Secret highlights of an unknown rural gem

Recently I spent a week on writing retreat in rural NSW, near a place called Clarence Town.  I’d never heard of Clarence Town before. It’s a few hours north of Sydney, and has a population of less than 1000 people. It’s inland, and you have to turn down several side roads to get to it. It’s not a place you’d visit unless you had a reason to, which you probably don’t. But you’re missing out! Here are five excellent reasons to visit Clarence Town.

1. Experience the Williams River Cafe
The Williams River Cafe in Clarence Town, Australia
The Williams River Cafe wants to wish you a happy new year. Even in May, when I was in town. I wasn’t sure if they were still wishing me a happy 2019, or if they were getting in early to wish me a happy 2020. It must have been the latter, otherwise it would have read “Happy Same Old Year It’s Been for Five Months Already.”

Inside the cafe is as knick-knacky as your wildest dreams, with corrugated metal as a decorative flourish.
Inside The Williams River Cafe in Clarence Town, Australia
And of course there are the owl cookie jars.
Owl cookie jars in small town Australian cafe
When I popped into the Williams River Cafe, the only customers were one white-haired couple. They looked to be approximately 145 years old. They had driving maps of Australia open on the table between them, but I imagine them as permanent fixtures in the Williams River Cafe.

2. Visit Lovey’s Groceries – Two Local Blokes
I didn’t get to meet either of the local blokes, which is a shame. I would have congratulated them on having the world’s best IGA name, and also asked which one was Lovey. IMG_1499.JPG

3. Clarence Town is the seventh oldest colonial settlement in Australia.
If you win a pub trivia night with that fact, I expect a cut of the profits. Another Clarence Town fact: the local Aboriginal name, Erringhi, means ‘the place of the little black duck’.

4. This historic passive-aggressive photo collage
The Clarence Town School of Arts was built in 1915 ‘to last and withstand the ravages of white ants’. So far it has. A glassed-in bulletin board hangs near its front door. The bulletin board was my absolute highlight of Clarence Town, because it featured this photo collage, which reads:
Deb Ball 1993
On the 1st of May 1993 I put a Deb Ball on. I did it under the banner of the Fire Brigade, I did every bit of organising myself and the boys turned up on the day to help put up a few of the decorations – it nearly killed me. … I hired the “ALAN WARD BIG BAND” It cost $1,000 which was a lot of money then but they were worth it.IMG_1490.JPG
The ‘I’ in this collage goes unnamed. I assume the writer expects that her reputation as the woman who put on the Deb Ball 1993 precedes her. I love that she took this opportunity to publicly shame ‘the boys’ of the fire brigade (perhaps my scare quotes aren’t needed there; in 1993 the Clarence Town fire brigade was possibly staffed by children). I love that she concludes by big noting how much money she spent, but also that she seems to think $1,000 isn’t much money today?

Finally, I love that there is no indication how long this faded, curling photo collage has been on the Clarence Town School of Arts bulletin board. It might have been there since 1993, and I’m sure it will stay there as long as its author is alive.

5. Clarence Town’s reliable annual events
The photo collage wasn’t the only bulletin board highlight. I was also impressed by this poster. There’s an obvious narrative here: the flyer was posted in 2018, and this year, an efficient and eco-friendly organiser thought ‘Why print new flyers? The event is literally the exact same.’ And instead they simply visited the flyer where it has stayed all year (there’s not a lot of changeover in the Clarence Town School of Arts bulletin board),  whited out the date and final numeral of the year, and wrote over them.  IMG_1493.JPG

And that’s it. Actually, you have less reason to visit Clarence Town now that you’ve seen all the highlights. This is literally it. I wouldn’t recommend going there.

Unless you’re on writing retreat, and you want to lock yourself away with your laptop where there are as few distractions as possible. Then Clarence Town might be the perfect place.

 

So now you’re an author

When I was seven, my school published a story I’d written in a collection called Young Saskatchewan Writers. (My family lived in Moose Jaw, so I was Saskatchewanian.) It was a one-paragraph story about a wizard who turned some school kids into frogs.

Seeing my name in that book made me think I actually was a writer, or at least would be some day. I started a novel when I was fourteen, and another when I was eighteen. The first was speculative fiction about killer bees from Mars; the second was apocalyptic magical realism. (All I can say is, thank goodness self-publishing was not so widely accessible back then.)

There were a few years in my twenties when I didn’t write anything but journals, mostly because I was living in Peru and Mexico, and spending my time learning Spanish.

I returned to writing seriously in 2010. I applied for an arts grant, and somehow got it. Around that time, I read a book in which the author mentioned that it took 10 years for her project to go from idea to publication. I found this ridiculous. There was no way my book would take that long.

Almost exactly ten years later, my first book came out. I was 35. Author with stacks of books, My Name Is RevengeWhich is to say, this was a major life goal of mine that I worked very hard on for many years, and achieving it felt really good. And lots of great things have happened since my book came out.

