The best news yet

Way back in July, I was shortlisted for the Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award. I’m immensely pleased to share that my novella was selected as one of the award finalists and is now an e-book! It has a new title and a snazzy cover.

A thriller set in 1980s Sydney and drawn from true events, including a series of international terrorist attacks, My Name is Revenge is the story of a young man seeking justice.

My Name is Revenge fiction by Ashley Kalagian Blunt, writer
My Name is Revenge is available from Booktopia and Amazon, as well as iBooks and wherever ebooks are sold.

You might like to read it, particularly if you like thrillers, new insights into 20th-century history, or fiction set in Australia. It’s a novella, which means it’s short as. Plus there’s an essay at the end that delves into the story’s historical context. And I heard you saying just the other day how much you love essays!

You might like to tell your friends about it, since word of mouth is still one of the main ways people find out about new books. You could send them the link right now.

If you read it, you might like to leave a review on Booktopia or Amazon, since the number of reviews a book receives is a key factor in its success on these platforms, thanks to the magic of algorithms. Plus you’d totally be my hero.

 

Pose with my grave and skeleton

NewSouth City Series travel books

Before visiting Melbourne in September, I read Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne. It’s one of the City Series from NewSouth, ‘travel books where no-one leaves home’. I’ve spent several years working my way around Australia while reading my way through this series. Melbourne has been my favourite yet.

Melbourne travel book in Melbourne Laneway
Look how almost perfectly I lined up this shot, thanks to the help of a very patient tour guide.

There’s a moment in the book where Cunningham is learning letterpress at a workshop downtown while listening to AFL (Aussie-style rugby) on the radio and taking soup breaks to stay warm. ‘I realised,’ she writes, ‘that I felt about as Melbourne as it’s possible to feel. It was a good sensation, one akin to (but colder than) waking up and taking an early morning dip at Bondi Beach and consequently feeling very Sydney.

This is my favourite description of both Melbourne and Sydney.

Travel to the Nicholas Building Melbourne AustraliaThe letterpress workshop took place in the Nicholas Building. I was keen to visit it because of Cunningham’s description of the three ‘lift operators’ that work the building’s elevators. ‘Joan has been spending her days in the lift for thirty-five years, and its walls are covered with newspaper clippings and photos of children, grandchildren and animals. Some of the animals are her pets, others belong to building tenants.’

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to ride in a lift like that? It seemed too good to be true, and it was. Melbourne was published in 2011. Sometime since then, the lift operators have vanished. There were no newspaper clippings or photos, and I had to push the lift buttons myself.

Still, I was already inside and decided to wander around the Nicholas Building, which had the vibe of a curious relic. I was immediately rewarded with this sign on a seventh-floor door: The Royal Over-Seas League in Melbourne, Australia

What is the Royal Over-Seas League? I’ve entertained myself by tossing around possibilities for days, and I’ve come to hope they’re the Avengers of the Commonwealth, like the Justice League but British, knighted by the Queen maybe – and I had stumbled on their Australian headquarters!

I was also rewarded when I reached the top floor. Travelling in Melbourne Australia, discovering graffiti

Amid the mess of graffiti, I found a real gem: Graffiti in Melbourne Australia

So now I know what I’ll carve on my tombstone. I’m even toying with the idea of having my skeleton put on a pole, like one you’d find in a science lab, and positioned beside my tombstone, perhaps holding a sign inviting photos. Could be a real tourism opportunity for whatever lucky city I’m buried in!

Being sick, I wasn’t able to do a lot in Melbourne. In my wanderings through the Nicholas Building, I went through the wrong door, got trapped in the stairwell, and had to walk down several flights to exit on the ground floor. The exertion of walking down stairs made me nauseous. And when stairs make you nauseous, that’s when you know it’s time to return to your hotel and go to bed at 4:17 pm.

