Lessons from Australia: You don’t hit sleepy lizards

Last week I was on a self-styled writing retreat in country NSW, near the Hunter Valley, and it was sublime. I spent most of the week at this desk, staring out at this view of the Williams River. I was interrupted only by eastern rosellas, kookaburras, and one dead mouse that showed up in the middle of the kitchen on our last morning like the perfect metaphor for the piece of writing I was working on, ie lifeless and a bit cliched.  Writing retreat bedroom with desk, view of river
The writer friend I was with, A, was a bit skittish of mice, so guess who had to scoop the fresh mouse corpse into a dustpan and drop it into the trash? I imagined it was the end the mouse would have wanted, laid (well, dumped) to rest among a week’s worth of food scraps.

Occasionally we stopped writing and went to explore this new corner of NSW. I can sum up our explorations in three incidents.

1. We go for lunch in Morpeth, a town that features a historic bakery, exclusive parking for ‘tourist coaches’, and, by law, a lolly shop. Inside Miss Lily’s Lollies, there’s a woman working behind the counter, and one other person, a man. He’s tall and fit-looking, in black dress pants and a pressed button-up shirt and shined shoes. He’s standing over three clear display buckets and talking loudly into his phone: ‘You’re all good for candy watches and candy bracelets, but you’re down to – one, two three – four, you’ve only got four candy watches. Definitely going to need more candy watches.’ He has the tone of someone conducting important business.

2. The Erringhi Hotel in Clarence Town has a $5 burger night on Wednesdays from 4-6pm. We’re eating our burgers at 5:57 in the pub courtyard, which has a garden that drops off down a small hill. A boy, maybe five years old, parades around the courtyard with a Spider-Man action figure. He stops at the edge of the hill, looking down into the darkness like he’s ready to take the plunge. A man that is probably his dad calls across the courtyard, ‘Tim, no.’
Tim swivels his head toward his dad, then back down the slope.
No,’ Dad says.
‘Bogeyman?’ Tim asks.
‘Yep,’ Dad says, and takes a swig of beer. Tim sighs and dashes into crowd.

3. While we’re out for a bushwalk, A tells me about the time her dad gave her tips for safe country driving while they were on a road trip in SA. ‘The important thing is not to swerve for small animals. It can be really dangerous.’
Soon after, while her dad is driving, they see a sleepy lizard crossing the road. He swerves around it. ‘What are you doing?’ A says. ‘You just told me not to swerve like that!’
In a tone that implies A is a bit of a monster, her dad replies, ‘You don’t hit sleepy lizards.’

Being a foreigner, I didn’t know what a sleepy lizard was, and later when I asked A about this, I couldn’t remember the lizard’s adjective. Smiley lizard? Shakey lizard? Sleepy lizards, I learned, are a slow-moving variety of blue-tongue skink exclusive to South Australia, and they are amazing.

It turns out sleepy lizards are known by many names: the shingleback, the stumpy tail, the pinecone lizard and the bob-tail goanna. Their diet consists mainly of flowers. They live as long as 50 years, and in that time, they develop a social network of both friends and foes. And one more thing about sleepy lizards: they grieve.

This research comes from ‘probably the longest-running lizard survey in the southern hemisphere, if not the world‘.Williams River, NSW Australia Australia always has new and fascinating things to teach me.

xo
Ashley

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It’s scary but nobody cares

I’ve never understood why Australians bother with the drop bear myth. It’s like a morgue trying to freak out visitors with a plastic fly in the complimentary punch bowl. If Aussies want to freak out foreigners, they can simply relate their own everyday encounters with deadly creatures, such as finding a funnel-web spider submerged in an air bubble in their swimming pool, or discovering a brown snake in their washing machine, or being bitten by a redback spider at the age of three and taken to the GP’s office to be told, ‘It’s probably fine.’ These are all actual experiences Australians have related to me, unsolicited.

