Meet Alice Pung, author of Laurinda

LaurindaThanks for talking to Boomerang Books about your outstanding first novel Laurinda (Black Inc.), Alice Pung.

Thanks for interviewing me!

You are well known for your excellent non-fiction, Unpolished Gem, Her Father’s Daughter and as editor of Growing Up Asian in Australia. Why have you sidestepped into YA fiction?

Growing up, I went to five different high schools, and I have always been fascinated by the way institutions shape individuals. In each new high school I felt like I was a slightly different person – not because anything about me had immediately changed – but because people’s perceptions of me had.

High school is the only time in your life where a large part of your identity is actually shaped by other people. As an adult you can choose your friends, and your time is finite, so of course, you try to only spend time with people who like and affirm you. As a teenager, though, you are forced to fit yourself in amongst 200-1000 other people, who are all with you every day. So I’ve always been interested in how teenagers adapt to this. And I wanted to do this through fiction because I wanted to create a character inspired by a number of young adults I’d met and admired.

You are also known for the Asian content and stories in your books. How does this manifest in LaurindaUnpolished Gem

Laurinda, first and foremost, takes a satirical look at class. Lucy Lam, my main character, is from depressed socio-economic circumstances, and I did not want her race to be the main focus. Where many young adult books fall flat, I think, is when they focus on the ethnicity or race as the most important part of their character. The reality is, most teenagers don’t spend time thinking about their cultural background. You don’t wake up every morning aware that you’re Asian, until someone draws your attention to it.

And that’s the paradox with a school like Laurinda – where everyone is so liberal and politically correct and culturally sensitive – the most interesting thing other girls focus on about Lucy is her Asian-ness. The other girls do not realise that she is a teenager in the exact same way they are: Lucy does not know the history of colonial Indochina, is not an authority on oriental food, and is more interested in boys than Vietnam war films.

Did you attend a school like Laurinda? If not, how did you imagine and craft this setting with such verisimilitude?

I get asked this a lot! No, I didn’t attend any school that was as rotten as Laurinda (thankfully!), but I have, like most other students, had teachers who were bullies, been in classes where we bullied the teachers, and seen the whole mean girl dynamic five times over in each new high school at which I started.

I’ve always been a watcher. No one suspects the quiet Asian kid of harbouring very much ambition except ‘doing well at school’, so as a teenager I’ve been privy to a lot of fly-on-the-wall conversations. Sometimes, I even heard some of the most outrageously racist things from other students, and other times I got insight into the struggles of girls I never thought would have struggles.

Also, as an author I have visited hundreds of schools throughout Australia, each with their own culture and traditions. I’ve seen how certain schools promote feminism while others promote a warped sense of femininity that denies competition while pushing success at all costs. I’ve also been to a private school so understand a little about the aspirations of those students, and did not want to tar all the students with the same brush. It seems that all the news and opinion pieces about private schools in the media are rife with so much hyperbole and polarised views. So I hoped that Laurinda would allow people to take a light-hearted and yet simultaneously very serious, nuanced look at why they feel this way.

Growing up AsianThe protagonist, Lucy, is an exceptionally well-created, three-dimensional character. She should become a role model.

Wow. Thank you!

In spite of the vast amount of YA lit I read, I’m excited to have been exposed to new ideas via Lucy, such as needing a group of friends to get a boyfriend at fifteen, and recognising students who are ‘self-contained satellites’.

Could you describe Lucy, or something about her?

When I wrote the character of Lucy, I was very aware of her voice first and foremost, very certain that the reader would be hearing her thoughts and not her words. She’s what school psychologists would now call a classic introvert, but the fascinating thing is that she was not an introvert at her previous school. It is only coming to Laurinda that she loses her speaking voice.

Many young adult books stress the importance of belonging to a group, yet Lucy is content to be by herself at school after she recognises that the institution is rotten. When evil exists, we are taught to do something about it – Lucy’s non-participation in the institution is a form of resistance, and I think it’s pretty stoic. You have to have a strong sense of self to choose to be ‘a loner.’

