The new book, out this year!

I can finally share some exciting news with you. My second book will be out this June from Affirm Press. It’s called How to Be Australian, and it’s a memoir of moving from Canada.
Ashley Kalagian Blunt, author
In a lot of ways, the book is a love letter to Australia, this charming, vast, baffling country that has been my home for almost a decade now.

When my husband and I moved here, we thought it would be like Canada, but hot. Australia is completely unique, and I dedicated myself to learning about it, to travelling widely and to the ongoing journey of discovery that is being Australian. It’s a memoir of anxiety and becoming an adult and struggling with marriage, but mostly it’s a book about loving Australia.

This summer’s fires have been devastating across the country. It’s heartbreaking. To offer a tiny bit of help, I’m taking part in Authors for Fireys, which means you can get:

  • YOUR NAME in the acknowledgements of How to Be Australian, plus one of the very first signed copies
  • and a signed copy of My Name Is Revenge

To get in on this, you need to go to Twitter and post your bid in response to the original tweet here:

The most expensive method of preparing a corpse

‘Each day, the scarab beetle emerges from its hole in the ground to gather dung, form it into a ball, and roll it across the earth, before disappearing with it back down into the hole.’
Nicholson Museum - dung beetles.jpg
When I read that at the Nicholson Museum, I thought, yeah, that sums up a lot of my days. Wake up, scrape some dung together, roll it around, call it a day.

The ancient Egyptians didn’t see the beetle’s work in the same uninspired way I did. They equated the beetle with the sun god, Ra, who gets up in the morning and the rolls across the sky, vanishing at night. The insects mirrored the sun god’s work, and because they laid their eggs in their dung balls, both the sun and the balls brought new life.

This is why the Egyptians buried scarab beetles in jars with the deceased up until 2300 BCE, when they realised they could bury scarab amulets instead.
Nicholson Museum Sydney.jpg
I love museums because you never know what random historical craziness you’ll discover. Like a jar of regular snakes positioned in front of an ancient image of snakes with hands and feet that are holding scorpions to ward off evil. (Look in the background, you’ll see it.)
Snakes in a jar, Nicholson Museum, Sydney.jpg
Or this ‘mummified head of an unknown man’, paired with a preserved brain.
Mummified head, preserved brain, Nicholson Museum, Sydney.jpg
‘Embalming’, according to Herodotus, writing about ancient Egypt, ‘was performed by specialists. Their first step is to insert an iron hook through the nostrils and pull out the brain. Next … the embalmers cut a slit along the soft part of the body, and remove all the intestines. After this they stuff the cavity with sweet-smelling spices. Once the stomach has been filled, they sew it back up and pickle the body by packing it in [salt]. … This is the most expensive method of preparing a corpse.’

I wouldn’t equate dung beetles with the daily journey of the sun sun, or imagine that scorpions could ward off evil. I don’t imagine any sort of afterlife, particularly not the ancient Egyptian variety that required all your organs to be buried with you in their own jars.

But I like to step into a museum and imagine these things. I like to imagine what it would be like if, 2000 years from now, my mummified head ended up on public display. I’d feel pretty chuffed about that, I think. It’s almost like time travel.

Maybe, in the future, my cavity will be stuffed with sweet-smelling spices, and my debrained head pickled in salt. Maybe in a few thousand years, my head will end up in museum on another planet for people to squint at. Even if it’s not the most expensive method of preparing a corpse, I’d be happy with that. It’s the closest to time travel I’m likely to come.

 

Resolutions I sincerely plan to achieve in 2020

I started last year with a pack of lies. Ashley Kalagian Blunt, author
I told you that, because of my chronic fatigue, I wasn’t going to set any genuine new year’s resolutions. Instead, I made a list of absurd resolutions that I intended to fail at –climbing Mt Everest in a Pikachu onesie, catching a serial killer, and growing a third arm.

That last part was true – I didn’t achieve any of those resolutions. I don’t even own a Pikachu onesie.