There was once an African safari park outside Sydney that advertised its lions and tigers and bears with a commercial jingle featuring the refrain, ‘It’s scary but nobody cares.’ While I can’t imagine the phrase inspired many theme park visits, such nonchalance in the face of potential death would be the perfect national motto for Australia. Sure, some Aussies do care, but the national attitude is pride in not caring. Another local once told me – again, unsolicited – about the white-tailed spider bite that turned his arm the greyish pallor of a three-day-old corpse. He related the experience with underlying satisfaction, as though it ranked high among his personal achievements. White-tailed spiders are scary. This guy not only didn’t care, but was damn proud of it.

This is the opening to ‘It’s Scary but Nobody Cares’, an article about coming to terms with Australia’s reputation for deadliness, published by Griffith Review. It’s an excerpt from my memoir-in-progress, How to Be Australian. The full piece is free to read now!

Here’s a little bonus I couldn’t squeeze in:
A Snakey handling a snake at the La Perouse Snake Show in Australia
Australians have a delightfully weird relationship with their deadly wildlife. The La Perouse Snake Show is a perfect example of this.

Running once a month for the past century, the snake show takes place inside this rather low fence. Visitors gather around and dangle their children’s legs tantalisingly into the arena, where a ‘snakey’ (the genuine professional term) hauls a variety of live snakes out of brown sacks and gives a little spiel about each of them.

Steve and I happened upon this by accident while visiting this historic part of Sydney, and we were captivated. Particularly when the man said, speaking directly to a potentially lethal snake in the cutesy voice used for puppies and toddlers, ‘You’ve got tiny little fangs, don’t you?’

This country will never cease to enthrall me. Also, I move that all writers be called wordies; it’s got a real ring to it.

Ashley
xo

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From euphoria to genocide

This month I reviewed the recently released Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad by Canadian author Wendy Elliott. Drawing on archival documents, including personal letters and journals, the book tells the incredible stories of a group of humanitarians working in central Turkey during the final years of the Ottoman Empire.

From 1908 to 1923, Ottoman citizens endured ‘two coups d’état, four regional wars, a world war, a war of independence, and a crippling national debt’ – as well as an unprecedented modern genocide. Elliott traces these events with clarity, intrigue, and a wonderful attention to startling detail.

I had the opportunity to ask her a few questions about her time in Armenia, what drew her to these stories, and what she learned in the process.

1. What first took you to Armenia? What drew you back?
In 2006 I was asked by a Canadian international development agency to go to Vanadzor as a Volunteer Advisor to train a group of women in skills I’d acquired while working in various executive positions in not-for-profit organizations. I was welcomed by them so warmly I immediately felt at home, and I was eager to return. The next year I was invited to Gyumri, and in 2009 I completed two assignments in Yerevan. Canadian funding for the program was discontinued in 2010, or I would have returned regularly.

Author Wendy Elliot in Republic Square, Yerevan, Armenia
Author Wendy Elliott in Yerevan, Armenia, 2006

2. How did you come to write the story of Susan Wealthy Orvis and her fellow humanitarians?
In 2014, my one-time interpreter and now-friend Kamo Mayilyan heard about Susan Wealthy Orvis, an American missionary who had saved thousands of Armenian orphans after the genocide. We co-authored an article about her, and were contacted by her great niece who had seen it. She offered us access to a hundred-year-old trunk that contained Susan’s original letters from her time in Turkey. From then on, Kamo was determined I should write the book. For many reasons, it took several months of persuasion on his part and research on mine before I accepted.

3. What was the first thing that made Susan appeal to you as a character?
Elliot.jpgI remember the moment clearly. I was reading her unpublished manuscript about her journey to help establish a relief centre in Alexandropol (Gyumri), Russia in 1917. She travelled more than 7,000 miles from Dubuque, Iowa during World War I and the Russian revolution, and I was impressed by her lack of naiveté, her living-by-example style of evangelism rather than proselytizing, and her willingness to roll up her sleeves to tackle seemingly insurmountable problems. But what tipped the scales for me was when, under armed attack, instead of frantically praying for divine salvation, she thought about the psychology of William James and a bear! I was so startled, I laughed out loud. I realized I liked her very much and could spend the years it would take to write the book in her company.

