The new book, out this year!

I can finally share some exciting news with you. My second book will be out this June from Affirm Press. It’s called How to Be Australian, and it’s a memoir of moving from Canada.
Ashley Kalagian Blunt, author
In a lot of ways, the book is a love letter to Australia, this charming, vast, baffling country that has been my home for almost a decade now.

When my husband and I moved here, we thought it would be like Canada, but hot. Australia is completely unique, and I dedicated myself to learning about it, to travelling widely and to the ongoing journey of discovery that is being Australian. It’s a memoir of anxiety and becoming an adult and struggling with marriage, but mostly it’s a book about loving Australia.

This summer’s fires have been devastating across the country. It’s heartbreaking. To offer a tiny bit of help, I’m taking part in Authors for Fireys, which means you can get:

  • YOUR NAME in the acknowledgements of How to Be Australian, plus one of the very first signed copies
  • and a signed copy of My Name Is Revenge

To get in on this, you need to go to Twitter and post your bid in response to the original tweet here:

2019: The reading year in review

In 2019, for the first time in years, I read more fiction (slightly more) than non-fiction. Perhaps, in this third year of illness, I needed to escape more. ‘Everybody should be reading 20 pages of fiction – from a real book – to open or close each day‘, as a way to  increase our empathy, understanding and compassion. This is according to author Neil Pasricha on The Knowledge Project podcast. But why only fiction? Wouldn’t reading memoir have the same effect?

In 2019, I continued to support Australian authors, women authors and debut authors (being all three of those things myself this year).

I also aimed to read more Indigenous authors, and followed through on that (instead of reading a stack of zombie fiction, like I did in 2018).

2019 reading breakdown
47% nonfiction
70% Australian authors
77% women authors
47% debut authors
7% Indigenous authors

 

2019 reading highlights

Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe (NF) 
In this revelatory survey of early European accounts of Australia, Aboriginal author Bruce Pascoe reveals how complex Indigenous agriculture, architecture and society 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.’

In the Clearing by JP Pomare
Pomare’s new psychological thriller is a compelling and startling exploration of family, control and violence. The story takes its inspiration from The Family, an Australian cult. Led by Anne Hamilton-Byrne in the 1970s and 80s, The Family was accused of imprisoning children and brainwashing them through the use of drugs and physical punishment, as well as forcing them to dress alike and dye their hair blond to better resemble its leader. The novel’s triumph is its surprising climax, and the way Pomare turns the tables on the reader, raising the question of what any one of us would do to protect our own families – however we define them. Read the full review here

Check out the complete list of great reads.

Wishing you a new year full of great books,
Ashley
xo

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.

 

A bold remedy for apparently hopeless cases

There was one more discovery at Melbourne’s Medical History Museum that delighted me even more than Champagne Jimmy, though I know that’s hard to believe.

Allow me to introduce you to the ‘colonial snakebite kit’.
Colonial snakebite kit at Melbourne Medical History MuseumActually that’s a few different kits. There were many treatments for snakebite in 19th-century Australia, the museum signage explains, including ‘incision, amputation, and a variety of “antidotes” (including mercury and medicinal brandy)’ as well as one man’s ‘use of intravenous ammonia’. (He thought snakebite poisoning was a result of germs, so I suppose his theory was that pumping ammonia into your blood would … kill the germs?)

The kit on the right, with the rather luxurious royal purple lining, is a ‘chloride of lime antidote for snakebite,’ circa 1895.

My favourite thing about this display, and the entire Medical History Museum, is the kit in the top left corner, dated from 1872. Its instructions start off shouting and just keep getting better:

AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE AFTER BEING BITTEN
1. Tie something very tightly above the bite.
2. Cut out the part bitten and wash the wound.
3. Watch for signs of Snake Poison.
Inability to walk. — Sleepiness. — Pale and Cold Skin. — Enlarged Pupils.
4. Keep the person warm, quiet, and hopeful.
5. DO NOT get flurried; do everything calmly.
6. DO NOT give any Stimulants; they do harm.
7. DO NOT force the person to walk about.
8. Remember that many Snakes are not Poisonous.
9. Remember that Fear alone may cause alarming signs and even cause Death.
10. Try in every way to allay fear and inspire courage and hope.
11. Directly signs of Snake Poison appear—
– Inject a dose of Strychnia.
– In a Child under 10, One Tablet, or one-fiftieth of a grain.
– In a Person over 10, Two Tablets, or one-twenty-fifth of a grain.
– In a Severe Case, Five Tablets, or one-tenth of a grain.
12. Repeat dose in quantity and frequency required.
USE THE REMEDY BOLDLY IN APPARENTLY HOPELESS CASES.

