The key to being smarter, healthier and happier

Mark your calendars! This year Australian Reading Hour is Tuesday 14 September. This is a chance to not only make some extra time in your schedule for reading, but also to celebrate reading and all its benefits and joys.

Australia Reads exists to ‘champion reading, promote the many mental health and lifestyle benefits of reading books, and encourage the next generation of avid book readers to significantly increase book reading by all Australians – no matter the format they read.’

As they say,

‘We believe reading is the key to a smarter, healthier, happier nation.’

And I completely agree! I wouldn’t be the person I am without all the books I’ve benefited from reading in my life time: I have a much deeper and broader understanding of the world around me and the complex and unique lives of the people in my community and my country, and around the globe.

Reading also gives me a chance to get off my devices and allow my attention to focus on one thing (it’s basically a type of meditation, in my experience). I generally sleep better on days when I get more reading in.

I also love listening to audiobooks when I’m walking, driving, doing chores and lying down. This keeps me engaged in the world of the book, which stops my mind from ruminating about my own anxieties. (And unlike podcasts, audiobooks don’t have ad breaks!)

And reading has connected to me to all kinds of wonderful people, and brought me joy through memorable stories, beloved characters, and fascinating insights into human life and history.

So there you go – that’s at least one person who’s smarter, healthier and happier. Imagine that to the power of 25 million!

If you’re looking to try new books and authors, check out my Great Reads, where you’ll find write-ups about many of my favourite books.

Or check out James and Ashley Stay at Home, a podcast that features interviews with a wide range of both fiction and non-fiction authors.

Still not sure? Get in touch and I’ll recommend you a read that I’ve loved!

And the 2021 Penguin Literary Prize goes to …

Huge congratulations are due to my podcast co-host, writers’ group member and fellow health-challenged friend, James McKenzie Watson, who has won the won the 2021 Penguin Literary Prize for his manuscript Denizen.

Launched in 2017, the Penguin Literary Prize was established to find, nurture and develop new Australian authors of literary fiction.

I’ve read a draft of Denzien and loved it, and I can’t wait for it to be out in the world next year. In the meantime, I thought I’d ask James to introduce the book. And then while I was at it, I asked a bunch of other questions.

Ashley: What is Denizen about?
James: Denizen is an Australian gothic/literary thriller that explores rural Australia’s simultaneous celebration of harsh country and stoic people – a tension that forces its inhabitants to dangerous breaking points. In it, a volatile eight-year-old in Western NSW struggles to subdue the chaos in his head, unaware of how profoundly his actions will one day affect his own fatherhood.

A: When did you start writing it? Do you remember the day you started?
J: Like many of my early manuscripts, Denizen had its origins in a home movie. As an adolescent, one of my creative outlets was short (and far too long) film – a lot of which were feature-length epics whose production and post-production scales go a long way to explaining why my year ten attendance rate was 40 per cent. My earliest ideas for Denizen were that it would be based loosely on a 90-minute film I made when I was 15, called The Creek.

In 2015, when I was 23, I woke up one day to find that I couldn’t feel my feet. Soon after, I was in Royal North Shore Hospital being treated for Guillain Barre Syndrome, a progressive neuropathy that causes rapid paralysis. Part of the work up to diagnose GBS is a lumbar puncture, after which I had to lay flat on my back for two hours. I distinctly remember being rolled onto my back, staring at the ceiling and thinking, “well, now seems as good a time as any to start planning this novel.” I spent the next two hours working it through in my head until I had a clear idea of what the book I would look like. I started the first draft almost as soon as I was discharged from hospital.

In the five years and six drafts since then, Denizen has evolved from being a recognisable adaptation of The Creek into something very different. That said, evidence of its origins remains, particularly in the middle act.

A: What was the most difficult part of writing Denizen?
J: I struggled a lot with characterisation, which I suppose is an expected challenge when writing from the point of view of a deeply flawed protagonist. It took a lot of work to make Parker, the main character and narrator, someone readers could empathise with. In the end, realised it was more important to make him relatable than likable, and so I focused on that.

A: One year into James and Ashley Stay at Home, what’s the best episode for listeners to start with?
J: I’m very biased, but whenever anyone asks me this question, I tell them episode 23. In it, Ashley and I interviewed David Vann, one of my all-time favourite authors and literary heroes. The conversation was everything I’d hoped it would be – a raw and fascinating exploration of his motivations and process, peppered with his insights into literature, philosophy and politics.