Here I am at Sydney Writers’ Festival with essayists Fiona Wright and Luke Carman, whose new collections explore the impacts of chronic illness. It was a bit intimidating to get up on stage with such skilled, established authors. But it went well, I think. IMG_1463.JPGAfter the talk, all three of us went to the signing tables. I’d joked about how, because I was the panel moderator, no one would come to have my book signed – no one ever goes to see the moderator. And I was right! I sat there all alone while people lined up with Fiona and Luke’s books. It felt like a rite of passage.

Since my book has come out, I also had the pleasure of speaking to Claudine Tinellis, who hosts the podcast Talking Aussie Books about writing Revenge and tips for writers.

I made my first book club appearance, with this incredible group of Armenian women. This was delightful, not only because they had all read the book and we had a robust, three-hour discussion about Armenian identity, but also because it was like being with my aunts and cousins.  Armenian Book Club with copies of My Name Is RevengeAnd I was invited to appear at the NSW Dickens Society annual conference with the wonderful Walter Mason. This time, I signed some books!Literary conference panel from NSW Dickens Society
And I have more events coming up, in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne.

Chronic fatigue has made all this challenging. My events have gone well, but I usually go straight to bed after, sometimes feeling like my head’s being crushed in a vice. But I’m still grateful I get to do it. I know people with chronic illnesses who aren’t well enough to even attend events, let alone speak at them. And I know lots of writers who have been working on their manuscripts for many years, hoping to see them published.

What I’ve learned is you have no idea what’s going to happen: a random illness, a book publication that you didn’t even write as a book. Anything, apparently.

Hoping good things happen for you,
Ashley x

 

Lessons from Australia: You don’t hit sleepy lizards

Last week I was on a self-styled writing retreat in country NSW, near the Hunter Valley, and it was sublime. I spent most of the week at this desk, staring out at this view of the Williams River. I was interrupted only by eastern rosellas, kookaburras, and one dead mouse that showed up in the middle of the kitchen on our last morning like the perfect metaphor for the piece of writing I was working on, ie lifeless and a bit cliched.  Writing retreat bedroom with desk, view of river
The writer friend I was with, A, was a bit skittish of mice, so guess who had to scoop the fresh mouse corpse into a dustpan and drop it into the trash? I imagined it was the end the mouse would have wanted, laid (well, dumped) to rest among a week’s worth of food scraps.

Occasionally we stopped writing and went to explore this new corner of NSW. I can sum up our explorations in three incidents.

1. We go for lunch in Morpeth, a town that features a historic bakery, exclusive parking for ‘tourist coaches’, and, by law, a lolly shop. Inside Miss Lily’s Lollies, there’s a woman working behind the counter, and one other person, a man. He’s tall and fit-looking, in black dress pants and a pressed button-up shirt and shined shoes. He’s standing over three clear display buckets and talking loudly into his phone: ‘You’re all good for candy watches and candy bracelets, but you’re down to – one, two three – four, you’ve only got four candy watches. Definitely going to need more candy watches.’ He has the tone of someone conducting important business.

2. The Erringhi Hotel in Clarence Town has a $5 burger night on Wednesdays from 4-6pm. We’re eating our burgers at 5:57 in the pub courtyard, which has a garden that drops off down a small hill. A boy, maybe five years old, parades around the courtyard with a Spider-Man action figure. He stops at the edge of the hill, looking down into the darkness like he’s ready to take the plunge. A man that is probably his dad calls across the courtyard, ‘Tim, no.’
Tim swivels his head toward his dad, then back down the slope.
No,’ Dad says.
‘Bogeyman?’ Tim asks.
‘Yep,’ Dad says, and takes a swig of beer. Tim sighs and dashes into crowd.

3. While we’re out for a bushwalk, A tells me about the time her dad gave her tips for safe country driving while they were on a road trip in SA. ‘The important thing is not to swerve for small animals. It can be really dangerous.’
Soon after, while her dad is driving, they see a sleepy lizard crossing the road. He swerves around it. ‘What are you doing?’ A says. ‘You just told me not to swerve like that!’
In a tone that implies A is a bit of a monster, her dad replies, ‘You don’t hit sleepy lizards.’

Being a foreigner, I didn’t know what a sleepy lizard was, and later when I asked A about this, I couldn’t remember the lizard’s adjective. Smiley lizard? Shakey lizard? Sleepy lizards, I learned, are a slow-moving variety of blue-tongue skink exclusive to South Australia, and they are amazing.

It turns out sleepy lizards are known by many names: the shingleback, the stumpy tail, the pinecone lizard and the bob-tail goanna. Their diet consists mainly of flowers. They live as long as 50 years, and in that time, they develop a social network of both friends and foes. And one more thing about sleepy lizards: they grieve.

