Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 9, 2020

2020 Yarra Valley (online) Writers Festival: How Weird Does Your Family Need to Be? with Alice Pung, Rick Morton, Richard Glover & Michael Mackenzie (ABC)

The next Yarra Valley Writers Festival session is titled How Weird Does Your Family Need to Be? Michael Mackenzie from the ABC hosted the panel, with Alice Pung, Rick Morton, and Richard Glover.

Alice Pung is the well-known author of the YA novel Laurinda, and of the memoirs Her Father’s Daughter (see Karenlee Thompson’s guest review) and Unpolished Gem (which I read pre-blog).  The other authors are memoirists too: Rick Morton is the author of One Hundred Years of Dirt, and Richard Glover is the author of Flesh Wounds. 

So, writing about atypical upbringings….

Michael Mackenzie himself had an atypical childhood.  His father was a Jew from Nazi Germany, who died just after he was born.   Families are constantly intriguing he says, and we always think that other people’s families are more normal than our own.  He began by asking Alice how she felt about the word ‘weird’: perhaps, she said, her family was perceived as ‘weird’ when they first arrived as refugees from Pol Pot’s Cambodia but her father himself felt that many things are weird.  He named her Alice because he thought Australia was a wonderland.  She told some funny anecdotes that illustrated her family’s different perceptions of everyday experiences such as sleeping outdoors for pleasure, and pick-your-own-fruit where they had to pay to be ‘labourers.

Michael doesn’t think that the word ‘weird’ appropriate for Richard Glover’s memoir, but Richard laughed and said he was disappointed by that.  He told a funny anecdote too, about his mother setting mice free after she’d trapped them, and she didn’t think that was weird at all. And his sister who was younger, had a different perception altogether because she did not experience the things he did.   Michael asked: When did you first realise your family was unusual? For him, it was when he was first told him how he was conceived, (using a turkey baster) and the reason was because the marriage had never been consummated.  His mother said that she then went back to New Guinea both pregnant and a virgin, though his father disputes the story.   His mother offered up flamboyant stories to explain why she didn’t love his father, but had married him in haste just after WW2, and again the story was comprehensively disputed by family.  Photos he was shown proved that not only was the family not ‘posh’ and there were siblings: she wasn’t an only child at all, and she had manufactured this entire past.

Alice is different because the others had problematic role models, but she had a respectful relationship with her father and when she was old enough, he wanted her to remember the past accurately and for her to understand it.  But even as a very young child she knew something terrible had happened to them, because they so often remembered people who ‘too bad’ had been ‘smashed’.  Her father’s stories were valuable because their stories of suffering were examples of resilience.

Mackenzie raised the issue of Inter-generational trauma.  Rick Morton had wanted to find that the family stories of his brutal grandfather weren’t true, but they were, and he realised that his father had absorbed all this as well.  Even his mother, who has suffered much from his father’s malevolence, doesn’t hate him because she understands the origins of his brutality, but they are still entirely estranged from his father.  As an author, his intentions were to understand his father, but his father doesn’t see it that way at all.  Rick broke all the rules of their family which is never to talk about family problems, but he wanted to break the cycle of abuse.

Richard Glover doesn’t think he was as badly off as Mackenzie was because he was not living in poverty.   But his mother was not affectionate at all, and she eloped with his English teacher.  His father was crushed by this, and his alcoholism escalated.  He wasn’t capable of being a father, so he escaped to England, leaving Richard as a teenager, parentless and alone in the house.  (His teenage friends thought it was marvellous!)  Eventually his father sent Steve, a newspaper friend of his, to step into the breach, so his confused ideas about masculinity were confronted by a hyper-masculine man who wrote poetry.

Alice made the point that parenthood doesn’t change the person you are.  If people are basically selfish they don’t stop being selfish because they become parents.  Mackenzie bravely asked how her brother’s suicide had impacted her writing, and she talked about their close relationship. It was the birth of her own child shortly afterwards that helped her get through it, and it made her reassess her own priorities and made her determined to let her child be whoever he wanted to be.

During the session Mackenzie said that Twitter commentary about it showed that people felt inspired by these stories, but I’m afraid they depressed me…

And I think that means I need a break.  Too long hunched over a computer.  So I’ll skip the session with Christos Tsolkias, and I was going to skip the next one after that anyway, because I’m not interested in crime fiction.

Update, the next day: You can read Sue’s report from the session with Tsolkias here.

But I’ll be back for the session with Charlotte Wood about The Weekend. 


  1. I guess ‘weird’ is one way of describing it, the misery memoir revival, I’m not sure Tsolkias will brighten things up. I’m reading On Chapel Sands and enjoying the dedramatisation of what could have been a more sensationalist memoir. Written with an art critics eye and a dose of compassion, it’s a refreshing read.


  2. […] I really enjoyed the session How Weird Does Your Family Have to Be? It was moderated by ABCRN presenter Michael Mackenzie, who has his own fascinating life story with a Jewish father who escaped Germany and died just after he was born. The panel comprised Alice Pung (Polished Gem –read before I started this blog ), Richard Glover who wrote Flesh Wounds (which I haven’t read and now want to) and journalist Rick Morton One Hundred Years of Dirt (also unread).  Alice Pung’s family was not ‘weird’ but as Cambodian/Vietnamese refugees, they were traumatized. Glover has emphasized the ‘weirdness’ of his family with a laugh, but his story of an alcoholic father and an absent mother who completely invented a false identity to her family actually reveals sadness and deception. Rick Morton’s father was a brutal man, but his father in turn was abused by Rick’s grandfather who seems a truly malevolent man.  Lisa is back from her walk, so here’s her much better summary. […]


  3. […] Kerry O’Brien’s memoir was published in 2018.  Rick Morton’s One Hundred Years of Dirt was included in the YVWF session How Weird Does Your Family Have to Be? […]


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