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.

Yes, exploding spider babies are real

One of my favourite things to do in Australia is ask people for their spider stories.

Everyone who’s lived here has at least one good one. I wrote about a few of them, including one of my own, in How to Be Australian.

After nearly 10 years in Australia, I started to think maybe there wouldn’t be many new spider stories left to discover. I’d heard about spider encounters in moving cars, in beds, in swimming pools. I’d heard about people who had limbs turn ‘the colour of dead flesh’ after being bitten by a white tail. I’d even heard about monstrous spider-wasps flying through open windows with flailing huntsmans in their mouths.

I thought I’d heard everything.

I was wrong.

Out for dinner with two Canadian expats who moved to Sydney in 2019, the topic of spider stories came up. This couple’s story is a frontrunner for Spider Anecdote of the Year 2020, and possibly Spider Anecdote of All Time.

Here’s the scene: they spot a biggish spider in their apartment. The husband happens to have a long umbrella in his hand. He reaches out and, with perfect aim, manages to smush the spider with the umbrella tip.

THOUSANDS OF SPIDER BABIES EXPLODE FROM THE SQUASHED SPIDER, RUNNING IN ALL DIRECTIONS IN THE APARTMENT.

The next day at work, the wife relates this horrifying experience to one of her coworkers, a local.

“Oh yeah,” the coworker says, “that’s why you should never squash a spider in Australia. Better to use bug spray or catch it will a bowl.”

That’s why you should never squash a spider in Australia?? I’ve lived here 10 years and have talked about spiders with a lot of Australians. You could say cataloguing spider anecdotes has been part of my life’s work. And I’ve never heard this advice, or heard about exploding spider babies.

“Wait,” I said to the couple, “don’t spider lay eggs? Why would a spider have thousands of spider babies with it?”

It wasn’t that I doubted their story. The horror on their faces as they recalled it was genuine. I was simply confused about the biology.

Turns out I’m not the only one. Australian Geographic ran an article about this exact topic: ‘Wolf Spider Squashed, Hundreds of Babies Emerge‘.

I don’t want to alarm you, but there are 2888 species of wolf spider, and they’re found throughout the world. According to my very minimal research (I can only look at websites with photos of spiders for so long), all species of wolf spiders carry their egg sacs with them.

When the ‘spiderlings’ hatch, they live on the mother for a number of weeks. (Imagine that, ladies! Clambering around for weeks with several hundred babies clinging to you!)

So it seems my Canadian friend’s coworker is correct: you should never squash a spider in Australia, unless you know definitively that it’s not a female wolf spider. And even then, you’re still risking gross spider innards oozing all over. (Readers of How to Be Australian know my prefered spider-prepardeness plan is a vacuum.)

Got spider anecdotes for me? You know I want them!

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

Canada vs Australia triple-layered dessert face-off

Caramel kiss

Canada doesn’t have caramel slices. At least, not exactly. When I was growing up, my mom made a dessert called Eagle Brand squares.

These had a graham cracker base (a kind of sweet plain biscuit), not ground up but simply dropped into the pan, like floor tiles. The middle was a sort of oozy, pale caramel made from Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk, and the top was chocolate.

We had this after-dinner dessert on rotation with a few others, including marshmallow dream squares (chocolate cake base, mini-marshmallow centre and chocolate topping) and whatever it’s called when you coat rainbow mini-marshmallows in chocolate and refrigerate it.

Nostalgia might be a factor in my adult self’s love of caramel slices. That and lifelong sugar addiction.

What Canada lacks in caramel slices, it makes up for in Nanaimo bars. This is a national tragedy.
Stacks of Nanaimo bars
Nanaimo bars (I don’t know why this Winnipeg cafe calls them ‘squares’, this is patently wrong) are named after a small city on Vancouver Island. Their main insult is a middle layer of  custard. Usually the custard is bright yellow, but it can be neon green or even pink. What this has to do with Nanaimo, I don’t know. Maybe it’s custard capital of Canada.

