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

 

‘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?

 

Launching How to Be Australian

If you missed the launch of my new memoir How to Be Australian, officially released this week from Affirm Press, no worries – you can watch it here!

Here I am waving my hands a lot and talking about my new book, How to be Australian, a funny and heartfelt memoir that explores Australian identity and culture through the eyes of a slightly anxious Canadian. A book for everybody, it traverses the realities of adulthood, marriage and how we find our place in the world.

Launching the book is RWR McDonald, author of the debut novel The Nancys. Rob is a Kiwi living in Melbourne with his two daughters and an extended rainbow family including HarryCat and Stevie Nicks the chicken.

I’m drinking a lemon myrtletini, one of the themed cocktails I created to pair with the book. Check them out, along with the free book club discussion guide.

What you won’t see in the video, tragically, is the Lone Pine Koalas. They put on quite a show during the launch, but because they’re the quiet sorts, they weren’t recorded on the speaker view. Here’s a screen grab from the evening. Two koalas on a branch at night

Launch highlights
8’03 – Ashley reads an excerpt from the book
14’00 – Rob asks how Ashley remembers events from her life
15’00 – Ashley takes the audience on a photo highlights tour
25’08 – the legend of the Birdman of the Coorong (aka Ashley’s favourite bushranger)
28’03 – Special guest appearance!
30’51 – Ashley shares an anecdote about writing her husband, Steve
34’03 – the Ashley & Steve meet-cute story
37’50 – Ashley shares a highlight of writing the book
42’45 – caramel slices and book cake!
51’22 – audience Q: what’s your favourite book about Australia?
woman holding cake printed with book cover
I’ll be talking more about How to Be Australian and the journey of writing it in my upcoming events. Hope to see you there!

 

Fancy a eucalyptini?

Orange-based cocktail with dried orange slicesWhen I said I wanted to create a cocktail for the launch of my new memoir, How to Be Australian, a friend suggested I could just ‘chuck a couple of the eucalyptus balls you buy from the chemist into a glass of vodka. Wouldn’t taste very nice, but it’s definitely Australian!’*

If you don’t fancy a eucalyptini, let me suggest one of the following. These creations all pair perfectly with How to Be Australian. I highly recommend them for book club gatherings.**

Lemon Myrtletini
15 ml lemon myrtle liquor
30 ml Manly Spirits gin
Mix (or shake over ice) and add a squeeze of lime. 

lemon cocktail with lime, wood cutting boardSweet ‘n’ Stormy 
60 ml rum
90 ml Passiona
15 ml lime juice
1 passionfruit
Fill a tall glass with ice cubes. Add rum.
Pour in ginger beer, add passionfruit and lime juice, stir.
Garnish with a lime wedge.

The Caramel Slice
45 ml caramel liqueur
15 ml crème de cacao
30 ml cream
30 ml milk
Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker over ice, shake well. Strain into a glass and top with crushed sweet biscuits. Garnish with caramel sauce.

And if you’re in a book club, pair these cocktails with the free discussion guide – and invite me along! I’m happy to Zoom/Skype into any book club meeting. You can contact me directly.

How to Be Australian Book cover

*Seriously, do not try that, you might go blind.
**It’s a good idea to drink responsibly in general (or so I’ve been told).

 

Traveling well or flatchat?

Australia has 10,000 unique words, according to The Story of Australian English by Kel Richards.

In comparison, Canada only has 4,000 unique words, despite having 10 million more people. It’s shocking to me that Canada has even that many specifically Canuck terms, but could come up with three: toque, poutine, and using borrow to mean lend, as in, ‘Will you borrow me your toque? I’m going out for poutine.’
Story of Australian English book cover by Kel RichardsOne of the great joys of living in Australia is discovering its eccentric and creative language. My only disappointment is that it’s not used more. Maybe it’s because I live in the city, but it’s relatively rare for me to receive a g’day.

That was one of the few Australian terms I knew before I arrived, one of the handful of words that appear on every list of ‘Aussie slang you need to know!’ along with arvo, sunnies, barbie, etc, etc. There’s no thrill of discovery in these words, although I’ve certainly come to use them. (And now I can’t understand why the rest of the English-speaking world doesn’t use arvo. Who has time to say all three syllables of afternoon?)

As I started reading more Aussie authors, I’d write out lists of baffling terms, then take them to friends for decoding. One list read:
– having a blue
– let’s get stuck into it
– it was suss
– to have geed up
– he sculled his beer
– possum light
– made a good fist of it
– scabby
– rough as guts
– grunty as
– munted
– smacko
– flatchat
– yonks
– travelling well
– it’s cactus
– people would be dark on him (this sounds a bit racist?)
– Brisvegas
– stitch me up
– furfy
– putting in the hard yards
– hard yakka
– sprucker

I could have looked up definitions on the internet, but it’s much more fun to ask people for their personal definitions. When I asked a friend what scabby meant, she replied, ‘dodge – down and dirty’. Which didn’t clarify anything, but definitely delighted me.

