Unpolished Gem by Alice Pung
Point of View & Voice
This is not a straightforward chronological narrative of the lives of the
The telling begins in contemporary Australia and then interspersed
are the stories of earlier lives of Alice’s parents and grandparents.
The author has constructed the story of her family in Australia (with
retrospective references to earlier lives in Cambodia and Vietnam) in
distinct parts, each representing a stage in their lives and hers.
The use of an epilogue and prologue serve as ‘parentheses’ that open
and close the narrative. This provides readers with vital information
about Alice and her family, as well as suggesting some kind of
resolution to a storyline that might otherwise have appeared to be a
series of episodes.
Creative nonfiction is factually accurate writing that pays attention
to the craft of writing. This text belongs to the memoir category of
A work is usually considered literary because of the way it’s written.
A literary novel is more than simple storytelling. The writer pays
special attention to language, word choice, rhythm, and voice.
Memoir is a genre of writing truth which uses literary styles and
techniques to create factually accurate narratives. It relies on the
accuracy of the author’s recollections and must be verifiable. It is
important to understand that the line between an authentic
memory and a recreated past is not always clear. And in the process
of constructing the narrative, an author may take some creative
liberties with the facts.
Reading this story with the knowledge that it is a memoir
alerts readers to the authenticity of the narrative voice and
the experiences portrayed by the narrator.
Memoir establishes a realistic setting that allows readers to
consider the impact of the socio-political context of the
Knowing that Pung’s story really happened might also
encourage some readers to consider the themes more
deeply as they imagine the lived experiences of this young
girl growing up in a neighbourhood that actually exists.
Point of View & Voice
The fact that the text is created and based upon
memories and stories told to the author, means that
there is a limitation to the perspectives that we see
throughout the text.
Some characters are portrayed with great insight, while
others are only considered from a distance. This is the
result of the way which Alice Pung has chosen to write
the text. It is not entirely omniscient, but insight is
rather selective, depending upon the character she is
Pung generates juxtapositions between several characters
and groups in order to highlight different aspects of
integration and assimilation between migrants and native
established Australian citizens.
Mother and Father
1st Generation migrants children and the others
Mother and Father
Mother is unable to assimilate to the Australian way of
life successfully due to the nature of her employment as
an outworker. She is essentially off the grid. This
isolation also inhibits her ability to grasp ‘the English’,
which further marginalizes her.
In contrast, Father has managed to grasp the English
language to a sufficient level, which has allowed him to
interact in the community and workforce. He has
taken on a franchise in Retravision, actively
contributing the community, assimilating as a model –
hardworking, tax-paying, English speaking - citizen.
Generation Migrant Children
Apart from the fact that they are attending school
alongside other “Australian” students, dress in the
same clothes and speak (fluently) the same language,
there is still an inherent divide between those 1st
generation migrant children and others.
Pung juxtaposes these two groups during the
graduation dinner, where the distinction becomes
clear. In spite of everything the parents have done to
assimilate their children into the Australian culture,
they are still outsiders.
Style of Writing
Pung writes in a style that captures the idiom of Australian
speech along with the lyricism of eloquent prose.
“Bugger it, why couldn’t I have something simple and spontaneous and
not-so-serious? Bugger, bugger, bugger”. (p.231)
“And so the door closes, and the Proletarian Princess walks sadly back
into the house, realising that there are no Proletarian Princesses anyway
and how could she possibly have been so think as to imagine that Dream
Lover would come rescue her from here in the first place?” (p.98)
This juxtaposition of elements serves as a constant reminder of
the narrator’s intelligence and the cultural influences to which
she is exposed.
The Power of Language
One of the threads running through this text is an exploration of how
powerful language can be, how adaptable, and yet how it can exclude and
P2 gives us wonderful examples of one of the ‘Englishes’ that are evolving
all the time. It raises the issue of the primary aim of language as
functional. This is significant in terms of the difference between oral and
written language, the storytelling skills of Alices’ grandmother and the
communication barriers faced by her mother.
P144 Shows that language is not just a matter of the words but the
importance of the cultural context in which language is embedded and
which shapes it.