The insincere part was that, after the first few weeks of having no ‘real’ resolutions, my poor goal-oriented brain got desperate. It loves setting challenges and tracking progress, hence why I can break down my annual reading stats, why I have a list of every book I’ve read in the past 19 years, and why I can show you exactly how many steps I’ve walked since 2018. Tracking my steps is part of my chronic fatigue recovery process; graphing them is not. (But it helps!)

So in mid-January, I quietly skulked off and made a secret three-point plan for the year. It looked like this:

  1. Launch and promote, my first book, My Name Is Revenge
  2. Submit my completed manuscript to publishers ✓
  3. Write the first draft of a new novel, 70-80,000 words

Over the year, I steadily chipped away at all three goals as my fatigue allowed. Some months I could barely do anything, and I let myself be okay with that because I had told everyone that I was planning to fail at my resolutions.

But when I was well enough, I tried to make the most of my energy and work only on those goals. The first two went really well. (And boy do I have the spreadsheets to prove it!)

I made it 50% of the way through goal number 3, meaning I have 40,000 words of a new novel draft. They are 40,000 terrible words, but the machinations of a plot are tangled up inside them.

Normally I’d be disappointed that I didn’t complete all three goals. In fact, I was on track to complete goal number 3 by the end of the year, but something interrupted me. And for once, it wasn’t illness.

But for that news, and the 2020 resolutions that go with it, you’re going to have to wait.

Wishing you an excellent year ahead,
Ashley
xo

 

2019: The reading year in review

In 2019, for the first time in years, I read more fiction (slightly more) than non-fiction. Perhaps, in this third year of illness, I needed to escape more. ‘Everybody should be reading 20 pages of fiction – from a real book – to open or close each day‘, as a way to  increase our empathy, understanding and compassion. This is according to author Neil Pasricha on The Knowledge Project podcast. But why only fiction? Wouldn’t reading memoir have the same effect?

In 2019, I continued to support Australian authors, women authors and debut authors (being all three of those things myself this year).

I also aimed to read more Indigenous authors, and followed through on that (instead of reading a stack of zombie fiction, like I did in 2018).

2019 reading breakdown
47% nonfiction
70% Australian authors
77% women authors
47% debut authors
7% Indigenous authors

 

2019 reading highlights

Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe (NF) 
In this revelatory survey of early European accounts of Australia, Aboriginal author Bruce Pascoe reveals how complex Indigenous agriculture, architecture and society truly was, and so urges us to reconsider our understanding of Aboriginal civilisation. As he concludes, ‘To deny Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agricultural and spiritual achievement is the single greatest impediment to intercultural understanding and, perhaps, to Australian moral wellbeing and economic prosperity.’

In the Clearing by JP Pomare
Pomare’s new psychological thriller is a compelling and startling exploration of family, control and violence. The story takes its inspiration from The Family, an Australian cult. Led by Anne Hamilton-Byrne in the 1970s and 80s, The Family was accused of imprisoning children and brainwashing them through the use of drugs and physical punishment, as well as forcing them to dress alike and dye their hair blond to better resemble its leader. The novel’s triumph is its surprising climax, and the way Pomare turns the tables on the reader, raising the question of what any one of us would do to protect our own families – however we define them. Read the full review here

Check out the complete list of great reads.

Wishing you a new year full of great books,
Ashley
xo

It’s Christmas, so let’s talk assassination

I know, I know, it’s the week before Christmas. The carols are playing, the shops are bustling, and the tinsel is glittering (which makes me wonder if scientists are including tinsel in their call for a worldwide ban on glitter).

But it was on 17 December 1980 that Australia’s first geopolitically motivated assassination took place in Sydney, which means I need to interrupt your Christmas cheer to share some breaking news.

SMH 17 Dec 1980.jpeg

This week, thirty-nine years after the assassination, a memorial was held for the two murdered men, Turkish consul-general Sarik Ariyak and his bodyguard Engin Sever. If you’ve read My Name Is Revenge, you’ll know this event kicks off the book. It brought the violent backlash against Turkey’s denial of the Armenian genocide to Australia, intimately involving the nation.

Though the Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide took responsibility for the attack, no-one was ever charged with the murders. The case remains unsolved.