My family never made Nanaimo bars, but whenever I went to potlucks or community events as a kid, there was always a tray of them waiting to disappoint. The base was crumbled nuts and and coconut, and the custard was slimy. The only part worth eating was the chocolate, so I would scrape that off and discard the rest, thinking I was being sneaky.

Discovering caramel slices in Australia felt like the universe making up for a childhood full of Nanaimo bars.  When I wrote my memoir of moving to Sydney, I included a lot of caramel slice references, particularly once I discovered that the caramel slice is as Australian as lamingtons, Anzac biscuits and fairy bread.

If you’re keen to hear more discoveries from expat life in Australia, join me for an online author talk with Katherine Tamiko Arguile. Thursday 1 October, 11am AEST (10:30am Adelaide time) RSVP here >>

Author headshot and book cover

Ep 10: Progressive weakness and loss of sensation

In episode 10 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, we get real serious – or as serious as it’s possible for James and me to get.

We talk about our respective diagnoses and how these illnesses erupted in our lives. James has chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, a neurological disorder that’s quite rare.

CIDP has had a significant and ongoing impact on his life, but James is determined not to make it part of his identity. His challenges in even speaking about it are why it took us three separate attempts over multiple months to record this episode.

And while this episode was recorded remotely as usual, we actually got to hang out in person in Coonabarbran, proving that we don’t stay at home all the time (even if it often feels that way).

It’s been a big podcast week! Two interviews about How to Be Australian were also released.

The first, with superhost Dani Vee of the Words and Nerds podcast (which is coming up to 200 episodes), is possibly the most cross-cultural Australian/Canadian conversation imaginable, with a strong focus on the weather and spider stories.

Dani shares an excellent spider story that settles one of the great Aussie debates: whether or not hunstmans bite. She also shares a story about visiting family in the Netherlands, who announced, “We’re all going to the beach today because it’s 16 degrees!” As a Canadian I can imagine myself saying this. As an Australian, I think it’s nuts.

As someone who has grown up in Australia, it was such an insight to see how we’re perceived from the outside. 

Dani Vee, Words and Nerds episode 196

Dani also asks what is perhaps my favourite question ever: why do you write?

The other interview is with Paul Barclay for ABC Radio National’s Big Ideas.

This in-depth discussion gets into Australia’s cultural quirks, the concept of belonging, the importance of uncovering and acknowledging buried histories, and of course, the Hollywood kookaburra con.

We also talk about adulthood, and get into the core of the book: ‘Part of the process of really settling into adulthood was realising that these images I’d held in my head, the things that I’d believed were going to make me happy — were not actually going to make me happy.’ 

Paul asks a great question about my search for identity in Australia, and how it connects to a childhood spent moving around.

Something had happened that had disrupted my ability to belong. And I think that’s partly what propelled me to go live in places like South Korea and Peru and Mexico, because of course I didn’t belong there, that was obvious to everyone, and we could just move forward from that understanding.

If these conversations make you keen to get into How to Be Australian, you can get a copy now wherever you are in the world.

Order the book now from
Your local bookshop | Booktopia | Amazon | Outside Australia

An overdue caramel slice confession

Caramel slice at the beach

Since How to Be Australian was released in June, I’ve been waiting for someone to point out the book’s glaring inconsistency.  Caramel slice at the beachIt started when I first arrived in Sydney. One of my favourite discoveries was caramel slices, and particularly their wide abundancy at cafes everywhere.

Australia is a country that takes its desserts seriously, as evidenced by the existence of a one-dollar coin featuring Iced VoVos. This is actual Australian currency.
Iced Vovo one dollar gold coin
Yet while I learned about the Aussie origins of lamingtons, fairy bread and pavlova soon after arriving, it took almost a decade before I learned the Down Under origins of the caramel slice.

The first known caramel slice recipe appeared in the Australian Women’s Weekly in October 1970 under the name caramel shortbread.
Variety of desserts on platter and jug, cups and saucersScotland understood how amazing caramel shortbread was, because a couple of decades later, the recipe became popular there under the name millionaire’s shortbread.

While that name gives you no indication of what’s in the dessert, I appreciate the implication it’s a dessert of millionaires.