Still, it was a treat to wander along different streets, sit in different cafes, and catch up with some the many friends who’ve moved to Melbourne. The theme of this catching up was definitely Let Me Tell You About How My Body Has Turned On Me, but that’s fine. I’d much rather people ask about my crazy illness than pretend everything is normal. And I’m slowly slowly slowly (like a sloth through tar) getting better, so I feel optimistic. I know I’ll eventually visit Brisbane and Adelaide and even Alice Springs, and read those books. Who knows what unexpected wonders I’ll stumble upon. ~

PS. The tour guide who helped me out was Local Guide to Melbourne. Highly recommended!

 

Even gooder news

I’m excited to share that my manuscript, Full of Donkey: Travels in Armenia, has been shortlisted for the Impress Prize for New Writers, in the UK. If it wins, Impress Books will publish Donkey!

Impress Prize for New Writers 2018 shortlist Ashley Kalagian Blunt

I began writing Full of Donkey in 2010, when I received a Winnipeg Arts Council grant to fund a research trip to St Catharines, Ontario. There, I interviewed my father’s family and other members of the Armenian community. I was deeply curious about how my great grandparents’ survival of the Armenian genocide of WWI had affected their lives, our family, and my cultural identity.

I continued to research the Armenian community here in Sydney. Then, I travelled to Armenia, where I spent two months interviewing pretty much everyone who would talk to me, with the help of many Armenians, as well as American Peace Corps volunteers. The project received a Varuna PIP Fellowship, which meant I was lucky enough to spend a week at the wonderful National Writers’ House in the Blue Mountains. The manuscript was also shortlisted for the Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award in 2017.

You can read an adapted excerpt from Full of Donkey published by Griffith Review and accompanied by my photos.Armenian genocide family memoir Ashley Kalagian Blunt

In July, the shortlist for the Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award was announced, and included my other Armenian project, A Flicker of Justice, No More. Set in Sydney in the early 1980s, this novella explores the consequences of the ongoing denial of the genocide. It’s also my first work of crime fiction, a genre I’ve always loved.

Writing about the genocide has been an important part of my life for nearly a decade now. I hope both Full of Donkey and A Flicker of Justice will come to full fruition soon so I can share them with you.

 

Symptomatology A-Z

The spookiest thing about chronic fatigue is that science doesn’t understand it. As one of my doctors explained, no branch of medicine ‘owns’ this cluster of illnesses yet. In other words, they don’t know where the problem originates in the body. Maybe it’s caused by inflammation in the brain. Maybe it’s a gut flora issue. Maybe it’s an ancient Aztec curse.

Also spooky is the way chronic fatigue affects the entire body and the brain. One theory has to do with a problem in the way the body creates or uses energy at a cellular level. This means the cells are affected throughout the body – brain cells, muscle cells, lung cells, etc.

Whatever their cause, my random assortment of symptoms would make a strange alphabet book.

A: Alcohol intolerance
Long before I realised I was sick, I’d have one drink and feel parched for hours, even if I drank a litre of water after. It was like I’d had a glass of sand. Then that one drink would wake me up in the middle of the night and keep me up for a couple of hours. I assumed this is just what happened when you hit your mid-thirties.

A, again: Air hunger
Air hunger is a fun term for not being being able to get a full breath. It feels like metal band clamped around your lungs, preventing them from fully expanding. This is why my GP thought I’d also coincidentally developed asthma. Air hunger comes and goes, and can last minutes or hours. I often get it when I’m doing something physical, like walking, but it can also happen when I’m sitting at my desk. Nothing like being winded from typing to remind you how sick you are.

C: Concentration impairment
My brain is affected in all kinds of ways. Like all these symptoms, this one comes and goes. Some days I can’t focus on anything and will wander the apartment, randomly starting things, then abandoning them after five minutes.

E: Energy spikes
Occasionally I feel fantastic and have to restrain myself from attempting to answer all the emails/clean all the things/run all the errands/write three books to make up for lost time.

