Part two of a series of reviews from the Contemporary Australian Writing reading list from RMIT. In this review, I look at ‘Her Father’s Daughter’ by Alice Pung.
Her Father’s Daughter – Alice Pung
Black Inc. Books 2011
Something has to be said for a book that can make you shed a tear before you even finish the prologue. I seek them out, even if it seems a little macabre, because I think a text is pretty special if it can move you like that. Alice Pung’s Her Father’s Daughter is a beautiful and often gut-wrenching memoir about her parents, particularly her father and how her relationship with him was influenced by what came before: Cambodia, the Killing Fields, Pol Pot, ‘the black bandits’ and finding refuge in Australia.
Before reading Alice’s moving personal story, I had only surface details of the Killing Fields and the atrocities that went on in Cambodia. And it’s the introduction to the details through a personal individual human story that makes the book so successful at getting across the toll on human lives during the time. How many died exactly? That’s a statistic that you can brush over in a second, it doesn’t embed itself quite like the images that Alice creates for us so we don’t forget.
And the images created are vivid, often touching with her beautiful use of metaphor. It’s used sparingly for greater impact and allows the reader to be carried along by sparser prose for the rest of the time. I feel it’s quite successful in that balance, allows us to know a little bit more of what Alice is feeling than the more minimalist texts on the list.
What I found striking about the book is after the prologue, I expected it to be mostly about her father’s story in Cambodia but for much of the book, Alice tells anecdotes about her relationship with her father but it sets us up for the second half, with questions and conceptions of her father in our mind that leads to an understanding of the first part of the book.
The stories and images that make up the second half are graphic and disturbing. I think it’s important that Alice didn’t flinch away from the details. These stories of genocide are so often toned down, or just not talked about and they are blemishes on our history that need to be remembered. The only criticism was that I was looking for more, for how her father and mother got to Australia as refugees fleeing what Alice had just presented for us.
It would have been timely given the debate about asylum seekers coming by boat when at that time, Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees arrived before the introduction of the detention centres we see today. Alice remarks at the beginning about how her father wishes she didn’t write about such issues. It’s part of his defensive character and how he wishes to just move on and forget about his history despite Alice’s questions. Has she written about this elsewhere? I’d really like to read about it.
If Her Father’s Daughter had just been something more than a broad history, a human story to a history I didn’t know the details of, than it would have done its job, but it’s more than that, it becomes no longer just a history but a vivid illustration about how those events affect the present day, how her father sees the world and how it affects her. It’s quite an incredible feat of narrative and language.