4. Grit and Grace is full of details that range from surprising to shocking, like the man who treated the bullet wound in his leg by stuffing scrambled eggs in it. What details or moments stand out most for you?
I can instantly think of four:
1) nurses Rachel and Blanche’s befuddled attempt at removing tar caps from children’s heads to cure them of favus (a dreadful scalp disease);
2) the horrible conditions of the conscripted Ottoman soldiers in winter, without coats, forced to wrap their feet in rags or go barefoot, fed only a third of a ration, and housed in filthy, vermin- and disease-filled shelters – and still expected to fight battles;
3) the absurd incident in the Marash hospital when the pharmacist, who had once been in the Ottoman army, screamed across the courtyard at a group of Nationalists, “You know it’s not permitted to fire on a hospital! The Director Doctor Madame is very angry about it, and will hold you responsible. The Director says you are to stop firing at once!” and amazingly they did; and
4) the entire village of brave Armenians, Greeks and Turks who defiantly stood together against the gendarmes who tried to deport the Armenian residents, thus forcing the gendarmes to leave empty-handed.

5. What personal lessons came out of writing this book for you?
My parents, who grew up during WWII, always spoke of the duty of a citizen to pay attention to issues and to vote because society can rapidly change for the worse when there is apathy. I was reminded of that while writing about how the Ottoman Empire went from euphoria in 1908 to genocide in 1915 – only seven short years – and as I listened to daily news reports of radical changes occurring around the world, which continue today. But the most profound lesson was to be careful of my speech. Our brains are programmed to find the fastest, easiest way to do something, so it’s natural to make generalizations. However, I learned that saying everyone or always or never is not only not true, it promotes the concept of Us versus Them. And that’s the first step of a slippery slope towards violence. I was careful not to generalize in the book, but I now watch my words in everyday speech, too. I don’t want to contribute even in a small way to a negative or destructive society.

To read the full review of Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad, visit Newtown Review of Books. Learn more about Wendy Elliott on her website.

Launched!

Author speaks to crowd at My Name Is Revenge book launch
We launched My Name Is Revenge on April 10. The crowd was amazing, and the signing line-up lasted for practically the entire event. My husband Steve was MC, and he introduced the guest of honour, author Emily Maguire.
Emily 2
In Emily’s speech, she described the first time she learned about the Armenian genocide, about ten years ago. Flipping through a library book, she saw Arshile Gorky’s painting, The Artist and His Mother. Gorky was a survivor of the genocide, the caption in the book informed her. She’d never heard of it. That evening she had dinner with a group of artists, and asked them about it. Some had heard of it, but no-one could give her any specifics.

She connected this to Hitler’s infamous 1939 quote, ‘Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’ and she described My Name is Revenge as ‘a gut punch of a book, a necessary and urgent shout back to the silence’.

I wrote this book for people like Emily, who may know little or nothing about the genocide simply because it hasn’t been spoken about nearly enough – in our school textbooks, in our books and films, in our public discourse and private conversations.

After the speeches, we ate cake. Steve had been worried about the cake, because I ordered it off the internet, so how did I know if it tasted any good? I was more concerned with how the cake looked, and it looked pretty darn good.
Cake - better.JPG
It tasted as good as it looked. After it was cut, the restaurant placed it under a heat lamp (by mistake, I assume) and by the end of the evening the last few slices had melted into a lump of warm chocolatey goo.

I felt great at the launch. I was careful to rest a lot in the days leading up to it, and did as little as possible the day of the launch itself. I find evenings especially hard; they’re usually when I’m most worn out. But the night of the launch, my body flooded me with adrenaline. And everyone was so generous and kind, as evidence by the four bouquets of flowers I received. (My apartment has never been so full of flowers!) Author Ashley Kalagian Blunt at book launch with flowersLots of people commented on how great I looked. I tried not to talk about being ill, because I wanted to forget about it for the night. People saw me full of energy, bright and bubbly.

I left feeling like a cement truck had run over me. Every muscle in my body hurt. I spent all of Friday in bed recovering.