Now I understand many of the words of this list, but I rarely hear them, and use them even less. Which is a shame. What could be more linguistically delightful than calling something cactus, or describing yourself as either travelling well or flatchat?

I’ve lived in Australia nearly a decade and have probably added a few hundred words to my vocabulary. I’d love to learn another few thousand. This week a friend introduced me to the term sportsballer and now I want to use it all the time.

My new memoir, How to Be Australian, explores my journey to become Australian through everything from the language to the beers to the cultural neuroses. You can sign up to my monthly newsletter to hear about upcoming events related to the book.
xo

Getting into complicated relationships, part 2

This post is part two of a list of books that I’ve come to think of as my favourites, most of which I read years ago. As these titles in particular reveal though, my relationship with them is complicated.

Findley

5. Pilgrim by Timothy Findley
Findley is one of Canada’s great contemporary authors. I have a vague memory of one of my bookshop colleagues recommending him to me. I do know that once I’d read one of his novels, I tracked down all his other books. I think they were too mature for me, in that they referenced aspects of history, literature and psychology that I was unfamiliar with. I struggled with them, and in hindsight I’m not sure why I persisted. Maybe because Findley convinced me that writing could be beautiful and powerful and mysterious. Pilgrim tells the story of an immortal man who, tired of living, comes under the treatment of Carl Jung; I found this juxtaposition of historical personalities and magical realism captivating.

~

Maugham6. Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham
I’ll confess I haven’t read Maugham in years. I enjoyed his storytelling skills and ability to craft scenes and sentences, and went through a phase of reading many of his novels and short stories. This one has stuck with me. I think Of Human Bondage managed to convince me that despite all its challenges, life would be okay. But I think I also appreciated Maugham because, as a young and wildly under-educated person, I felt like I could grasp his writing (though in hindsight, this was only at a surface level). The novel follows a nine-year-old boy into adulthood, exploring the turns of fate he experiences, particularly in his efforts to establish himself in a career and a relationship. It’s considered Maugham’s masterpiece, although he never found critical success, despite his huge commercial popularity. His career in part was a commentary on the various ways of living an artistic life, as this New Yorker essay explores. But I had no context for Maugham’s life or his larger themes when I discovered him. I read what I liked, and what I thought I should read, as if in the cold, empty vacuum of space.

~

funder7. Stasiland by Anna Funder
Living in Germany, Australian author Anna Funder interviewed former members of East Germany’s Stasi (secret police) and anti-Stasi organisations, and wove together stories of those lived experiences and their ongoing legacy. When I was writing early drafts of my book about Armenia, many people recommended Stasiland to me, and so I read it in the context of someone learning how to write. The people Funder meets and the stories she shares are fascinating. Her writing is equally powerful, in the way she positions herself in the story, the way she captures the feeling of a moment. I copied passages of the book by hand into a notebook to figure out how she fit her words and sentences together. My experience of reading it, in the context of the teaching myself to improve my own writing, was different than it would have been had I read it back in my contextless vacuum.

This is partly what I find so fascinating about books, that each reading experience is so personal, that we bring ourselves to the text, not in a holistic sense, but at a specific moment in time in our lives, and that shapes our reading of it.

My new book, How to Be Australian, is out on 1 June! You can pre-order it now from your local bookshop or any ebook retailer (outside Aus/NZ, Book Depository might be your only choice). Pre-ordering makes a difference – those orders help convince other stores to stock the book on its release.

Wishing you happy (if complicated) reading,
Ashley
xo

 

Getting into complicated relationships

Recently, author Walter Mason asked me to share the covers of seven books on social media. The rules were no explanations, no reviews, just covers.

This drove me nuts. I love explanations. I love reviews!

So I’m reprising my seven books here. I chose these books because I consider them among my favourites, though the reasons for that are complicated. Most of them I read years ago, and only now, looking back, does it strike me that they’re almost entirely written by men.

This list is my usual eclectic mix of fiction and non-fiction, almost entirely contemporary. Are the books among your favourites as wide-ranging? Or do you stick to certain genres?

Sedaris1. Calypso by David Sedaris

Sedaris is an American humorist, and I’m using Calypso as a stand-in for all his books, most of which are essay collections. I love them all. Calypso is his most recent, and most focused, centred around his family’s time at his vacation home, the Sea Section. There, he makes “one tiny, vexing realization: it’s impossible to take a vacation from yourself.” I came to Calypso familiar with Sedaris, his family and their quirks. Maybe this isn’t the book to start with. I’ll also confess I’ve never actually read any of his books. I’ve let him read them all to me in audiobook form, and he is as engaging a narrator as he is a writer. Not all of his essays land for me, but the ones that do haunt me, both for their comedy and for their gutting insights.

