During the first lockdown, I stopped reading. The act required a receptiveness I felt incapable of giving in those early months. But some time around May, as the coronavirus numbers trended down and my anxiety levels followed suit, I began perusing my bookshelves again.
As I stared at the neat rows of yellowed spines, I found myself wondering which of these stories would be best at shepherding me through such apocalyptic times. On the one hand, I wanted an escape from the nightmare we were all living, but on the other hand, escapism seemed facile – like a Band-Aid on a necrotic wound. What I really needed was a book that could speak to the existential emergency humanity was facing, but also offer a blueprint for how to get through it.
Alice Pung’s parents, Kuan and Kien, are survivors. They endured life in Pol Pot’s Cambodia and they lived to tell the tale. In Pung’s second memoir, 2013’s Her Father’s Daughter, she chronicles their traumas and documents how they manifested in her own life, growing up as a first-generation Australian in the comparatively peaceful world of 1990s Melbourne. Whether it be her father’s paralysing flashback during her sister’s martial arts exhibition, or his fear of plastic bags (a tool used for asphyxiation by the Khmer Rouge), Pung shows us how such tragedies cast their long and haunting shadows.