Life Lessons: An interview with Alice Pung

[First published in The Big Issue, No 472, November 2014]

There is nothing more powerful than the feeling of belonging to a group, thinks shy pupil Lucy Lam as she slinks against the walls at her Year 10 social. It’s a feeling every reader can relate to, no matter what age. Author Alice Pung, who is every bit as wise and eloquent as her character Lucy, says she was never interested in joining any cliques in high school. “I just wanted to watch and see where I could slot myself,” she reflects. Her years of quiet observation provided rich material for Laurinda, Pung’s first foray into Young Adult (YA) fiction, after two lauded memoirs about her parents’ experiences immigrating to Australia from Pol Pot’s Cambodia.

Laurinda follows the year in the life of scholarship student Lucy as she leaves her multicultural school in the working-class suburb of Stanley (based on the Melbourne suburb of Braybrook, where Pung grew up) and attempts to fit into the wealthy monoculture of Laurinda Ladies College, which, with its elitist traditions, is yet to truly shed its origins as a finishing school. Those who loved Melina Marchetta’s 1992 coming-of-age novel Looking for Alibrandi should find similar joy in Laurinda, which also tackles issues of race and class in the schoolyard, but with a more satirical edge.

Growing up, Pung changed schools five times, giving her insight into the power dynamics and peculiarities of state, private, selective, single sex and co-educational systems. She is philosophical about the experience. “A lot of people think it must have been so hard to start a new school every year, but looking back I realise it must be so hard to stay in the one school. A lot of friends said that if only they hadn’t done something in Year Seven, if only they hadn’t wet their pants because they were so nervous, that kind of thing—you were stuck in a certain level of unpopularity. If you keep changing schools you realise your self is not fixed. So at one school I was a really funny kid, and I then I went to a school where there was barely any Asian kids and so everyone assumed I was the ‘quiet Asian girl’, and that’s who I became.”

In Laurinda, Pung captures the anxiety-riddled, hormone-crazed environment of secondary school so accurately that for many readers (especially adults) the novel will swing between an amusing nostalgia trip and terrifying flashback.

For Pung’s editor, reading Laurinda was an eye-opening experience. He would leave little comments throughout the manuscript saying things like: “This sounds really far-fetched, can you think of a more realistic example?” She’d reply: “But that is real, that’s what actually happened in high school.” Pung explains: “When you get out of high school you think people can’t be like that, 15 year old girls aren’t that cruel—but they are!” she says, laughing.

One of the most striking aspects of Laurinda is that much of the students’ cruelty is directed not at their classmates, but at their teachers. “One thing I’ve never read about is bullying of teachers,” says Pung. “In every school where teachers have opened up to me…I’ve asked them ‘have you ever felt bullied by a student?’ They’d say: ‘Don’t quote me on this but let me tell you a story…’ And they would tell me these terrible stories of student bullying and how vulnerable they felt. They’re meant to be the adult in a position of authority, so there’s shame in going to the administration because they don’t always support you.”

Laurinda is also the product of a lifetime spent reading and loving YA books, in particular the novels of John Marsden, Judy Blume and Sonya Hartnett. Her immersion in the genre gave Pung a lot to consider during the writing process.

“Some YA falls flat—it’s when adults try and speak like teenagers: they don’t realise there’s a distinction between the young adult voice as they speak and the young adult voice as they think. At 15 you’re pretty sophisticated, you can be a mean girl, you can be cunning, you can be kind. You’re already reading Shakespeare and Jane Austen in school. But when you hear 15-year-olds speak they sound really stupid. Their words are full of ‘likes’, so some people write YA as teenagers speak and the book becomes two-dimensional, because a 15-year-old is not what they say.”

Pung says she doesn’t set out to write books with an explicit message, but if she wanted readers, especially younger ones, to come away with any particular reassurance after reading Laurinda, it would be this:

“Everything is hyped up when you’re a teenager, every little setback you have or every little heartbreak because someone doesn’t talk to you, it’s massive, it’s the end of the world. Because you haven’t had that many life experiences it hits you much more strongly. I guess that’s what makes YA so fascinating: you’re dealing with the very first time things happen in a person’s life. High school is hard, but you can get through it.”