University of Melbourne Magazine

Writers speak to one another

  • For a teenage Alice Pung, author John Marsden was just the write stuff. By Gay Alcorn

    Alice Pung. Picture by Matt Lynn

    Alice Pung. Picture by Matt Lynn

    Alice Pung sent writer John Marsden a copy of her new book, freshly edited.

    He emailed back. “Well, damn you Alice Pung,” it said. “You have succeeded in bringing tears to my eyes, which began when I read p45 and didn’t go away until long after I got to the end.”

    Pung’s short book is about Marsden and the profound influence his young adult fiction had on her when she was a teenager growing up in the working-class suburb of Braybrook. The profound influence, too, on her own writing.

    When Black Inc. publisher Chris Feik (MA(EngLang) 1996) had asked Pung last year if she would like to be part of a new series of books, Writers on Writers, she agreed immediately. _There was only one writer that came to mind – Marsden, the much-lauded author of young adult literature, most famously for the Tomorrow, When the War Began series.

    Who would not cry if someone wrote this about your work? “Newspapers hail you as ‘Australia’s King of Young Adult

    Fiction’ because you’ve sold millions of books; but I reckon you’re the king because in all your writing, it’s as if you are on your knees, eye-level and ear-level with your child subjects, humbling yourself before them to see what they see and hear what they hear.”

    Pung (LLB(Hons) 2004, BA 2004) is picking at a veggie burger at a café around the corner from where she works three days a week as a researcher for the workplace relations tribunal, the Fair Work Commission. She is slight, her black hair pulled back into a pony-tail, her work ID hanging around her neck.

    The 36-year-old is an accomplished writer of two best-selling family memoirs, Unpolished Gem and Her Father’s Daughter, as well as a young adult novel, Laurinda. In that book, Lucy Lam wins a scholarship to a snooty private girls’ school. She is asked by the principal what she’s been studying. So Much to Tell You by John Marsden, Lucy replies. Mmm, sniffs Mrs Grey. “We don’t study any books considered young adult literature. For instance, your John Marsden.”

    Marsden launched Laurinda for Pung, calling it “funny, horrifying and sharp as a serpent’s fangs’’.

    Pung’s relationship with Marsden is personal. She credits his books with helping her through her own adolescence.

    She is the daughter of Cambodian refugees who fled the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and arrived in Australia a month before Pung was born. Like a lot of Asian migrants of the time, the family settled in Melbourne’s western suburbs.

    Braybrook was not always welcoming in the 1990s – rocks were thrown through her home’s windows, and her best friend’s father had pictures of Pauline Hanson on the wall, “although he loved us”.

    Adolescence isn’t a concept recognised in Cambodia. “You’re a child, you start work, and you’re an adult,” says Pung. Her mother is illiterate and began working at 13. “Our literature came in the mail box once a week. My mother read the Safeway, Bi-Lo and Best & Less ads.” Pung laughs, as she does often, a hearty and slightly nervous laugh.

    “Books were my moral barometer in life. They seriously gave me guidance because I couldn’t think of an adult that I could talk to to navigate adolescence, because it didn’t exist in my parents’ world.”

    At age 14, Pung’s school, Christ the King College, studied Marsden’s first book So Much to Tell You, and Pung and her friends were transfixed. “It’s about a very traumatised girl who is half scarred because her dad poured some acid on her face, which is quite confronting. [Marsden] was a man who wrote like a teenage girl, but it wasn’t creepy or anything.”

    In her essay, Pung acknowledges that Marsden, now in his 60s and running two alternative schools in Victoria, has been controversial, with critics accusing him of being too dark for teenagers, too confronting. That was what the young Pung loved about him, that he didn’t idealise teenagers, and didn’t turn them into stereotypes. Nothing she has ever read has had such an impact.

    “There’s a tendency now with a lot of young adult writing, a lot of it is coming from America, a lot of dystopians, a lot of science fiction. There hasn’t been the trend of realism, which was what I grew up with – [Australian author] Robin Klein, John Marsden.

    “You get a lot of single issue-based books that I really don’t like. In the ’80s, it was divorce, now it’s the transgender movement, and it’s great when you have an authentic, interesting story but a lot of the time they’re set on hammering down a point – don’t bully gay kids, or love these refugees. Terrible books.”

    Pung spent last Christmas re-reading all of Marsden’s work and wrote the Writers on Writers volume in about four weeks. She gets little time to write normally. She and her husband, Nick, live with their two-year-old son Leo in a three-room apartment at Melbourne University’s Janet Clarke Hall, where Pung is an artist-in-residence. (She completed her undergraduate law degree at the University of Melbourne.)

    If she’s lucky, she gets two solid hours a week to write, but she’s always thinking, always taking notes. She’d like more time to write, but doesn’t want to do it full-time.

    “I’m Buddhist. You know about the ego; it’s very easy to become a bit of a wanker if you’re a writer and you get profiled. The Fair Work Commission keeps me grounded. As a writer, you’re doing things for yourself or by yourself with your own thoughts a lot. The work gets me thinking about other things.”

    She has a few ideas for young adult books swirling around in her head. “I love the audience,” she says, and that, too, has been influenced by Marsden.

    The two met at writers’ festivals over the years, and became friends two years ago. That was after the Bendigo Writers Festival, when Pung was reeling from a devastating family tragedy that she does not want to speak about in detail. Marsden saw her, and knew something was wrong. She blurted it out to him and he sent her an email afterwards.

    “It gave me more comfort than you will ever realise,” Pung writes in her book on Marsden, “because you did not offer false consolation. I think our friendship was cemented then.”

    As for Marsden, he says in an email he “prickled all over” as he read Pung’s book. “I read it very slowly, so that was a lot of prickles.

    “I am deeply grateful to Alice for suggesting that the books are still worth reading, that they still have something to contribute. Her book made me feel that my writing career mattered, and I feel so honoured to be acknowledged in this way.”

    Writers on Writers: Alice Pung on James Marsden.

    Writers on Writers: Alice Pung on James Marsden.

    The Writers on Writers series is published by Black Inc. in association with the University of Melbourne and State Library Victoria. Also available now: Erik Jenson on Kate Jennings.

    Next year: Christos Tsiolkas on Patrick White, Ceridwen Dovey on JM Coetzee, Nam Le on David Malouf and Michelle de Kretser on Shirley Hazzard.


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