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

Ep 8: Talking good dogs with Kate Leaver

Toddler and two shih tzus

Ted and Tiffany.jpgI’ve been a fan of dogs basically since I was born. Ted, the handsome furball on the right, was my parents’ first baby – I came along a little later. I guess they decided they’d rather have a second dog than a second child, because for a while, this was their little menagerie. (Eventually they added a second kid too.)

Ted and Tiffany were purebred show dogs, which meant their coats grew down to the floor. This photo is from off-season. I was raised with the pronunciation sheed-zoo, as per the American Kennel Club. I don’t know when people saying shit zoo, but I’d like to officially campaign for a rebrand.Kate Leaver on James and Ashley Stay at Home podcastMy love of dogs is why I’m especially excited for our latest podcast guest, author Kate Leaver. Kate is a journalist and speaker from Australia, and is also the author of two books. Good dog cover, author Kate Leaver, Bert,I’m been a fan of Kate Leaver since I reviewed her first book, The Friendship Cure. In it, she examines how friendship can help to alleviate the epidemic of loneliness, which competes with mental illness and sedentary lifestyles to be the worst health crisis of our time (pandemics aside). Friendship has powerful health benefits, as many scientific studies show.

Good Dog is an extension of that idea, exploring how our furry friends enrich our lives while providing numerous health benefits that researchers are only beginning to uncover. Along with the 11 stories of especially good dogs – including her own shih tzu, Bertie – Leaver explores research into the impact of dogs on human health. You can read my full review here. Kate Leaver on James and Ashley Stay at Home podcastJames also happens to be a fan of dogs.

James lives with Bonnie, an Irish wolfhound/dalmation cross. Bonnie joined James for our interview with Kate. The one downside of podcasts is their lack of visual component, so James snapped this shot of Bonnie nudging her way into the audio action. James and Bonnie.jpg
This shot allows you to better appreciate Bonnie’s spotiness. Dalmation Irish wolfhound cross dogJames, Kate and I probably could have talked about dogs for, conservatively speaking, 17 hours.

But we had so much more to talk about! Kate lives with bipolar disorder and her experiences with depression, and Bert’s intuitive ability to comfort her during difficult times, inspired her to research other good dogs.

She also speaks about the challenges her health has presented in her career. “I always found being in an office difficult, because you can’t really schedule in time to deal with your mood or your energy levels.” This led her to try freelancing.

“I wanted to give myself the opportunity to take care of my mental health,” she says.  Freelancing means being able to give herself more days when she needs them, work to a schedule that works for her, and go outside for a walk in the middle of the day.

Kate’s coped with chronic illness far longer than I have, so I asked her how she manages to have such a successful career. I was thankful to hear her say she doesn’t know how she manages it. She just keeps going as best she can, which is sometimes not very well at all.Kate Leaver on James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast
This was a huge relief , because after four years I certainly haven’t figured out any way of managing my illness either. Kate Leaver on James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast
You can listen to episode 8 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, and find Kate’s book online and in bookshops across Australia, as well as in the US and UK in early 2021.

How do you know if you’re really Australian?

Two memoir book covers
Jay Martin is the author of Vodka and Apple Juice, a memoir of living in Warsaw, Poland as a diplomat’s wife – or more accurately, an undiplomatic wife. Jay also lived in Alberta, Canada, for two years, and has recently moved back to Perth.

I recently had the chance to chat with Jay about Canada, Australia, writing other cultures, pumpkin spice season, being married, and the all-important question: How can you tell if you’re really Australian?

Jay: Both of us wrote books about moving to other countries. I really wanted to introduce people to Poland through writing my book. I felt like it was a really unknown country that had a lot to offer and that there was no one doing it justice. So I wanted to write a book that would make people want to go there. I also think I wrote it as a kind of therapy, processing what had been a very intense period for me with coming to terms with not working, and trying to make sense of myself in the expat world.

