Two months ago I started the first draft of a new novel, and I’m 16,000 words in. So at that rate it will take me … I don’t know, eight years to finish? But there’s been lots keeping me busy. Here’s a roundup of the latest news.
1. I had a fantastic interview about My Name Is Revenge with author Pamela Cook on the writing podcast she co-hosts with Kel Butler, Writes4Women, and you can listen here.
2. Armenia was the ‘journeys to come’ destination in this guest traveller post I wrote for Catriona Rowntree.
3. My latest book review, on JP Pomare’s Call Me Evie, is out now. This psychological thriller is captivatingly taut, with evocative settings and characters that thrash through their lives with an almost painful authenticity.
4. My monthly enewsletter comes out tomorrow, with a chance to win a copy of Toni Jordan’s new novel The Fragments! There’s still time to sign up.*
5. I’m appearing on a writing panel with some fantastic Australian authors. If you’re an emerging writer in Sydney, this panel is for you!
First Time Feels with the First Time Podcast Friday 20 September, 6pm Gleebooks, Glebe
Co-hosts of The First Time Podcast, Kate Mildenhall (Skylarking) and Katherine Collette (The Helpline) talk debut publication with authors John Purcell (The Girl on the Page), Cassie Hamer (After the Party) and Ashley Kalagian Blunt (My Name Is Revenge).
Come along to a live recording of this popular writing podcast, and stay for a wine and a catch up with other writing folk.
*So many people have asked me about this: no, that is not my dog. It’s a stock image dog. He really wants to you to sign up to my newsletter. That’s the whole story.
When I was 14, my aunt gave me a purple journal with Garfield on the cover (the cat, not the president). This indicates how cool I was at 14. Having barely any friends gave me heaps of time to write in my journal. I’ve kept up that habit for more than two decades.
I sometimes wonder what will happen to the diaries when I die. I doubt someone will go back and read them. They’re incredibly boring. When I mentioned this online, author Annabel Smith described her own diaries as ‘right on the boring/excruciating boundary’. I thought that was the perfect description.
I’m a huge fan of American essayist David Sedaris, whose work is hilarious and illuminating. When he came out with Theft by Finding: Diaries Volume One in 2017, however, I thought ‘this feels like too much. Do I really need to read this guy’s diary excerpts?’
I was pretty certain the answer was no. But then I got sick for years and Theft by Finding came out in audiobook, and I was desperate for entertainment I could consume while lying down with my eyes closed. I was surprised to discover I loved Theft by Finding. It’s become one of my all-time favourite books. Sedaris weaves in his own story, and it’s actually quite interesting (from working odd jobs straight out of high school in his home state of Carolina to art school in Chicago to huge success as an author in New York). But what really made his diaries was his observations about the world around him. It seemed like a technique worth developing in my own diaries.
To be clear, I think Sedaris’ diary excerpts are brilliant and fascinating and reflect the sociopolitical issues of their times. Whereas mine are mostly things I found entertaining. I started posting a few excerpts. My journals still feature lots of boring/excruciating bits, but thanks to Sedaris, I think there’s a few good bits too.
May 14, 2018 Recently I was complaining about houses and dogs having people names like Gerald. Today, a friend mentioned that she’d met someone at work whose name is B’rit. ‘With the apostrophe,’ she said. That’s a bit strange, I replied. ‘My sister went to high school with a girl named Haloumi Sparkles,’ she added. I didn’t get a chance to ask if Sparkles was her middle name or her surname, because someone else cut in.
‘A girl from my high school named her kids Tiger and Sabre.’
A third woman among us topped even that. ‘My dad is a pediatrician and he has a set of twins as patients,’ she said. ‘One is called Bladeinjail, because his dad is in jail for stabbing someone. The other is called Captain Dangles.’
May 29, 2018
There’s a huge billboard advertising a space for lease, near my office. It features an image of a cat with a third eye photoshopped into the centre of its forehead. The cat is giant, the size of a car, and its three eyes stare down at you, as if trying to hypnotise you into leasing the building. I have been looking for a large commercial and/or office space…
June 1, 2018
Saw a man wearing one red sock and one blue sock. Society is really falling to pieces, with our reliance on fossil fuels, the election of Trump, and now this.