That said, there are probably more accessible entry points into our rapidly growing catalogue. Episode 17 (The Best Writing Tips from 2020) showcases just some of the many wonderful writers we’ve spoken to and is also a miniature masterclass in the writing craft. It’s hard to pick out specific interviews from all the amazing conversations we’ve had, but episode 9 (Karen Foxwell), episode 14 (Kate Mildenhall), episode 14 (Elizabeth Tan), episode 16 (Ada Palmer), and episode 18 (Nardi Simpson) would all be good places to start. If you prefer your health and writing podcasts a bit more health heavy, you could do worse than to start with episode 25 (in which Ashley and I discuss our health). It was a hard one to record and listen to, but I was blown away by the wonderful response it received.

A: What’s your favourite Australian animal?
J: The Australian magpie. They’re only bastards if they’re nesting and you’re in their space, and even then, they’re just protecting their babies. They’re gorgeous. They have such a beautiful song. Have you ever seen a magpie sun itself? They lie on their bellies with their wings outstretched – it’s hysterical. And they play like dogs do! They lie on their backs and wrestle with each other. Young magpies look so ridiculous and adorable with their fluffy grey baby feathers, and their weird, spherical bodies. They’re incredibly clever and resourceful. They’re a lot more than just that vicious, swooping bird that takes people’s eyes out. I’d probably swoop at you if you rode a bike through my house too.

You can follow James on Twitter and Instagram, and listen to James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, SpotifyStitcher, or your favourite podcast app.

Ep 26 Raising the Dead with Luke Stegemann, author of ‘Amnesia Road’

‘Sometimes just not knowing can actually be a good thing … but there are other times when you really do have to pursue truth. And when does one apply and when does the other?’

In Amnesia Road, Luke Stegemann explores complex questions about violence, history and society. He doesn’t profess to have answers, which is one of the book’s great strengths.

Luke is a writer, Hispanist and cultural historian based in rural south-east Queensland. He writes on art, politics and history for a wide range of Australian and Spanish publications, and is the author of The Beautiful Obscure. In 2018 he received the Malaspina Award in recognition of his ‘outstanding contribution to the development of cultural relations between Australia and Spain’. On weekends, he travels extensively around
Queensland in his role as a referee on the state amateur boxing circuit.

His latest book, Amnesia Road, is a literary consideration of historic violence in two different parts of the world, the seldom-visited mulga plains of south-west Queensland and the backroads of rural Andalusia. It is also a celebration of the landscapes where the violence of frontier conflict and civil war has been carried out.

James and I ask Luke whether it’s possible for Australians to have a common understanding of our history, and how the under-acknowledged histories of colonial violence in Australia, the nationalist violence in Spain (and the many similar contexts in other nations, such as Turkey) impact the societal health of their respective nations.

We discuss the importance of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and the impact of social media on our current discourse and effort to understand what the past means for each of us.

At the end, Luke lightens the mood with an anecdote about an Andalusian dog who becomes a harbinger of death. Trust me, we laughed!

Books discussed in this episode
The Possessed by Dostoevsky
– Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marias
– A Heart So White by Javier Marias
The Stranger and short stories by Albert Camus
Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon
When We Dead Awaken by James Robins

Listen to episode 26 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, SpotifyStitcher, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about past episodes here.

Ep 24: Sea-creature days with Kavita Bedford, author of Friends and Dark Shapes

In Friends & Dark Shapes, author Kavita Bedford uses the term sea-creature days, ‘Days when things that lurk beneath the surface start to come up and feel a little stronger in day-to-day life than they normally do.’ We’ve all had days like that.

In episode 24 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, we interview Australian-Indian Kavita Bedford about her debut novel, Friends & Dark Shapes, Kavita has been published in the Guardian, Guernica, and Griffith Review.

A Sydney local, Kavita crafted the story as a love letter to her hometown. Its series of textured, lyrical vignettes centre around an unnamed protagonist, her share-house friends, and the lives of others they encounter across a complex, multicultural city where it’s easy to meet people but hard to make lasting connections. Grieving the loss of her father, the protagonist tries to shape her future in her city, while also tracing how it has shaped her.

