One of my favourite episodes of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History is Free Brian Williams. In it, Gladwell explores how memory functions, and the way it can be written overtime. If we tell someone else’s story enough, for example, and we’ve had similar experiences, we may eventually ‘remember’ ourselves in the story.
This month, I have a piece of flash fiction in a multimedia art exhibition run by Mounted, an artist-run initiative (ARI) located in Springwood, near Sydney.
In Reclamation: Exploring Memory, 16 visual artists will present work across a variety of mediums including painting, sculpture, ceramics, photography and video.
Mounted’s curators describe the show this way:
The French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze said that “Memory is a past present, it brings the past into the present. The past and present are mingled: the past unfolding, the present creating and inventing.”
Memory, both personal and collective, is fundamental to a knowledge and understanding of both an individual life, and more broadly, the collective historical and cultural impulses of any society.
In this project, artists are participating in a process of reclaiming memory, exploring its diverse expressions and nature by bringing it into the present moment, giving it a physical form through art, a presence that can be examined, shared and reflected upon.
I’ve been involved in a few of Mounted’s previous exhibitions, including The Viewer Is Present, and I love how their hardworking volunteer team combines written and visual works in innovative, engaging ways. Author Arna Radovich, curator of the exhibition’s flash fiction event, writes:
A sculpture or installation is a material representation of something similarly confined within some form of physical boundary. So too when you read or listen to a piece of short fiction, you get the whole of it in one sitting, or one train ride, or one small chunk of time – whether limited by one page or several.
Reclamation: Exploring Memory is open on the following dates, 11am-5pm: Saturday 13 March: opening event, 2pm Sunday 14 March Saturday 20 March Sunday 21 March: flash fiction event, 2pm Saturday 22 March Saturday 3 April
“I was pretty well bedridden, unable to move very easily for about the first year … I’d sort of have to shallow breathe into the tops of my lungs.”
When Josephine Taylor first began to experience chronic pain, she started to reduce her commitments. She was a career woman and a mum. But gradually, she had to shut down her whole life. Meanwhile, she struggled to get a diagnosis.
Eventually the doctors concluded she had vulvodynia, chronic vulva pain lasting three months or longer that is medically unexplained. “That doesn’t mean it’s not real,” she adds. “It’s a very real medical condition.”
Josephine is a writer and freelance editor who lives on the coast north of Perth, Western Australia. She is Associate Editor at Westerly Magazine and an adjunct senior lecturer in writing. Her debut novel, Eye of a Rook, is drawn in part from her experiences with vulvodynia.
Trapped with condition, she began to learn its history and write about it. “It seemed to me very important that people understand that actually there hasn’t been a great deal of movement forward in understanding or awareness since the 1860s.”
Eye of a Rook is a novel with two narratives, both about women suffering from vulvodynia. One storyline is set in contemporary Perth, and one set in England in the late 1800s. The historical narrative includes shocking details about women’s medicine and treatment at that time, drawn in part from research into “The London Surgical Home for the reception of Gentlewomen and Females of Respectability suffering from Curable Surgical Diseases”, which opened in 1858. Taylor describes the barbaric surgical procedure, called a clitoridectomy, which is proposed in the opening chapter as the solution to one of your main characters’ suffering.
For both women, their illness affects their personality, and robs them of themselves, as well as affecting Alice’s career in Perth. We discuss how vulvodynia affected Josephine’s life, medical victim blaming, the difficulty of being diagnosed with a little-understood condition and the ongoing confusion of it, and the ‘finitude of possibility’ that chronic illness inflicts on a life.
Josephine is full of excellent advice and reassurance for anyone suffering chronic and/or invisible illnesses, about surrounding ourselves with people who believe us, and not letting our past dictate our futures.
This episode’s book chat The Fifth Season by Philip Salem Wintering by Krissy Kneen ‘The Wife’s Story’ by Ursula K LeGuin Imperfect by Lee Kofman (who we spoke to in episode 3) Unlike the Heart by Nicola Redhouse Pain and Prejudice by Gabrielle Jackson Show Me Where It Hurts by Kylie Maslen Hysteria by Katerina Bryant One Day I’ll Remember This: Diaries 1987-1995 by Helen Garner In the Woods by Tana French
In My Name Is Revenge, I met with emerging genocide scholar Asya Darbinyan to discuss her work and future career path. To mark the release of the audiobook, I’ve caught up with Asya to find out how her career has developed since then, and what she thinks about genocide studies today.
Ashley: The first time we met was at Tsitsernakaberd, the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute in Yerevan. Where are you working now?