P180 Refers to connections between language, culture and beliefs and
Alice Pung also uses a variety of language techniques to assist in conveying
her message of Assimilation, Integration and Cultural Diversity.
Pung uses highly descriptive language in order to draw the reader
into the text and assist them in seeing the world through different
eyes (including those of Agheare/Alice).
“My father’s moment is lost when a middle-aged woman with Maggi-noodle curls
points at the man behind the counter with a flailing forefinger…” (p. 2)
“In Teochew the word sounded benign, like the careful imprint of a calligraphy brush,
not the heavy finality of the English Stroke.” (p. 170)
‘I was just festively plump.’ (p.57)
‘a turnip-and-carrot-soup sort of existence.’ (p.136)
p10 ‘My father...growing larger and larger as he approaches the top with a
smirk pasted on his face, like a slow zoom in a cheesy Chinese film.’
p11 ‘She thinks about the ones back home who are unprocessed and
waiting to be processed, unlike the meat that is stacked in tins of twelve in
front of her.’
p13 ‘I have a clump of black hair plastered to my head like a Beatle circa
the early 60s.’
p162 ‘...her handwriting tumbled down the blue lines like Kamikaze
p170 ‘In Teochew the word sounded benign, like the careful imprint of a
calligraphy brush, not the heavy finality of the English Stroke.’
We can read into some of the imagery used by Pung throughout
the text, as being symbolically representative of some of the key
themes of Freedom and Autonomy derived from living in a
democratic society after escaping from a totalitarian regime.
“Ah, this wondrous new country where children are scared of dying because they have
swallowed some Spearmint Wrigley’s, not because they stepped on a condensed-milk tin
filled with ammunition!” (pp. 3-4)
“‘The cars stopped for that old one!’ my grandmother cries. Tic-tic-tic goes the traffic
light, and as the green man flashes, the old man casts a suspicious look at the crew
pointing at him before hobbling away quickly to the other side of the road.” (p. 8)
“The little Green Man was an eternal symbol of government existing to serve and
protect. And any country that could have a little green man flashing was benign and
wealthy beyond imagining.” (p.9)
Humour & Tone
As well as having an original turn of phrase and evocative imagery,
Pung is able to use humour to engage the audience and engender a
greater sense of warmth and empathy for the protagonist and other
“She made the most of the words she still had by delivering them at ten million
decibels in the car”. ((p.146)
The use of sardonic humour subverts the conventional migrant
misery story while also challenging the simplistic migrant success
“My grandmother pads along in a light-blue pyjama suit she has sewn herself.
A pair of sunglasses sits on top of her head-a second pair of eyes gazing
skywards, beseeching the Lord Buddha to bless St.Vincent and his kind
fraterity for vesting the family with such finery.” (p.7)
Humour & Tone
Pung employs witticisms to everyday situations, thereby
transforming the mundane while drawing attention to the
ironic aspects of life.
‘I was Chinese Ronald McDonald, minus the Happy Times’. And
later. ‘What do you think you’re doing in the car?’ cried my mother.
‘Fermenting? Get out now.’ (p.63)
Her satirical tone invites readers to question and critique the
many serious issues raised within her anecdotes. At times this
kind of humour seems to be mocking or scornful, yet the
candid nature of these observations further serves to alert
readers to issues that perhaps might require more critical
Humour & Tone
Bridging both cultures, Alice/Agheare is acutely aware of the
stereotypes that prevail and impact her own efforts for acceptance
‘A few more outdoor dates and Jim’s Mowing would be out of business.’
At times her humour is self-deprecating, reminding us of her
resilience despite a seemingly fragile self-image.
‘Going out with him would transform me into Woody Allen with a black
Humour & Tone
Yet Alice (the author) does not adopt a moralising tone and often
depicts her family as quaint, without being patronising or
Mao-Bin U. ‘Their pronunciation made the place sound like a shonky
university in China for discarded communists...’ (p.233)
This light-hearted tone enables the author to share painful
experiences and convey powerful messages without alienating
readers or condemning individuals and society as a whole.
“I had spent my childhood with a grandmother who packaged me into
padded Mao suits and made me aware that I had to defend myself against
all the other blandly dressed banana children-children who were yellow on
the outside but believed they could never be completely white inside.”