Written By Guest Contributor “This Korean Woman Reads” – Anna Yeon
“This Korean Woman Reads” is a book review series by Anna Yeon, who will be writing for the site reviewing books written by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) writers in Australia and from other parts of the world.
Headlines: Alice Pung’s first adult novel heroes a teenage single mother. This is a story of discovering the values of family, true friendship and the power of one’s own voice during her one hundred days of traditional confinement that her mother imposed for her pregnancy.
Mood: Celebrating the new modern ‘Aussie battler icon’ in literature
Pair with: A copy of Oliver Twist and a cup of sweet tea
Two or possibly more years ago, Alice Pung and I met up at The Fair Trader Cafe. She was on a lunch break from her job as a lawyer and I was nursing a green power smoothie catching up with the most famous Australian author I know.
Pung, my contemporary who ‘looks like me’ in colour and race (but has better looks, let’s be fair) was giving me a book to read: Alex Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.
Pung of course knew all about turning one’s life into a book, I thought. Her debut memoir Unpolished Gem (2006) launched her writing career at age 19 and she has been writing ceaselessly since (see Close to Home: Selected Writings (2018) for over 35 published works featured in The Monthly, Griffith Review and The New York Times – as a slim sampling).
Will you write a grand masterpiece next? I queried. My imagination ran ahead of Pung’s reply as I pictured her next title’s thick leather bound spine etched in gold letters on a mahogany bookshelf, next to the likes of Gone with the Wind and Wuthering Heights. I don’t have time to daydream, she declared in her usual soft tone, practical and grounded. Such a revelation from one of Australia’s most celebrated writers was a shock that was mine to digest.
I’m working on a book about teenage pregnancy, Pung said next. A definite step away from her own life, I thought, my mind busied with what I might say next to this married mother of two at the time. I felt giddy with the prospect of reading Pung’s new work and vicariously thrilled with the risk she was taking by tackling a topic shrouded in intense shame by our communities.
At the end of lunch, I saw a quiet shine in Pung’s eyes as we hugged before parting. I knew this genius was still busy at work; my job as a fervent reader was to wait.
One Hundred Days opens with abandonment by her father as the protagonist Karuna begins the lonely confinement (homebound by her mother; away from the real and perceived dangers outside) she must endure as a new, expecting and young single mother.
Karuna is an unlikely literary hero: pregnant at sixteen, her interracial parents divorced with her Asian mother holding down two jobs and no child support, living in state housing in the outer suburbs of Melbourne (“I’ve never read a book about someone like me” p. 54).
On paper, Karuna is the embodiment of ‘the disadvantaged’ in our society, where class divide, racial prejudice, and a chronic lack of money and education determine her fate at the lower rungs of society with little hope of escape according to the government statistics.
But under Pung’s pen, Karuna is reborn. She shows strengths in her character that unlocks kindness and love in others, elicited by her own unwavering display of compassion. In fact the name Karuna takes after the very word in Pali from her mother’s – and therefore her own – heritage.
One of the central themes in One Hundred Days is the exploration of the mother-daughter relationship that is giving and sacrificial but conversative, controlling and unrelentlessly critical at all the same time. Pung’s poignant summary of the dynamic pulled at my heartstrings: “Your mother may not know how to love you the best. But she love you the most (p.152).”
Another central theme in this book is American poet and journalist Walt Whitman. Pung speaks for Karuna (and all of us who have a hard won sense of self-acceptance) in Whitman’s maxim: I celebrate myself.
Reading Whitman weaved into One Hundred Days reminded me of one of Pung’s past works, in a concluding paragraph in ‘The Shop’ in The Spilt (2019):
[My parents] just saw The Shop as the be-all and end-all. But I finally owned my own time and could venture further than Footscray, and I wanted to make the most of this freedom. I thought of Anaïs Nin and the day she realised that to remain tight in a bud was now more painful for her than the risk it took to blossom, and I wasn’t sure whether I’d like the new person I would become. But I knew I had to find out for myself (p. 81-82).
To me, in One Hundred Days, Alice Pung celebrates herself as a champion writer for “the voiceless” and the working class (with the likes of Charles Dickens). Pung has found her bloom; and all without needing a leather bound book jacket. Isn’t that grand?
Buy this book as a gift to: a) your family and friends who have lived or are living in state housing; b) young pregnant women or friends, family and professionals who want to support young pregnant women; and c) your family and friends who have lived or are living under in denial of unrelenting racism faced by Asian women in Australia today.
Here’s to happy reading!
This Korean woman reads
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