F: Fatigue
Fatigue is more than tiredness. When I’m tired, I can still do things. Fatigue is the body’s determination to stop doing things, and after a time it becomes impossible to override.

H: Headaches
Maybe fatigue related, who knows?

I: Insomnia
I assume this is the brain forgetting how to sleep.

J: Joint pain
At first I thought I’d escaped this symptom. Then my left ankle and right wrist simultaneously developed a peculiar crunchiness that also randomly comes and goes.

L: Light sensitivity
The more tired I am, the more light hurts my eyes.

M: Memory problems
I’ve struggled with both short- and long-term memory since becoming ill. At my worst, I couldn’t read because by the time I got to the end of a sentence, I couldn’t remember how it had started.

More M: Muscle weakness
I’ve heard about many people with chronic fatigue who physically can’t get out of bed. Though I had a few days like that, mine isn’t nearly so bad. Still, most days my hair dryer feels like it’s made of solid concrete.

N: Noise sensitivity
My brain became particularly sensitive to noise. It struggles to filter out background noise, and when I get tired, I can’t separate the sound of someone talking to me from background sound. I’ve also realised sound takes a physical toll on the body. In an especially loud room, I can feel sound, like lying on speaker.

O: Orthostatic intolerance
This is my new favourite term. I get so tired that it’s unbearable to be upright, even when sitting. As soon as I lay down, I feel significantly better. I thought I was going crazy until I discovered the term for this exact symptom.

R: Reactive depression
Well, sure.

S: Sore throat
Frequently waking up with a sore throat is one of the reasons I spent a year thinking I was coming down a with a flu and just had to rest a lot to ‘fight it off’.

T: Temperature dysregulation
Prime example: my brain no longer suggests I remove my jacket before I end up with a heat rash.

W: Wakefulness
Being absolutely exhausted but lying awake all day is pretty much the definition of a waking coma, isn’t it?

Z: Zzzzzzzzzzzzz
Other days I sleep 16 hours or more.

spirit animal chronic fatigue sufferers
Current spirit animal

 

 

Chateau Relaxo (and other houses I’ve known)

Comedy post chronic illness house namesSince I first began aimlessly wandering my neighbourhood (a side effect of being sick), I’ve collected nearly 150 house names. I’d passed most of these places many times before, and never paid attention to them. When I was healthy, I always had somewhere to be and something on my mind. Now my mind is desperate for distraction. Also, I walk much slower.

I still find the concept of naming your house quirky, because houses in Canada didn’t have names. It’s as odd to me as if people slapped name plates on their furniture. ‘Welcome, this is our couch, Sylvester, and our loveseat, Wooloomooloo.’ Odd, and oddly endearing.

After collecting so many names, I’ve realised there are a few broad categories the house names fall into. These include:

Place names: this seems to be the most common. Some of the names are obvious, like Indiana, Nebraska, Lochinvar, Chippendale and Austin. Others are less obvious, but on researching them, they turn out to be more obscure place names. Clutha is a town in New Zealand, Uralla is in New South Wales, and even Chelveston is a town in England.

Women’s names: Many of the houses also have women’s names, such as Shirley, EvelynElvira, Isabella, Tara, and Edna. Women, like houses, cars and boats, are basically property, right?

Roses, because people like roses, I guess: Eden RoseRosebank, Rosebriar, Rosedale

I’ve also discovered a few standout names:
Best Australian film reference: Bonnie-Doon 
Worst Bart Simpson reference: Kalamunda
Best language mash-up: Chateau Relaxo

And the award for most inappropriate house name … Pompei!
Comedy post chronic illness house namesI’m curious about the train of thought that led the owners to name their house after the site of an infamous volcano eruption that killed numerous people. Sure, it happened 2000 years ago, but the violent destruction of a community is still the first thing people will think about when they visit. You may as well name your house World War II.

