Salesian teacher and Good Man Project co-instigator Dan Walsh reviews the Twilight School and John Bryne Memorial Fundraiser Conversation evening with Alice Pung on September 11.

Alice Pung in Conversation with Bruno Lettieri

On September 11 I sat in an audience and listened to a conversation that was a rare combination of gentle and powerful reflections on education, class, racism, family and place.

The JBM is a scholarship program for refugees that was inspired by the life of John Byrne and the work he did in the refugee communities of Melbourne.  John was also my uncle.

Alice Pung was the keynote speaker. Alice is an author, essayist, lawyer and also a product of the West.

Twilight School el Capitan Bruno Lettieri was the host. Bruno is a teacher, raconteur, effervescent soul and a humble master of what author Arnold Zable would call the art of the forward gesture.

The Footscray Lawn Bowls club is a venue that seems to occupy a space outside of time. It’s a slice of Australiana that wouldn’t be out of place in an early Baz Luhrmann film. Equal parts kitsch and charm. Sporting original fixtures that defy the renovation boom of the increasingly upmarket Western suburb.

I didn’t take notes, so I’m going to try to recap the afternoon and its gentle luminescence in the much the same way as memory bathed the recollections recounted by Alice. Reflections about her parents, education, growing up and becoming a unique and important voice on the Australian literary landscape.

The conversation started in the working class suburbs of the West with a mother driven relentlessly to work hard and pursue a middle-class dream while providing an education for her children that would also become an escape route. Years later, Alice would view her mother’s tenacity as an act of love, raw and stripped back. This access to education proved to be transformative. A love of story and expression emerged alongside a gruelling work ethic and academic aptitude, all the while engendering a need to express and make sense of the world brewing in a young Alice.

Her mother’s illiteracy bellied a legacy of inherited command of language and phrasing that would pass down to her daughter.

The conversation led to her father’s history, so incongruent when teleported to the Australian dream. A place that her parents call home.

Growing up, when Alice experienced her father’s actions in real time they were quirks; later, they would be seen through the prism of post-traumatic stress. The cruelty of Pol Pot’s regime and being a minority sat alongside the banality of everyday experiences and a teenager’s awkward embarrassment at her parents.

Alice reflected a recognition of the complexity of class and that the suburbs often dismissed in the media are the ones who share a lived experience with refugees: shared asphalt, work places and schools.

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Photo credit: Amanda Piper

And all the while Bruno weaved his questions between, never encroaching, always unravelling more. The rapport and history of friendship between the two leant the talk an effortless intimacy that pushed itself out into the crowd. People hung on the stories, smiled or nodded with the questions and ruminations, recognised a shared experience that encapsulated and transcended the specific. While the experiences may have been idiosyncratic, the belief in community was shared, the humanity present.

All in this place, Footscray the home of her father’s shop, the home of her husband and son, this place, where Alice’s parents had measured out a life and hurtled their children forward in a way that would have been unimaginable in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, this place in the suburbs where so many of us play out our lives. Alice’s place, and here a touching conversation trickled out slowly over an afternoon.

Alice spoke about a story shared by so many refugee families, of parents working hard and doing their best to further their children’s prospects. This work ethic she interpreted as a coded language of love and hope. The power of education to unlock passion and change lives. That despite the limitations of a fairly limp political system, there is a recognition of its relative safety and worth. No coup d’état, no bloodletting and always the promise of a better life. The conversation touched on being a daughter, a mother. The need to connect, to relate. The demonising of the word refugee in the current political climate, an unexpected empathy for Pauline Hanson and her supporters, and a recognition that it is often fear and the anger of unmet needs that drives people towards a perceived easy target.

The JBM provides scholarships for students of refugee backgrounds who share a similar desire to make sense of their worlds and pursue hope and purpose through community involvement and education. Alice reminded us that although we share different stories there is always more that unites us than separates us.

Dan Walsh

Dan Walsh is a Salesian College Sunbury teacher, a co-instigator of the Good Man Project and a Twilight School VIP.