Operation Caroline and the bomb that shook South Yarra

At 2.16 am on 23 November 1986, a car bomb exploded at 44 Caroline Street in Melbourne, outside the Turkish consulate in South Yarra.

Because it was the middle of the night, the only person injured was the bomber himself – he died, blown to pieces by his own bomb, which wasn’t part of the plan.

In theory, the bomb was supposed to go off hours later, when employees of the consulate would be at work. Reports at the time estimated that anywhere from 50 people to ‘hundreds’ could have been killed.

That morning, the police faced what’s been described as the first-ever investigation of terrorism in Victoria. They formed the Operation Caroline bomb task force, and within days had discovered the identity of both the bomber, Hagob Levonian, and his accomplice.

This was part of the series of international attacks perpetrated by Armenian terrorist groups against Turkish diplomats, in the hopes of pressuring the Turkish government to acknowledge and redress their ongoing denial of the Armenian genocide.

Two main groups, the Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide and the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, committed nearly fifty acts of terrorism across Europe, the Middle East and North America, as well as in Australia, from 1973 to the early 1990s.

Strangely, Levon Demerian, the accomplice, was charged with the murder of the deceased bomber, along with conspiracy. He was initially convicted of both, and sentences to 25 years. However, the Supreme Court overturned the murder conviction (if two people set a bomb together and one of them dies, is that really murder) and Demerian served 10 years for the conspiracy conviction.

When he went to prison, he was Australia’s number-one high-risk security prisoner. Prison guards told reporters he was a gentleman, the kind of person you’d want as a neighbour.

My Name Is Revenge audiobook Ashley Kalagian Blunt

When My Name Is Revenge came out, I visited Melbourne to give a talk about the book. Melbourne seemed like the kind of place where people would be interested in Australia’s historical connections to the Armenian genocide, and author Toni Jordan kindly agreed to be part of the event.

On the night, it poured rain and the train lines were down in the suburb where the bookshop was, and only a handful of people turned up, most of them friends.

One man who I didn’t know waited until the end of the book signing to speak to me. He was Armenian Australian, and had brought a photo album full of newspaper clippings about both the 1986 bombing, and the 1980 assassination of two men in Sydney that I’d written about.

He wanted me to have the archive. I could see how much time had gone into it, articles cut from a variety of newspapers over almost a decade, and carefully arranged. And I could see that wanted someone to have it who was interested, who might do something with it.

44 Caroline Street in May 2021

It turned out Australia didn’t ‘need worry’ about the ‘Turk terror’, as one headline called it. That was the last attack here, and the attacks had ceased everywhere by the early 1990s.

Earlier this year, I was in Melbourne again, and visited 44 Caroline Street. It’s just an ordinary building on an ordinary street corner, with no hint of the violence that happened there 35 years ago.

There was some measure of justice done in the case of the bombing, with the success of Operation Caroline, unlike in Sydney, where there’s now a $1 million reward for information about the still unsolved 1980 assassination.

And unlike, too, for the victims of the genocide and their descendants, who still live with the legacy of the genocide.

Author Toni Jordan (right) with Ashley Kalagian Blunt

Recovering and raising voices: “This is the history of humanity”

In My Name Is Revenge, I met with emerging genocide scholar Asya Darbinyan to discuss her work and future career path. To mark the release of the audiobook, I’ve caught up with Asya to find out how her career has developed since then, and what she thinks about genocide studies today.

Ashley: The first time we met was at Tsitsernakaberd, the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute in Yerevan. Where are you working now?

Asya: Currently I am a Visiting Scholar at the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University in Worcester, MA, working on my book project tentatively titled Russian Imperial Humanitarianism: Assisting the Armenian Refugees of the War and Genocide.

I moved to the US in 2013 to pursue a PhD in History with a focus on the Armenian Genocide at Clark University. I was lucky enough to have Professor Taner Akçam, who is a character in your book, as my dissertation advisor. It was a challenging and at the same time quite a rewarding journey.