I love everything about these instructions. I love the random use of Capital Letters. I love that, after instructing you to remain calm in point 5, point 9 then informs you that fear alone can cause death, which is a fear-inducing statement if I’ve ever heard one. (Fear can also cause ‘alarming signs’, whatever those are.) I love that the instructions wait until point 5 to tell you to remain calm, and that instead of using those two simple words, they use seven, one of which is ‘flurried’.

And I especially love the concluding instruction to use your colonial snakebite remedy ‘boldly’, even if the bite victim seems to have already died of either Snake Poison or Fear Alone.

This colonial snakebite kit is my favourite piece of Australiana yet, and that’s including these handsome concrete driveway kangaroos:
Concrete guard kangaroos in Australia
Take care, and try not to get flurried,
Ashley
xo

 

Melbourne’s most terrifying attraction

Melbourne Medical History Museum
When I visited the Medical History Museum at the University of Melbourne, the last thing I expected to find was Champagne Jimmy.

I expected to find Dr Tracy’s ovariotomy instruments. Well, not his specifically, but something very much like them.
Ovariotomy instruments, medial history
Dr Richard Tracy performed the first such surgery in Victoria in 1864, using this horrifying set of ovariotomy instruments. He became ‘locally and internationally renowned’ for his success with the procedure. The set contains a scalpel, scissors, ‘a vulsellum forceps (with hooked tips),’ a ‘double sharp hook for raising the peritoneum’, pedicle clamps with detachable handles, and on the left, a mess of thick greyish thread that looks like it’s been removed from a ratty blanket.

I also expected the original shock therapy machine from 1885, described as an example the annals of ‘quackery’. It uses a hand crank to generate a charge.
IMG_2077
I even expected to learn about bizarre apothecary treatments, such as the use of fox lungs for respiratory conditions. The Saxons believed that ‘for oppressive hard drawn breathing, a fox lung sodden and put into a sweetened wine, and administered is wonderfully healthy.’ (Fox lung in beer, however, results in blindness). 

Amid all that, Champagne Jimmy caught me off guard. First of all, check him out.
Champagne Jimmy or Diamond Jim, historic Melbourne medical doctor
The slicked-back horns, the bushy horseshoe moustache, his apparent love of the Hawaiian hang ten sign. Not to mention the uncorked champagne bottle at his feet, which is definitely what I look for when choosing a surgeon. ‘Does this guy know how to party?’ is the first question you should ask when considering a new doctor.

The museum describes Dr James Beany as a flamboyant and controversial senior surgeon and a ‘Melbourne personaility’. He was so flamboyant he earned himself two nicknames. He was called Diamond Jim for the rings he wore, ‘even during operations’, and Champagne Jimmy, ‘because of the champagne he dispensed freely.’

Champagne Jimmy sounds like an absolute delight. That is, until you picture him wielding the surgical tools of his era.
Historic medical surgery tools
Imagine it: you’re on the surgical table, wearing an old-timey paper gown, and in stumbles Diamond Jim, champagne bottle in one bejewelled hand, giant amputation saw in the other, and little flakes of sausage roll pastry stuck in his moustache. Right before you pass out (from terror; anesthetic doesn’t exist yet), Jim drops the empty bottle at his feet and flashes you the hang ten sign.

How this museum didn’t make Melbourne’s top ten attractions, I’ll never understand.

Hollywood’s great kookaburra con

Vivid lights on Sydney Harbour Bridge, blurred24 May 2018 [journal excerpts]
In the latest Jurassic Park, in the first establishing shot of the jungle, there’s the sound of a kookaburra call. We’re supposed to think it’s monkeys. I’ve noticed this in other US films as well. So I finally looked it up online and yes, this a Hollywood trope, the kookaburra call used for jungle scene setting. At some point, some Hollywood sound tech decided that kookaburras sounded more like monkeys than monkeys themselves do, and I was part of a generation raised with that lie.

Steve and I were sitting on the balcony discussing this today when a kookaburra flew right past, laughing! I’ve never seen a kookaburra fly that close to our apartment; usually they’re across the valley at least. But also, the timing.     

1 June 2018
Quite confident the bus driver this morning had never driven a bus before. Or any other vehicle. At one point before the last stop, he looked back, as if to check that everyone had gotten off. He gave me a really heavy look, then turned forward and continued with the route, as if my presence had foiled his plan to abscond with the bus.

4 June 2018
I feel down today. Not fatigued, just disengaged. I don’t know why. Self-doubt, maybe. Phoniness. So many useless feelings. Also there were weevils in my breakfast.

20 June 2018
I hate socks. Does anyone like them? Who wants cloth tubes twisting around their feet and crushing their ankles?