NSW Police announced a $1 million reward for information, increased from the $250,000 that has been on offer since the 1980s. The police are also reviewing the case. The NSW Joint Counter Terrorism Team created Strike Force Esslemont to re-investigate. (I assume this strike force isn’t named after Canadian speculative fiction author Ian C Esslemont, but I could be wrong. Maybe someone on the strike force is a big fan.)

The police media release doesn’t state where the reward money has come from, or why they’ve reopened the investigation now. (It’s a total coincidence that after all these decades, this happened months after my book was released, right?)

I hope Strike Force Esslemont discovers the two men responsible for these murders, and I hope they’re brought to trial. The victims’ families deserve answers, and the case and its political context deserve more attention. It’s an important example of the ongoing repercussions of genocide denial and intergenerational trauma, and the need for a coming together between communities.

 

19 reasons books make the best gifts

My Name Is Revenge, Ashley Kalagian Blunt,

  1. Books are rectangle-shaped, and nothing’s easier to gift wrap than a rectangle.
  2. Giving someone a book makes you seem smart and attractive.
  3. You can find a book on literally any topic, including Cooking on Your Car Engine, snakey biographies, and Crafting with Cat Hair.
  4. No time to wrap? Books fit well in gift bags.
  5. Every room looks better with books.
  6. Every home looks better with a library.
  7. Books won’t wilt and drop pollen all over your carpet.
  8. It’s difficult to murder someone with a book (and who wants to get embroiled in a lengthy murder trial because they gave someone the wrong gift? Not you).
  9. They fit nicely in stockings too!
  10. They come fully housebroken.
  11. There are so many great books to choose from!
  12. You don’t have to keep them refrigerated (but you can if you want to, I guess).
  13. No really, I mean any topic. Even Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop.
  14. Books are made from trees, and everybody like trees.
  15. Reading makes people more empathetic and compassionate, so buying books is the first step to a better world.
  16. Books are zero calories.
  17. Literally any topic. Even Managing a Dental Practice: The Genghis Khan Way
  18. Buying books supports writers.
  19. Books are written by nice people.

A bold remedy for apparently hopeless cases

There was one more discovery at Melbourne’s Medical History Museum that delighted me even more than Champagne Jimmy, though I know that’s hard to believe.

Allow me to introduce you to the ‘colonial snakebite kit’.
Colonial snakebite kit at Melbourne Medical History MuseumActually that’s a few different kits. There were many treatments for snakebite in 19th-century Australia, the museum signage explains, including ‘incision, amputation, and a variety of “antidotes” (including mercury and medicinal brandy)’ as well as one man’s ‘use of intravenous ammonia’. (He thought snakebite poisoning was a result of germs, so I suppose his theory was that pumping ammonia into your blood would … kill the germs?)

The kit on the right, with the rather luxurious royal purple lining, is a ‘chloride of lime antidote for snakebite,’ circa 1895.

My favourite thing about this display, and the entire Medical History Museum, is the kit in the top left corner, dated from 1872. Its instructions start off shouting and just keep getting better:

AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE AFTER BEING BITTEN
1. Tie something very tightly above the bite.
2. Cut out the part bitten and wash the wound.
3. Watch for signs of Snake Poison.
Inability to walk. — Sleepiness. — Pale and Cold Skin. — Enlarged Pupils.
4. Keep the person warm, quiet, and hopeful.
5. DO NOT get flurried; do everything calmly.
6. DO NOT give any Stimulants; they do harm.
7. DO NOT force the person to walk about.
8. Remember that many Snakes are not Poisonous.
9. Remember that Fear alone may cause alarming signs and even cause Death.
10. Try in every way to allay fear and inspire courage and hope.
11. Directly signs of Snake Poison appear—
– Inject a dose of Strychnia.
– In a Child under 10, One Tablet, or one-fiftieth of a grain.
– In a Person over 10, Two Tablets, or one-twenty-fifth of a grain.
– In a Severe Case, Five Tablets, or one-tenth of a grain.
12. Repeat dose in quantity and frequency required.
USE THE REMEDY BOLDLY IN APPARENTLY HOPELESS CASES.

