Alice Pung is the author of the highly successful “An Unpolished Gem”. We managed to catch her in between literary dates and her work as a lawyer to ask her a few questions about the meaning of life.
What is the meaning of life to you?
AP: We’ve really started off with an easy question, haven’t we?! The best answer I know to this question does not come from me. It comes from Andrew Denton, or more accurately, a woman he interviewed. A few years back Denton interviewed this woman named Annie Robinson, who had terminal cancer and quite a young son. She said that for her, life was no longer about accumulating more things, but ‘trying to string together a series of meaningful experiences.’ And it made me realise that life is only made up of so many finite moments.
Has writing “Unpolished Gem” made you view your life differently?
AP: It has helped me see the world from other points of view. I guess a lot of that comes with maturity as well, because when you’re young, you think that the space in your head is the entire universe. But when you write about someone else’s difficulties you feel for them, and with that comes some degree of understanding and empathy. For example, when I was writing the chapters about my mother trying to learn English, I realised what an impossible feat it must have been, for someone who had minimal education in her native Chinese. The government closed down all the Chinese schools in Cambodia as part of their ethnic cleansing campaign, so my mother had only studied up to grade two.
Written words aren’t part of her life, in the way that they are a significant part of mine (I work as a lawyer as well). And without written text to guide her, often my mother sees more of the world as it is, more than I could ever hope to. For example, she drives a car, so instead of reading streetsigns she has to memorise landmarks. Instead of reading books, she reads faces. She knows much more about the unspoken elements of communication and character, because she is not blocked by the barricade of words. “Look at all those people blocking their ears with those plugs,” she said to me recently as we drove through the city, “how dangerous for them crossing the roads.” And suddenly I noticed that every second person was listening to their iPods while crossing the road. It is assumed people who are illiterate miss out on a substantial part of the world, but sometimes their senses are more awakened. Perhaps they see more of the real world, perhaps they are more alert to seeing things in new ways.
How has the publication of “Unpolished Gem” affected your life?
AP: One of the best things that came out of the publication of my book is that I get to visit a lot of secondary schools and talk to students. That has had a huge effect on my life because I love working with students. I have been in classes where students are talking openly with their teachers about issues in my book: issues such as outworking, youth depression, the death of a loved one. Because I tried to write a funny book, a book that was meant to first and foremost make people laugh, it seemed easier for students to open up to humour. They will say, ‘hey, when you wrote that funny part about feeling like you had a rubber-mask for a face, I felt that way too when I was going through depression.’ Or they will say, ‘when I went on my first overseas trip, my mum filled my room with seventy rolls of toilet paper bought in bulk.’ And they are writing about these matters too, not as themes, but with real honesty.
I noticed in the Good Weekend one of your favourite objects in your room is a small statue of the Buddha. What does this mean to you?
AP: The statue was given to me by my friend Jennifer when I first moved into my flat. My grandmother was a Buddhist, and after she died I became a Buddhist. Buddhism is often portrayed as the gentle feel-good religion, and often a new age philosophy premised on love, peace, and joy. But it is a lot of hard work, and involves immense self-discipline. So the Buddha sits there reminding me not to get carried away when times are either good or bad, but to maintain some kind of equanimity, peace and resilience. And like Annie Robinson said, live not for the moment, but in the moment.
Have there been periods of your life when life appeared to have no meaning?
AP: I had a bit of a nervous breakdown when I was seventeen, and I document that in my book. I liken my mind at that time to a computer – too many programs being run at the same time, too many well-intentioned people telling me that I had to be a certain way, live a certain life of success. And when you run too many simultaneous programs on a computer, it gets a virus and crashes. So you simply just reboot the system and start again. No-one would think to throw a white cloth over the computer and quarantine it somewhere out of sight! Yet our face-saving, success-driven society seems to think that is OK to do that with people.
There is so much pressure for young people to succeed, but no one ever mentions the ‘f’ word – failure. What is really lacking is lessons on how to lose – gracefully, stoically, and to be able to get back up again and have another go. We teach our young people to aim for perfection, when what really matters is perspective, not perfection. With perspective, we will learn to be proud of our small joys, compassionate about the suffering of others, and become self-aware people. And we only gain perspective by failing.
You are the editor of an anthology for Black inc about growing up Asian in Australia. What does it mean to you to be Asian-Australian?
AP: I am still trying to figure this out myself by living it every day! It is a journey in which I am learning new things all the time, from different people. I hope that my contributors to the anthology can also enlighten me through their experiences!