Friday, September 17

‘Teens Can Handle Tough Things’: Alice Pung on the Complexities of Race, Class, and Motherhood | Australian books

When Alice Pung was a teenager growing up in suburban Melbourne, she had friends at school who got pregnant and disappeared. “I never saw them again and wondered what had happened to them,” says the author.

This laid the foundation for Pung’s new novel, One Hundred Days. Set in the 1980s, it follows 16-year-old Karuna, who becomes pregnant after a whirlwind of romance with a tutor at the local community center.

Outraged and embarrassed, Karuna’s overprotective mother locks her in her commission apartment for 100 days, a tradition of postpartum confinement in many cultures.

Longing to escape her suburban isolation, the teenager loses herself in Walt Whitman’s poetry and in the copies of Reader’s Digest. The book is written from Karuna’s silently furious perspective, directed at the baby growing inside her as she feels her own life vanish before her.

Pung’s own mother wanted to enforce the tradition of confinement for the author’s first pregnancy, she says, but the baby was premature, so she had to go to the hospital every day. (“I got the perks – she made all the food great, but I didn’t have to be stuck at home for a whole month,” recalls Pung).

When we meet for coffee at Carlton, her six-month-old baby is tethered to her breast – Pung’s third child, but the first daughter. The complexity of motherhood is a key aspect of One Hundred Days, which according to the author comes from “having my own children and being a daughter myself.”

Complicated parent-child relationships, especially within particular cultures, are a ripe area for literary exploration. Pung and I discuss the challenges of communicating thorny cultural differences to readers who have Westernized expectations of child rearing. Rebecca Lim’s young adult novel Tiger Daughter is another recent example.

The cover of the book One Hundred Days by Alice Pung
Alice Pung is a lyrical writer who often trades in highly decorative prose. Photography: Black Inc

“As many immigrant children were raised, parents command you for your own good. It’s a different relationship, which some readers might consider emotional abuse, ”says Pung. “I wrote this for people like us, but also for all young people or children who feel oppressed by a parent who has different beliefs.”

Karuna’s biracial identity is also an important thread in the book, capturing the pain of feeling trapped between cultures. Throughout the novel, the adolescent idealizes her absent white father, whom she perceives as a symbol of a freer existence. Pung delicately unravels the common experience of a daughter resenting her mother and admiring her father, which becomes even more complex due to tense racial dynamics.

“In Anglo-Saxon culture, parents try to cultivate their independence so that when they are 18 years old, they can fend for themselves and find a life for themselves, whereas in many immigrant cultures I don’t know when that moment of adulthood is because you are always a child to your parents ”, says the author.

One Hundred Days is Pung’s first adult literary novel, but like his celebrated 2014 young adult book, Laurinda, it takes the reader into the mind of a teenager. She likens it to Vivian Pham’s 2020 novel The Coconut Children: Both books defy the conventions of adult literature by presenting a stark yet sophisticated take on adolescence and life from an adolescent perspective.

“I don’t see a distinction. I grew up with young people who had very adult responsibilities; teens can deal with difficult things, ”says Pung. “I wrote it for a teenager. If I started writing it for an adult, the prospect would not be so immediate. “

Another point in common with Laurinda is the representation of class problems, which take place in the schoolyard and the community where Karuna lives. Her mother has several low-paying jobs to pay the bills, and Karuna works the same jobs for free to help out. The imminent arrival of the baby poses great financial pressure.

Pung herself grew up as a working class in West Melbourne. He came to Australia as a baby with his Cambodian refugee parents and traces his family’s history in his memoirs, Unpolished Gem and Her Father’s Daughter, published in 2006 and 2011 respectively. His own experience informs the characters and the stories he writes. “Class is in my books because sometimes it has impacted my life more than race,” she says.

The main relationships in One Hundred Days are between Karuna and her mother, Karuna and her baby, both the women and the baby, and most importantly, Karuna and herself. It is a kind of coming of age, as the young woman faces impossible challenges and emerges with new knowledge about motherhood, friendship, family and life.

Pung is a lyrical writer who often trades in highly decorative prose, but borrows from Whitman’s Song of Myself to lead and end the book with a fitting quote that is sublime in its simplicity: “I celebrate myself.”

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