Q&A with Cambodian Writer Alice Pung
Eight international writers are exploring the Mid-Atlantic and the American South as part of Writers in Motion, an initiative of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. City of Asylum/Pittsburgh writer-in-residence Khet Mar is one of the participants.
In the upcoming days, Khet Mar will be introducing some of her traveling partners in a series of short interviews. Today we present her Q&A with Alice Pung.
Alice Pung was born in Melbourne, Australia to Cambodian parents. Her memoir Unpolished Gem won the 2006 Australian Book Industry Association Award for Newcomer of the Year, among other prizes. Her work was included in Best Australian Short Stories 2007 and Growing Up Asian in Australia. A new book, My Father’s Daughter will come out in 2011. A lawyer by trade, Pung contributes regularly to The Monthly and The Age.
Here Alice Pung talks about what her writing would be like if she lived in Cambodia, her challenges as a Cambodian writer born in a different country, and the Writers in Motion tour.
You were born in Melbourne to Cambodian parents and you write about the difficulties they faced as refugees in Australia. Do you think you would be able to write as much if you lived in Cambodia?
If I lived in Cambodia, I would not be able to write as much as I could because of three reasons: first, I might not be able to read or write, because Cambodia is a poor and war-ravaged country, and I might have to work at a young age.
Second, my parents would still hold on to their traditional Chinese Cambodian culture, in which you are not meant to question your elders. That would mean they would not allow me to write so personally about them.
And third, because the country has survived a great genocide and the people want to move on, they might not want to read about the tragedies that happened less than 30 years ago. They want to move on and forget the past.
But in Australia, the past is all that a migrant or refugee has to hold on to, so they tell these stories to honor their parents.
What is your biggest challenge as a Cambodian writer who was born in a different country?
People will complain if I write things that are ‘too’ Southeast Asian or culturally Chinese, but then they will also complain if I write things that are ‘too’ Australian. They will complain if I have a white boyfriend (for betraying my culture), and they will also complain if I have an Asian boyfriend (for not assimilating with my culture)! But besides that, I am safe and can write what I want, so I am very lucky compared to writers in other countries.
Who were your biggest influences in your decision to become a writer?
My grandmother used to tell me stories to teach me things. She was a great storyteller and she valued my education. So from her, I learned to tell stories to my younger sisters, and from my sisters I learned to see the world in a new and wondrous way.
What has been the most interesting place you visited on the Writers in Motion tour?
All of the places have been interesting. My favorite place so far has been Birmingham, Alabama because of the Civil Rights Museum, which shows the struggles of ordinary men, women, and children to defeat oppressive laws and a discriminatory culture.
Read more about Khet Mar on the Road
Read what Khet Mar, Alice Pung, and the other writers are discovering through this tour.