Alice Pung on life writing, keeping a journal and taking the creative leap
One of the writers I have admired for a very long time is Alice Pung. Her gentle and affectionate stories about her family are exquisite examples of the best sort of memoir. One of the books that I read and loved long before I wrote my book about Cambodia was her enchanting story about her relationship with her Cambodian-Chinese father, Her Father's Daughter. I was so thrilled to be able to chat with Alice and ask her a couple of questions about what has inspired her on her writing path:
Alice, you use your own life as rich material for your writing. It seems that memoir and life writing continues to be a very popular genre. Why do you think that is?
I think life writing has always been what human beings have always been drawn to, over and beyond fictional stories or myths. For instance, people love gossip - or seem more drawn to the lives of their friends and neighbours - than make-believe animals or even fictional characters.
In village communities, the stories that stick are the stories about other people in the village making mistakes, or learning certain lessons, or stories about the pariahs in the community. Some people read memoirs to expand their knowledge of different cultures, some because they are fascinated by the subject's lives (Zelda Fitzgerald, Aung San Suu Kyi or even Schapelle Corby), and others read to judge. In no other genre of writing will you be able to think so deeply about character and circumstance, or feel so close to the lives of others.
Can you tell us some examples of life writing that have inspired you?
I found a book called Still Me at the local charity store a few years ago. It was written by Christopher Reeve, the man who played Superman in the 1980s and who had a paralysing spinal cord injury. I had expected it to be some 'follow your dreams' ghostwritten memoir about surmounting adversity, but I found it to be extremely erudite (he was a very educated man), deeply insightful, political, and filled with layers of understanding and experience - everything a good memoir should be. To this day it remains one of my favorites.
One of my other favorite books is Aung San Suu Kyi's autobiography. I discovered it as a second year university student. She writes as a woman who has thought long and hard about how to deal with her enemies. It is not a book about battling the bad junta, but a quiet and heroic internal struggle against herself.
Do you keep a journal? If so, do you follow any method or have any particular rituals surrounding it?
I try and keep a journal but have no rituals associated with it. I became a writer mainly to vent out my frustrations. This was a time before Facebook and connectivity, where if you were growing up as a rather isolated child of migrants, put in charge of looking after your younger siblings, you could not tell your friends about any of it. I wrote because I loved my siblings, but also knew I needed an outlet.
What piece of advice would you give someone who wants to take the leap and explore their own creativity?
Like the Nike logo suggests, JUST DO IT! But, there is a disclaimer - try not to quit your day job or put all your eggs in one basket. The best kind of writer is one that has balance in their lives. If you become too obsessed by writing, every little rejection or every little bit of praise will seem grotesquely enormous, because then your livelihood depends on your words. And it also gives you a freedom to be creative instead of stressing about where your next meal will come from.