This research comes from ‘probably the longest-running lizard survey in the southern hemisphere, if not the world‘.Williams River, NSW Australia Australia always has new and fascinating things to teach me.

xo
Ashley

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From euphoria to genocide

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.

Author Wendy Elliot in Republic Square, Yerevan, Armenia
Author Wendy Elliott in Yerevan, Armenia, 2006

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?
Elliot.jpgI 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.

To read the full review of Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad, visit Newtown Review of Books. Learn more about Wendy Elliott on her website.

Launched!

Author speaks to crowd at My Name Is Revenge book launch
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.
Emily 2
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.
Cake - better.JPG
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!) Author Ashley Kalagian Blunt at book launch with flowersLots 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.

Ashley
xo

A weird silver lining in the chronic illness clouds

Since I started posting charts tracking my chronic fatigue recovery, I know you’ve been desperately waiting for the next update. Every post is like a cliffhanger season finale.

There’s been a lot happening lately. And I was doing well. Check out my step count, especially that excellent stretch from mid-January to mid-March. No crashes at all, fairly consistent daily step totals. Life was good.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome recovery program daily step count chart

Then a few weeks ago I had a very hard crash. At first I wrote it off as a random flare up. But not long after, I started coughing the wet, horsey cough that indicates either a chest cold or a lungful of rotten porridge. It felt like the latter, to be honest.

The chest cold combined with my ‘usual’ chronic fatigue meant that I’ve done nothing for days other than watch Youtube videos of dogs running agility courses. Which is fun for the first 15 hours, then gets a bit repetitive. Still great though.

This return to severe fatigue is terrifying for me. I made commitments based on my February level of wellness. My first ever book launch is on April 10. The following week, I’m giving a talk about the book.

And then, on Friday, May 3, I’m chairing a panel at Sydney Writers’ Festival. You know, the biggest Australian writing event of the year if you’re not paying attention to Melbourne. 
The SWF panel was a surprise. I’m not there to talk about my book (although it will be in the festival bookshop, which is a huge win). I’m there to talk to two authors who both write about chronic illness.

I have a strong suspicion that I was asked to chair this panel because I also have a chronic illness. Maybe not, maybe it’s just a coincidence. But if that is the reason I was asked, it’s a weird silver lining to being ill.

If I’d known I could have gotten onto the SWF program by getting a chronic illness, I would have … actually I wouldn’t have done anything differently, it’s still not worth it. But at least it seems like one definitively excellent thing has come out of the experience. I hope everyone experiencing chronic illness can say at least that much.

Wish me luck surviving the next month! And if you’re going to SWF, make sure to grab a copy of My Name Is Revenge at the festival bookshop.

Ashley
xo

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You can write in trees

NYC trees font by Katie Holden 'More Trees Please' on Ashley Kalagian Blunt
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!

Ashley Kalagian Blunt 'How to Be Australian' in NYC Trees font
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:

Which makes me think we could have flower alphabets! And then plant gardens of blooming messages too. So many fabulous ideas, and here I sit with zero drawing skills.

Ashley
xo

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Fighting with a monkey

For the past week I’ve been in an ongoing fight with a monkey. It’s not clear who’s winning.

Ashley Kalagian Blunt author
Photo by Matthew Henry from Burst

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.

 

The latest in my Revenge plot

If the police ever had a search warrant to seize my computer, I imagine they’d be very excited when they opened it up. How often do suspected criminals have folders all over their desktop labelled REVENGE?

But they’d be disappointed when they opened the files and discovered I’m not actually plotting revenge against anyone. At least not yet. (If I were, I’d label those files VEGAN SOUP RECIPES. The police will never find them.)

Kalagian Blunt - My Name Is Revenge cover image smallWhat the police would find in my files is the fabulous cover of My Name Is Revenge, which is being released in print by Spineless Wonders this April.

The cover features Mt Ararat in the background, a national symbol of Armenia. In the foreground are gum leaves and the foliage of the Australian bush, drawing on the connections made within the book, particularly the novella.

The print edition includes two additional essays considering different aspects of the Armenian genocide, as well as a collection of photos from my travels through Armenia.

The ebook, which came out in October, has been receiving great reviews. I was delighted by this review from history professor and author Peter Stanley, co-author of Armenia, Australia and the Great War: ‘My Name is Revenge deserves to be noticed by those concerned with honesty in history. Ms Kalagian Blunt’s story is a fine example of why history matters and why we should be pushed to reconsider assumptions about how history was and how it might be understood.’

If you’re in Sydney, you’re very welcome to join me for the launch: RSVP via EventbriteBook launch of My Name Is Revenge, writing on the Armenian Genocide

If you’re not in Sydney, I’ll have links up to pre-order the book very soon. In the meantime, here is my favourite vegan soup recipe. I’m not even vegan, but seriously, this creamery goodness is the soup to end all soups.