I defended my dissertation in December 2019 while I was also teaching courses on the history of genocide (a course for Master students, focusing on the Native American, Bangladeshi, Yazidi cases, in addition to the more traditional cases – Armenia, the Holocaust, Rwanda) and on the Armenian Genocide (this course was for undergraduate students, 35 of them, no single Armenian among them) at Stockton University in New Jersey.

That’s when I learned how much I enjoy designing my own courses and teaching college students.

Asya Darbinyan, refugee and genocide scholar and historian
Dr Asya Darbinyan

Ashley: What’s the focus of your research as a genocide studies scholar?

Asya: I consider myself a historian of humanitarianism and refugee studies as much as a genocide scholar. Regarding the latter, for many years genocide studies in general, and Armenian Genocide research in particular, have focused on official documents.

Most publications on the history the massacre and deportation of the Armenian people in the Ottoman Empire aimed at proving the crime of genocide by analyzing foreign sources, largely neglecting the voices of the survivors. As a result, the voices of those who experienced forced displacement, attacks on their houses and families, rape, abduction, forced conversion, starvation, exhaustion and epidemics were marginalized.

My scholarly work focuses on the humanitarian emergency and refugee crisis at the Caucasus front during the First World War, caused by population movements as a result of war and genocide.

But most importantly, reflecting on the experiences of the Armenians, my project addresses a number of questions related to the refugees’ understanding of and reaction to those developments. Analyzing testimonies, and memoirs of the refugee-survivors, I recover and raise their voices and emphasize the role they played in this struggle for survival.

They were not simply victims dependent upon external actors’ mercy and assistance: they were self-reliant, willing and able to self-organize.

Tsitsernakaberd, the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute in Yerevan

Ashley: You inspired me when you said that you hoped to one day organise university forums to show the value and interest of genocide studies. Have you been able to achieve this goal?

Asya: That’s very kind of you.

It still is one of my most important goals. I have organized, moderated and conducted public lectures and workshops on genocide education and awareness, and mass atrocity prevention for high school students and teachers, for university students and educators from a variety of disciplines, and local communities in Armenia, Georgia, USA, and UK.

An important part of my teaching, as well as the goal of my public outreach is to demonstrate the relevance and significance of our past experiences of confronting humanitarian and health crisis, genocides and other mass atrocities, to our everyday life and present-day developments.

When the audiences – be it high school and college students, community members or colleagues from other academic departments – look at a hundred-year-old photograph of genocide orphans from the Ottoman Empire covered in rags, aboard a small boat trying to reach the shore of an island in Greece and find shelter there, next to a 2016 photo of a modern motor-boat transporting a group of malnourished children refugees from Syria to that same island for the same purpose, they start raising questions and engage in meaningful discussions.

They realize, that despite our different backgrounds or scholarly interests, mass violence, poverty, inequality, and struggle for survival are not topics to be discussed merely by those studying or teaching humanities. These are problems of humanity.

Republic Square, Yerevan

Ashley: What do you hope to achieve in your career?

Asya: My short-term career goal is to expand the scope of my research and complete the revisioning of my dissertation, so that I can publish my book and share the results of my scholarship with everyone interested. Based on extensive research in archives and libraries in Armenia, Georgia, Russia, the US, and elsewhere, my book is going to shed new light on the experiences of those Armenian refugees of the genocide, who were forced to leave their homes in “Western Armenia” and find shelter and eventually a new home in “Eastern/Russian Armenia,” just like, for instance, my great-grandmother Anna and her son, my grandfather Andranik, did.

It will also revisit the history of Russo-Armenian relations and present the complexity of imperial policies towards Armenians during the Great War. These policies are never black or white. Russia did not want “Armenia without Armenians.” Those historians who still insist on these more cynical or overly simplified explanations of Russo-Armenian relations underestimate the importance of global and regional contexts in which these relations and policies are formed and developed.