A literary thriller novella set in 1980s Sydney and drawn from true events, including a series of international terrorist attacks, My Name is Revenge is the story of a young man seeking justice. A collection of essays blending memoir, history and journalism accompany the novella. You can download a PDF copy of this book club discussion guide.
1. Had you heard of the Armenian genocide before My Name Is Revenge? If so, how did you learn about it?
2. How does Vrezh’s life in 1980s Sydney contrast with his interior world?
3. Vrezh acts as though he has absorbed his grandfather’s memories as his own. Do you believe it’s possible to have ‘memories’ of events that happened to others?
4. How do you understand the relationship between Vrezh and Armen? How does their father’s behaviour impact them?
5. Can you empathise with Vrezh’s motivations for taking part in an assassination? How do his school experiences in Australia influence him?
6. Do Vrezh’s motivations differ from Armen’s? If yes, how?
7. ‘I couldn’t condone or even empathise with their methods. And yet I understood their motives intimately’ (75). Have you ever empathised with the motives behind an act of violence? Did this surprise you?
8. ‘If there had ever been justice, it was a fluke, an aberration’ (52). Do you believe justice is possible after an event like the Armenian genocide? If so, how?
9. What does My Name Is Revenge reveal about the past and its impact on the present and the future?
10. Vrezh ‘wonders about the Aboriginal people who might have once lived in the NSW countryside. But he lacks the empathic imagination to connect their history to his own’ (77-8). Why do you think Vrezh struggles to imagine the history of others?
11. Norman Naimark argues that genocides never happen in isolation, but are part of an historical continuum. After reading ‘The Crime of Crimes’, do you agree?
12. ‘I’ve studied and written about genocide for nearly a decade. My husband finds this interest morbid’ (101). After reading My Name Is Revenge, why do think Kalagian Blunt pursued this topic for so many years?
13. ‘In my hostel, they told me I am the first Turk to stay there. I’ve heard this everywhere!’ (128). How did the actions of Başak, the Turkish woman who Kalagian Blunt meets in Armenia, make you feel? Would you risk arrest for your convictions?
14. Has this book made you think differently about how we, as a society, remember and understand historical events?
15. My Name Is Revenge includes photos taken by the author. Many of these photos highlight aspects of Armenia today. What do you believe is the intention of these photos?
This month I reviewed the recently released Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad by Canadian author Wendy Elliott. Drawing on archival documents, including personal letters and journals, the book tells the incredible stories of a group of humanitarians working in central Turkey during the final years of the Ottoman Empire.
From 1908 to 1923, Ottoman citizens endured ‘two coups d’état, four regional wars, a world war, a war of independence, and a crippling national debt’ – as well as an unprecedented modern genocide. Elliott traces these events with clarity, intrigue, and a wonderful attention to startling detail.
I had the opportunity to ask her a few questions about her time in Armenia, what drew her to these stories, and what she learned in the process.
1. What first took you to Armenia? What drew you back?
In 2006 I was asked by a Canadian international development agency to go to Vanadzor as a Volunteer Advisor to train a group of women in skills I’d acquired while working in various executive positions in not-for-profit organizations. I was welcomed by them so warmly I immediately felt at home, and I was eager to return. The next year I was invited to Gyumri, and in 2009 I completed two assignments in Yerevan. Canadian funding for the program was discontinued in 2010, or I would have returned regularly.
2. How did you come to write the story of Susan Wealthy Orvis and her fellow humanitarians?
In 2014, my one-time interpreter and now-friend Kamo Mayilyan heard about Susan Wealthy Orvis, an American missionary who had saved thousands of Armenian orphans after the genocide. We co-authored an article about her, and were contacted by her great niece who had seen it. She offered us access to a hundred-year-old trunk that contained Susan’s original letters from her time in Turkey. From then on, Kamo was determined I should write the book. For many reasons, it took several months of persuasion on his part and research on mine before I accepted.
