Alice Pung was almost 40, not 16, and pregnant with her third child, not her first, when she moved with her parents to Melbourne during the lockdown last year, accompanied by husband Nick and their two boys, aged six and two. But like the teenage narrator of her new novel, Karuna, Alice has at times found herself suffocated by her mother’s “practical love”.
“It was so weird. I went back to the book while I was editing it and I was like, ‘Oh, these lines were genuine because that’s what I said to my mom three days ago and I feel guilty about this topic, ‘”Alice laughs.
Mother-daughter relationships – and the questions they raise about the intersection of love, control and freedom – are at the heart of One hundred days. Karuna, a Chinese-Filipino Australian, was 16 when she fell pregnant after a brief affair with an older homework tutor named Ray.
Her single mother follows an incredibly strict diet during her pregnancy, fueled by cultural superstitions (pineapples cause miscarriages and boiled watermelon is safe for the spleen) rather than science. “When I ask why, she tells me that two thousand years of history cannot be wrong. And it’s for my own good, ”writes Karuna.
After the baby is born, her mother locks Karuna in their apartment on the 14th floor of a housing commission building in the western suburbs of Melbourne for 100 days as part of a tradition of postpartum confinement.
Karuna is frustrated, torn between her desire to take control of her life and her recognition that she depends on her mother. As her mother’s employer in a beauty salon rightly tells her, “Your mother may not know how to love you the best. But she’s the one who loves you the most. The problem is never a lack of love, it is too much love, in a love story complicated by culture and class.
Alice knows the feeling of “too much love”. Her mother, Kien, expected her to go into lockdown after giving birth to her third child in lockdown eight months ago. In its strict iteration, confinement would mean not leaving your home or showering during the postpartum period.
“She was really mad at me when I went for a walk, so livid,” said Alice. “She said to all my aunts, ‘Look how bad she is,’ but I just needed some fresh air. She says, “If you need to walk, just circle the living room. “
Other differences also emerged during their cohabitation, including her mother’s belief that babies should not eat vegetables and her reliance on educational YouTube videos to put children to bed.
“I can understand her. I feel great compassion for her, but in the heat of the moment you’re just filled with rage because you’re 16 again, ”says Alice.
“It would have been difficult for them too to find their daughter with all these ideas about parenthood that are completely different from theirs.”
“You’re 40, but you’re also 16 again in this deeply ingrained part of your emotions. You become sulky and sarcastic again. I thought, ‘Oh, I don’t like this person I’m coming back to.’ The rational part of your brain turns off when you talk to your parents and they press the wrong buttons. It is a horrible thing.
“It would have been difficult for them too to find their daughter with all these ideas about parenting that are completely different from theirs.”
But there were also big advantages. Delicious food – all with ginger, ginger and more ginger – and the relief of having grandparents looking after your children.
Alice is funny and outspoken when she talks about her family. Her mom can’t read or write, so maybe there is some freedom in knowing that she won’t trigger the second round of the “Should babies eat vegetables?” Question. ” debate.
Her parents are ethnic Chinese refugees who arrived in Australia from Cambodia after fleeing the Khmer Rouge. His father, Kuan, spent four years in the Killing Fields before he and Kien traveled to a refugee camp in Thailand.
Kien was pregnant with Alice when they came to Australia, and she was named after the Lewis Carroll story because her father considered Australia a wonderland. Her mother was a home worker who made jewelry in the garage, while her father opened an electrical store. Alice grew up in Footscray and Braybrook in West Melbourne, the oldest of four siblings she was responsible for looking after from a young age.
“Writing was my way to let off steam. “
“I was such an anxious, miserable and depressed child because I was afraid that something bad would happen to these babies all the time,” says Alice. “And then when I became an adult and felt completely in control, I thought, ‘I can do this. It’s a cinch compared to caring for a two-year-old and an 11-year-old at home on your own. ‘ “
Alice captured her family history and experiences in two acclaimed memoirs: Unpolished gem, published in 2006, and Her father’s daughter in 2010.
When Alice returned to live with her parents last year, it was the first time she had lived with them since moving to Janet Clarke Hall, University of Melbourne, when she was 23. to work as a tutor in residence. (She is now artist in residence at the college, as well as a qualified lawyer.)
“I couldn’t leave the house unless I got married – it just wasn’t the right thing to do,” she says. “So I decided to apply for this tutor-in-residence position, and I got it. My father was so understanding that he said, “This could be really good for you.”
“So he let me move out when I was 23, but because I was living in college and doing private lessons, he could tell his friends that I was living at my workplace, so he didn’t moved this unmarried girl to have premarital sex or whatever – I was just working. And I never left.
She met her husband, Nick, a project manager, in college and they now live in a converted apartment from three student rooms with an adjoining bathroom and kitchen. When they returned to Alice’s parents at the start of the pandemic (they stayed for about a year), Alice slept in her old bedroom next to her old diaries, which she wrote extensively from age. eight years until his move. Not that she could bring herself to look at them.
“The reason they’re embarrassing is that I was so angry. Writing was my way to let off steam. My mom said that you should never shake a baby because it will cause brain damage. I knew I shouldn’t do it, but I had no outlet. I didn’t have a Facebook to tell my friends how frustrated I was at home. So I wrote in my journal.
It was Alice’s glimpse of a teenage girl’s sense of helplessness over her own life that made her two novels, Laurinda and now One hundred days, so poignant. “I mean, most of us have been blessed with loving parents,” she says. “Like, cerebrally, in our brain, we know they love us because of everything
the things they do for us. But there are times when you absolutely hate your parents, in all honesty. And I had to write One hundred days from the perspective of the 16-year-old, not that of an older person who looks back more compassionately.
“These times are real, when you don’t love your parents and your parents don’t love you – and there have been times in my life where I know my parents hated me tremendously. They had nothing to say. And all children know it, even children whose parents talk to them very nicely. “
“There are times when you absolutely hate your parents, in all honesty. And I had to write One Hundred Days from the perspective of a 16-year-old, not an older person who looks back more compassionately.
Alice wrote One hundred days over the course of four years, between having three children, inspired by an article she had written on the cultural aspects of postpartum birth, followed by a short story featuring
a pregnant teenager.
Sex was taboo when Alice was growing up; she had a friend who got pregnant and “disappeared from the face of the earth.” She later found out that her friend’s mother had given her an ultimatum, one that Karuna shares in her novel: she could have the child, but he would be raised like her sister, rather than her daughter.
Alice set the novel in 1987, which means Karuna doesn’t have access to a smartphone to research her mother’s long list of warnings and advice for pregnancy and motherhood. But even if she had, they would still be hard to shake.
Alice grew up with many such cultural beliefs, including an edict not to wear white in her hair as it means death. And although she considers it a superstition, she avoids doing it anyway. It may not be the only thing to convey and integrate. Alice’s first children’s book, due out next year, is about a six-year-old boy called Xiao Xin, who translates in Mandarin as “be careful.”
One hundred days (Black Inc.) by Alice Pung is now available.
Photograph by Michelle Tran. Styling by Melissa Boyle. Hair and makeup Blanka Dudas.
This article appears in Sunday life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday age on sale June 27. To learn more about Sunday Life, visit The Sydney Morning Herald and Age.