My long-term plan has not really changed. I love conducting research, uncovering new files and sources, writing and publishing, as much as I love teaching and organizing workshops and other academic events for intellectual exchange.

To be honest, the academic path turned out to be much more difficult and complicated than I assumed it would be. A lot of the difficulties have to do with the still heavily male-dominated structure of academia. There are more female students interested in refugees and genocide studies than male, but the professors and the senior scholars are still predominantly men, especially in Armenian Genocide studies.

I have also faced a number of obstacles as an international scholar in the US, because of the harsh immigration policies and lack of both funding and job opportunities for non-citizens. But I believe that persistent hard work and continued effort will eventually produce results.

Tsitsernakaberd, the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute in Yerevan

Ashley: Do you think genocide is an important topic for everyone to better understand?

Asya: I do believe that, absolutely! Genocide is a global problem. The Armenian Genocide is not the history of the Armenian and Turkish people; the Genocide of 1994 in Rwanda is not the history of the Tutsi and Hutu people. This is the history of humanity.

As we’ve observed during this global pandemic, the Native Americans were the most vulnerable group in the US with highest mortality rates (more than the African American communities). Why? Because one of the greatest democracies in the world has not yet dealt with its own past, has not faced the crimes committed against the real owners of these lands, hence not properly apologizing for the genocide and taking the full responsibility for the safe, secure and prosperous future of the first citizens of this land. And I believe Australians too can relate to this story.

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From final draft to publication to audiobook

In 2017, I found myself with a 12,000-word novella. It was best piece of fiction I’d ever written, and possibly my best piece of writing full stop, and it sat on my hard drive, dreaming of readers.

I hadn’t intended to write a novella; my master’s degree program had dictated the word length. But writing it had turned out to be very useful. It allowed me to more easily develop novel-writing skills on a shorter project. I was able to go from idea to final draft in 18 months, with heaps of feedback and revision, something I never could have found time for if I’d been working on a manuscript of 80,000 words.

But novellas are tricky creatures. Publication call-outs and competitions for novellas exist, but there are far fewer than for short stories or full-length manuscripts.

This is why I was excited to discover the Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award, which accepted up to 30,000 words. It also suggested including an essay reflecting on the writing process. This excited me further, because I had a lot to say about my writing process. The novella had come out of years of research into the Armenian genocide, including interviews with 140 people on three continents, and two masters’ theses. In fact, I’d enrolled in a creative writing master’s program because I had the idea to write from the point of view of a terrorist connected to that history — and the idea terrified me.

Before entering the CBDLA, I read the examples suggested, My Hearts Are Your Hearts by Carmel Bird and Cracking the Spine: Ten short Australian stories and how they were written, both published by Spineless Wonders. Using these as a guide, I wrote my reflective essay, combined it with the novella, and sent it in.

In 2018, I was delighted to be one of 11 longlisted entries, and very surprised to learn I was one of three finalists. The prize included digital publication and $1000. The ebook of My Name Is Revenge was out by the end of the year.

When Bronwyn Mehan, the powerhouse behind Spineless Wonders, approached me about a print version, I said yes immediately. I’d been studying writing and revising drafts and racking up rejections for nearly a decade by this time, working toward the goal of having a published book. Technically I’d achieved that, but the book wasn’t yet a thing I could hold or sign or gift to my grandmother.

‘One thing,’ Bronwyn said. ‘At 17,000 words, it’s not long enough to have a spine.’

So we added in two additional companion pieces, essays previously published by Griffith Review and Sydney Review of Books. This brought the collection up to 25,000 words. We also included photographs from my time in Armenia.

My Name Is Revenge book cover printed on chocolate cake

The idea of the thriller novella was to hook readers with a gripping story, set in Sydney and based on the real-life assassination of the Turkish consul-general and his bodyguard. The assassination took place in 1980 and remains unsolved. When readers finish the story, the essays and photos provide the historical context for its events, a history that has been suppressed due to the ongoing denial of the Armenian genocide.