Here is the complete list of house names I’ve discovered since my original post in April:
house names chronic illness comedy

The real question is this: what would I name my house, assuming I could ever afford one? When I lived in South Korea, my apartment building was steam heated, and the pipes creaked and groaned through the winter. I referred to my apartment as The Belly of the Iron Dragon, which lacks a certain lyricism, I’ll admit.

I assume in the case of houses with place names, the names refer to where the owners’ families came from. If this is the case, I could name my future house Winnipeg, or The Peg or even Peggers. But since I live Down Under, I could broaden this tradition and name it Up Over. While I’m still waiting for the cost of housing to miraculously drop, maybe I’ll name my sofa.

Hit me up with house names, if your neighbourhood has some good ones. I’m eager for more!

 

Faking it

I performed at The Moth Grandslam to an audience of 500. It went all right. I felt the kind of exhaustion where your individual bones are tired. Here is a photo of me on stage, reaching out to hug a ghost, apparently.

Ashley Kalagian Blunt performs at The MothSome days it’s obvious I’m sick, even to look at me. Mostly I look fine though, while experiencing kaleidoscopic variations of symptoms that can change hourly. Your health can be an incomprehensible grab bag of crap, it turns out.

Some days I feel fine. I usually get one of these days every two weeks or so, though it’s never predictable. I can’t say, ‘Well, last Thursday I felt good, so next Thursday should be fine to book tickets for that thing I’m really keen to see.’ Never book tickets is rule #1, because next Thursday is going to be a miserable day. Or not! No-one knows.

Some days I feel so good, I start to think I must be getting better. This is how I felt last week on the Sunshine Coast. I had multiple days in a row where I felt pretty great, which I’d forgotten was possible.

But I can never just enjoy something. My brain is hardwired for imposter syndrome, that fun condition where you doubt your accomplishments and fret about being exposed as a fraud. Sometimes when I feel good, my brain applies imposter syndrome to my illness, and tries to convince me I was never really sick, I was just being lazy and weak. How could I be as sick as I claim, when I feel so good right now? This has heightened since I learned that Munchausen by Internet is a thing. Munchausen syndrome sufferers feign illness for attention, and now they can do that fairly easily online, posting about imaginary symptoms. So maybe I’ve been faking it all along!

That’s what I was thinking while feeling great on vacation. So great, in fact, that I decided to walk up two flights of stairs. The first flight of stairs winded me pretty badly, but for some reason I didn’t take this as a warning sign. The second flight of stairs pretty much destroyed me. My lungs decided they no longer functioned, my whole body started to ache, and I had to stop and put my head on a bannister for a while.

To recap: I’d been feeling fine, walked up approximately 60 stairs, and spent the rest of the day feeling like I’d been trampled by a zebra. It was a relief, frankly, to have such a stark reminder that despite feeling well, I’m actually still stupidly sick.

Of course I felt well on the coast. I wasn’t cooking meals or running errands or doing laundry or chores or catching buses. All I did was walk along the beach and read, and sit in companionable quiet with Steve. Check out how flat this beach is! That’s some smooth walking.

Ashley Kalagian Blunt on Sunshine BeachThe occasional lack of symptoms doesn’t mean I’m well, which is frustrating. If I feel fine for a day, I want to work full time and exercise and return to my actual life. But as soon as I try to do something a healthy mid-30s person would do, like walk up a few stairs, I’m reminded of why I need to spend month after month sitting around, not doing much of anything, letting life pass by.

 

Brain worms: A Love Story

I’m in The Moth GrandSLAM this August – and here’s the story that got me there. It’s probably the greatest love story of all time (and my friends’ favourite story about me, ask any of them), so no wonder it won The Sydney Moth StorySLAM in April 2016.

This was the start of the now classic genre, a story in which I almost die, featuring my husband in the role of himself. This one takes place during my travels through Armenia.

The Moth is a live storytelling event that began in New York in 1997 and now takes place internationally. The theme was kin (the caption says jokers, but the caption is wrong).

