MLS alumna Alice Pung calls for greater media diversity

The Australian media needs to demonstrate a greater commitment to diversity and inclusion, according to author and MLS alumna Alice Pung.

Alice Pung

Speaking at an MLS Alumni Seminar last week, Ms Pung (BA/LLB(Hons) 2004) urged the media to portray a more nuanced picture of the complexities of class and ethnicity in Australia.

But the writer and lawyer, herself the daughter of Chinese-Cambodian refugee parents, said part of the challenge in improving media representation for people from diverse backgrounds involves contesting our assumption of the “ordinary” Australian.

Such constructs create clearly defined “others”, onto which stereotypes can be imposed.

Ms Pung spoke of the disappointment of a friend, an African-Australian social worker, and his encounter with a national current affairs program. Despite being interviewed as an expert on the topic of gang violence in Melbourne’s suburbs, the news outlet deployed their own frames.

“He’s a social worker; they portrayed him as an ex-gang-member-turned-good,” she said.

But Ms Pung acknowledged the difficulty in changing such conversations.

“Australians don’t like to talk about class,” she said. Yet words like “bogan” and “dole bludger” are used with abandon.

Alice Pung Alice Pung speaking at the MLS Alumni Seminar.

She recalled the reception to her first novel Laurinda as telling. The novel tells the story of a daughter of Chinese-Vietnamese refugees who receives a scholarship to attend a prestigious, completely fictionalised, all-girls private school. Portraying an outsider in the private school circle who is suddenly elevated above her own working class suburb, Laurinda was meant to highlight the prevalence of class attitudes in Australia.

“But in every single news media interview I did, I’d be asked: ‘which school is it?’” she said.

“It’s so interesting; I wrote this book about class. And nowhere was class better highlighted than people’s fixation with the skirt on the cover of my book, rather than this working class girl who lives in a disenfranchised neighbourhood.”

To move beyond the current situation, Ms Pung urged the media to allow people of diverse backgrounds to shape the way they are portrayed. This would involve giving voice back to marginalised people to tell their own stories – something Ms Pung is championing as ambassador for 100 Story Building, a centre for young writers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds in Melbourne’s west.

It’s a clear theme in her own writing, too, drawing as she does on her family’s immigration and her working class upbringing to offer an alternate narrative of modern Australia. Such writing forms part of a broader literary conversation, contributed to by the likes of Christos Tsiolkas, Waleed Aly and Benjamin Law.

“The people I like to write about – these complex migrants and refugees, and children of parents in jail; the illiterate women who spend most of their lives at home in back sheds – these publicly voiceless but privately loud people; I think they’re quite extraordinary in their ordinariness,” she said.

By Bess Keaney