We launched My Name Is Revenge in June 2019, with author Emily Maguire giving the launch speech. It was one of the happiest events of my life.

With the book out in the world, I organised bookshop visits and library talks. I pitched myself to festivals and podcasts. This helped when, later in the year, I had a full-length manuscript under consideration with Affirm Press, which became my second book.

Author speaks to crowd at My Name Is Revenge book launch

I thought that might be the end of the story for Revenge, but Bronwyn is full of great ideas. There was a voice actor named Felix Johnson, she told me, who would be perfect to narrate Revenge as an audiobook. This delighted me; I love audiobooks.

I worked with sound engineer Jeff Zhang to record the essays, and Felix worked with Jeff and Eleni Schumacher to record the novella, with Bronwyn coordinating everything, working around covid restrictions. It was rewarding to have the opportunity to narrate my work — and also exhausting! I’d never guessed reading out loud could be so tiring. It gave me new respect for audiobook narrators, especially those who bring characters to life the way Felix does.

My Name Is Revenge is now available as an audiobook worldwide, and also in print-on-demand and ebook formats. It’s so much more than I could have hoped for when I wrote that 12,000-word novella, and I credit my success in the CBDLA with launching my writing career.

My Name Is Revenge audiobook Ashley Kalagian Blunt

Listen to My Name Is Revenge on
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The 2021 Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award is open for entries until 7 February.

The Bodies History Hides

How do dominant historical narratives keep hidden the lives and deaths of others, and what do these narratives cost us? From the colonisation of Indigenous lands to the Armenian genocide to the Holocaust, this conversation explores bodies hidden by history, and how writing can work toward a recovery of their stories.

Part of the 2020 Wollongong Writers Festival, this author panel features Australian Indigenous writer Bruce Pascoe, the author of Dark Emu, and Leah Kaminsky, author of The Hollow Bones and The Waiting Room, along with myself discussing My Name Is Revenge, chaired by journalist Osman Faruqi.

When festival director Chloe Higgins approached me about programming a panel, I knew exactly who I wanted to speak with.

Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu is the most revelatory book I’ve read during my decade in Australia. In his survey of early European accounts of the continent, Bruce Pascoe reveals how complex Indigenous agriculture and architecture truly was, and so urges us to reconsider our understanding of Aboriginal civilisation. As he concludes, ‘To deny Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agricultural and spiritual achievement is the single greatest impediment to intercultural understanding and, perhaps, to Australian moral wellbeing and economic prosperity.’

Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, Australian author

As I wrote in How to Be Australian, I think Pascoe’s book should be part of the citizenship process. All Australians should read it, and consider what this land was, and what it could be again.

There are obvious connections between the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust. Leah Kaminsky is an Australian author who writes, among many things, about being a descendent of Jewish Holocaust survivors, and we’ll be speaking about these connections.

Less obvious but equally fascinating are the connections between the Armenian genocide and the destruction of Aboriginal communities and ways of life. As Pascoe’s book shows, history has been warped, hidden and narrowed. The mechanics of this are far more complex than in the denial of the Armenian genocide, which was a decision made and implemented by successive governments, beginning in the planning phase of the genocide.

This is sure to be a fascinating discussion. Please join us online.

The Bodies History Hides >>
Wollongong Writers Festival
Saturday 28 November, 4pm AEDT, online
Tickets $10

It’s Christmas, so let’s talk assassination

I know, I know, it’s the week before Christmas. The carols are playing, the shops are bustling, and the tinsel is glittering (which makes me wonder if scientists are including tinsel in their call for a worldwide ban on glitter).

But it was on 17 December 1980 that Australia’s first geopolitically motivated assassination took place in Sydney, which means I need to interrupt your Christmas cheer to share some breaking news.