  • Kavita Bedford James and Ashley Stay Home podcast
  • Kavita Bedford James and Ashley Stay Home podcast
  • Kavita Bedford James and Ashley Stay Home podcast
  • Kavita Bedford James and Ashley Stay Home podcast
  • Kavita Bedford James and Ashley Stay Home podcast

Kavita drew on her own experiences of her father’s death in writing the novel, as well as her own experiences of Sydney. She was surprised by the complexity of grief. ‘Grief is such a slippery, tricky thing, and you do have moment of lightness within it.’

Kavita Bedford James and Ashley Stay Home podcast

She was also surprised by the process of writing about Sydney. ‘When I started writing about my own city, there was such an initial outpouring of emotion that I wasn’t expecting.’

The resulting book is a powerful exploration both of grief, and of a metropolitan, multicultural city in transition.

Kavita Bedford James and Ashley Stay Home

Books and authors discussed in this episode
Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli
– Teju Cole
– Olivia Lang
– Sheila Heti
– Rachel Cusk
– Jenny Offill
– Elizabeth Strout
Disoriental by Négar Djavadi
The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen
Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon
Deepfakes by Nina Schick

Listen to episode 24 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about past episodes here.

Ep 22: Are you equating Vegemite to urine? with Nash, artist and author

Nash is not only the owner of a bad-ass mononym, he’s also an artist and now first-time author, and the latest guest on James and Ashley Stay at Home.

A Sri Lanka-born multi-disciplinary designer and artist, Nash has been based in Melbourne since 2012. His work is both cynical social commentary and an account of his personal experience as an immigrant – the ‘other’ in any society.

His first book is What to Expect When You’re Immigrating, and James and I were delighted to talk to him about the book, his career as an artist, his own experience of immigration, and how Vegemite tastes like rotten chocolate.

  • Nash author and artist
  • Nash author and artist
  • Nash author and artist
  • Nash author and artist

Nash is a funny guy, which is why we wanted to talk to him about how laughter can positively impact your health. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughing can improve your immune system, relieve pain, make it easier to cope with difficult situations, and improve your mood. This episode is full of laughs, and how they can also help overcome the challenges of talking to others about sensitive topics.

What to Expect When You’re Immigrating is out now, and you can find out more about Nash and his upcoming events on Instagram.

You can listen to episode 22 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about past episodes here.

The Cyclops Horse and other monsters

Steve and I are eating vegan this February, so on the 14th we celebrated what is now known as Vegantine’s Day.

Normally we don’t do much (sometimes the best gift is low expectations). But since the Chau Chak Wing Museum recently opened at the University of Sydney, Steve suggested visiting it together.

It turned out the museum cafe had vegan desserts! It also turned out they were not tasty.

I had no expectations of the museum, and I suppose in that way, it didn’t disappoint me. While it features many historically significant artefacts and culturally significant First Nations artworks, the Chau Chak Wing Museum is also full of monsters.

Check out these little terrors.

This pair of palm cockatoos have been haunting nightmares since 1788. Their latin name is proboscigers, and a fun fact is that their cheek colour “changes according to mood and health”, just like with humans. For example, the colour of these two birds’ cheeks indicates they’re dead.

So Steve and I are wandering around this museum, which is filled with taxidermied animals, Egyptian mummies, Etruscan pottery – you know, museum stuff – and then I spot this front and centre in a display cabinet.

It’s between two pieces of pottery, but unlike the pottery, it’s not immediately obvious what the thing is or how it’s earned shelf space in what is not a particularly large museum.

I examined this fur-covered object from every angle. It seemed vaguely familiar, yet hideously unknown. Finally, I located its identifying sign.

Are you ready?

IT’S THE TAXIDERMIED HEAD OF A CYCLOPS PONY.

Yeah, you read that right. Back in 1758, someone taxidermied the partial head of a deformed pony, and eighty-three years later, in 1841, some other weirdo decided it belonged in a museum.

Its sign reads, “Cyclopism is a relatively common birth defect in mammals: the two eye sockets do not form separately but fuse to create the appearance of a single eye.”

Which is strange justification for including the cyclops pony among the bronze-age spears and butterfly specimens. Also, if cyclopsism is so common in mammals, how come we don’t see more people with optic blast powers?

Other monstrosities include a fruit bat who wants to flash you:

A memorial to eclectus parrots (I doubt there’s any left in the wild at this rate):

And a two-dimensional platypus who looks well over it (granted, you wouldn’t look great if you’d been bathing in formaldehyde since 1799):

You can also find out what the Parthenon would look like if the Greeks had built it inside a disco.