Asya: Currently I am a Visiting Scholar at the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University in Worcester, MA, working on my book project tentatively titled Russian Imperial Humanitarianism: Assisting the Armenian Refugees of the War and Genocide.
I moved to the US in 2013 to pursue a PhD in History with a focus on the Armenian Genocide at Clark University. I was lucky enough to have Professor Taner Akçam, who is a character in your book, as my dissertation advisor. It was a challenging and at the same time quite a rewarding journey.
I defended my dissertation in December 2019 while I was also teaching courses on the history of genocide (a course for Master students, focusing on the Native American, Bangladeshi, Yazidi cases, in addition to the more traditional cases – Armenia, the Holocaust, Rwanda) and on the Armenian Genocide (this course was for undergraduate students, 35 of them, no single Armenian among them) at Stockton University in New Jersey.
That’s when I learned how much I enjoy designing my own courses and teaching college students.
Ashley: What’s the focus of your research as a genocide studies scholar?
Asya: I consider myself a historian of humanitarianism and refugee studies as much as a genocide scholar. Regarding the latter, for many years genocide studies in general, and Armenian Genocide research in particular, have focused on official documents.
Most publications on the history the massacre and deportation of the Armenian people in the Ottoman Empire aimed at proving the crime of genocide by analyzing foreign sources, largely neglecting the voices of the survivors. As a result, the voices of those who experienced forced displacement, attacks on their houses and families, rape, abduction, forced conversion, starvation, exhaustion and epidemics were marginalized.
My scholarly work focuses on the humanitarian emergency and refugee crisis at the Caucasus front during the First World War, caused by population movements as a result of war and genocide.
But most importantly, reflecting on the experiences of the Armenians, my project addresses a number of questions related to the refugees’ understanding of and reaction to those developments. Analyzing testimonies, and memoirs of the refugee-survivors, I recover and raise their voices and emphasize the role they played in this struggle for survival.
They were not simply victims dependent upon external actors’ mercy and assistance: they were self-reliant, willing and able to self-organize.
Ashley: You inspired me when you said that you hoped to one day organise university forums to show the value and interest of genocide studies. Have you been able to achieve this goal?
Asya: That’s very kind of you.
It still is one of my most important goals. I have organized, moderated and conducted public lectures and workshops on genocide education and awareness, and mass atrocity prevention for high school students and teachers, for university students and educators from a variety of disciplines, and local communities in Armenia, Georgia, USA, and UK.
An important part of my teaching, as well as the goal of my public outreach is to demonstrate the relevance and significance of our past experiences of confronting humanitarian and health crisis, genocides and other mass atrocities, to our everyday life and present-day developments.
When the audiences – be it high school and college students, community members or colleagues from other academic departments – look at a hundred-year-old photograph of genocide orphans from the Ottoman Empire covered in rags, aboard a small boat trying to reach the shore of an island in Greece and find shelter there, next to a 2016 photo of a modern motor-boat transporting a group of malnourished children refugees from Syria to that same island for the same purpose, they start raising questions and engage in meaningful discussions.
They realize, that despite our different backgrounds or scholarly interests, mass violence, poverty, inequality, and struggle for survival are not topics to be discussed merely by those studying or teaching humanities. These are problems of humanity.
Ashley: What do you hope to achieve in your career?
Asya: My short-term career goal is to expand the scope of my research and complete the revisioning of my dissertation, so that I can publish my book and share the results of my scholarship with everyone interested. Based on extensive research in archives and libraries in Armenia, Georgia, Russia, the US, and elsewhere, my book is going to shed new light on the experiences of those Armenian refugees of the genocide, who were forced to leave their homes in “Western Armenia” and find shelter and eventually a new home in “Eastern/Russian Armenia,” just like, for instance, my great-grandmother Anna and her son, my grandfather Andranik, did.
It will also revisit the history of Russo-Armenian relations and present the complexity of imperial policies towards Armenians during the Great War. These policies are never black or white. Russia did not want “Armenia without Armenians.” Those historians who still insist on these more cynical or overly simplified explanations of Russo-Armenian relations underestimate the importance of global and regional contexts in which these relations and policies are formed and developed.
My long-term plan has not really changed. I love conducting research, uncovering new files and sources, writing and publishing, as much as I love teaching and organizing workshops and other academic events for intellectual exchange.
To be honest, the academic path turned out to be much more difficult and complicated than I assumed it would be. A lot of the difficulties have to do with the still heavily male-dominated structure of academia. There are more female students interested in refugees and genocide studies than male, but the professors and the senior scholars are still predominantly men, especially in Armenian Genocide studies.