3. What was the first thing that made Susan appeal to you as a character? I remember the moment clearly. I was reading her unpublished manuscript about her journey to help establish a relief centre in Alexandropol (Gyumri), Russia in 1917. She travelled more than 7,000 miles from Dubuque, Iowa during World War I and the Russian revolution, and I was impressed by her lack of naiveté, her living-by-example style of evangelism rather than proselytizing, and her willingness to roll up her sleeves to tackle seemingly insurmountable problems. But what tipped the scales for me was when, under armed attack, instead of frantically praying for divine salvation, she thought about the psychology of William James and a bear! I was so startled, I laughed out loud. I realized I liked her very much and could spend the years it would take to write the book in her company.
4. Grit and Grace is full of details that range from surprising to shocking, like the man who treated the bullet wound in his leg by stuffing scrambled eggs in it. What details or moments stand out most for you?
I can instantly think of four:
1) nurses Rachel and Blanche’s befuddled attempt at removing tar caps from children’s heads to cure them of favus (a dreadful scalp disease);
2) the horrible conditions of the conscripted Ottoman soldiers in winter, without coats, forced to wrap their feet in rags or go barefoot, fed only a third of a ration, and housed in filthy, vermin- and disease-filled shelters – and still expected to fight battles;
3) the absurd incident in the Marash hospital when the pharmacist, who had once been in the Ottoman army, screamed across the courtyard at a group of Nationalists, “You know it’s not permitted to fire on a hospital! The Director Doctor Madame is very angry about it, and will hold you responsible. The Director says you are to stop firing at once!” and amazingly they did; and
4) the entire village of brave Armenians, Greeks and Turks who defiantly stood together against the gendarmes who tried to deport the Armenian residents, thus forcing the gendarmes to leave empty-handed.
5. What personal lessons came out of writing this book for you?
My parents, who grew up during WWII, always spoke of the duty of a citizen to pay attention to issues and to vote because society can rapidly change for the worse when there is apathy. I was reminded of that while writing about how the Ottoman Empire went from euphoria in 1908 to genocide in 1915 – only seven short years – and as I listened to daily news reports of radical changes occurring around the world, which continue today. But the most profound lesson was to be careful of my speech. Our brains are programmed to find the fastest, easiest way to do something, so it’s natural to make generalizations. However, I learned that saying everyone or always or never is not only not true, it promotes the concept of Us versus Them. And that’s the first step of a slippery slope towards violence. I was careful not to generalize in the book, but I now watch my words in everyday speech, too. I don’t want to contribute even in a small way to a negative or destructive society.
We launched My Name Is Revenge on April 10. The crowd was amazing, and the signing line-up lasted for practically the entire event. My husband Steve was MC, and he introduced the guest of honour, author Emily Maguire.
In Emily’s speech, she described the first time she learned about the Armenian genocide, about ten years ago. Flipping through a library book, she saw Arshile Gorky’s painting, The Artist and His Mother. Gorky was a survivor of the genocide, the caption in the book informed her. She’d never heard of it. That evening she had dinner with a group of artists, and asked them about it. Some had heard of it, but no-one could give her any specifics.
She connected this to Hitler’s infamous 1939 quote, ‘Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’ and she described My Name is Revenge as ‘a gut punch of a book, a necessary and urgent shout back to the silence’.
I wrote this book for people like Emily, who may know little or nothing about the genocide simply because it hasn’t been spoken about nearly enough – in our school textbooks, in our books and films, in our public discourse and private conversations.
After the speeches, we ate cake. Steve had been worried about the cake, because I ordered it off the internet, so how did I know if it tasted any good? I was more concerned with how the cake looked, and it looked pretty darn good.
It tasted as good as it looked. After it was cut, the restaurant placed it under a heat lamp (by mistake, I assume) and by the end of the evening the last few slices had melted into a lump of warm chocolatey goo.