In general, my chronic fatigue has improved significantly. Last year I wouldn’t have been able to attend an event like the book launch. But I’m still not recovered, even though I may look and act like it in small bursts. CFS is inconsistent, which makes it complicated to explain.

I’m very grateful I was able to organise and attend the launch for the book that marks ten years of writing on the Armenian genocide. But I also think it’s important to reflect on the complexity of living with invisible illness.

Thanks again to everyone who attended the launch (like crime writer AB Patterson, who wrote this great post about it). And special thanks to all the amazing, brilliant and uncommonly attractive readers who have left reviews on Goodreads and Amazon.

Ashley
xo

Not the book I set out to write

My Name Is Revenge book cover as chocolate launch cake

Tonight is my first ever book launch. I started writing this book ten years ago. Except it wasn’t this book; it was a different book.

Ten years ago I planned to write a book about my great grandparents’ survival of the Armenian genocide. I knew they’d both lost their entire families, and ended up in Canada as orphans in 1920. I knew Paravon, my great grandfather, had hidden in a tree while his family was murdered and his village burned to the ground. So, in early 2010, when the Winnipeg Arts Council foolishly encouraged me with a research grant, I thought it would be easy to travel to my great grandparents’ Armenian community near Niagara Falls, learn their story, and write a book about it.

I had no idea that in the coming years I would end up writing two master’s theses on the Armenian genocide, spending two months in Armenia, and interviewing nearly 150 people in Canada, Australia and the Caucasus about Armenian identity.

What’s driven me through a decade of research and writing is that I find Armenia fascinating. I was long fascinated by the genocide, by how a government could callously and blatantly organize the murder of 1.5 million people, and then go on to deny it for decades in the face of overwhelming evidence. But the more I researched Armenia, the more fascinated I became. When I travelled to the Caucasus, I grew obsessed with first the Soviet history, and then the cold and dark years of the 1990s, when much of the country was without electricity or gas. Armenia is full of resilient people with amazing stories. I also became fascinated by Armenia’s history as the world’s first Christian nation. I was astounded when I visited its centuries-old monasteries.
Geghard Monastery, Armenia, in My Name Is RevengeSo I spent five years writing and rewriting a travel memoir of Armenia and everything I’d learned there. That manuscript was shortlisted for two awards, one in Australia and one in the UK.

And in the meantime, I became fascinated by the wave of global terrorism that began in 1973. Conceived as retribution for the denial of the genocide, that wave of terrorism reached Sydney in December, 1980. When I learned about Armenian terrorists targeting Turkish diplomats, I was startled to find that, despite abhorring their methods, I intimately understood their motives. So I wrote the novella that became My Name is Revenge.

When I started writing ten years ago, I had no idea that the book about my great grandparents’ survival would become a travel memoir of Armenia – and until recently,  I had no idea that my first published book would be another book entirely, a book of my collected writing on Armenia that came out of all of that research. My Name is Revenge is an attempt to capture what has fascinated me, and to share the connections between Australia, Canada and the genocide, and the urgency in its historical lessons.

If you can’t make the launch, you can hear me talk about the book in this interview with SBS Armenian Radio.
Ashley Kalagian Blunt on SBS Armenian radio
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Ashley
xo

A weird silver lining in the chronic illness clouds

Since I started posting charts tracking my chronic fatigue recovery, I know you’ve been desperately waiting for the next update. Every post is like a cliffhanger season finale.

There’s been a lot happening lately. And I was doing well. Check out my step count, especially that excellent stretch from mid-January to mid-March. No crashes at all, fairly consistent daily step totals. Life was good.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome recovery program daily step count chart

Then a few weeks ago I had a very hard crash. At first I wrote it off as a random flare up. But not long after, I started coughing the wet, horsey cough that indicates either a chest cold or a lungful of rotten porridge. It felt like the latter, to be honest.

The chest cold combined with my ‘usual’ chronic fatigue meant that I’ve done nothing for days other than watch Youtube videos of dogs running agility courses. Which is fun for the first 15 hours, then gets a bit repetitive. Still great though.