26 June 2018
Conversations about chronic fatigue
Me: It’s hard because I used to be very social and active.
Woman at social gathering: And that’s why you’ve got chronic fatigue.
Me: Uh …

At the pool, Steve swimming, me sitting on the edge.
Neighbour: What’s wrong?
Me: I can’t exercise, I’m sick.
Neighbour: Oh, I thought you’d broken your ankle or something.
Me: I wish.

Me: I’m not at the office much these days because I have chronic fatigue.
Man: Are you a vegetarian? Because I was a vegetarian for ten years and then I got chronic fatigue because I wasn’t getting the right balance of amino acids.
Me: Ah, no, my diet’s fine.
Man: So you’re not getting enough sleep?

I feel compelled to tell people I have a chronic illness because I need to justify to myself my dereliction of life. But it leaves me open to conversations like that. I’ve always worn my heart on my sleeve, but now it seems like everything else is pinned there as well. My pancreas, my liver, my endocrine system. Everything. 

 

Looking to buy mermaids in Melbourne?

Screen Shot 2019-09-22 at 12.00.05 pm.png
Walking through the Melbourne CBD, I passed a shopfront that had a plastic (I assume) skeleton posed inside one of the glass doors. The skeleton peered out, with its hand on the handle, like it was about to stroll onto the street.

The shop billed itself as a purveyor of “scientific curiosities”. I went in and turned to the first glass display case, a tall one beside the door. The guy working there appeared from another room and asked how I was going. I was saying the word “fine” as I looked at the glass case.

“Fine” isn’t a long word, but my voice caught in the middle of it, and it came out with a strangled upward inflection. Right as I was speaking, I caught sight of a spherical glass container, the size of a softball, that contained a preserved puppy corpse.

The puppy looked like a bulldog, or maybe a bull terrier, white fur with black patches. Its eyes were closed, and it was curled foetally, to fit the sphere. The liquid it floated in was clear, not cloudy the way formaldehyde normally is. (Maybe the formaldehyde – and the puppy – were fresh.)

The dude asked me if there was anything he could help me with.

“I’m just looking. Unless you have anything particularly interesting?” I was giving the guy an open invitation to show me his favourite oddities.

“No, things are just how they look.”

“Right, yeah, I just caught sight of the puppy. Is it … just for aesthetics?”

He looked at me strangely.

“Like, there’s no scientific purpose?”

“Nope, it’s just a puppy corpse.” He paused before adding, “Stillborn.”

The puppy ball cost $495.

The shop is Wunderkammer, and their tagline is “chamber of wonders.” They offer an explanatory pamphlet that notes, “The word ‘wunderkammer’ translates as ‘wonder-chamber’. The term is German, although collections of curiosities have existed in Italy since as early as the 16th century. These were the first museums and housed both the familiar museum fare such as natural specimens, coins and minerals, as well as more aberrant and miraculous objects, such as religious reliquaries, double apples, ‘mermaids’ and the like.”

I regret not asking if they had any mermaids in stock.

Some things Wunderkammer did have in stock during my visit:
– a mummified fox and rabbit in a shadow box
– preserved crocodile feet
– a Singapore ball (a type of mace in which the spikes retract)
– a taxidermied porcupine
– a dissected frog, its organs neatly labelled, under glass
– a ‘Breast Believer’ pump in its original cardboard box (I couldn’t figure out what this was, even after several minutes of googling)
– a Hamilton bone drill
– a taxidermied bat impaled on a metal pole, wings spread wide, mouth open as if screaming (probably because of the pole shoved up its butt)

The last time I was in Melbourne, I stumbled upon the secret headquarters of the Royal Over-Seas League, and discovered the perfect epitaph. I didn’t think a second Melbourne visit could beat that. But Wunderkammer decidedly did.

Then I discovered that Melbourne’s fire truck sirens sound like they’re shooting lasers. Pew pew pew! 

We also visited the Melbourne Zoo, and in talking about it with friends later, learned of two separate incidences of people (men) breaking into the zoo’s lion enclosure.

In 1989, an adult karate student broke into the den in the middle of the night in an attempt to test his martial arts skills by fighting the lions. Zoo officials found what was left of him the next morning.

Then in 2004, a man broke into the lion enclosure during the zoo’s opening hours. The crowd watched him pull a Bible from his bag, hold it over his head, and invite them to join him and pat the lions.

When an Age reporter later enquired about how much danger the man had been in, a zoo spokesperson gave the best official response: “They are large male lions and there are four of them, so I’m sure you can work that out for yourself.”

And finally, my absolute favourite thing on this trip: a barista with the image of an evergreen air freshener tattooed on her forearm.