I felt great at the launch. I was careful to rest a lot in the days leading up to it, and did as little as possible the day of the launch itself. I find evenings especially hard; they’re usually when I’m most worn out. But the night of the launch, my body flooded me with adrenaline. And everyone was so generous and kind, as evidence by the four bouquets of flowers I received. (My apartment has never been so full of flowers!) Lots of people commented on how great I looked. I tried not to talk about being ill, because I wanted to forget about it for the night. People saw me full of energy, bright and bubbly.
I left feeling like a cement truck had run over me. Every muscle in my body hurt. I spent all of Friday in bed recovering.
In general, my chronic fatigue has improved significantly. Last year I wouldn’t have been able to attend an event like the book launch. But I’m still not recovered, even though I may look and act like it in small bursts. CFS is inconsistent, which makes it complicated to explain.
I’m very grateful I was able to organise and attend the launch for the book that marks ten years of writing on the Armenian genocide. But I also think it’s important to reflect on the complexity of living with invisible illness.
Thanks again to everyone who attended the launch (like crime writer AB Patterson, who wrote this great post about it). And special thanks to all the amazing, brilliant and uncommonly attractive readers who have left reviews on Goodreads and Amazon.
Tonight is my first ever book launch. I started writing this book ten years ago. Except it wasn’t this book; it was a different book.
Ten years ago I planned to write a book about my great grandparents’ survival of the Armenian genocide. I knew they’d both lost their entire families, and ended up in Canada as orphans in 1920. I knew Paravon, my great grandfather, had hidden in a tree while his family was murdered and his village burned to the ground. So, in early 2010, when the Winnipeg Arts Council foolishly encouraged me with a research grant, I thought it would be easy to travel to my great grandparents’ Armenian community near Niagara Falls, learn their story, and write a book about it.
I had no idea that in the coming years I would end up writing two master’s theses on the Armenian genocide, spending two months in Armenia, and interviewing nearly 150 people in Canada, Australia and the Caucasus about Armenian identity.
What’s driven me through a decade of research and writing is that I find Armenia fascinating. I was long fascinated by the genocide, by how a government could callously and blatantly organize the murder of 1.5 million people, and then go on to deny it for decades in the face of overwhelming evidence. But the more I researched Armenia, the more fascinated I became. When I travelled to the Caucasus, I grew obsessed with first the Soviet history, and then the cold and dark years of the 1990s, when much of the country was without electricity or gas. Armenia is full of resilient people with amazing stories. I also became fascinated by Armenia’s history as the world’s first Christian nation. I was astounded when I visited its centuries-old monasteries.
So I spent five years writing and rewriting a travel memoir of Armenia and everything I’d learned there. That manuscript was shortlisted for two awards, one in Australia and one in the UK.
And in the meantime, I became fascinated by the wave of global terrorism that began in 1973. Conceived as retribution for the denial of the genocide, that wave of terrorism reached Sydney in December, 1980. When I learned about Armenian terrorists targeting Turkish diplomats, I was startled to find that, despite abhorring their methods, I intimately understood their motives. So I wrote the novella that became My Name is Revenge.
When I started writing ten years ago, I had no idea that the book about my great grandparents’ survival would become a travel memoir of Armenia – and until recently, I had no idea that my first published book would be another book entirely, a book of my collected writing on Armenia that came out of all of that research. My Name is Revenge is an attempt to capture what has fascinated me, and to share the connections between Australia, Canada and the genocide, and the urgency in its historical lessons.
Artist Katie Holten has created a living tree alphabet for New York, based on NYC trees. Each letter is its own tree: A for Ash, B for Birch, C for Crab Apple, etc.
You can download the font free from nyctree.org! As they explain, ‘The New York City Tree Alphabet is an alphabetical planting palette’ and they’re planting submitted messages around the city with actual trees.
The font is lushious and a joy to play with. Here’s a short excerpt from my current manuscript in progress, How to Be Australian, written in nyctrees, and with the translation beneath. The page looks like a forest!
