Article published on May 15, 2018.
“Laurinda is an exclusive school for girls. At its secret core is the Cabinet, a trio of girls who wield power over their classmates – and some of their teachers.
Entering this world of wealth and secrets is Lucy Lam, a scholarship girl with sharp eyes and a shaky sense of self. As she watches the Cabinet at work, and is courted by them, can Lucy stay true to herself as she finds her way in this new world of privilege and opportunity?”
After finding Lucy and Linh to be a “jewel of a book”, Gill Chedgey put together some questions for author Alice Pung:
Gill Chedgey: I really enjoyed Lucy and Linh and found it to be a work of deceptive substance. Some cursory research showed me that the novel had actually been published a few years back with a different title. I was wondering what the thinking was behind its re-publication and the change in title?
Alice Pung: The book was published in America, under the new title Lucy and Linh. My publishers there thought it was a better title than Laurinda, the name of the fictional grammar school, because American audiences were less familiar with the private/public school system we inherited from the British.
My editor and I settled on Laurinda for the original title, because we wanted the book to be about how institutions shaped individuals in their formative years (and subsequently, established class systems in Australia, a society we like to dupe ourselves is ‘classless’).
GC: The premise of the novel is not necessarily a new one, but I thought your treatment of it was exceptional, mainly through the character of Lucy. Was she based on anyone you know?
AP: Thank you! Lucy is actually based on myself, except of course a braver and bolder version. I went to five different high schools, and one of the biggest shifts was from a public (government) to private (elite) school: during that year, I felt my personality changing and became more conscious of how grotty our lives were. We also lived behind the carpet factories, and my mother was an outworker – she spent most of her days in the garage, while I was responsible for three younger siblings.
GC: The epistolary format of the book and its denouement is, I think, crucial to the ultimate understanding of Lucy. Was this always your intended format?
AP: Yes, because I wanted the convey the yearning and nostalgia for a lost self – (spoiler) Linh is of course Lucy’s bolder yet more ‘ethnic’ self, before she has to suffocate her away by layers and layers of politeness, meekness and inconspicuousness.
GC: Some of the situations in the book, particularly where the teaching staff of Laurinda are involved, make for almost uncomfortable reading. I say that from my own school memories of how cruel pupils can be to a teacher who is perceived as weak. Were these first hand occurrences (I am thinking primarily of poor Ms. Vanderwerp)?
AP: Yes, actually, almost all of these occurrences are based on things that I witnessed happen to my own teachers, or that happened to friends of mine who are currently teachers. As you note, this communal cruelty of a teenage mass hive-mind is not new.
GC: Your observations of both pupils and staff are very perceptive. What kind of research did you undertake to create such a believable picture of the school?
AP: I went to five different high schools and have quite vivid memories of them, and the teachers I encountered. I’ve also visited hundreds of schools throughout the years as an author, and of course, sat in many staff rooms as the quiet outsider. I was a bit afraid I would be blacklisted from future school visits when the book came out, but teachers in Australian schools actually love it and tell me how it reflects their experiences! Some have made it a set class text for their students.
GC: I also wonder what research you did to paint such a vivid picture of Lucy’s life outside of school? I loved the character of her mother. She conducted herself with such simple dignity and pride that it was very humbling to read.
AP: My mother is a reticent kind of person, and when I was growing up, non-verbally demonstrative in her affection, but showed her love through her deeds, so I based Lucy’s mum on her. Often, people see Asian refugee migrant mums as victims, so I wanted to bring a character to life who was a fully-realised human being.
GC: The book seems to be marketed, and understandably so, to a YA readership. But I found it to be a work that had much of value for a broader audience, parents and teachers maybe. Was this your intention?
AP: I definitely hoped teachers would read it and feel a sense of solidarity, but also adults with teenage daughters. I hope that none of my books are didactic, but I really wanted to show people who had no clue, what class was like on the ‘other side of the river.’ Where I come from, Melbourne, Victoria, is very much class-divided by a literal river; and in the past, sewage used to run down our side. So anyone who made it out to cleaner, elite schools was seen a certain way – as a ‘scholarship’ winner, an admirable yet untouchable specimen of student. I just wanted to show that these teenagers are teenagers in exactly the same way all teenagers are.
GC: You are a new writer to me but again my research shows that you have several titles to your name that I hope I may become familiar with in the future. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey in books?
AP: I was lucky to have my first book published 12 years ago, when I was 25, a memoir called Unpolished Gem. The title comes from a Chinese Cambodian saying: “A girl is like cotton wool, once she’s dirtied she can never be clean again. A boy is like a gem, the more you polish it the brighter it shines.” The book became a bestseller here in Australia, and I thought it would have some good years before it slowly ebbed away, but funnily enough it has become even more relevant because of the spotlight now shining on how gender and power are so strongly correlated.
My second book was Her Father’s Daughter, about my father surviving the killing fields of Cambodia. That one took me ten years to write, and much of it was written when I was in Iowa for the International Writer’s Programme.
I also edited an anthology of Asian Australian writing called Growing Up Asian in Australia which is studied as a high school textbook around Australia.
GC: Something I always ask writers, can you remember the first book you read that moved you to tears (if any have)?
AP: Yes! It was a short story in a Paul Jennings book called Unbelievable, about a busker and his dog.
GC: Could you tell us something about what are you are working on at the moment?
AP: I am working on a book about a girl who becomes pregnant, and whose single mother keeps her in ‘confinement’ in their housing commission flat to keep her out of further trouble, not realising how dangerous it is to lock up a sixteen year old in such an environment.
Our thanks to both Alice and Gill for this excellent Q&A. You can read Gill’s review of Lucy and Linh here.
Lucy and Linh by Alice Pung
Legend Press 9781787198388 pbk May 2018