A few things I particularly like about this video are how it feels like the camera is pushed flat up against my face, at what is definitely my most flattering angle. Also, that I’m sporting my trademark hairstyle, the clump. It’s gonna catch on, trust me.

 

Good news, for a change

I know I’ve been whinging about being sick for a while now (and there’s more where that came from!) but I do have some good news.

Screen Shot 2018-07-25 at 9.22.16 pm

My novella, A Flicker of Justice, No More, was shortlisted for the Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award. This means you lucky ducks can read an excerpt on the State Library Victoria Tablo page. This novella is a crime thriller based on true events, including a terrorist attack in Sydney in 1980.

Screen Shot 2018-07-25 at 9.19.36 pm

Also, I’ve had one of my favourite short stories accepted for publication in Verandah issue 33. It’s called ‘Pre-Morbid Status’ and it’s as dark as it sounds! That’ll come out in September, so hold your breath!

Also also, back in 2016 I was the winner at one of The Moth’s StorySLAM events. Which means I’ll be competing in the GrandSLAM at Sydney’s Metro Theatre on Tuesday 7 August. This will probably be your only chance to see me perform live this year (and I know you’ve been lying awake in bed at night, wringing your hands, sweating about when you’ll be able to see me on stage again).

The Moth is a competitive storytelling event that takes place around the world, and you better believe I’m sticking to my oeuvre: a story that involves me almost dying, and also my husband in the role of himself.

Is it a good idea to perform while I’m sick? No, probably not. Am I going to do it anyway? Yes. Yes I am. I personally will only be on stage for five minutes and IT WILL GIVE ME A REASON TO LIVE. At least until 7 August. After that, all bets are off.

Being sick is like being trapped in a car while your husband goes hiking

“Trapped” might be overstating it, since the car doors were unlocked, though metaphorically you could say I’m trapped by illness, and therefore it’s an accurate interpretation of our trip to the Blue Mountains last week.

I’m still sick, and still taking regular breaks from the whole-lotta-nothing I generally do most days. And it’s still boring and lonely and heartbreaking, and also not nearly as bad as it could be, so I’m trying not to complain, even when I get left in the car by the side of the road to nap in the backseat while Steve and his cousin go hiking in the mountains.

FYI, I love hiking.

Being sick is like being perennially stuck in the car while everyone else does stuff you used to do, but without you. Sure, I can pose with the best of them. Look at me at Echo Point, smiling like a healthy person and convincing everyone I’m having a great time!

Ashley Kalagian Blunt on chronic illness

And I was having a great time, in the sense that I was relieved to have escaped the apartment for a day, and have the mountain scenery to distract me, even though I spent most of the drive feeling like I was being run over by a tractor.

Here’s the thing: if you meet up with me, I’m probably flooded with adrenalin at the excitement of being out of the apartment and interacting with another human creature, to the point where I’m talking 7200-words-per-minute and, if you look closely, vibrating slightly. I don’t look sick.

But after, at home, I’ll go straight to bed because my eyeballs are burning and my muscles are aching and my brain is too muddled to figure out dinner (does hummus go with oranges?), even though all I did was sit and drink three cups of lemongrass tea and converse for 97 minutes in a public setting.

You’re right, I’d probably feel better if I’d just stayed home alone all the time, except I would go insane.

I am getting better, but it’s slow. Slow like an overseas letter posted circa 1824. Slow like a slow cooker you forgot to plug in. Slow like Australian internet.

I assumed my recovery would look something like this highly scientific graph, where the x-axis is time, and the y-axis is healthfulness: Ashley Kalagian Blunt on chronic illness

A much more accurate depiction of my recovery looks like this:
Ashley Kalagian Blunt on chronic illness

(Which is of course stolen from Demetri Martin.)

My point, if I have one, is that I’ve been in that swirly mess stage of recovery lately, and writing all 419 words of this has felt like a punch in the face, so I’m going back to bed now, at 11:23 am. Good night.