Alice Pung Live Discussion

The Writing University website hosted an online chat with Australian writer and International Writing Program alum Alice Pung at today 2:00 p.m. (CST). Alice discussed her experience as a resident at the IWP, her place in the international writing community, as well as other literary topics. To peruse Alice's work and read more about her literary career, visit her website:

Alice Pung participated in the 2009 IWP Fall Residency courtesy of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

Live Discussion: 


Kathy, New Zealand: My question is: How difficult is it for you to write authentically about your family, and to accurately reflect conflicts with people? Do you worry about offending people? Also, is it difficult to write about yourself when you know complete strangers are going to read about you?

Alice:Thanks for this question Kathy. I recently discovered that the American writer Maxine Hong Kingston first wrote her book The Woman Warrior to be a set of short stories, but her publishers thought that the only way that stories about Chinese women would appeal to an American audience was to publish it as a memoir.

The Bangladesh poet Tagore wrote that “Truth in her dress finds facts too tight. In fiction she moves with ease.” So when I first started writing my book Unpolished Gem, I had meant for it to be a book of fictional stories, but the more I wrote the more truthful I found the stories became, until I didn’t need to make anything up to have material to write about.

I was very conscious of the need to not hurt people in my writing. I remember Amy Tan at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival when I was nineteen, teaching me one of the most important lessons I will ever learn as a writer – that writing is an act of compassion.

That book was meant to be funny, and I only write about myself if I can mostly make fun of much of myself. I also don’t see the book as defining who I am. Me at age five is a very different person to me at age seventeen, and now that I am 29 if I were to write the book again, I am certain it would be completely different. So I don’t worry about strangers reading about me.


Sally, Melbourne, Australia: Alice, I love the way you make the ordinary extraordinary. When you write a piece, say about shopping after midnight, or giving a talk in schools, you often end with some beautiful twist that creates meaning and context out of the most mundane situations. When you set out to write a piece like this, do you know what you are going to say - or the 'point' of your article - as you write it, or do you discover it as you are writing?

Alice: Thanks, Sally. When I start writing, I usually have the beginning of a scenario that I think might be interesting, and then because most of my work is non-fiction, I will take myself back to that scenario and this time around, look around slowly and notice details. The 'point' of the article, or epiphanies, only emerge when I write the piece.


ashur etwebi, Tripoli, Libya: As a writer of Asian origin living in Australia, do you think that a marginal culture has more chance in understanding the richness of a multicutural society? and do you look at yourself as a writer from a lateral stream rather than from the main stream?

Alice: Thanks for the question Ashur. I don't see myself as part of the mainstream not do I see myself as part of an alternative culture. I don't put myself in any stream because I know people are going to inevitably put me in a stream whether I like it or not (and often without a life raft)! Although I was born in Australia, our country has not reached the stage of acceptance where Asian-Australians are naturally accepted as part of Australian culture, as Asian-Americans seem to be in the United States. In the US, I was very heartened to see many Asian Americans on American television and advertisements. Being an outsider has its advantages too - like being able to see the humours and hypocrisies of both cultures.


Scott Iowa City IA: Alice, what is your writing regiment? & how do you write? -- do you write in large blocks at a time, or smaller pieces? is there a certain time of day that you like to write?

Alice: Thank you for your question Scott. I work full time as a lawyer in Melbourne and so I don't have a clear and set regiment of writing. For instance, if I have spent the day working on minimum-wage decisions, which is also writing, by the end of the day I might not feel too creative. But I try and write everyday - whether it be in the form of a handwritten letter to a friend, emails or a handful of sentences for a short story.

Often I find that when I have large blocks of set time (for example, a two week residency somewhere) I will accomplish a lot. Long stretches of time also give me the chance to be more reflective in my work. Yet if I were to have an infinite amount of time to write, then I know that I would waste a lot of it idling away. So balance is very important to me.


Ryan, Denver CO USA: You work both as a writer and a lawyer. Do you find that you are utilizing different parts of your personality and intellect in pursuing each endeavor? And if so, how do they correspond with each other, or conflict?

Alice:Dear Ryan, thanks for your question. Lawyers are known for their creative writing skills! Only kidding. I work in the area of minimum-wage law, and I write stories about families. So in this respect, the writing I do as an author and as a lawyer are very different - one involves reports based on evidence, and the other narrative based on people's interior lives. One involves having a critical, analytical mind; and the other involves being able to see both the specks and enormous orbs circulating at the same time in people's emotional spheres.

Yet there are times when my two kinds of writing seem perfectly aligned: on weekends when I might write character non-fiction about the factory workers and migrant women in the neighbourhoods in which I grew up, and then the next day go to work and see how their living breathing lives fit within government policy.



Ed Laarman, Iowa City, Iowa: What writing projects are you working on now? And do you work on one thing at a time, or several projects simultaneously?

Alice: Thank you for your question Ed.

I am writing a book about my father, a man who survived Pol Pot’s Killing Fields during a time where many Chinese were purged. The most significant years of his young adult life were spent as a slave labourer. It often amazes me how ordinary he seems, and how resourceful and funny. I have realised that these were the qualities that probably got him through alive.

Then he arrived in Australia, seven years after the White Australia Policy was officially abolished by the government. I’ve noticed that as he has become older, he has sequestered himself from the outside world in order to stay safe. So this is a book about how two different generations grow old and come to understand what it means to have a family.


Ellen, Iowa City: Alice, you spent time here in Iowa City as a member of the International Writing program. How did you like you're experience? Could you tell us about anything that was surprising to you -- or enlightening about your stay in Iowa, or about the people you met?

Alice: Being part of the Iowa International Writing Program was one of the best experiences of my life. It is a very unusual and pioneering program, because there is nothing else quite like it in the world. Very rarely does an adult get to live with thirty five other adults in the same profession from all different parts of the world, for an extended period of three months.

The most remarkable thing about my residency was befriending the other writers, particularly Kathy White from New Zealand, Salomat Vafo from Uzbekistan and Millicent Graham from Jamaica. In no other circumstance would I have had the opportunity to live on a day-to-day basis with these extraordinary people.

There was also a real community feel to Iowa City. I participated as a guest speaker in many classes including Ana Merino's Spanish literature class, while her husband the artist Felix De La Concha involved me in his painting project. Kathy and I went to a barn dance at the senior citizens centre, and we went on hayrides at the Dane's farm. Chris Merrill, the Director of the Program, invited all the writers to his house; and local doctors (the Lims) and kindly general members of community also invited us to dinner.

The whole town seemed to be imbued with a deep aura of respect for the international writers, which made the experience all the more magical.



Erin, Iowa city: I am a writing student and I am interested in how to start a writing career. do you have any suggestions about the path to take in order to become published? Thank you!

Alice: Dear Erin

Thank you for your question. It is a difficult one to answer as each writer starts out differently. I started out writing short stories for local and literary magazines. Many of them were rejected but sometimes one or two would get picked up by a magazine or journal. Eventually a publisher had read one of my stories in his spare time and called me up to ask whether it could be expanded into a book. That is how my career started.

There is no set path except to keep on submitting your work, and being able to accept a few rejections before you are published. It is never easy, but if it is any consolation, when you are published you will probably have a far larger audience in the States than we have in Australia (I am told our entire country's population could fit into New York City!)

My other piece of advice (because I also believe in being practical about these things) is to have another job at least until you get your first book published. Then you will not be beset with anxieties about not being able to feed yourself!



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