Ashley: Your book definitely made me want to go to Poland! Not in winter though. IMG_6517.JPGJay: And that’s coming from a Canadian! Now, of course, you’re an Australian of Canadian origin, and your book is about the process of adding the Australian to that. What was the strangest or most unexpected thing for you about moving to Australia?

Ashley: I still haven’t found a snake hiding in my dishwasher – venomous or otherwise. Australia’s got a reputation to hold up, and frankly, it’s failing. What about for you as an Australian moving to Canada?

Jay: One of the strangest things for me was that it was so similar. It was possibly partly because I moved from Western Australia to Alberta, both of which are described as the Texas of the respective countries. I got there and found crazy right-wing politicians, a boom-bust economy based on digging stuff out of the ground and a city that from some angles looks like an endless series of strip malls and thought, ‘I’ve moved to the other side of the world and this is just like being home’. I tried to introduce the term “cashed-up bogan,” but it didn’t stick. When I explained it everyone knew exactly what I meant, though.

Ashley: How was the process of writing another culture for you? Were there things you felt like you had to modify or leave out?

Jay: Is it too early in this conversation to comment that that’s probably a very Canadian question – because Canadians wouldn’t want to be seen to be impolite? Canadians are polite, though. I used to love the signs in our apartment building that told people they had to not open the door to people. It was like they needed to be instructed how be rude. Is this too stereotypical?

Author Jay Martin in Canada winter

Ashley: That’s funny, because we have the same signs in our Sydney apartment building! Aussies are also very polite, in my experience – although maybe they’re just being very polite around me because they’re concerned their natural brusqueness will offend my delicate Canadian sensibilities? I once had a friend break off in the middle of telling a story about an encounter she had at work, turn to her husband and exclaim, ‘I can’t say the C-word in front of Ashley and Steve!’

And now I’ll politely remind you that you didn’t answer my question.

Jay: Yes, there were so many sensitivities in what I was writing about. The war, Poland’s Jewish population, concentration camps, they all get a mention because they were a part of what I was experiencing, what I was learning. There was also the ridiculousness – to me – of communism. But it’s easy for me to say it’s ridiculous and make a joke about it, when I never had to live under that system. And I did tone the humour down in parts, in deference to that. What about for you? Australia calls you map and tourism adAshley: I felt the same. I felt I couldn’t write about Australia without bringing up topics like Indigenous rights, the treatment of asylum seekers, racism (an Indian reader recently said to me, ‘I can’t believe you used the R-word’). But it was tricky to do this, especially in a book that’s full of jokes about seven-legged spiders, inappropriate tattoos, and Iced VoVos.

Jay: I particularly liked that you covered all the ‘usual’ Australian stereotypes, like sharks and spiders, but you also talk about some of the more complex things, like Australia’s cultural cringe. My husband and I ended up having a long conversation about that, and discovered we both had very clear understandings of the term – that were completely different. It prompted me to think about how reading about your own country can help you see it differently.

Ashley: I wish someone had written a book called “How to Be Canadian” that revealed all the magical things that I’d grown accustomed to overlooking as a Canadian. If I could have read that as a teen, I probably would have appreciated everything around me more. Is there anything else in the book that really struck you, as an Aussie?

Jay: Well I’d never thought about the other meaning for the world “bush”. I can almost hear you giggle every time you write it. Although now I’ve seen it, I’ll never unsee it.

Ashley: You’re welcome.

Jay: Hmm. It was sort of the same for me with “beaver”, though, you know. I couldn’t talk about them with a straight face. Maybe Canadian Australians should be called bush beavers? What do you think?Couple with turquoise lake, mountain peak, evergreens
Ashley
: I once suggested at a local trivia night that our team name be the beaveroos and was promptly shouted down. Bush beavers is even better!