And here it is, possibly the worst monster of all – the graphintegrator!

The graphintegrator is, according to a sign, “a mechanical device for solving differential equations in graphical form”. But I’m pretty sure it’s also a Batman villain.

Lesser Monsters of the Chau Chak Wing Museum include this pangolin. Last year I became obsessed with them, which is how I discovered that if you search the term pangolin too often on Instagram, your account will get flagged.

You might not think this little spotted kiwi is a monster, until you find out it used its own mother’s tax file number to commit identify theft.

Last and strippiest, a Tasmanian tiger with real cute eyes.

When we visited Tassie a few years ago (yes, that trip where I utterly failed to climb Cradle Mountain), Steve said that he planned to find a Tassie tiger. Despite being classified as extinct, there’s still rumours of sightings. I spent the whole trip shouting, “Quick, look, there’s a Tassie tiger!” and then telling Steve it was right behind him.

Would I recommend visiting the Chau Chak Wing Museum? Let me ask you this – where else can you see the distingeatrating remains of a cyclops pony head?

After the museum, you can also say hello to everyone’s favourite roogoyle (who of course features in How to Be Australian).

And don’t forget this other classic University of Sydney highlight, the Vice-Chancellor’s Lawn!

PS. If you haven’t heard, My Name Is Revenge is now available in audiobook. Sign up for my newsletter for your chance to get a free copy!

Ep 18: Learning how to learn with Nardi Simpson, author of Song of the Crocodile

“What I would ultimately like, you know, my huge big goal [for the book, is that] people can look back on this and say, ‘You know, there are bits in that – as a non-Indigenous person – I didn’t understand, but that’s okay, and I don’t need to acquire and learn and make meaning for everything in that book,’ because sometimes parts of that book are for Aboriginal people, some parts are for Yuwaalaraay people, and other parts are for Yuwaalaraay senior people.”

Nardi Simpson on James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast

Our first guest for 2021 is Yuwaalaraay author Nardi Simpson. From North West NSW freshwater plains, Nardi is a founding member of Indigenous folk duo Stiff Gins, and has been performing nationally and internationally for 20 years. Her debut novel, Song of the Crocodile, was a 2018 winner of a black&write! writing fellowship.

Speaking to us from a beach on the Northern Rivers, Nardi delved into the intercultural aspects of the book, and of navigating modern society as an Indigenous person in Australia.

  • Nardi Simpson on James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast
  • Nardi Simpson on James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast
  • Nardi Simpson on James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast
  • Nardi Simpson on James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast
  • Nardi Simpson on James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast

Song of the Crocodile is set in the fictional town of Darnmoor, in regional NSW. The story spans four generations of the Billymil family and their effort to sustain their Indigenous culture and community despite the overt and covert racism of the settlers, and the corrosive impact of intergenerational trauma.

Filled with ancestral spirits and Yuwaalaraay language, it presents both an insight into an ancient worldview that understands the healing power of the natural world, and a sharp, affecting critique of Australian society.

Her book reminded me of my own research into my family members’ survival of the Armenian genocide and the process of weaving that research into fiction when writing My Name Is Revenge.

“What happened to those families is basically what happened to my family,” Nardi says. “I wanted to understand that, and I didn’t want to judge it.”

Nardi Simpson on James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast

Going too much into detail on the connections would be a spoiler for both Nardi’s book and my own, but one of the broad strokes points we both explore is how much has been lost due to the violence suffered by both communities – not just lives, livelihoods, homes and land, but also cultural knowledge and worldviews.

It’s a great conversation, and Nardi is a fascinating speaker and well as a powerful writer.

In this episode, we also discuss Bindi by Kirli Saunders, The Road to Woop Woop by Eugen Bacon, and James’s thoughts on reaching the end of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-book memoir series.

You can listen to episode 18 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about our past episodes here.

2020: The reading year in review

In 2020, I read far more fiction (61%) than non-fiction (39%). This is unusual for me; I generally prefer non-fiction. But it continues a trend that started in 2019. I suspect we all need more escapism these days.

I continued to support Australian authors, women authors and debut authors, and aimed to read more authors of colour. That 23% is still a too low, which gives me something to focus on in 2021.