SMH 17 Dec 1980.jpeg

This week, thirty-nine years after the assassination, a memorial was held for the two murdered men, Turkish consul-general Sarik Ariyak and his bodyguard Engin Sever. If you’ve read My Name Is Revenge, you’ll know this event kicks off the book. It brought the violent backlash against Turkey’s denial of the Armenian genocide to Australia, intimately involving the nation.

Though the Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide took responsibility for the attack, no-one was ever charged with the murders. The case remains unsolved.

NSW Police announced a $1 million reward for information, increased from the $250,000 that has been on offer since the 1980s. The police are also reviewing the case. The NSW Joint Counter Terrorism Team created Strike Force Esslemont to re-investigate. (I assume this strike force isn’t named after Canadian speculative fiction author Ian C Esslemont, but I could be wrong. Maybe someone on the strike force is a big fan.)

The police media release doesn’t state where the reward money has come from, or why they’ve reopened the investigation now. (It’s a total coincidence that after all these decades, this happened months after my book was released, right?)

I hope Strike Force Esslemont discovers the two men responsible for these murders, and I hope they’re brought to trial. The victims’ families deserve answers, and the case and its political context deserve more attention. It’s an important example of the ongoing repercussions of genocide denial and intergenerational trauma, and the need for a coming together between communities.

 

First Time Feels

Two months ago I started the first draft of a new novel, and I’m 16,000 words in. So at that rate it will take me … I don’t know, eight years to finish? But there’s been lots keeping me busy. Here’s a roundup of the latest news.

1. I had a fantastic interview about My Name Is Revenge with author Pamela Cook on the writing podcast she co-hosts with Kel Butler, Writes4Women, and you can listen here.

2. Armenia was the ‘journeys to come’ destination in this guest traveller post I wrote for Catriona Rowntree.

3. My latest book review, on JP Pomare’s Call Me Evie, is out now. This psychological thriller is captivatingly taut, with evocative settings and characters that thrash through their lives with an almost painful authenticity.

4. My monthly enewsletter comes out tomorrow, with a chance to win a copy of Toni Jordan’s new novel The Fragments! There’s still time to sign up.*

unnamed.jpg

5. I’m appearing on a writing panel with some fantastic Australian authors. If you’re an emerging writer in Sydney, this panel is for you!

First Time Feels with the First Time Podcast
Friday 20 September, 6pm
Gleebooks, Glebe
Co-hosts of The First Time Podcast, Kate Mildenhall (Skylarking) and Katherine Collette (The Helpline) talk debut publication with authors John Purcell (The Girl on the Page), Cassie Hamer (After the Party) and Ashley Kalagian Blunt (My Name Is Revenge).
Come along to a live recording of this popular writing podcast, and stay for a wine and a catch up with other writing folk.

 

*So many people have asked me about this: no, that is not my dog. It’s a stock image dog. He really wants to you to sign up to my newsletter. That’s the whole story.

Book club discussion guide

Zorats Karer, Armenian Stonehenge
A literary thriller novella 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. A collection of essays blending memoir, history and journalism accompany the novella. You can download a PDF copy of this book club discussion guide.

1. Had you heard of the Armenian genocide before My Name Is Revenge? If so, how did you learn about it?

2. How does Vrezh’s life in 1980s Sydney contrast with his interior world?

3. Vrezh acts as though he has absorbed his grandfather’s memories as his own. Do you believe it’s possible to have ‘memories’ of events that happened to others?

4. How do you understand the relationship between Vrezh and Armen? How does their father’s behaviour impact them?

5. Can you empathise with Vrezh’s motivations for taking part in an assassination? How do his school experiences in Australia influence him?

6. Do Vrezh’s motivations differ from Armen’s? If yes, how?

7. ‘I couldn’t condone or even empathise with their methods. And yet I understood their motives intimately’ (75). Have you ever empathised with the motives behind an act of violence? Did this surprise you?

8. ‘If there had ever been justice, it was a fluke, an aberration’ (52). Do you believe justice is possible after an event like the Armenian genocide? If so, how?