Jay: That person has no sense of humour. It’s interesting to talk with someone else about choosing what to include and exclude when you’re writing about a country and culture. I know some of the things I wrote struck a chord with Polish people – like shop assistants never having any change. Some of them cry from laughing at that. I also write about the difference between narodowość and obywatelctwo in Polish, which can both be translated into English as citizenship, but really describe different concepts – one being the nationality you have on your passport, and the other a deeper notion of belonging to a place, a land, which is you carry in your heart. I’m not sure that those of us from settler cultures can really understand this. What do you think?
Couple shadowed on sandAshley: I spent a lot of years researching and writing about Armenia, because my great grandparents were survivors of the Armenian genocide of World War One. And that research taught me a lot about the deep notion of belonging to a place, which I think in turn helps give me some insight into Aboriginal connection to land. And I agree, for me, especially because my family moved all over when I was a kid, I feel more like a pot plant, able to be picked up and relocated. And yet I am very Canadian (hence the politeness) and in Vodka and Apple Juice, you explore your Australianness.

Visit Jay Martin’s website for the continuation of this conversation, including her definitive quiz testing my Australianness!

Follow her on Twitter at @jaymartinwrites and check out her fabulous memoir,Vodka and Apple Juice.

 

Cross-country caramel slice showdown

When WA author Monique Mulligan prepares for an author interview, she really prepares.

And by that I mean she convinces her husband to go to the shops for condensed milk so she can make homemade caramel slice. Look at these beauties.pile of caramel slices Monique interviewed me for the Koorliny Arts Centre’s program Live: Stories on Stage this week, and she was definitely in the spirit of How to Be Australian.

Her baking prowess made me realise I’ve never made caramel slice. It also made me realise there’s a good reason for that: I would eat the whole pan in a day. As much as I’m a strong advocate for Australia embracing its place in world history as the homeland of the caramel slice, I’m also aware that too much caramel will one day give me diabetes.

Instead I bought a single gigantic caramel slice from a local cafe. What it lacks in flavour it makes up for in size.
Laptop and caramel sliceMonique shared her own experience of moving from Sydney to Perth. She also asked some excellent questions, including how I would convince Canadians to visit Australia once we can all travel again. The answer to that is four simple words: “Australia – now spider-free!”

(Technically Australia isn’t spider-free, but that discovery can be part of the fun once visitors arrive and walk into a human-sized golden-orb spider web.)

She also asked if she were going to move to Winnipeg for a year, what three things would she need to know. One of my key tips is about driving in snow.

Swirling snow decreases visibility and the streets get icy slick unless the gravel trucks have been around to spray grit at the intersections. The key rule in these circumstances is to never slam your brakes. Slamming your brakes causes your tires to lock. When that happens, your vehicle becomes a two-ton metal cannonball on an unknown trajectory and you’re just along for the ride. When driving on ice, you’re meant to triple your braking distance and pump your brakes gently, like you’re giving CPR to a baby with your foot. Caramel Slice on How to Be AustralianOne of our audience members also asked how my husband feels about being a central character in the book, and if he had veto power, which is an excellent question. Steve told me that he didn’t want to read the book because, to quote, “I was there, I don’t need to read it”. But I made him read it anyway, because that’s what marriage is about.

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

 

Ep 5: The Year that Almost Killed Anna Downes, author of The Safe Place

Anna Downes The Safe Place.png
The Safe Place begins with a dreamlike escape. A young Londoner in a Ramones T-shirt and worn sneakers boards a private jet and arrives in France, where a chauffeur escorts her to a secluded luxury estate on the coast. Hidden on a forested backroad behind iron gates, the property features two mansions, an expansive garden and a central pool. Emily Proudman gazes at her surroundings in delighted disbelief.

The author, Anna Downes, is originally from the UK and now living in Australia. In a coda to the book, she describes her own journey from struggling London actor to the debut author of a major international book release. After leaving both the UK and her acting aspirations, she moved to Australia with her husband and turned to writing as an escape from postpartum anxiety.