 

If a snake wants you, he’ll get you

One of my absolute favourite books this year has been John Cann’s The Last Snake Man. I wrote about it for the Newtown Review of Books, describing how it charts the evolution of snake shows in Australia, dating back to the early 20th century, through the life of Cann and his father, George.

George didn’t start the La Perouse Snake Show, but he did make it a Sydney institution. His sons eventually took over the weekly show, and even since they’ve retired, the snake show still runs every Sunday at 1:30pm in the city’s south east.   La Perouse Snake Show Sydney Australia
There’s nothing brilliant in the writing of The Last Snake Man. It reads like a bloke chatting with you over beers. At times, it can be a bit self-indulgent, and occasionally reveals slightly outdated prejudices (though Cann was more progressive than many of his generation). Put all that aside though, and this is an fantastically entertaining piece of Australiana.

Take this anecdote from George’s days as a snakey: ‘It wasn’t enough to be able to work with snakes, he also had to work the crowd, especially when snake shows attracted more than their fair share of drunks.

‘On one occasion a foul-mouthed blowhard was loudly pouring scorn on the dangers from snakebites, so Pop waited till he was distracted and clamped a harmless blue-tongue lizard on his hand. The drunk started screaming and flailing around, much to the entertainment of the assembled crowd. ‘

Another great anecdote I couldn’t pack into my review: ‘In the old days, some snakeys had tiger and black snakes that had calmed down so much they could put them around their necks or put their heads in their mouths, albeit with great care. Those tricks, which would never be done now, were performed by at least three of the early showmen I knew of – and one of them was my pop … until a black snake bit him on the tongue. His mouth swelled badly and Mum had to feed him soup or water through a straw for days.’

As you’d expect, Cann is full of quippy snake advice, such as this gem: ‘Some snake handlers think they’re too smart for snakes – they’re the ones who usually find out the hard way that if a snake wants you, he’ll get you.’

But perhaps my very favouritest quote is from Cann’s introduction: ‘I hope you enjoy this trip through a rich and varied life. Maybe once you start to read it, it’ll be you who says “he got me!”‘

The La Perouse Snake Show, ‘the longest continuous running snake show in the world’, is now run by volunteers from the herpetological society. When I attended the show, a child sat on the fence, dangling her legs into the space where a live eastern brown snake (the species that kills more people than any other in Australia) slithered freely. The juxtaposition of a deadly snake and a family at ease remains one of the most Australian sights I’ve had the pleasure to witness.

I highly recommend both the book and the show.

 

I am curious about your tattoos

Noosa beach, Australia

August 9 [journal excerpts]
Noosa, QLD

Shopkeeper referring to a whale-watching cruise: “The water out that way becomes chuck city.”
The same shopkeeper: “The best way to leave Noosa with a million dollars is to come with ten.”

August 10
The most Aussie sight: two teenage boys on the pavement, three surfboards between them. One rode a bike, a surfboard under his arm; the other pushed along on a skateboard, struggling with two surfboards at once.

August 11
On Noosa’s main beach: an older woman, maybe 60, with a single dreadlock starting at the base of her skull and hanging down past her knees. It swung as she walked, like a tail.

August 12
Tattoos spotted today:
1. a tiger face, full colour, the size of my entire hand, with a knife sunk between the eyes, the handle sticking out, on a man’s shin (he may has well have tattooed the words ‘creepy as’)
2. three slash marks with dripping blood, almost like the Zorro symbol, on a man’s chest
3. the word ‘serious’ in a cutesy font, not quite cursive, surrounded by little hearts, on a young man’s inner arm. Was he in love with someone named serious? The word wasn’t capitalised. Did he love being serious? Or did he take love seriously? Our burger order arrived, so I didn’t have to talk myself into asking him.

August 14
Waiting for burgers again, a skinny pale guy with shoulder-length hair came in. He had a tattoo that started at his wrist, and in huge cursive letters, ran toward his elbow, reading “Death before dis—”. I couldn’t read the rest, but he was running out of space, unless the third word wrapped right over his elbow. It might have been “Death before dishonour”, but he really didn’t have enough space, so I assume it read “Death before dishes”.

He also has a bunch of roses on his shin, and a cartoon cat face with a knife through the crown of its head, the blade coming out its mouth. What is it with dudes and tattoos of stabbed cat heads? Is it a secret code signalling membership in some sort of club? Obviously not one that actually stabs cats, that would be too obvious. So perhaps it’s men who refuse to do the dishes, and have sought solidarity in this via symbolic tattoos. When they spot each other on the street, they raise their eyebrows and exchange a slight nod of encouragement, maybe even tap two fingers against the centre of their chest if they do so slyly.

I can’t see any other potential explanation.