9. What does My Name Is Revenge reveal about the past and its impact on the present and the future?

10. Vrezh ‘wonders about the Aboriginal people who might have once lived in the NSW countryside. But he lacks the empathic imagination to connect their history to his own’ (77-8). Why do you think Vrezh struggles to imagine the history of others?
Ashley Kalagian Blunt plus book cover of My Name Is Revenge
11. Norman Naimark argues that genocides never happen in isolation, but are part of an historical continuum. After reading ‘The Crime of Crimes’, do you agree?

12. ‘I’ve studied and written about genocide for nearly a decade. My husband finds this interest morbid’ (101). After reading My Name Is Revenge, why do think Kalagian Blunt pursued this topic for so many years?

13. ‘In my hostel, they told me I am the first Turk to stay there. I’ve heard this everywhere!’ (128). How did the actions of Başak, the Turkish woman who Kalagian Blunt meets in Armenia, make you feel? Would you risk arrest for your convictions?

14. Has this book made you think differently about how we, as a society, remember and understand historical events?

15. My Name Is Revenge includes photos taken by the author. Many of these photos highlight aspects of Armenia today. What do you believe is the intention of these photos?

 

So now you’re an author

When I was seven, my school published a story I’d written in a collection called Young Saskatchewan Writers. (My family lived in Moose Jaw, so I was Saskatchewanian.) It was a one-paragraph story about a wizard who turned some school kids into frogs.

Seeing my name in that book made me think I actually was a writer, or at least would be some day. I started a novel when I was fourteen, and another when I was eighteen. The first was speculative fiction about killer bees from Mars; the second was apocalyptic magical realism. (All I can say is, thank goodness self-publishing was not so widely accessible back then.)

There were a few years in my twenties when I didn’t write anything but journals, mostly because I was living in Peru and Mexico, and spending my time learning Spanish.

I returned to writing seriously in 2010. I applied for an arts grant, and somehow got it. Around that time, I read a book in which the author mentioned that it took 10 years for her project to go from idea to publication. I found this ridiculous. There was no way my book would take that long.

Almost exactly ten years later, my first book came out. I was 35. Author with stacks of books, My Name Is RevengeWhich is to say, this was a major life goal of mine that I worked very hard on for many years, and achieving it felt really good. And lots of great things have happened since my book came out.

Here I am at Sydney Writers’ Festival with essayists Fiona Wright and Luke Carman, whose new collections explore the impacts of chronic illness. It was a bit intimidating to get up on stage with such skilled, established authors. But it went well, I think. IMG_1463.JPGAfter the talk, all three of us went to the signing tables. I’d joked about how, because I was the panel moderator, no one would come to have my book signed – no one ever goes to see the moderator. And I was right! I sat there all alone while people lined up with Fiona and Luke’s books. It felt like a rite of passage.

Since my book has come out, I also had the pleasure of speaking to Claudine Tinellis, who hosts the podcast Talking Aussie Books about writing Revenge and tips for writers.

I made my first book club appearance, with this incredible group of Armenian women. This was delightful, not only because they had all read the book and we had a robust, three-hour discussion about Armenian identity, but also because it was like being with my aunts and cousins.  Armenian Book Club with copies of My Name Is RevengeAnd I was invited to appear at the NSW Dickens Society annual conference with the wonderful Walter Mason. This time, I signed some books!Literary conference panel from NSW Dickens Society
And I have more events coming up, in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne.

Chronic fatigue has made all this challenging. My events have gone well, but I usually go straight to bed after, sometimes feeling like my head’s being crushed in a vice. But I’m still grateful I get to do it. I know people with chronic illnesses who aren’t well enough to even attend events, let alone speak at them. And I know lots of writers who have been working on their manuscripts for many years, hoping to see them published.

What I’ve learned is you have no idea what’s going to happen: a random illness, a book publication that you didn’t even write as a book. Anything, apparently.

Hoping good things happen for you,
Ashley x

 

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.