Alice was born in 1981 shortly after her family immigrated to Australia and was blessed and cursed to live with both her mother and her paternal grandmother. The two women continuously used Alice as a pawn in their dislike for one another. Of course, Alice learned to use this to her advantage. Even so, she could not escape having to care for her younger sibling or to venture out into a world that remained foreign to the two older women. It is through these two women that we, and Alice, learn about the culture that was left behind in Cambodia. Alice comments on her grandmother’s character, Yet characters are only fixed through experience, and usually bad experience. Before character there is only personality, and who knows what kind of person my grandmother was back then? (p. 47) In another comment which showed the place of women in culture, a place Alice was determined to escape from, Alice says about keeping house and caring for all of the children in the neighborhood, I was not won over by their sedulous flattery. Girls only matured faster because they had to do more. (p. 94)
Pung manages to explain or dispel cultural stereotypes, even as she tries desperately to live in both worlds, make her parents proud, and find her own way. My favorite repeating cultural wisdom is regarding hurtful words that are often used to destroy the ones we love: Words with bones in them, my grandmother calls them. Words to make the other person fall flat on their back and die a curly death, my mother says. The sharp ones, the ones you can use if ever you need a weapon to protect yourself. (p. 36). Of course, we often only think we are protecting ourselves. In many cases, words with bones in them are intended to choke our victims.
Pung’s writing is very concise and beautifully descriptive. Describing her mother, she writes, But there is only so much the camera can catch. It does not capture the times when she laughs, her head flung back, nostrils flared, like a happy hippopotamus with squinched-closed eyes and blunt teeth, a few of them missing. (p. 243)
I would like to thank Plume and Penguin for allowing me to read and review this wonderful book. The Penguin Reading Guide has a wonderful conversation with the author. Read it here. I look forward to the forthcoming book by Ms. Pung as I expect her writing to only get better as she continues to share her humor and reflections. I loved this delightful memoir.
TITLE: Unpolished Gem: My mother, my grandmother, and me
AUTHOR: Alice Pung
COPYRIGHT: February 2009 (American release); originally published 2006 in Australia
TYPE: non-fiction, memoir
RECOMMEND: If you are interested in Asian culture, or even coming of age stories, you will enjoy this debut work.