9781863956925Following on from the release in October of their first young adult title, Clare Atkins’ Nona and Me, Black Inc. this month released their second, Alice Pung’s Laurinda.

‘As publishers, we are always looking for exceptional writing and original voices,’ says Black Inc. publisher Chris Feik. ‘We have worked with Alice for many years now, and it’s exciting to witness both a departure (to fiction) and a return (to school days) with Laurinda. At about the same time, Nona & Me by Clare Atkins came our way and we suddenly had two superb, involving stories about young people, culture, growing up and finding your way.’

Pung is the author of two acclaimed memoirs, Unpolished Gem and Her Father’s Daughter, and edited the collection Growing Up Asian in AustraliaLaurinda is her debut work of fiction, and is set in an exclusive private girls’ school of the same name. The book follows new scholarship student Lucy Lam as she uncovers Laurinda’s true powerhouse: a group of students called The Cabinet who rule the institution with an iron fist. The novel is hard-edged satire cloaked in contemporary YA: exploring class dynamics, everyday racism and bullying. It’s Heathers meets House of Cards by way of Mean Girls.

‘I always wanted to write YA,’ Pung says, ‘but I also wanted to write a satire about class – most of my other books are about culture, but this is about class. I read a book about two-and-a-half years ago called Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld. It’s set in a boarding school in the United States (which is quite different from Laurinda, of course), but it made me realise that you can write a book for adults set around 13-year-old girls and boys. But I did start off with the aim of writing YA, and writing a satire about class – it was a little of both, really.’

The subject of bullying is also explored in Laurinda, but Pung plays with preconceived expectations, depicting the relentless bullying of teachers by the conniving Cabinet students. She came to realise this particular storyline wasn’t so far-fetched either. ‘It’s been around for so long, but people don’t speak about it. I’ve had dozens and dozens of teachers, during my school visits, tell me about bullies. I’ve said “I’m writing a book and a teacher gets bullied,” and they all say, “Oh, we’ve all experienced that!” But the problem with bullying of teachers is that if they go to the administration (if the school has a very bad administration) they’ll say, “Well, what’s wrong with you that you can’t control 16-year-old girls? You’re not teaching properly!” The teachers feel a stigma, they should feel like they should be able to control the class.’

Pung also touches on everyday racism in Laurinda, as seen through the eyes of protagonist Lucy Lam. ‘It is a little bit about race, because in certain scenes there’s clear racism – but it’s not a big deal. People are not born racist, it’s just ignorance. And I hope that ignorance shines through.’

Scenes in which Laurinda’s community grasp at inclusivity and diversity make for cringe-worthy comedy (ironically, the same affluent community tolerates and tacitly encourages nastiness in order to achieve success at all costs). Pung concedes that, ‘In the upper classes in a school like Laurinda, where everyone tries so hard not to be racist – to be politically correct – sometimes it can come across as quite racist, because they’re just telling you what your culture is. Like, assuming that you’re interested in Asian art and history just because you’re Asian.’

AlicePung2014-23-BWPung’s own high school experiences have shaped her writing. Growing up in Footscray and Braybrook, she changed high schools five times. There’s little doubt that those upheavals have made her uniquely suited to writing youth literature. ‘Because I changed high school so many times, I came to learn that there’s no sense of self that’s fixed – and that comes from being Buddhist as well. Because at Christ the King I was pretty funny and pretty well-liked, and then I changed schools to one that didn’t have many Asian kids – so suddenly I was the quiet Asian kid, every time I told a joke it fell flat because people didn’t expect Asians to be funny. It was an interesting experience, and I tried to reflect that in the character of Lucy.’

I do wonder how surprised people will be to discover that Alice Pung’s first foray into fiction is by way of YA. You need only read the book’s acknowledgments to understand where Pung’s affinity for the readership stems from – she specifically thanks John Marsden and Melina Marchetta for their books, which she read while growing up and which clearly left a mark. ‘I’ve always loved YA – those books moved me much more than any other books have moved me in my adult life,’ Pung explains. ‘They had an effect on me because they were about real teenagers, realistic scenarios – we didn’t have crazy dystopias like The Hunger Games or vampires like kids do now. We had conceivable stories – the war could happen in Australia, or you could come from a single-parent household.’

Don’t try to convince Alice Pung that she should be embarrassed to credit young adult novels as amongst the most influential of her reading life. ‘Those books really had a big affect on me, more so than any adult book that I’ve ever read.’ She likewise hopes that adults will make their way to Laurinda. ‘Adults already read a lot of young adult fiction… and everyone has been to school.’