I have also faced a number of obstacles as an international scholar in the US, because of the harsh immigration policies and lack of both funding and job opportunities for non-citizens. But I believe that persistent hard work and continued effort will eventually produce results.
Ashley: Do you think genocide is an important topic for everyone to better understand?
Asya: I do believe that, absolutely! Genocide is a global problem. The Armenian Genocide is not the history of the Armenian and Turkish people; the Genocide of 1994 in Rwanda is not the history of the Tutsi and Hutu people. This is the history of humanity.
As we’ve observed during this global pandemic, the Native Americans were the most vulnerable group in the US with highest mortality rates (more than the African American communities). Why? Because one of the greatest democracies in the world has not yet dealt with its own past, has not faced the crimes committed against the real owners of these lands, hence not properly apologizing for the genocide and taking the full responsibility for the safe, secure and prosperous future of the first citizens of this land. And I believe Australians too can relate to this story.
In 2017, I found myself with a 12,000-word novella. It was best piece of fiction I’d ever written, and possibly my best piece of writing full stop, and it sat on my hard drive, dreaming of readers.
I hadn’t intended to write a novella; my master’s degree program had dictated the word length. But writing it had turned out to be very useful. It allowed me to more easily develop novel-writing skills on a shorter project. I was able to go from idea to final draft in 18 months, with heaps of feedback and revision, something I never could have found time for if I’d been working on a manuscript of 80,000 words.
But novellas are tricky creatures. Publication call-outs and competitions for novellas exist, but there are far fewer than for short stories or full-length manuscripts.
This is why I was excited to discover the Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award, which accepted up to 30,000 words. It also suggested including an essay reflecting on the writing process. This excited me further, because I had a lot to say about my writing process. The novella had come out of years of research into the Armenian genocide, including interviews with 140 people on three continents, and two masters’ theses. In fact, I’d enrolled in a creative writing master’s program because I had the idea to write from the point of view of a terrorist connected to that history — and the idea terrified me.
Before entering the CBDLA, I read the examples suggested, My Hearts Are Your Hearts by Carmel Bird and Cracking the Spine: Ten short Australian stories and how they were written, both published by Spineless Wonders. Using these as a guide, I wrote my reflective essay, combined it with the novella, and sent it in.
In 2018, I was delighted to be one of 11 longlisted entries, and very surprised to learn I was one of three finalists. The prize included digital publication and $1000. The ebook of My Name Is Revenge was out by the end of the year.
When Bronwyn Mehan, the powerhouse behind Spineless Wonders, approached me about a print version, I said yes immediately. I’d been studying writing and revising drafts and racking up rejections for nearly a decade by this time, working toward the goal of having a published book. Technically I’d achieved that, but the book wasn’t yet a thing I could hold or sign or gift to my grandmother.
‘One thing,’ Bronwyn said. ‘At 17,000 words, it’s not long enough to have a spine.’
So we added in two additional companion pieces, essays previously published by Griffith Review and Sydney Review of Books. This brought the collection up to 25,000 words. We also included photographs from my time in Armenia.
The idea of the thriller novella was to hook readers with a gripping story, set in Sydney and based on the real-life assassination of the Turkish consul-general and his bodyguard. The assassination took place in 1980 and remains unsolved. When readers finish the story, the essays and photos provide the historical context for its events, a history that has been suppressed due to the ongoing denial of the Armenian genocide.
We launched My Name Is Revenge in June 2019, with author Emily Maguire giving the launch speech. It was one of the happiest events of my life.
With the book out in the world, I organised bookshop visits and library talks. I pitched myself to festivals and podcasts. This helped when, later in the year, I had a full-length manuscript under consideration with Affirm Press, which became my second book.
I thought that might be the end of the story for Revenge, but Bronwyn is full of great ideas. There was a voice actor named Felix Johnson, she told me, who would be perfect to narrate Revenge as an audiobook. This delighted me; I love audiobooks.
I worked with sound engineer Jeff Zhang to record the essays, and Felix worked with Jeff and Eleni Schumacher to record the novella, with Bronwyn coordinating everything, working around covid restrictions. It was rewarding to have the opportunity to narrate my work — and also exhausting! I’d never guessed reading out loud could be so tiring. It gave me new respect for audiobook narrators, especially those who bring characters to life the way Felix does.
My Name Is Revenge is now available as an audiobook worldwide, and also in print-on-demand and ebook formats. It’s so much more than I could have hoped for when I wrote that 12,000-word novella, and I credit my success in the CBDLA with launching my writing career.
