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Her Father’s Daughter

March 12, 2012

Alice Pung

Alice Pung, Her Father’s Daughter

‘Do you think there’s too much suffering in the Cambodian part?’ asked Kuan, Alice Pung’s father, after he read the manuscript for this book. ‘Maybe white people don’t want to read about too much suffering. It depresses them.’

He was referring to that part of the book in which Pung tells the story of her father’s four years under the Khmer Rouge. By the time I reached this part, I knew Kuan so well, through the loving relationship between father and daughter, that I could not stop reading, despite being carried into the heart of the Khmer Rouge genocide by the power of Alice Pung’s prose.

Having survived this time, Kuan met and married Kien, and together they escaped to Australia. There he got on with life, becoming a successful businessman and a loving husband and father. Pung portrays him as thinking: “… his daughter kept asking him questions. Tactful ones, because … she’d probably read up on books about post-traumatic stress disorder or whatever rubbish Western psychologists had made up to stop a person moving on in life, to extract exorbitant sums by sitting them down and making them talk. Talk led to nothing and nowhere. It was action that got a man places, that pulled him up and out of the quagmire and into a new country, out of the factories and into the glory of self-sufficiency in his own business.”

Pung coins the word “dismemory” for a memory that one has deliberately forgotten to remember. But such memories, like unconsciously repressed ones, may still exercise power – in Kuan’s case through being overprotective of his children, becoming frantic when he doesn’t know where they are, even forbidding sharp knives in the house. “He made [Alice] so furious sometimes. But you could never question the paranoias attached to this love, because to him it would mean questioning the love, which was unconditional.”

The dismemories flow into her own life, making it hard for her to commit to relationships, to be more daring. “She was afraid of loss, and of change, and of all the inevitabilities of life. She never let relationships run their course. She didn’t want to believe that love could die.” The effect of extreme events persists beyond the first generation.

Throughout the book, Pung rejects “easy epiphanies” while conveying the depth of the love within her family. In the last part of the book, she visits Cambodia with her father. Standing in the field where he was forced to bury the victims of the Khmer Rouge, she realises that the real miracle was not that he had survived: “the real miracle was that he could love”.

Pung writes in the third person, shifting the point of view between herself and her father, using the techniques of fiction. This works well, avoiding the problem many memoirs have of repeatedly focussing on “me, me, me.” She wrote her first memoir (Unpolished Gemreviewed here) in the first person, but perhaps this accorded with what she describes as “the self-centred myopia of being young.”

Pung found the writing of this book hard, and has spoken of how she didn’t want to look at it or touch it when the typeset pages arrived. She asked friends to read it for her. Perhaps this is why the editing seems uneven, with superb prose interrupted by occasional clumsy sentences and careless use of words, as if it had not been read aloud during editing. This is a minor point, and there is much to admire: her use of imagery, her ability to bring her parents to life on the page, the way she structures the story. It was the perfect reading accompaniment for my recent trip to Cambodia, giving me an insight into the Pol Pot years through the experience of a man I felt I knew and liked.

Note: Other reviews of this book may be found at Whispering Gums and ANZlitlovers.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 12, 2012 4:16 pm

    Thanks for the link, Bryce … and great, thoughtful review. I liked it more than Unpolished gem largely because of the maturity that has come to her with age. Telling part of the story through her father’s voice was an excellent device. I like seeing the different ways writers are trying to get around the challenges of memoir to tell their truths.

  2. Bryce permalink*
    March 13, 2012 11:56 am

    Yes, including her father’s voice is the key to the success of the book. Using the third person facilitated this, but it also made it a very different book than it would otherwise have been. In your review you mention Kate Holden, who also wrote her second memoir The Romantic in the third person. At the Brisbane Writers Festival last year Kate talked about the power of distancing herself from the person she had been. Have you read her terrific essay about memoir-writing in Griffith Review 33? It’s on the website at She comments that using the third person, “I could see ‘her’ better than I see myself, with less pity, and more mercy.”

    • whisperinggums permalink
      March 13, 2012 9:10 pm

      Ah yes, I remember hearing Holden say something about that on a Radio National interview. Interestingly Michael Sala who fashioned his life into fiction said he did it so he could write about himself as “other” which he found easier to do (even though he used his own name). I sometimes buy Griffith Review … but will check online for that article.

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