In episode 5 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, Anna describes how even as her anxiety began to cripple her, she convinced herself she was fine. Finally, as things worsened, a friend mentioned that she gone through something similar. She “was literally the only person who said to me, ‘I’m struggling, and this is what I did.'”

Anna sought professional help, but she also took up a new creative pursuit. After leaving her acting career and becoming a mother of two children under two, part of her struggle was the feeling of her “identity crashing”.

She describes how she began writing for fun, for herself, and three years later, is celebrating the release of her debut novel. In listening to Anna, it’s clear that she channelled all of herself, her fears and passions, into her writing.

“The book is hard to put in genre pigeon hole, because part of it is thriller/horror, but Emily – she thinks she’s in a romcom,” she says. Anna is a fan of Psycho just as much as she is Mystic Pizza.

You can read my read my review of The Safe Place at Newtown Review of Books, and listen to episode 5, our interview with Anna Downes.

 

4.5 minutes of fame

It’s ironic that my first appearance on national TV would be on breakfast news, since an actual line from my memoir How to Be Australian reads, “The breakfast news was on (it was always on at the gym, like some sort of curse).”

Regardless, here I am! Wearing my Iced VoVo earrings and exposing the Hollywood kookaburra con to the entire country.

In case you haven’t yet read the book, let me summarise: kookaburras have been putting Hollywood monkeys out of work for years.

The first time I heard real live kookaburra laughter, I started looking around for monkeys. Later I discovered I could blame Hollywood for this. At some point, an American producer decided kookaburras sounded more like monkeys than monkeys themselves. The birds have been creating jungle ambiance in blockbusters ever since, from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Jurassic Park to Jumanji.

Thanks to the power of the internet, however, I discovered that the conspiracy goes way deeper than that.

Or, to be accurate, someone else discovered it, and a third excellent person informed me of it:

It turns out kookaburra sounds effects were used in The Wizard of Oz way back in 1939! I guess at the time, Hollywood producers figured the average American film audience wouldn’t know what either monkeys or kookaburras sounded like, and went about creating their own version of reality … which then seeped into my understanding of actual reality.

But this article breaks down the early Tarzan movies, and finds that kookaburras were conning audiences even earlier than that – in 1938. This means for more than eight decades, overseas audiences have trained to believe that Australia’s riotous avian laughter is actually produced by primates. It’s the ultimate interspecies con.

Now that How to Be Australian is out, people have been getting in touch to share all kinds of fabulous Australiana I wasn’t even aware of, and I’ve been delighting it. Like the fabulous Kristy Diffey, who shared this important revelation with me:  

In 2019, the Royal Australian Mint released millions of $1 coins featuring Australian themes. Not just Iced Vovos, but also meat pies, lamingtons, Vegemite, Weet-Bix and something called Zooper Dooper, which doesn’t sound like something dignified enough to appear on any national currency.

There’s no equivalent to this in Canada. We don’t have loonies (yes, our $1 coins are called loonies. There’s a loon on them. And our $2 coins are called toonies) with nanaimo bars on them, or Timbits, or even tiny bottles of maple syrup. Maybe we should, but we don’t – and I believe that’s a significant cultural distinction.

If you’d like to hear about my upcoming events and other exciting news, you can sign up for my monthly-ish newsletter.

Ashley
xo

 

Ep 4: ‘Not hiding my scars anymore’

‘I didn’t die because my parents bribed the surgeon that was supposed to operate on me not to operate on me … He had a nickname of The Butcher.’

In episode 3 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, we speak to author and writing teacher Lee Kofman about her creative non-fiction book Imperfect: How Our Bodies Shape the People We Become.

James and Ashley Stay at Home episode 3

From her website: ‘By the time she was eleven and living in the Soviet Union, Lee Kofman had undergone several major operations on both a defective heart and injuries sustained in a bus accident. Her body harbours a constellation of disfiguring scars that have shaped her sense of self and her view of the world. But it wasn’t until she moved to Israel and later to Australia that she came to think these markings weren’t badges of honour to flaunt but were, in fact, imperfections that needed to be hidden away.’