~

Ansary cover2. Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary

Born in Afghanistan, Ansary is a lifelong history scholar who wrote high school history textbooks in America. Here he crafts the story of Islam, from its origins through today, into a highly enjoyable read. His prose is lively and conversational, his insights valuable, and his love of history contagious. When people ask about my favourite book, this is the one I emphatically recommend. For someone like me who learned practically nothing about the Middle East growing up, Ansary provides invaluable context for understanding the world today. In his introduction, he notes that Destiny Disrupted is neither a textbook nor a thesis: “It’s more like what I’d tell you if we met in a coffeehouse and you said ‘What’s all this about a parallel world history?’”

~

Coupland

3.  Marshall McLuhan by Douglas Coupland

Coupland has been an acclaimed novelist since the publication of his first novel, Generation X, in 1991. In this biography of fellow Canadian and media theorist Marshall McLuhan, Coupland charts McLuhan’s rise to celebrity, subsequent fall from fame, and recent “comeback.” The publication of Understanding Media in 1964, which contains his famous McLuhanism “the medium is the message”, turned McLuhan into “the Super-Marshall of the 1960s”. At the height of his celebrity, he was “everywhere. He was hip and cool … Young people loved him. Talk shows were incomplete without him. … [He sailed on] Greek cruises with millionaires … and [earned] up to $25,000 for corporate speeches and seminars.” Coupland’s perspective as an artist focussed on the way technology changes culture enables him to provide insight into the relevance of McLuhan’s thinking today.

~

Eggers4. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
Through high school and university, I worked in a secondhand bookshop. Instead of discovering and reading the new and latest bestselling authors, I read whatever came through our shop and struck my fancy. The title of Eggers’s debut work must have caught my attention. I’d never heard of him or the book, which meant I didn’t know it was a memoir of both his parents dying, of Eggers in his twenties raising his eight-year-old brother. I was also in my early twenties. It was the first time I was captivated by narrative voice as much as any aspect of the story, by the power of the narrator’s language to manipulate the reader through the reading experience.

This post became very long. I will share books 5 through 7 in the next one.

 

Conversations with Friends

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
Conversations with Friends showed up as a surprise in the post. A friend sent it to me.

Sally Rooney has won multiple literary awards. I’d read her second book, Normal People, earlier in the year, when everyone was talking about it. And while I recognised the writing as brilliant (and so crisp and well wrought, Rooney doesn’t even bother with quotation marks), I didn’t enjoy the book. I don’t enjoy stories about relationships, about love and affairs and divorce and grief. My favourite books generally have at least one murder in them, and no-one gets murdered in Conversations with Friends. Not to spoil it too much, but no-one even contemplates hiring an assassin.

The whole time I was reading it, I wondered what had made my friend choose this book, from the millions of books out there. Even though this book was very much not my kind of book, at the same time it was so well-written it was hard not to find things to appreciate on every page, turns of phrase and insights into the human condition. The main character has embarked on a writing career, and later on is diagnosed with a chronic illness. Many of Rooney’s observations rang true for me. I’ve listed some of my favourites here.

“I had started reading long interviews with famous writers and noticing how unlike them I was.” (Does every aspiring writer do this?)

“I feel like shit lately, she said … You think you’re the kind of person who can deal with something and then it happens and you realise you can’t.”

“Everyone’s always going through something, aren’t they? That’s life, basically. It’s just more and more things to go through.” (This seems especially true this year.)

“After that I put some cold water on my face and dried it, the same face I have always had, the one I would have until I died.”

“I wanted things for myself because I thought they existed.”

“I felt as if I’d glimpsed the possibility of an alternative life, the possibility of accumulating income just by writing and talking and taking an interest in things. By the time my story was accepted for publication, I even felt like I’d entered that world myself, like I’d folded my old life up behind me and put it away. I was ashamed at the idea that Bobbi might come into the sandwich shop and see for herself how deluded I had been.”

“I had the sense that something in my life had ended, my image of myself as a whole or normal person maybe. I realized my life would be full of mundane physical suffering, and that there was nothing special about it. Suffering wouldn’t make me special, and pretending not to suffer wouldn’t make me special. Talking about it, or even writing about it, would not transform the suffering into something useful. Nothing would.”

“Gradually the waiting began to feel less like waiting and more like simply what life was: the distracting tasks undertaken while the thing you are waiting for continues not to happen.”

Those last two quotes seem to sit inside me. Nothing makes my suffering useful, and often my life feels like filling time until I get well. I talk all the time about the things I will do when I’m well – running and hiking and dancing, working a normal eight-hour day. Sometimes I see people out for a run and I become so sad and resentful.

I hope the things you are waiting for happen for you. And in the meantime, I hope your friends post you books.
xo
Ashley