Brief Biography of Alice Pung
Alice Pung was born the first of four children to Kuan Pung and Chia Kien in Footscray, Victoria, in 1981. Alice’s parents, both ethnic Teochew Chinese from Cambodia, escaped the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge regime and arrived in Australia in the late 1980s. Alice Pung is named for the title character in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland because her father saw Australia as a wonderland full of opportunity and excitement. Pung spent most of her childhood in Braybrook, a suburb just west of Melbourne, where she attended five different schools, including a Catholic all-girls school. She also attended law school at the University of Melbourne and remains a practicing lawyer in the areas of pay equity and minimum wage. Pung’s first book, a memoir entitled Unpolished Gem, was published in 2006 to both popular and critical acclaim. In 2007, Unpolished Gem was the winner of the Australian Newcomer of the Year Award and it was also shortlisted as an Australian Book of the Year. Pung edited the anthology, Growing Up Asian in Australia, in 2008, and in 2011, she published her second book, Her Father’s Daughter, which won the Non-Fiction Prize in the Western Australian Books Awards that same year. In 2014, Pung wrote her first young adult novel, Laurinda, which won the 2016 Ethel Tuner Prize for Young People’s Literature. Pung currently lives with her husband, Nick, in Melbourne, Australia, where she is the Artist in Residence in Janet Clark Hall at the University of Melbourne.
Historical Context of Unpolished Gem
In Unpolished Gem, Pung’s parents talk about how they escaped the Killing Fields, a term used to describe certain parts of Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge regime perpetrated a state-sponsored genocide resulting in over two million deaths. Following the Cambodian Civil War, the Khmer Rouge, supporters of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, targeted and killed anyone in Cambodia who threatened their communist agenda—including those suspected of connections with foreign governments, Cambodian professionals and intellectuals, Cambodian Christians, followers of the Buddhist monkhood, and anyone of ethnic Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, or Cham origin. The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, a revolutionary and general secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, held power in Cambodia, then known as Democratic Kampuchea, from 1975-1979. The regime closed schools and hospitals, abolished organized banking—making all money worthless—and forced Cambodian citizens to live and work on communal farms after seizing all personal property and belongings. By the end of 1978, over two million additional Cambodians were dying of starvation under the societal collapse caused by Pol Pot’s regime, until Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea on December 25, 1978, effectively ending the genocide and removing Pol Pot from power.
Other Books Related to Unpolished Gem
While Alice Pung credits her paternal grandmother with instilling in her the love of storytelling, she claims John Marsden, an Australian based schoolteacher, principal, and writer, as her single greatest literary influence. Marsden has authored several children’s books as well as a series of Young Adult novels entitled The Tomorrow
series, including Tomorrow, When the War Began
and The Dead of Night
. Pung published On John Marsden
in 2017 as part of Black Inc.’s Writers on Writers campaign, which is a series of six books written by Australians about other inspirational and influential Australian writers. As an Asian Australian, much of Pung’s writing focuses on her unique cultural identity, and she is part of a growing community of other Asian Australian writers. Other Asian Australian works include The Boat
by Nam Le and Shaun Tan’s The Arrival
, a wordless graphic novel that examines the migrant experience in a imaginary world that loosely resembles Australia. Other popular memoirs that also engage and explore unique cultural experiences include The Glass Castle
by Jeanette Walls and Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone
Key Facts about Unpolished Gem
Full Title: Unpolished Gem: My Mother, My Grandmother, and Me
When Written: 2006
Where Written: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
When Published: 2006
Literary Period: Postmodern, Contemporary Asian Australian Literature
Genre: Autobiography, Memoir
Setting: Footscray and Braybrook, Victoria, Australia
Climax: Alice breaks up with her boyfriend, Michael, a young white Australian whom her mother disapproves of.
Antagonist: Kien Pung; Alice’s inner conflict with her Asian Australian identity in Victoria’s “whitewashed” society.
Point of View: First-person
Extra Credit for Unpolished Gem