The ‘Cabinet’, a controlling group of girls, is a masterful, chilling portrayal of teen power. How did you devise their dynamics and role in the school?

I wanted to create characters that were so entitled that they didn’t even realise how entitled they were. There’s the old cliché of the silver spoon, but I didn’t want these characters’ entitlement to be based on wealth – I wanted it to be based on cultural capital: the handed-down power that exists in our society. Their alumni mothers trained them to appreciate Royal Doulton and institutional loyalty, their fathers are powerful men and their school Laurinda trains them to be ‘Leaders of tomorrow.’

So of course they’re going to want to ‘lead’ the school. They feel it’s their birthright. And also, being such perfectionists, they feel a duty to weed out the weaker elements of the school: vulnerable teachers, students they feel are not up to scratch. I did not want the Cabinet to be vacuous ‘mean girls’, but the sort of pressure-cooker girls you would meet at a private school who must be on top of things all the time; and yet whose worlds are so tightly-wound that any threat to their order would ignite them. And I hope readers come away with an understanding that those girls are as much victims of institutional and familial insularity as they are cruel.

You mention a number of literary texts, such as Emma, Romeo and Juliet, The Great GatsbyWhy did you include these? Emma

Those were books I studied as a teenager when I went to a private grammar school. Gatsby is a book about class and a man who will never quite belong because of his pink suit. And when Jane Austen began to write Emma, I think she resolved: “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” because Emma, like the Cabinet, is selfish and entitled. But actually, she is my favourite Austen character because there is a gravitas and kindness to her at the end when she comes of age.

Lucy is informed by the principal that YA literature is not studied at Laurinda. Do you have a personal opinion about this provocative stance?

I studied John Marsden and Isobelle Carmody books at my Catholic College, and a novel about a Cambodian refugee called ‘The Clay Marble’ in Year 7 at a public school. It seems to me that the more ‘elite’ the school is, the more their texts seem removed from the realities of existence as a teenager.

I cannot fathom how you could teach teenagers and yet remove their experience from the whole equation. YA books taught me how to become an adult, how to deal stoically with adversity, how to negotiate with adults around me, how to cope with mental illness: they were the most important books I have ever read in my life.

I love literary classics as much as any author, yet some schools teach the heavy themes in King Lear or the humour in Austen so rigidly, with students churning out essays full of fancy vocabulary and effluent literary tricks. They teach students to be contemptuous of YA literature, and in doing so, make them into miniature, insufferable snobby adults who have to deny their constant true state of existence, which is that they are teenagers!

And you cannot teach teenagers without acknowledging that for six years of their lives, they are inevitably, inextricably in this state of young-adult-hood, with questions about how to live well each day, and how to cope, and how to look forward to things.

What do you hope to achieve with this story? Alice Pung

It’s funny, but I never got asked this question with my non-fiction books, even the book about my father and the Cambodian holocaust! I just hope lots of young adults will read it and be able to relate in some way.

I’ve always been against didactic messages in YA books. If students are studying Kafka in Year 11, then of course they can make up their own opinions!

(I guess that might be one reason some schools put YA off their booklists – some authors feel the patronising need to include ‘a positive message’ and that kills the story.)

Laurinda is an exceptional novel that will be very well received.

Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts with us, Alice.

THANK YOU for these excellent and insightful questions, I’ve really enjoyed thinking about them and answering them. Her Father's Daughter


Obligatory Gatsby Blog

9780141037639Baz Luhrmann’s multi-gazillion-dollar film adaptation of the iconic The Great Gatsby has received mixed reviews, and I swore I’d steer clear of an obligatory Gatsby-themed blog.

But, having seen the film on a whim (it’s Saturday night and I felt as though I needed to have something other than work and study to show for my weekend), here we are.

Not having ever been either a The Great Gatsby (Sacrebleu, I know!) or Baz Luhrmann fan, I’m arguably better positioned to offer a more objective analysis of Luhrmann’s adaptation.

For starters, I refused to re-read the book prior to seeing the film—that would have felt a little too much like reading for assignment-writing and exam-related displeasure.