This return to severe fatigue is terrifying for me. I made commitments based on my February level of wellness. My first ever book launch is on April 10. The following week, I’m giving a talk about the book.

And then, on Friday, May 3, I’m chairing a panel at Sydney Writers’ Festival. You know, the biggest Australian writing event of the year if you’re not paying attention to Melbourne. 
The SWF panel was a surprise. I’m not there to talk about my book (although it will be in the festival bookshop, which is a huge win). I’m there to talk to two authors who both write about chronic illness.

I have a strong suspicion that I was asked to chair this panel because I also have a chronic illness. Maybe not, maybe it’s just a coincidence. But if that is the reason I was asked, it’s a weird silver lining to being ill.

If I’d known I could have gotten onto the SWF program by getting a chronic illness, I would have … actually I wouldn’t have done anything differently, it’s still not worth it. But at least it seems like one definitively excellent thing has come out of the experience. I hope everyone experiencing chronic illness can say at least that much.

Wish me luck surviving the next month! And if you’re going to SWF, make sure to grab a copy of My Name Is Revenge at the festival bookshop.

Ashley
xo

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You can write in trees

NYC trees font by Katie Holden 'More Trees Please' on Ashley Kalagian Blunt
Artist Katie Holten has created a living tree alphabet for New York, based on NYC trees. Each letter is its own tree: A for Ash, B for Birch, C for Crab Apple, etc.

You can download the font free from nyctree.org! As they explain, ‘The New York City Tree Alphabet is an alphabetical planting palette’ and they’re planting submitted messages around the city with actual trees.

The font is lushious and a joy to play with. Here’s a short excerpt from my current manuscript in progress, How to Be Australian, written in nyctrees, and with the translation beneath. The page looks like a forest!

Ashley Kalagian Blunt 'How to Be Australian' in NYC Trees font
Unlike the birds, trees didn’t factor into our conversations beyond ‘wow, a lot of these trees have some sort of bark disease.’ Walking through my neighbourhood surrounded by anonymous trees was a reminder that I was a stranger here. As an elementary school student on the Canadian prairies, I had to collect leaves, glue them to paper, and draw and label the trees those leaves were once part of, like the world’s most boring CSI episode. But the exercise ensured that my adult self knew Canada’s birch, pine and Douglas firs without knowing this mattered. No-one in Sydney was going to force me to collect leaf samples and label them, though I wished they would. I kept telling myself I’d buy a book of Australian trees, but I was drowning in academic theory on diasporan cultural identity.

‘Do you think they’d let me sit in on a grade three class for a few days?’ I asked Steve toward the end of May, peering at him from behind the pile of textbooks on the kitchen table. ‘Just to learn about the birds and the trees?’

It’s fascinating thinking about our knowledge of trees as a type of literacy. I’d love to see an Australian version of this alphabet, with banksia, eucalypt, moreton bay figs, wattle (my person favourite). And maybe then I could finally develop my Australian tree knowledge!

I did make some progress on my Aussie flower knowledge lately, thanks to some lovely people who taught me about pink heath, flannel flowers and gum blossoms:

Which makes me think we could have flower alphabets! And then plant gardens of blooming messages too. So many fabulous ideas, and here I sit with zero drawing skills.

Ashley
xo

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Brisbane: more than Discount Melbourne?

I travelled to Brisbane last week for the launch of Griffith Review 63: Writing the Country, which features an excerpted chapter from my current manuscript, How to Be Australian.

Despite living in Australia for eight years, this was my first time in Brisbane, the traditional land of the Turrbal people. I’ve visited all the other capital cities, so Brisbane had a lot to live up to. My first impression, with its yellowish river, walking bridges, and Southbank tourist hot spot, was ‘huh, Discount Melbourne’. Brisbane skyline travel photo by Ashley Kalagian BluntBut is Brisbane more than that?

One thing Brisbane has to offer is Wheel of Brisbane. It’s not the Wheel of Brisbane, just Wheel of Brisbane. This made me think that it’s a Queensland version of the popular game show Wheel of Fortune, but all the prizes are cane toads.