Conservatively speaking, I could discuss this book with Lee for nine straight hours, but James and I managed to keep our chat to 45 minutes.

We discuss how her scars affected her growing up, stories from the many interviews with people with diverse bodies that feature in the book, and how her self-perception has shifted through the process of writing and promoting the book.

Lee is the author of five books, including Imperfect, a blend of memoir and cultural critique, and the memoir The Dangerous Bride. She is co-editor of Rebellious Daughters and editor of Split, an anthology of personal essays. Imperfect was shortlisted for the 2019 Nib Literary Award.

You can listen on Apple PodcastsStitcher, or via the website or any podcast app.

 

Invite the author to your book club!

In a book club? I love talking to readers, and I’m happy to make a virtual appearance at any book club meeting.

We can do this via Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, or whatever technology suits you. If you’re in Sydney, I may even be able to make an in-person visit. Contact me about booking a free online author event for your book club, bookstore or library group.

You can also use the questions here as a discussion guide, or download a PDF version.

As a bonus, you can jazz up your book club event with these cocktail pairings, created especially for the book!

How to Be Australian by Ashley Kalagian Blunt blue banner

1. In the opening pages of How to Be Australian, we step into a minus 40 winter day in Winnipeg. How does this set up Ashley’s experiences throughout the book?

2. Ashley and Steve arrive in Australia on a one-year visa, and Ashley expects this will be her only opportunity to live abroad with Steve. How does this expectation shape her first year in Australia?

3. On her arrival in Australia, Ashley notes, ‘I had the dizzying sensation that this was the start of my adult life.’ But by the time she and Steve are applying for PR, she says, ‘I’d transitioned from onset adulthood into what was, apparently, the rest of my life.’ How is the theme of adulthood explored throughout the book?

4. Ashley describes herself as ‘generations dislocated’ and without a homeland. The theme of dislocation and belonging is raised throughout the book, not only for Ashley, but among diasporan Armenians and for her classmate Noelle and Kamilaroi performer Matty Shields. What insights about home does Ashley’s journey offer?

5. Ashley summaries John O’Grady’s advice from They’re a Weird Mob: ‘Return all shouts. Don’t be a bludger. Don’t lose your temper when your workmates ridicule you – and if they’re Aussies, they will. If someone does you a favour, return it, but don’t overdo generosity. Abuse your friends to their face, but not in private.’ Do you agree with this advice? What would you add?

6. Ashley struggles with the concepts of tall poppy syndrome and cultural cringe. What does she conclude about them?

7. ‘I felt most at home in myself when I was travelling. Perhaps because as a traveller, there was no expectation of feeling at home.’ How does Ashley’s relationship with travel affect other aspects of her life?

8. Although Ashley suffered bouts of depression in Winnipeg, she arrives in Sydney believing that, for her, ‘“Australia” was practically a synonym for happiness.’ Her anxiety builds up gradually. When she does take steps to address it, her recovery is likewise gradual. Why do you think it took so long for her to recognise her mental health struggles?

9. ‘I was afraid. I was inadequate. I was failing at something, even if I couldn’t say precisely what.’ How is Ashley’s anxiety influenced by her perspectives on her marriage, career, and sense of home?

10. Ashley and Steve have very different worldviews. Whose did you relate to more?

11. ‘Life, I’d come to learn, was never resolved. My marriage, my mental health, and my identity were ongoing processes, not moments frozen in time.’ How does this insight apply to your own life?

12. Other than a visit to South Australia, what aspects of Australiana did you feel were missing from the book?

13. ‘As Canada’s Commonwealth sibling, Australia felt distinct yet familiar.’ What assumptions did you have about Canada before reading this book? How were they challenged or upheld?

14. What questions would you expect to be on the Australian citizenship test? What questions would you want to include?