"I know what stories sell. In ‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’, a story from Nam Le’s The Boat, the narrator is told ‘Ethnic literature’s hot. And important too.’ Anita Heiss, in an interview about her memoir Am I Black Enough for You?, says that she was inspired to write a story of Aboriginal Australia that didn’t begin in the desert after reading Alice Pung’s first book, Unpolished Gem, which opens with the line, ‘This story does not begin on a boat’. But reviews of Pung’s latest book Her Father’s Daughter praise the section about her father’s experiences during the Khmer Rouge regime as the most powerful part of the story.
My favourite anecdote in Her Father’s Daughter is when Pung begins applying for graduate positions after finishing her law degree. Looking at her résumé, the big firms can’t understand the number of years spent as a sales assistant in an electrical goods store. She ends up at a small practice, hired by an Italian Australian who appreciates her working for her family’s business. When I moved to Footscray, my mother took me to Retravision to buy a vacuum cleaner. Alice Pung’s aunt served us, and while she and Mum discussed the merits of bagless machines, I had that sepia feeling that comes when you’re inside a place that’s inside a book.
I don’t want to write about a country I barely remember. I don’t want to write my parents’ stories in a language they barely read. When people appropriate my culture, I can’t always say that the problem is that they are misrepresenting it, that they lack the necessary expertise. I lack the necessary expertise. I just have this name, and this face, and sometimes that means I have to account for things I don’t understand."