Christine Zibas's Reviews > Unpolished Gem

Unpolished Gem by Alice Pung
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Apr 15, 2009

it was amazing
Read in April, 2009

There’s something about the tale of a new immigrant that allows us to see our own world in a new way. In this debut nonfiction memoir by Alice Pung, the stories contained within “Unpolished Gem” reflect the conflicts (both internal and external) of a person straddling two worlds, the ultimate outsider, never comfortable in either. Even though Pung herself was born in Australia (her parents landed there from the killing fields of Cambodia when her mother was eight months pregnant with her), her life was confined to a very small world in the suburbs of Melbourne, populated by other refugees.

She would remain caught in this “middle world” growing up, never comfortable in either. She also lived in the middle world within her own family, where she was the “word-spreader,” relaying stories of what her mother and grandmother (long at odds with each other but forced to live under the same roof) each had to say about the other. Torn by love for both, she could never satisfy either woman.

The memoir is also about the place of women generally. Indeed the very title captures a Cambodian proverb that reflects the fact that “a girl is like white cotton wool--once dirtied can never be clean again, whereas a boy is like a gem--the more you polish, the more it shines.” Even in the Western world of Australia, where Pung has become a lawyer in her own right, she is constricted by the expectations of family and culture even in the 21st century.

Pung is not afraid to reveal the estrangement, the push and pull of Australian life and immigrant demands. Her writing is sure and true and compelling. Each person is fully drawn, and the stories flow seamlessly. Perhaps the only disappointing part of the book is the fact that Pung is still so young that her story has yet to come full circle. She still has a lot of life to live…and share through her writing. What is clear is that she has given her first book a strength and honesty that makes her story worth knowing. You can’t ask for more than that!

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