Her father’s daughter

Volume 7 Number 9 September 12 - October 9 2011

Alice Pung’s recently published third book, Her Father’s Daughter, is a letter to her father and an exploration of the father/daughter relationship which many fathers and daughters will relate to. Zoe Nikakis spoke with her.

The story spans Australia, China and Cambodia and traces their relationship and the ways in which Pung explores her father’s story.

Ms Pung said her father was proud of her, and of her work. “Secretly I think he wanted the book to be like Mao’s Last Dancer, a story of migrant success,” she says.

 “He’s inviting his friends to the book launch.”

Though much of the book is a dialogue between the two, Ms Pung says they never sat down and explicitly discussed her father’s thought processes and feelings.

“While I was writing it he didn’t give me his opinion, he just corrected me on technical mistakes [20 000 words of the book are set in Cambodia],” she says.

“He said he wasn’t going to give me an opinion because it would influence my writing.”

She says though they didn’t sit down and talk about her father’s feelings at certain points, she was able to write from his perspective because she knew him so well.

“I’ve known my father all my life, he’s known me all my life, so it’s a conversation without words between a father and a daughter,” she says.

“He hasn’t said at any point ‘This is really inaccurate, I think completely the opposite’”.

The idea for the book and the narrative, which begins in China, came from Pung’s time as a participant in the Asialink Writing Residency Program, which gives Australian writers the chance to live and work for an extended period in Asia and undertake international cultural exchange, in-depth research and sustained time on creative work.

Hosts vary from Australian Studies Centres and University Literature departments to artist retreats, writers’ centres and publishers. Applicants can also propose their own host organisation.

Ms Pung says Asialink had been very good to her, and this residency was the continuation of her relationship with them. They helped her launch her second book, Growing Up Asian in Australia.

She says when she arrived in China, she didn’t have a fixed idea about what she would write about, but rather the book grew organically as she explored her family’s roots.

“I had published two books before the residency about being Asian in Australia, and I didn’t know whether I should write about culture, but then I arrived and found I couldn’t, it was like appropriating someone else’s culture,” she says.

“I suppose I could have, and I imagine it would have been convincing for people who weren’t experts, or Sinophiles, but it wouldn’t have been sincere.

“Just because you have Chinese heritage doesn’t mean you know the first thing about China.”

The book includes instead her experiences of living in Melbourne, including descriptions and narrative which occurs during her time as a resident tutor at Janet Clarke Hall, one of the private colleges which abuts the University of Melbourne.

Ms Pung is again living at the college, but this time as their Peggy and Leslie Cranbourne Artist-in-Residence. She said returning to the college was “kind of like coming home”.

Her Father’s Daughter begins with a description of when she first moved out of the family home and into the college, and contains clearly drawn and thought-provoking images of how sharply different her old and new homes were.

The writing process for the vignettes and longer stories which interweave to form the book was quite arduous, Ms Pung says, because she wrote many of the stories fully before she decided what to remove.

“That’s how all my books are written, they’re usually twice the size they should be and then edited down,” she says

“As a writer, you have to choose which experiences you keep in and which ones you leave out. I only put in the experiences which were relative to keep the narrative going.

“My editor is great because he sees every chapter that I write, and he has

an overview of how things are shaping up, because sometimes as a writer you’re so focused on the details that you forget the bigger picture.”

Ms Pung says she doesn’t have plans for her next writing project yet.

“It was pretty tough writing this book, and it has just been published, so I’m really focusing on it,” she says.