Q&A with Alice Pung, author of Her Father’s Daughter

Phoebe Bond talks to Melbourne author Alice Pung about her second memoir, Her Father’s Daughter, which comes after her hugely popular Unpolished Gem of 2006.

Your second book delves into your migrant parents’ over-protective impulses, while simultaneously managing to maintain a respectful distance. Do you also have the desire to protect your parents? Where do you draw the line between what you will and won’t write?

For children of ‘survivor’ parents (that is, parents who survived genocides while inexplicably many of their family members did not) growing up means that you have a more deeply ingrained sense of mortality. I remember knowing about death at four years old, because the adults around me talked about it so matter-of-factly to each other. ‘Remember Needle? What a shame they smashed her to death.’ Almost every family who staggered out of that dark period of history known as Year Zero emerged with their family tree shaken beyond repair or burnt down to a stump. No wonder my parents wanted to keep us close. I grew up wanting to protect my parents from things that would alarm them. Unfortunately, almost everything set off their panic buttons.

Admittedly, I suspect my father wanted a triumphant refugee storyline (perhaps along the lines of Mao’s Last Dancer because he saw the movie last year and loved it!). But I thought a more fitting tribute would be an honest one. Because I am now 30, the same age as my father when he emerged from the Killing Fields, I realise this: A holocaust has no easy epiphanies.

Her Father’s Daughter* travels between China, Melbourne and Cambodia, with chapters alternately written from the perspectives of father and daughter. Can you talk a bit about how you decided to structure the book?

When I went to China on my Asialink residency, people told me I would have a sense of homecoming. China was beautiful but I felt alienated there. I was meant to have all this cultural capital that I could spend on ‘special feelings’ towards ‘going back’, but it wasn’t even going back for me – I was born in Australia. I also got paranoid that people back home were waiting for the next set of Unpolished Gem stories. I wrote about 20,000 words, but nothing seemed to be working.

Until one evening, after I had spoken to my father on the telephone, I wrote a very short piece about a man who was getting ready to go to bed. A quiet scene of domesticity, except that this particular man always slept with the light switched on, and always made sure he hid all the knives in the house, and all the knives had no sharp tips because he had cut and filed them off. And I knew, then and there, that I had the ending to my book.

Instead of starting with the gruesome Cambodia killing fields chapters, I situated the first half of the book in the safe suburbs of Melbourne. This is our home. My father was a refugee. He is no longer. A refugee is someone who is in the middle of fleeing, traversing from one place to get to another. My father is home. My sense of belonging is through my connections with other people, people I love. What I am foremost interested in is character, above ‘culture’ and plot. Why do people do the things they do? And how do people love?

You build a strong sense of your desire to find your own path and how that both clashes and fits with your father’s expectations of where you should be heading and how you should be getting there. What were the intentions and tensions in writing about this father-daughter dynamic?

This entire book is an unspoken conversation between a father and a daughter, unspoken because there are no explosive tantrums, no threats to move out of home, no direct rejections. Somehow, each party knows where the parameters lie, and how far to test them. You can’t just holler at a dad who brushed your baby teeth unfailingly every night with a little Colgate toothbrush for five years when you know the same hands have buried starved bodies and ploughed paddies in the Killing Fields.

Growing up with such parents, you learn patience and you learn about the burden of being too loved. I learned that love is not a certain repertoire of feelings. It is a verb, a series of actions to be followed through to the end, like my parents did. They walked through the killing fields together, built a new life, had four children. For them, life is unimaginable with anyone else. So what if everything my father and mother do is tinged with fear? This is what it means, I think, to be human with the full set of experiences meted out to you in life, and to do the best with what you have.

Part III of Her Father’s Daughter is an evocative and harrowing account of how your father survived Pol Pot’s murderous regime. What were some of the challenges in writing this part of the book?

My father is an exception, but most of my relatives don’t talk about their killing fields experiences. So I have been extremely lucky to have such a dad. In interviewing him for this book, I had to be careful not to push some things. He was never evasive and he was supportive all the way. But I didn’t want to bug him too much. This wasn’t Tuesdays with Morrie over coffee, but a 60-year-old man with a business to run and a store to open on Sundays who didn’t believe in post-traumatic stress. All his stresses seemed to be immediate and imminent dangers – except our lives in our cloistered cul-de-sac neighbourhood weren’t the most perilous states of existence.

In researching this book, I befriended and read many accounts by psychiatrists, historians and sociologists about the children of Nazi Holocaust survivors, as not many studies have yet been collected about children of parents who have survived more recent genocides. What intrigued me was that some Cambodian people dealt with trauma in the sense that they deliberately cultivated ‘goldfish memories’, where if you don’t talk about something, it disappears and then you can start from scratch in a new country.

However, Western psychology, with Kubler-Ross and her model of grief; and the recent diagnosis of post-traumatic stress as a mental disorder, means that to heal you have to deal with the past. I wanted to write about this past that made my father who he was, but did not define who he is.

You have a vivid prose style, likening the human carnage in Cambodia to food, which is effectively sickening. After a bomb, dismembered limbs dangle like ‘thin strips of meat the colour of prosciutto’ and ‘fried eggs in the womb of a young woman, fully cooked.’ What triggered this use of metaphor?

When Cambodia was carpet-bombed, the US government gave the whole endeavour the innocuous name of ‘Operation Breakfast.’ Just like when they dropped the bombs on Japan called ‘Little Boy and Fat Man’. So I wanted to show what lay behind these euphemisms, what Breakfast in Southeast Asia actually looked like when Western housewives were innocently pouring their orange juice in the mornings.

As a writer of memoir, you are tied to things ‘as they happened’. Is it tempting to stretch a detail here, embellish a fact there, for the sake of the story?

Of course, I can’t remember conversations word for word. And I was not there in the Killing Fields. But I try and get as close to the ‘emotional’ truth as possible. What would possess my father to react in such a way about the Forty Hour famine, the tragedy of the bushfires, the presence of modern technology?

What’s the best advice your father ever gave you?

‘Write how you truly feel, and don’t worry what others think. You have to be brave as a writer.’ He actually told me this as I was writing this book about him. That’s a pretty extraordinary gift of unconditional love.

Your first memoir has earned accolades from writers including Helen Garner and Amy Tan. Who are some of your favourite writers? Did any influence you in the writing of this book?

I love Anne Tyler for her domestic details, Elie Wiesel for his simplicity and truth, Helen Garner for not turning away from brutality and grief in order to find the kernel of beauty and truth. Also, Sonya Hartnett and John Marsden, for not being patronising to young adults.