Unlike the birds, trees didn’t factor into our conversations beyond ‘wow, a lot of these trees have some sort of bark disease.’ Walking through my neighbourhood surrounded by anonymous trees was a reminder that I was a stranger here. As an elementary school student on the Canadian prairies, I had to collect leaves, glue them to paper, and draw and label the trees those leaves were once part of, like the world’s most boring CSI episode. But the exercise ensured that my adult self knew Canada’s birch, pine and Douglas firs without knowing this mattered. No-one in Sydney was going to force me to collect leaf samples and label them, though I wished they would. I kept telling myself I’d buy a book of Australian trees, but I was drowning in academic theory on diasporan cultural identity.
‘Do you think they’d let me sit in on a grade three class for a few days?’ I asked Steve toward the end of May, peering at him from behind the pile of textbooks on the kitchen table. ‘Just to learn about the birds and the trees?’
It’s fascinating thinking about our knowledge of trees as a type of literacy. I’d love to see an Australian version of this alphabet, with banksia, eucalypt, moreton bay figs, wattle (my person favourite). And maybe then I could finally develop my Australian tree knowledge!
I did make some progress on my Aussie flower knowledge lately, thanks to some lovely people who taught me about pink heath, flannel flowers and gum blossoms:
I can identify all the Aussie birds on my skirt, but not all the flowers. I had a theory they were state emblems (warahtah for NSW, Sturts desert pea for SA) but banksia isn't a state flower. There's also what I think is blue gum (?) + little white flowers + little pink ones! pic.twitter.com/zrmfvl36ta
The specific monkey I’m fighting with is Mailchimp, because – surprise! – I’m planning to send out the best author emails you’ve ever received.
Q: Ashley, I already read your website, why would I sign up for your email news?
A: Because you can’t get enough of me? I am very loveable. Actually, aside from the fact that my emails will feature different (and even more exciting!) content, you should sign up because I’ll be doing monthly giveaways of excellent books. You definitely want to get in on that.
Q: How often will you email me?
A: Every hour, on the hour. Or maybe monthly.
Q: Wow, you’ve convinced me! Where do I sign up?
A: If I were winning my ongoing battle with Mailchimp, I’d say you could sign up right here, in this form that I’ve beautifully embedded right into my website. But that monkey knows kung fu or something. So instead, you’ll have to sign up at this link.
Q: What if the monkey ultimately destroys you in battle?
A: I have sworn that, once dead, I will not haunt anyone who’s signed up to my email list. That’s a little added bonus.
One of the few positives of putting most of my life on hiatus due to illness is that I’ve actually had more time for reading.
I’ve always loved reading. I used to walk home from school with an open book, looking up only before crossing the street, and even then only if I wasn’t at a really good part.
When my chronic fatigue was at its worst in 2017, I wasn’t able to read. I’d start a sentence, and by the time I finished, I’d forgotten how it began. I’d re-read the same sentence over and over, but my brain was too tired to both decipher the writing and hold onto the meaning.
I still have days where I’m too tired to read, but they’re becoming less frequent. And because I have spent so much time home on the couch, I actually read more this year. Comparing the past six years indicates how much time I spent at home by the number of books I’ve read.
2013: 20 books
2014: 23 books
2015: 26 books
2016: 21 books
2017: 32 books (gradually becoming ill)
2018: 50 books (ill all year)
It turns out the secret to reading a lot is being chronically ill (maybe that is Reading in Winter’s secret? Or maybe she’s one of those healthy people who just don’t sleep, which is basically a superpower).
