Back of the book blurb: After Alice Pung’s family fled to Australia from the killing fields of Cambodia, her father chose Alice as her name because he thought their new country was a Wonderland. In this … debut memoir … Alice grows up straddling two worlds, East and West, her insular family and the Australia outside. … she writes of the trials of assimilation and cultural misunderstanding, and of the tender but fraught relationships between three generations of women trying to live the Australian dream without losing themselves.
She is Too Fond of Books’ review: You may know, from reading other posts and reviews on this blog, that personal memoir is one of my favorite genres. Not autobiographies of celebrities, personal memoirs are attractive to me because they tell the stories of “real” people; sometimes people I can identify with in some way, sometime people I can learn from. Alice Pung’s memoir, Unpolished Gem, gave me a peek at her life – being raised in a family that had escaped the killing fields of Cambodia and settled in a new country.
Pung’s memoir begins in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia; she was born one month after her parents migrated there, accompanied by Pung’s grandmother, aunt, and one nearly empty suitcase. She was born one month later; the family eventually settled in Footscray, which to this day remains a melting pot for recent immigrants from war-torn nations. The Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees of the early 1980s have now been outnumbered by those from Sudan and Ethiopia.
There were many sections of the book that I found thoroughly engrossing – the struggle of her mother to learn English (or not; she is torn about whether she wants/needs to learn the language, never mind the difficulty of the mechanics of learning to speak it); the role of her mother in this new land; changing expectations as the family began to prosper; Alice’s hesitation about dating outside the invisible barriers of her extended “family” of immigrants.
Other parts were both entertaining and illuminating. Consider this passage, which describes Pung’s parents’ encounter with a pedestrian crossing light – Pung compares the Red Man on the traffic light with the oppressive Mao Ze Dong, and the Green Man with the supportive Australian government:
My father stands in front of the yellow pole and presses the little rubber button again. “Even Mother can do it! Watch me do it again! But try not to gawk like Guangzhou peasants, please.” My grandmother ignores the comment and looks up at the lights. “We wait for Mao Ze Dong man to disappear before we move,” she instructs. “He stops everything.” She is getting the hang of this. As the little Red Man disappears and the little Green Man reappears, the crew hobble to the other side in beat with the ticking traffic light.
… The little Green Man was an eternal symbol of government existing to serve and protect. And any country that could have a little green flashing man was benign and wealthy beyond imagining.
As much as I enjoyed the parts that dove deeper into the family’s relationships and growth in this new world, there were several times I felt Pung put the brakes on the story and could have gone deeper. I thought that perhaps these were areas which are too personal for her to evaluate, so they remain “unpolished gems.” In reading “A Conversation with Alice Pung,” I learned that the cultural element of saving face may have played into the way it was written. Pung feels she pushed the envelope by revealing more than a Cambodian typically would, where I (the ugly American?) was hungry for more … an interesting contrast of our ethnic heritages.
She refers many times to the tension between her mother and grandmother, and cites examples of being used as a pawn between them. I would have liked to have more about this – was this in-law relationship typical? When did Pung realize she was being used like this? Did her reluctance to contine a romantic relationship stem from fear of being “second best” to a suitor’s mother? Similarly, Pung touches on emotional stress and near nervous breakdowns suffered in her family, but doesn’t fully explore why this happens or how it has changed the course of her life.
Despite my unanswered questions, overall I enjoyed Unpolished Gem and the stories Alice Pung shares in it. The personal narratives are lined with realistic dialogue and details that give a fair look at the family dynamic. A discussion group would find much to talk about – the immigrant culture and assimilation; Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, and the Vietnam War; familial relationships, and more. A reader’s guide for Unpolished Gem is available online.
This is Pung’s first book, and I’ll look forward to reading more from her; I imagine a fully-developed novel (in which she might be freer to explore personal themes) would be marvelous. She is a writer and lawyer living near Melbourne.
Clarification (added 6/15/09): It’s clear from the first few comments on this post that because of the way I structured my review, with the positive analysis bookending (and perhaps overshadowing) the areas I felt were lacking, it is being read as a ringing endorsement. I found Pung’s writing to be strongest when narrating a scene – complete with dialogue and visual details, she drew me in as if a fly on the wall. However, the memoir didn’t deliver on its implicit promise of exploring “my mother, my grandmother, and me,” which I attributed to cultural differences. The author let us get only so close to the intricacies of the familial relationships, then abruptly backed away. For this reason, I believe that Pung’s writing would really shine as fiction, where she could let go of the personal connection to her themes and explore them fully.