IMG_1215.JPG

Brisbane is also home to the world’s longest running science experiment. The pitch drop experiment uses bitumen (aka asphalt) to demonstrate the liquidity of a compound most people would consider a solid (few other liquids can be shattered with a hammer). The experiment is effectively an hourglass filled with bitumen instead of sand, and drops have been falling from the top compartment in the bottom since 1930, at a rate of about one drop every nine years. Thrilling!

As Atlas Obscura points out, this experiment not only outlived its creator, but will likely still be around when all of us are dead and buried.

I was hoping to visit the pitch drop experiment in person, but I was quite unwell in Brisbane (this is where I’m at with my chronic fatigue: well enough to travel, too sick to enjoy myself). No worries though: you can watch the pitch drop LIVE ON WEBCAM.

Tens of thousands of people have tuned in since the pitch drop went live. This digital connectivity is a far cry from life in Brisbane just over a century ago, when the flood of 1893 destroyed the Victoria Bridge, leaving no means of communication between North and South Brisbane. It’s a good thing the pitch drop experiment wasn’t happening then, that’s all I can say. There would have been riots.

My Brisbane explorations also included the Queensland Museum. In fact, this was the first place I visited, because I arrived in the city under a roasting noon sun and needed to find somewhere cool, quiet and dimly lit.

I was expecting to learn some Queensland facts and maybe see some taxidermied snakes. I was not expecting to see the most brutally violent museum display I’ve ever encountered in my life, but of course I did, because this is Australia.

(Maybe skip the next photo if you’re not into mummified animal remains.)

The display was in a single case. It stood alone from the main fauna exhibition, as if the curators knew it didn’t quite belong, but didn’t know where else to put it. It was at waist height, if you’re measuring by my waist, the waist of a fully grown adult woman. Which means it was at exactly eye level for the average child.

The case contained a dried-out goanna that had attempted to shove an entire echidna in its mouth, spines and all. The spines lodged in the goanna’s mouth and throat and ‘unable to swallow or disgorge, this unfortunate lizard choked to death. Locked together, predator and prey died, then mummified beneath the desert sun.’

IMG_1146 Goanna.JPGThe display’s sign concluded with the line, ‘This curious exhibit was acquired and displayed by the Queensland Museum prior to 1912.’

‘Curious’ isn’t the adjective I would have chosen. But then again, I’m not Australian. (Well, I am. Legally.)

What’s especially sad about this exhibit is that it memorialises the worst mistake that goanna ever made. Maybe up until the day he decided to cram an entire echidna is his mouth, he had a reputation among the local reptile community as being quite clever. I’d hate to have that time I put petrol in a diesel engine memorialised in a museum for well over a century.

I’d also like to meet the naturalist who chanced upon the mummified carcasses and thought, ‘That belongs in a museum!’

Much like all of Australia, Brisbane definitely has unique things to offer. Which is why I love this crazy country so, so much.

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Fighting with a monkey

For the past week I’ve been in an ongoing fight with a monkey. It’s not clear who’s winning.

Ashley Kalagian Blunt author
Photo by Matthew Henry from Burst

The specific monkey I’m fighting with is Mailchimp, because – surprise! – I’m planning to send out the best author emails you’ve ever received.

Q: Ashley, I already read your website, why would I sign up for your email news?
A: Because you can’t get enough of me? I am very loveable. Actually, aside from the fact that my emails will feature different (and even more exciting!) content, you should sign up because I’ll be doing monthly giveaways of excellent books. You definitely want to get in on that.

Q: How often will you email me?
A: Every hour, on the hour. Or maybe monthly.

Q: Wow, you’ve convinced me! Where do I sign up?
A: If I were winning my ongoing battle with Mailchimp, I’d say you could sign up right here, in this form that I’ve beautifully embedded right into my website. But that monkey knows kung fu or something. So instead, you’ll have to sign up at this link.

Q: What if the monkey ultimately destroys you in battle?
A: I have sworn that, once dead, I will not haunt anyone who’s signed up to my email list. That’s a little added bonus.