ALice Pung’s young adult novel, Laurinda, opens with a simple epigraph: “Life is nothing but high school. This quote, from American writer Kurt Vonnegut, distills a truth that confronts us: the things that happen to us in adolescence can, and often do, follow us throughout our lives.
The Melbourne Theater Company’s adaptation of Laurinda, co-written by comedian Diana Nguyen and Petra Kalive (who also directed), amplifies this phenomenon by dividing Pung’s much-loved book between past and present. Its protagonist, Lucy Lam, is both 15 and 35 in this version: we see her as a teenager in the 1990s as she navigates her eponymous private school, where an elite group, The Cabinet, reigns supreme. . Lucy’s friend Linh is always there, the only person who truly understands her.
But we also see Lucy looking back, exploring all the ways in which being a member of the Asian diaspora in Australia and experiencing occasional and explicit racism has irrevocably shaped and changed her. There’s both light – the daggy joys of ’90s music, an energetic cast – and darkness in this adaptation; it’s a bit Mean Girls and a bit Fight Club, with a distinctly Asian-Australian twist.
Nguyen remembers being a child in 1996 when Pauline Hanson gave her infamous first speech in which she claimed Australia was “overwhelmed by Asians”. When Nguyen began adapting Laurinda in 2020, waves of anti-Asian sentiment were once again sweeping the world after China was identified as the origin of Covid-19.
“#StopAsianHate was in the media, and right before the Comedy festival in 2020, I experienced racism in the comedy hall,” she recalled. “It lived inside me – how was it possible that in 2020, even though I was writing this play set in the 1990s, it was still traveling through generations?”
The idea for the adaptation had been on the shelf for years when Kalive started at MTC in 2020, just when the first lockdown took place. She tore up the novel in 24 hours; as a Greek-Australian, she could relate to some of the feelings she described. Kalive was keen to adapt it, and when it came to a co-writer, Nguyen immediately came to mind. “I thought there was fabulous humor in the work and the lived experience that Diana would be able to speak to and intrinsically understand,” she says.
The intersection of class and race is a recurring subject in Pung’s work, which the author believes Kalive and Nguyen inherently understand. “They have the insight that some people don’t have if they don’t live, or don’t have parents or family, who come from a very working-class background, and then are pushed into this world of privilege,” says Pung. .
Nguyen had read Laurinda years ago. “I was pretty triggered by that,” she says. “It’s not overt racism but subtle racism, and I felt Alice had done such a good job of naming what Lucy had been through. When I think of the courage of any young person who has ever been confronted with racism is what we created – an enduring piece about a woman who experiences it in school, but who accompanies it throughout her life.
The comedian, who created the web series Phi et moi about a Vietnamese teenager and her overbearing mother, brings that same understanding of intergenerational dynamics to Laurinda. The scenes with Lucy’s refugee parents are told in untranslated Vietnamese – an authentic portrayal of immigrant domestic life.
“What’s so beautiful about this show and the fundamental parts are the conversations that Lucy has with her mother,” Nguyen said. “For me, hearing the Vietnamese language on stage is breathtaking. The gift I give myself is to hear my mother tongue spoken on stage.
“Diana was always really invested in making the house as three-dimensional as possible to really make Lucy a whole person, not just a caricature,” adds Kalive.
Both writers lacked the language as teenagers to describe or understand their experiences with racism or xenophobia; words and concepts such as “microaggression” simply did not exist in the everyday lexicon. “As a young person you just try to exist in the world and all your energy is spent trying to cope,” says Kalive. “I certainly don’t feel like my peers were equipped with the us that young people are now.”
The production’s all-Asian cast of seven includes Fiona Choi (The Family Law), Gemma Chua-Tran (Heartbreak High) and Ngoc Phan (Boy Swallows Universe). Between them, they embody 20 characters, who are not all Asian; it’s a bold and meaningful casting choice in an industry that still struggles with meaningful representation. The actors’ personal experiences also inform what unfolds on stage. “The script continues to react and adapt to include their perspectives, which is incredibly powerful,” says Kalive.
There’s a brief nod in the play to another 1990s Australian YA novel also recently adapted for the stage: Looking for Alibrandi, which tells a similar story of a teenage girl with an immigrant background struggling to find her place in a world of whiteness and privilege. . These stories are more relevant than ever, contributing to ongoing discussions about the place of private schools in Australia.
“Part of the private school culture has to change – the insularity, the sense of entitlement,” says Pung. “It’s an unrecognized, unconscious sense of entitlement, which I hoped to bring out in Laurinda’s writing.”