“What I would ultimately like, you know, my huge big goal [for the book, is that] people can look back on this and say, ‘You know, there are bits in that – as a non-Indigenous person – I didn’t understand, but that’s okay, and I don’t need to acquire and learn and make meaning for everything in that book,’ because sometimes parts of that book are for Aboriginal people, some parts are for Yuwaalaraay people, and other parts are for Yuwaalaraay senior people.”
Our first guest for 2021 is Yuwaalaraay author Nardi Simpson. From North West NSW freshwater plains, Nardi is a founding member of Indigenous folk duo Stiff Gins, and has been performing nationally and internationally for 20 years. Her debut novel, Song of the Crocodile, was a 2018 winner of a black&write! writing fellowship.
Speaking to us from a beach on the Northern Rivers, Nardi delved into the intercultural aspects of the book, and of navigating modern society as an Indigenous person in Australia.
Song of the Crocodile is set in the fictional town of Darnmoor, in regional NSW. The story spans four generations of the Billymil family and their effort to sustain their Indigenous culture and community despite the overt and covert racism of the settlers, and the corrosive impact of intergenerational trauma.
Filled with ancestral spirits and Yuwaalaraay language, it presents both an insight into an ancient worldview that understands the healing power of the natural world, and a sharp, affecting critique of Australian society.
Her book reminded me of my own research into my family members’ survival of the Armenian genocide and the process of weaving that research into fiction when writing My Name Is Revenge.
“What happened to those families is basically what happened to my family,” Nardi says. “I wanted to understand that, and I didn’t want to judge it.”
Going too much into detail on the connections would be a spoiler for both Nardi’s book and my own, but one of the broad strokes points we both explore is how much has been lost due to the violence suffered by both communities – not just lives, livelihoods, homes and land, but also cultural knowledge and worldviews.
It’s a great conversation, and Nardi is a fascinating speaker and well as a powerful writer.
In this episode, we also discuss Bindi by Kirli Saunders, The Road to Woop Woop by Eugen Bacon, and James’s thoughts on reaching the end of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-book memoir series.
If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that there’s no point making plans. I planned all kinds of things last year, including that I would be in Canada over this holiday season to finally visit my family after four years of CFS making the journey impossible.
Instead I’ve spent three damp and soggy holiday weeks in New South Wales, mostly squelching around my neighbourhood, much like I did all year.
I planned to increase my micro swims to tiny swims, and to jump in the pool without hesitation. I was doing great at this in January, but then in February my CFS got much worse, and I wasn’t able to swim. I kept trying to get back to it, but then covid closed the pools, and I got sicker.
Another resolution was to read more, which I’d assumed I’d be able to do as my health continued to improve. But it really didn’t. My CFS recovery tanked in February and March, and again in August and September, and I felt like I spent the rest of the year trying to recover from those months, just to get to where I’d been in January.
I also wanted to develop my listening skills and ask better questions, but between CFS shutting me down and covid shutting everything else down, I gave up on this. If anything, I’m less inclined to ask any questions when I go out these days.
There was one resolution I managed, however: to have a first draft of my new novel by 31 December. I’m happy to tell you I’m already into draft 2, and I’m very excited about it.
Also in 2020 I completed the Lost Hours Project. Every day, I recorded how much time I lost to illness, ie how much time I spent in bed during the day rather than up living my life. I was very optimistic at the start of the year, so I thought it would be an encouraging exercise. I thought the numbers would gradually improve.
I lost 1024 hours last year. If you assume 16-hour waking days, that’s 64 days – more than two months.
But I also realised that this project wasn’t working. I’d wanted to quantify the experience of illness, to find a metric to compare days and months. This isn’t it. In September I lost 89 hours to chronic fatigue and in October I lost 85. But those two months were wildly different experiences. In September (and August) I felt like I was drowning almost every waking minute. In October I was quite functional when I wasn’t in bed, and I was able to do cognitive work without fighting through an ocean of misery.
It turns out it’s not so much the lost hours that matter (though of course they do), but the quality of the hours that are not lost. And that’s much harder to quantify.
I know what you’re thinking – yeah, but look at December. You must be feeling a lot better! Not quite. I was just on holidays. My office closed for the holidays on 16 December, and when I can spend 15 hours a week relaxing instead of doing intense cognitive work, my symptoms become much milder.
So I decided not to continue the Lost Hours Project in 2021. I’m not convinced the data is very useful, and it’s a bit depressing.
Some good news: today I jumped in the pool without hesitation and did a micro swim. If I don’t end up collapsing for several hours in the next two days, I might even do that again.
Still, I refuse to make plans or goals this January. I’m sick of it. I’m going to write a new draft of this book as fast or slow as suits me on any given day.