Although my collection of this cautionary tale is dim, I have always respected the text for Fitzgerald’s eminently intelligent insights. The narration to die for wasn’t enough for me, though—I always found its characters so excessive they were weakened, unsympathetic caricatures.

That’s in part what Fitzgerald was aiming for, but while I understand the characters would never be likeable, I never found them believable. Which is why, contrary to popular opinion and my own general stance on the book and its director, I’m going to posit that perhaps Luhrmann, a director who specialises in the unbelievable, is one of the few who’s actually suited to adapt this iconic tale.

Luhrmann’s adaptation is undeniably over the top, with a tilt towards Moulin Rouge both in its theatrics and in at least one musical intro. It feels crammed to the gills with sparkly costumes and heavy on we’re-going-to-explain-every-plot-point pretension. But in general terms, it for the most part works.

I admit that I had to suppress an eye roll at the opening with Nick Carraway cooped up at a sanatorium, presumably trying to mend from the alcohol, moral, and ethical damage inflicted on him throughout the summer in which the book takes place. (I’d forgotten that Carraway was an aspiring writer misled by the prospect of earning quick money as a banker—it seems I’m developing a habit of watching films with the dual storylines of writers.)

The set-up’s also a nod to Fitzgerald, who struggled with life’s excesses, with the Carraway character morphing into a Fitzgerald figure. It was a tired, too-apparent means of getting the book’s exquisite narration, which occurs largely in Carraway’s head, onto the screen. But it was arguably a necessary one—without it we’d have missed Fitzgerald’s most iconic lines (I was surprised how many of them, upon utterance, jogged my memory).

In some ways Luhrmann’s adaptation is genius because almost all of us studied this book as required reading during our school days. Hazy recollections of those halcyon days as well as a macabre can-his-interpretation-possibly-live-up-to-the-scrutiny fascination ensures that we dutifully buy tickets in droves. Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby might not be a critical hit, but based on the packed theatre I was in and the murmured ‘Did you remember its?’ I heard all around me, it’ll be a commercial one.

For me, stylised Luhrmann’s version made the excess and superficiality make sense more than the book ever did. The theatrical elements that are quintessential Luhrmann and his production-designing wife, Catherine Martin, arguably suit this setting better than some other films the two have created.

Tobey Maguire brought an understated nerdishness to Carraway, anchoring the at-times-too-much story to something tangible and real. Leonardo DiCaprio looked dashing in his first Gatsby appearance—quite James Bond in both black tie and in introduction. For the most part, though, I thought he looked like he had a bit of the orange jaundice of a poorly applied fake tan. (The question is: Was this intentional?)

Catching FireCary Mulligan lent Daisy just the right amount of waifish sophistication and wilful fool (Martin’s elegant, lust-inspiring costumes will likely spark a feminine fashion bonanza). Executive producer Jay-Z undoubtedly had a hand in the deft marriage of jazz and hip hop, which I absolutely loved. And did I spot a Luhrmann cameo?

That’s not to say there weren’t some clunky aspects. Gatsby’s hand reaching out to the green light, for instance, which appears a number of times throughout, unfailingly made me cringe. The writing that traversed variously across the screen didn’t work. At all. In fact, that only film I can think of in which it worked was Star Wars, and even then it was a new take on writing on the screen and it only occurred once, at the beginning.

The film’s puzzlingly available too in 3D, though I made sure to steer clear of that monstrosity. I’d argue that few films truly need to be 3D, and this one doesn’t, definitely.

Overall, though, for all its frou frou and hyperstylised sets, costumes, and actions, this version rang true-ish for me. Maybe it’s a not-entirely-bad adaptation and that generations who are currently or will in future read the book will be able to ‘cheat’ their way to understanding it by watching this film. Or maybe, like Carraway, I’m looking for the best in people (and films).

*As a side note, I was extremely excited to see trailers for the next installment of The Hunger Games, which is due in too-far-away-to-bear November, and an animated film based on a villain brought out of retirement by the Anti Villain League. Consider me sold.