2018 reading breakdown
64% Australian authors
57% women authors
24% debut authors, of which 22% (11 books) were debut Australian women authors
6% zombie fiction
2018 reading highlights
Vodka & Apple Juice by Jay Martin (NF) Having left a successful career in Canberra, Martin is both excited and nervous to spend three years in Poland accompanying her husband on a diplomatic posting. Her narrative traces her efforts to learn the Polish language and the unwritten rules of Polish life, as well as the challenges of making meaningful friendships and helping her marriage survive the long, grey winters. Her writing is personable, peppered with gentle humour and introspection.*
Traumata by Meera Atkinson (NF)
Traumata is a sense-making project, or rather the summary of Atkinson’s lifelong effort at sense-making. Interspersing research into trauma, memory and psychology with explorations of her personal traumata – the plural of trauma – she presents an incisive case study of trauma’s effects, how it can compound at an individual level, and how it operates in society. (First published in The Australian)
Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett (NF)
Everett spent 30 years in the Brazilian jungle, living among the Pirahã tribe. His book recounts his experiences in the jungle, and his efforts to translate the language of this still-isolated tribe. Through his cultural immersion, his life and religious views change dramatically, as does his understanding of foundational concepts of linguistics, and more profoundly, how and if people from diverse cultural contexts can truly understand one another. Inevitably he learns far more from the Pirahãs than they take from him. The prologue frames his experiences by describing the morning an entire village of Pirahãs woke early to observe a visiting spirit on the beach. They insist the spirit is as present before them as Everett is. ‘Over the more than two decades since that summer morning, I have tried to come to grips with the significance of how two cultures, my European-based culture and the Pirahãs’ culture, could see reality so differently,’ Everett writes. ‘I could never have proved to the Pirahãs that the beach was empty. Nor could they have convinced me there was anything, much less a spirit, on it.’*
Always Another Country by Sisonke Msimang (NF)
Msimang grew up in exile from South Africa, the daughter of a freedom fighter and follower of Nelson Mandela. Her eloquent memoir of home, belonging and race politics traces her childhood in Zambia, Kenya and Canada, her university years in America, and her return to a South Africa that is free but not just. (First published in The Big Issue)
Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee (NF)
Lee’s experiences, both professionally and personally, make clear the human fallibility and biases of the justice system, and how it is stacked against women. Women and children are often victims of crime in their own homes, and the perpetrators are people they know. But juries are unlikely to believe any woman who isn’t the ‘perfect victim’, a woman who appears chaste, is not on birth control, and is preferably attacked by a shady-looking stranger in public, not an average-looking bloke she happens to know, even casually. And if a complainant is inconsistent in her reports, if she becomes too emotional, she is less believable, even though these are normal responses to trauma. Read the full review here.
Being Shot by Gail Bell (NF)
Blending memoir with journalism, Bell examines her own experiences, alongside those of a number of other shooting victims, to consider both the physical and psychological aftermath. She also interviews recreational gun owners, war veterans, and police and RSPCA officers who use weapons in their work. In an effort to understand the appeal of guns, she considers their 500-year history and current prevalence in pop culture. Read the full review here.
How I Rescued My Brain by David Roland (NF)
Roland was a psychologist who developed post-traumatic stress after working with violent offenders in the prison system, as well as traumatised patients. This and other stressors, including financial ruin and the breakdown of his marriage, likely played a role in the stroke that reduced his cognitive capabilities. His gentle narrative explores both the devastating effects of his conditions and the steps he took toward wellbeing, including mindfulness meditation. Having suffered frustrating cognitive limitations myself since the onset of my illness, I appreciated Roland’s direct, clear descriptions of his cognitive symptoms. He separates these into three categories: the general confusion of fog brain; rubber brain, the inability to take things in; and sore brain, the physical hurt that cognitive strain would cause, even for a task as simple as making lunch for his children.*
The Friendship Cure by Kate Leaver (NF)
Just as loneliness causes us harm, friendship can dramatically affect our physical health, as new research shows. Having a caring social network of close friends may lower your risk of Alzheimer’s, obesity, heart problems and high blood pressure, and improve your chances of staying fit. Likewise, having a close friend at work can improve attention span, mood and even productivity. And while friendship can’t cure depression, spending time with friends and cultivating strong friendships can be part of good mental healthcare practices, alongside healthy eating and exercise. Combining scientific research, interviews and memoir, The Friendship Cure explores the many benefits of friendship, along with a few of the perils, through pop-culture references and anecdotes of both successful and failed friendships. Read the full review here.
Claiming Noah by Amanda Ortlepp
Under the umbrella of contemporary women’s fiction, this novel is part of the emotional thriller genre. Set in Sydney, it centres around two mothers and the realities of IVF and postpartum psychosis. With a quickly paced plot and blurred lines between protagonists and antagonists, it’s an engaging read.