In Australia, I’m not sure when the name shifted from caramel shortbread to caramel slice, but this Google Ngram shows the steep rise in the term’s use.
Caramel slice Ngram graph
You can see I’ve done my research. After the book came out, I found myself talking about caramel slice a lot.

I ended up in a cross-country caramel slice showdown with author Monique Mulligan. (She won easily, since her slice was homemade.)
Laptop and caramel slice
Readers made caramel slice and dropped it off at my home.
Homemade caramel slice on booksAnd author Josephine Taylor created an incredible deconstructed caramel slice decorated with grevillea blossoms in honour of the book. (She has a weekly project pairing newly released books with homemade desserts, check it out.)
Deconstructed caramel slice and How to Be Australian
I’ve even started to incorporate caramel slices into my wardrobe. Check out these earrings, which were a hot tip from another lovely reader.
Caramel slice earringsWhen I started giving author talks, I was using this photo from my own archives. I reckon this caramel slice is perfect. It has a significant layer of chocolate, not too thin, an ideal consistency in the caramel, and a chocolate crumble base with – notably – no dessicated coconut. Caramel slice with creamA reader who attended that talk pointed out that a proper caramel slice shouldn’t have a chocolate base.

But so far no-one has pointed out the inconsistency in the book, which is that while I love caramel slices, I strongly dislike dessicated coconut. I refuse to eat both Iced Vovos and lamingtons because of it. Look at this coconutty mess smothering otherwise delicious cake. Bowl of lamingtonsI’ve been prepared to defend myself on this, to insist that the dried-up coconut nubs in the base of caramel slices are negligible (though still unpleasant and woefully unnecessary), and that I’m very much aware of them, but my love of caramel slices overcomes my dislike of dessicated coconut in this instance (even if sometimes, when I’m alone, I eat the base first so I can enjoy the chocolate and caramel without the pesky interference of other ingredients, proving I haven’t matured much since childhood).

So far no readers have challenged me on this very important and serious matter, nor has it come up in any reviews. But I’m bracing for it. Like I said, we take our desserts seriously here.

 

Order How to Be Australian now from
Your local bookshop | Booktopia | Amazon | Outside Australia

If this Australian animal is after you, it might be personal

How Deadly
How Deadly is a series of short videos featuring ABC’s resident ‘nature nerd’, Ann Jones, available on iView. Ann answers all the pressing questions: how realistic are the crocodile scenes in movies like Lake Placid and Crocodile Dundee? Are snakes cannibals? How do kangaroos feel about parachutes? How many people have been murdered by emus? And how did they train Skippy to perform all those stunts?

How Deadly is worth watching to hear Ann refer to snakes as ‘bush tinsel’, and for the revelation that swooping ‘maggies’ have particular proclivities: some hate bike riders, some go after posties because of their hi-vis gear, and – because they can recognise faces – some target specific individuals. So if you’re getting swooped, remember – it might be personal.*

Ann says that emus have never murdered anyone, but emu expert Stephen Schmidt disagrees. According to him, ‘people have been killed by them.’

In a recent ABC article about emus being banned from a western Queensland pub after ‘toileting’ all over the place, Schmidt said, ‘I’ve had them chase me up onto the top of the truck.’ Meaning, presumably, that if he hadn’t managed to get up there, the oversized birds would have murdered him.

Schmidt doesn’t mention how many days he had to wait atop his truck before the homicidal birds finally scuttled off to find someone else to terrorise.

Nor does he offer any evidence of emu murders. But he must know what he’s talking about, since he works with the birds daily. His farm name, Try It Emu, seems like a direct taunt (this might explain the truck scenario). So maybe magpies aren’t the only Australian birds with a personal beef.

These sorts of Australiana facts are among my favourite things to discuss, and soon I’ll be doing just that on Zoom with author Cass Moriarty. Join us! Two female authors and book cover
Ashley Kalagian Blunt in conversation with Cass Moriarty
Thursday 6 August, 6:30-7:30pm AEST, online
Avid Reader
Free, RSVP here >>

*This was first published by Writing NSW