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Friday essay: Alice Pung — how reading changed my life

Alice Pung Author (non-fiction, fiction, young adult), University of Melbourne First Published in The Conversation Having survived starvation and been spared execution, my father arrived in this new country, vassal-eyed and sunken-cheeked. I was born less than a month later and he named me Alice because he thought Australia was a Wonderland. Maybe he had vague literary aspirations for me, like most parents have vague infinite dreams for their babies, so small, so bewildered, so egoless. I arrived safe after so many babies had died under the regime created by a man who named himself deliberately after ruthless ambition — Political Potential, or Pol Pot for short.

“There was a tree,” my father told me when I was a teenager, “and this tree was where Pol Pot’s army, the Khmer Rouge, killed babies and toddlers. They would grab the infant by their ankles and swing them against the trunk and smash them again and again until they were dead.”

When I was an adult, I found out that there was not just the one tree. There were many such trees from which no cradle hung.

Alice Pung.Author provided

But as a child, growing up in Australia, the oldest of four, I knew the words to comfort crying babies. They’d been taught to me by my schoolteachers, with rhyme but without reason: when the bough breaks the cradle will fall and down will come baby, cradle and all. A gentle song to rock my sisters to sleep. If my mother understood the words I was singing, she’d yell at me.

My mother was always hollering at me about one thing or another. After the age of eight, I was never left in peace. She repeatedly told me that babies had really soft skulls, that there was even a hole in their heads that hadn’t yet closed. When I looked at my baby sister, I could see something pulsing on the top of her scalp, beneath the skin. Never drop a baby, they warned me, or your life will be over. They spoke in warnings and commands, like Old Testament sages. They’d seen babies dropped dead. Their language was literal, not literary, but it did the trick.

We could not complain that we were dying of boredom because they’d seen death close-up, and it was definitely not caused by a lack of Lego. We could not say that we were starving because at one malarial point in his life, my father thought that if he breathed inwards he could feel his backbone through his stomach. We could never be hungry or bored in our concrete house in Braybrook, behind a carpet factory that spewed out noxious methane smells that sent us to school reeking like whoopee-cushions.

‘We could never be hungry or bored in our concrete house in Braybrook.’Tom Rumble/Unsplash

But in this scatological suburb, I was indeed often bored shitless. Imagine this — you go outside and hoons in cobbled-together Holdens wind down their windows and tell you to Go Back Home, Chinks. So you walk home and inside, it’s supposed to be like home. But it’s not a home you know.

It’s a home your parents know, where the older siblings look after the younger ones and your mum works in an airless dark shed at the back making jewellery, and you think it’s called outworking because although she’s at home she’s always out working. Just like her mum in Phnom Penh and her mum’s mum in Phnom Penh and every other poor mum in the history of your family lineage.

“What are you doing here? Stop bothering me,” your mum would tell you. Or when she was desperate, she’d be cajoling: “Take your siblings out. Go for a walk. If you give me just one more hour, I’ll be done.” Her face would be blackened, her fingers cut. She’d have her helmet on, with the visor. She looked like a coal miner.

Back in Cambodia, the eldest siblings looked after the bevy of little ones, all the children roaming around the Central Market, en masse. Here, in these Melbourne suburbs they’d call it a marauding Asian gang, I bet. I preferred to stay at home. I had plenty to keep me occupied there. Our school library let me borrow books, but I can’t even remember the names of the librarians now. They didn’t like some of the kids because sometimes we stole books.

The school librarians ‘didn’t like some of the kids because sometimes we stole books.’Rabie Madaci/Unsplash

My best friend Lydia read a book about Helen Keller that so moved her, so expanded her 10-year-old sense of the world that she nicked it and stroked the one-line sample of Braille print on the last page until all the raised dots were flat. I nicked books too, books on needlecraft and making soft toys. Sometimes one of my aunts would come by and give us a garbage bag filled with fleecy fabric offcuts from her job sewing tracksuits in her own back shed.

Being a practical kid who bugged her parents at every opportunity possible for new toys, I wanted to have reference manuals on how to make them. I didn’t nick story books or novels because to me, those were like films I often only wanted to experience once.

One day, my baby sister rolled herself off the bed when I was supposed to be watching her. She was three months old. I had just turned nine. My mother ran into the house and railed at me like a dybbuk, “You’re dead! You’re dead!” She scooped my sister out of my hands. “What were you doing? You were meant to watch her!”

“She was asleep,” I sobbed, “I was reading a book.”

‘If this wasn’t the high life, then what was?’Annie Spratt/Unsplash

While my mother was working to support us in the dark back shed, I had been in the sunlit bedroom, staring for hours and hours on end at little rectangles, only stopping occasionally to make myself some Nescafé coffee with sweetened condensed milk. If this wasn’t the high life, then what was? Those books were not making me any smarter, she might have thought. Or even said, because it was something she was always telling me, because she couldn’t read or write herself. The government had closed down her Chinese school when she was in grade one, as the very first step of ethnic cleansing in Cambodia.