2020 reading breakdown
68% Australian authors
74% women authors
23% authors of colour
39% nonfiction
42% debut authors

This year, a lot of my reading was focused on authors who agreed to be guests on my new podcast, James and Ashley Stay at Home, co-hosted with James McKenzie Watson. Most our guests were writers, and we also interviewed comedian Anthony Jeannot and art therapist Karin Foxwell.

Because we interviewed so many writers, we got a lot of fantastic writing tips. As a special end of year treat, James edited some of the best tips together. Episode 17: The Best Writing Tips of 2020 has useful tips for any writer (and a few good tips for those of us suffering chronic illness as well).

And we’re excited to be planning more great episodes for 2021. We’ll be speaking to Yuwaalaraay author Nardi Simpson about her debut novel Song of the Crocodile, to Josephine Taylor about writing and living with vulvodynia, and lots more!

You can listen to James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcastsSpotify, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about our past episodes here.

Moving across oceans to create a new life

After moving from India to Sydney in 2019, Khyati Sharma became inspired to share the stories of fellow expats and migrants through a new online project called Immigrants in Australia, modelled after Humans of New York. Since launching in September, she’s shared the stories of people from all over the world, including India, China, South Africa, Canada, Armenia, Mexico, Italy, Malaysia, Austria, England and Indonesia.

I asked Khyati to share her motivation for this project, as well as her own challenges with becoming Australian.

Khyati and her husband, Bipin

Q: What is Immigrants in Australia?

A: Immigrants in Australia is all about the wonderful people who’ve taken a great leap of faith because they didn’t want to settle for ordinary. At Immigrants in Australia, I present the inspiring stories of immigrants who have made Australia their new home.

As someone who has moved across oceans to create a new life myself, I know it requires more than just will power. You pack up your entire being, your life isn’t going to be the same, and that’s precisely the point. Moving abroad comes with this whole deal to discover yourself and satisfy the thirst of having done something substantial in life. That’s why this project is so close to my heart.

Q: What inspired you to start this project?

A: I was always fascinated by immigration stories. When I was a kid, I remember asking my cousins and friends who moved overseas – what prompted the move and how were they liking it there? Nobody knew that someday I would make a move myself, but as destiny had it – I married a guy who was based in Sydney and so I had to be here. After my arrival, I continued asking my whys and hows to almost every immigrant I met. I realised how each one of them had a legacy to inspire, a powerful message to share. Many people have a story of overcoming great social and cultural upheaval. And the fact that these stories came from real people made me believe that the possibilities open to us are endless.

Q: What brought you to Australia?

A: Believe me, I NEVER wanted to move outside New Delhi, India, where I was born and brought up. I am super attached to my family, and I thought that I would stay with a 10-minute drive of my parents’ house after marriage. I had no idea that I would eventually move 10,000 kilometres away from them to join my husband. Life continually surprises you when you’re busy making other plans.

Q: What’s your favourite thing about living in Australia?

A: I absolutely love the reading culture here. Almost every third person is reading a book or a Kindle, and I am secretly peeping at what they’re currently reading. I go to various libraries with a coffee in one hand and a book in the other. I love exploring the local bookstores; there’s a different kind of vibe always.

I also admire how Australia offers you freedom and respect in terms of what you do and how you choose to live.

Q: What’s been your biggest challenge in Australia?

A: There have been many, but I have overcome most of them, so I feel they were just initial hiccups that were necessary to experience, as they made me stronger. Like finding a stable job – I was professionally settled in India, so I never imagined struggling for work anywhere in the world. That mirage soon vanished when I received back-to-back rejection emails because I had no local experience. I wasn’t aware of how relevant this would be in the Australian job market.

The Australian accent was also quite intimidating. I have a Bachelors in English, so I thought I was sorted with the language. But within two days of my arrival, I went to a local café and asked for a mocha. The barista shot me some questions in a heavy accent, which sent me running. You have to use all your senses for the first few months to get used to the English here.

Q: Who is Immigrants in Australia for?

A: Immigrants in Australia is for anyone who has dared to dream, for anyone who has moved out of their safety nest and pushed their limits, and wants to achieve something in life. We have these amazing unsung people who’ve come to Australia from all over the world seeking a better life and wanting to contribute to Australian society and culture, who inspire many others to keep moving forward.

Check out Immigrants in Australia
Instagram | Facebook | online

And if you have a story to share, get in touch with Khyati at contact@immigrantsinaustralia.com.au.