approach has changed too.
ASTRID: There is a comment. Maxine Beneba Clarke has given you a beautiful quote in the opening of One Hundred Days, and it says, ‘There is no word out of place, no sentence that doesn't sing with poetry. This is truly fiction at its finest’. That's an amazing compliment coming from Maxine about your words at the sentence level, however short they may be.
ALICE: Oh, thanks. Yeah, I was so stoked to get Maxine's quotes. Maxine is a poet herself and also, she's a single Mum with two kids, so... I'm not a poet like Maxine is, but I understand how she does it, and she's got a wonderful approach. She blocks out the world, she blocks out all the distracting social media, sometimes even emails, to get that crystallisation of ideas. That's why her children's books, her poetry, they're pitch perfect.
ASTRID: Once you've had your two hours a week or whatever it is that you manage to have to put your words on the page, how do you come back to it? I mean, to the next week, do you read over what you've done? Do you just put more out there? When do you come to find your story or your manuscript?
ALICE: Oh, it depends what stage I've met. While I'm writing the story stage, I try not to go back and tweak it with tweezers or anything like that. Otherwise, I'd not get anything done because we just want to make everything perfect, which is not the point of getting the story yet. You just need the skeleton of the story because what's the point of tweaking perfect passages if your story takes you on a different trajectory? You just have to scrap them, and I've scrapped whole chapters and thousands and thousands of words. So first, I get the whole story down and then when I think I have a good enough manuscript, and this can take two years or so, then I start tweaking it and smoothing it out and making it presentable to my editor.
ASTRID: This is a very literary novel, and it is written as Karuna essentially writing in her diary to her unborn child and who becomes her very young newborn baby. Was it always that kind of diary form, letter to her child?
ALICE: Yes, it was always like that, Astrid. It was always in the second person to this unborn child. It was done very specifically because the unborn child, as you know. It's a mixed-race child. It's not a white audience that she's speaking to, it's a very specific singular individual. It's also a literary construct because if I've wrote in the voice of a 16-year-old girl, literally, it would not have the level of... 16-year-olds are capable of reading Hamlet and Shakespeare and Dickens, but when they write or when you hear them speaking on public transport, they don't sound like the enormous vats of depths they have. I know that you as a 16-year-old probably had very deep thoughts, but you know, I didn't have the skills to get them on the page. So it's kind of, if a 16-year-old could tell you exactly what she was thinking, having all the appropriate words, that's what I presume Karuna would sound like. Yeah.
ASTRID: You do it very well and I have to admit...
ALICE: Oh, thank you.
ASTRID: I was a 16-year-old reading Hamlet and I certainly was not able to express any deep thoughts, even if I was having them.
ALICE: No, neither was I. But you can appreciate them, yeah? When you read them.
ALICE: As a teenager. Yeah, I'm so glad you think so because all my adult critics to my last books are, ‘This is too sophisticated for a 15 year-old-girl’, and all the 15-year-old girl said, ‘Oh, this was a great and easy read and I could...’
ASTRID: I think a lot of people feel like teenagers and young adults don't have the sophistication to read adult works and...
ASTRID: ... maybe certain violent scenes aside, of course they do. Of course they do.
ALICE: Yeah, they do.
ASTRID: And it makes them better adults.
ASTRID: A few minutes ago you mentioned a white audience, you were not writing for a white audience. That's obviously true. You're writing to Karuna's unborn baby, but it raises a question, who is the audience that you were writing for? I mean, obviously there's a commercial imperative and anyone who would like to buy a book, but beyond that.
ALICE: Oh yeah. Well, of course, it's also for a white audience. I didn't write specifically to exclude any sort of audience, but I guess the difference is in the past when I was first starting out, a younger writer, I felt I had to explain a lot of things culturally because there weren't that many books about Asian-Australians. Now there's a whole implosion, a whole explosion, actually, a wonderful thing. A lot of the books, for example, like Vivian Pham's, which has sentences in Vietnamese, completely untranslated, assume that your audience is going to do the hard work of Googling it if they're interested it... Tony Morrison has never written for a white audience. She's specifically written for a very particular audience. My book was specifically written for one person, a 16-year-old teenage girl. That's my audience. One person. I didn't have one person in mind, but that's her.
ASTRID: That is a beautiful thing, Alice. I can't tell you how much I appreciate the time that you are giving us today. You have a baby there. I have no idea what else you've got on for today, but I imagine it is jam packed and every one of these minutes is very, very precious, so thank you.
A little while ago, you mentioned that your Mum would watch a movie if any of your books are adapted for the screen, but one of your novels, Laurinda, is actually being adapted for the stage by Melbourne theatre company. Firstly, do you think your Mum will go?
ALICE: Oh, I'm not sure. It depends. If it's not too abstract, yeah, definitely she'll go.
ASTRID: As the original creator, as the author, do you have any input into that process, into the script adaptation or into how it appears on stage?
ALICE: Look, there's a lovely, a wonderful, talented team, Petra and Diana Nguyen, but they're in charge of that so I've never wanted to interfere. Playwriting and screenwriting is a very specific set of skills. Some people can do both, like Benjamin Law. I don't have those skills, so I leave it completely up to them. But they they're really wonderful. They said I can have some input if I want to. Yeah, I trust their judgement .
ASTRID: Alice. I am greatly looking forward to seeing Laurinda on the stage, and once again, congratulations on One Hundred Days.
ALICE: Thanks so much, Astrid. Thank you.