September 2011

Arts & Letters

‘Her Father’s Daughter’ by Alice Pung

By Brenda Walker

Alice Pung’s first book, Unpolished Gem (2006), was the work of a young, amusing and astute writer. While Her Father’s Daughter again makes use of Pung’s family background (she was born in Australia to ethnically Chinese refugees from Pol Pot’s Cambodia), her father is at the forefront of this work. As in Raimond Gaita’s comparably moving memoir Romulus, My Father, the reader feels fortunate to have met the book’s central character.

He is exasperatingly protective of his daughter yet also profoundly impressive, a pragmatist who survived the depredations of the Khmer Rouge and journeyed across the wreckage of Cambodia to a Thai refugee camp before emigrating to Australia, where people have “sweet bread-and-butter faces” and no way of knowing what fearful events have brought him among them. His survival, and his daughter’s remarkable work, is a material rejection of the evils of Pol Pot’s regime, which so energetically destroyed books, evidence of education and the educated themselves.

On reading the manuscript of Her Father’s Daughter, he worries: “Do you think there’s too much suffering in the Cambodian part? Maybe white people don’t want to read about too much suffering.” The book is a record of suffering and a record, too, of the real miracle of love after suffering.

Pung mentions, then rejects, the kinds of stories some might expect of her: for example, the worn-out tale of a heartfelt return to the two villages in Guangdong where her father’s family originated. Family pilgrimage sites are, in this tale, no more than dust, without emotional significance.

Another narrative cliché, the traveller’s tale of romance in foreign lands, is also invoked and passed over as the writer looks beyond the passionate intoxication of a love affair in Macau (it begins, less sensationally, in Melbourne) to the disaster that this particular match would become when essential incompatibilities played themselves out.

While these narrative possibilities are considered, the writer’s father intrudes as a figure of extreme caution: he worries that his daughter will be duped, fleeced or harmed in all the ordinary activities of travel, and in any case fails to see why she should travel in order to write when he can give her plenty of material from his own experiences.

He has a point. His experiences as a forced labourer under the Khmer Rouge – as an acupuncturist whose medical skills won him the right to work in the appalling, but relatively desirable, task of emptying latrines to make fertiliser – and his personal ethos of work, economy and love, make compelling reading.

Her Father’s Daughter is, ultimately, the story of a man shaped by the calculated catastrophe of a totalitarian regime and by his deep concern for his version of Australian life, to which his family and eldest daughter are central. It is also a tender, genuine and sometimes funny dialogue between fatherly concern and daughterly independence. Pung has an extraordinary story to tell and the finesse to bring it, most movingly, to the page.

Brenda Walker

Brenda Walker is an Australian writer and a Winthrop Professor of English and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia. Her memoir, Reading by Moonlight, was published in 2010.

'Her Father’s Daughter', By Alice Pung, Black Inc., 256pp; $29.95
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