Actually I do have one resolution I’m very keen on, and that is to use the word absquatulate as much as possible.
Say that out loud and tell me it isn’t the most fun you’ve ever had.
It means to leave abruptly, which is something that can be worked into most conversations, even if I have to do more than my share of absquatulating to ensure I can bring it up.
In 2020, I read far more fiction (61%) than non-fiction (39%). This is unusual for me; I generally prefer non-fiction. But it continues a trend that started in 2019. I suspect we all need more escapism these days.
I continued to support Australian authors, women authors and debut authors, and aimed to read more authors of colour. That 23% is still a too low, which gives me something to focus on in 2021.
2020 reading breakdown 68% Australian authors 74% women authors 23% authors of colour 39% nonfiction 42% debut authors
This year, a lot of my reading was focused on authors who agreed to be guests on my new podcast, James and Ashley Stay at Home, co-hosted with James McKenzie Watson. Most our guests were writers, and we also interviewed comedian Anthony Jeannot and art therapist Karin Foxwell.
Because we interviewed so many writers, we got a lot of fantastic writing tips. As a special end of year treat, James edited some of the best tips together. Episode 17: The Best Writing Tips of 2020 has useful tips for any writer (and a few good tips for those of us suffering chronic illness as well).
And we’re excited to be planning more great episodes for 2021. We’ll be speaking to Yuwaalaraay author Nardi Simpson about her debut novel Song of the Crocodile, to Josephine Taylor about writing and living with vulvodynia, and lots more!
If you’re working on a memoir or narrative-non fiction project, including essays, or would like to start, my new online workshop with Mirrabooka Writers is for you.
In this craft and workshop hybrid course delivered by Zoom, you’ll learn the conventions of writing memoir and narrative non-fiction, including how to shape your writing to engage readers from the start, how to craft yourself and others on the page, and how to develop your writing through group workshopping with classmates and the instructor.
Each session will include workshopping, craft theory, exercises, and discussion. By the end of the course, you’ll have gained an understanding of how to develop and shape your narrative non-fiction writing, explored techniques for improving voice, setting, dialogue and characters, and drafted three-four potential book chapters or essays. This course is perfect for students in the early or intermediate stages of writing any type of narrative non-fiction, especially memoir.
If you’re looking for inspiration to get writing now or would like to learn more about me as a writer, check out James and Ashley Stay at Home, a podcast about writing, creativity and health, co-hosted by James McKenzie Watson and me, available on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or your favourite podcast app.
I’d love to get the chance to learn about your writing and share the techniques that helped me go from aspiring writer to published author.
All best wishes for your 2021 endeavours! Ashley xo
In episode 16, James and I interview author and historian Ada Palmer about living with chronic pain and studying the past to imagine the future. She offers excellent advice to those managing invisible illness, while also acknowledging how hard it can be.
Ada is an author of science fiction and fantasy, a historian at the University of Chicago, and a composer and musician. Her book series, Terra Ignota, published by Tor, explores a future of borderless nations and globally commixing populations. The first volume, Too Like the Lightning, was a finalist for the Best Novel Hugo award. Ada teaches history at the University of Chicago, studying the Renaissance, Enlightenment, heresy, atheism, and censorship.
Ada has achieved all this and more while living with a number of invisible chronic illnesses, including Crohn’s disease and polycystic ovarian syndrome.
“There’s nothing more similar than history and science-fiction,” Ada says. “It’s studying long periods of time in which societies change, whether future or past.”
In our interview, she describes her academic research as the history of worldviews, and how she uses her research into the past to imagine human societies hundreds of years in the future, asking, “How does the future think about us?”
Ada also discusses how her Crohn’s disease and polycystic ovarian syndrome have resulted in chronic, sometimes crippling pain, and how she’s learning to cope with living with invisible illness.
“When it’s the same pain in the same nerves over a long time, it causes cognitive trauma damage.”
Ada describes coming to understand herself as disabled as “a powerful and interesting turning point”. The first time that she raised the topic with her university students, she was surprised by their enthusiasm to discuss and learn more.
“It helped me realise how powerful it was as a conversation, how powerful it was for the students for that silence to break, and how powerful it was for somebody’s who’s in a role-model position to talk about it with them.” Her students’ support gave her the confidence to speak to her department head and colleagues about her illness and its challenges.
In this episode, we also talk about authors Arkady Martine, Claire G Coleman, Gene Wolfe, Neil Price, Junji Ito, Julian Barnes, Anita Heiss, Evelyn Araluen, and of course, Voltaire and Diderot.