I love everything about these instructions. I love the random use of Capital Letters. I love that, after instructing you to remain calm in point 5, point 9 then informs you that fear alone can cause death, which is a fear-inducing statement if I’ve ever heard one. (Fear can also cause ‘alarming signs’, whatever those are.) I love that the instructions wait until point 5 to tell you to remain calm, and that instead of using those two simple words, they use seven, one of which is ‘flurried’.

And I especially love the concluding instruction to use your colonial snakebite remedy ‘boldly’, even if the bite victim seems to have already died of either Snake Poison or Fear Alone.

This colonial snakebite kit is my favourite piece of Australiana yet, and that’s including these handsome concrete driveway kangaroos:
Concrete guard kangaroos in Australia
Take care, and try not to get flurried,
Ashley
xo

 

Melbourne’s most terrifying attraction

Melbourne Medical History Museum
When I visited the Medical History Museum at the University of Melbourne, the last thing I expected to find was Champagne Jimmy.

I expected to find Dr Tracy’s ovariotomy instruments. Well, not his specifically, but something very much like them.
Ovariotomy instruments, medial history
Dr Richard Tracy performed the first such surgery in Victoria in 1864, using this horrifying set of ovariotomy instruments. He became ‘locally and internationally renowned’ for his success with the procedure. The set contains a scalpel, scissors, ‘a vulsellum forceps (with hooked tips),’ a ‘double sharp hook for raising the peritoneum’, pedicle clamps with detachable handles, and on the left, a mess of thick greyish thread that looks like it’s been removed from a ratty blanket.

I also expected the original shock therapy machine from 1885, described as an example the annals of ‘quackery’. It uses a hand crank to generate a charge.
IMG_2077
I even expected to learn about bizarre apothecary treatments, such as the use of fox lungs for respiratory conditions. The Saxons believed that ‘for oppressive hard drawn breathing, a fox lung sodden and put into a sweetened wine, and administered is wonderfully healthy.’ (Fox lung in beer, however, results in blindness). 

Amid all that, Champagne Jimmy caught me off guard. First of all, check him out.
Champagne Jimmy or Diamond Jim, historic Melbourne medical doctor
The slicked-back horns, the bushy horseshoe moustache, his apparent love of the Hawaiian hang ten sign. Not to mention the uncorked champagne bottle at his feet, which is definitely what I look for when choosing a surgeon. ‘Does this guy know how to party?’ is the first question you should ask when considering a new doctor.

The museum describes Dr James Beany as a flamboyant and controversial senior surgeon and a ‘Melbourne personaility’. He was so flamboyant he earned himself two nicknames. He was called Diamond Jim for the rings he wore, ‘even during operations’, and Champagne Jimmy, ‘because of the champagne he dispensed freely.’

Champagne Jimmy sounds like an absolute delight. That is, until you picture him wielding the surgical tools of his era.
Historic medical surgery tools
Imagine it: you’re on the surgical table, wearing an old-timey paper gown, and in stumbles Diamond Jim, champagne bottle in one bejewelled hand, giant amputation saw in the other, and little flakes of sausage roll pastry stuck in his moustache. Right before you pass out (from terror; anesthetic doesn’t exist yet), Jim drops the empty bottle at his feet and flashes you the hang ten sign.

How this museum didn’t make Melbourne’s top ten attractions, I’ll never understand.

Be the fan you wish you had

Writers at Writing NSW
Here’s something I’m ashamed to admit: when I moved to Australia several years ago, I’d never read an Australian author. It wasn’t a purposeful omission. I grew up in small-town Canada, reading mostly Americans and Brits.

It wasn’t the move across the Pacific that changed my habits; it was my decision to pursue writing seriously. I assumed the quality of my writing was the only relevant factor in getting published. It wasn’t, of course, and I learned that at an event at Writing NSW. I’d thought my attendance would be a one-time only commitment: I’ll just spend a day learning about the publishing industry, then go home and get my book published.

I did learn a few industry tips that day but, more importantly, I was introduced to a cornucopia of local writers. This was my first awareness of what Walter Mason referred to as the ‘writing ecosphere’ in his article, ‘How to Be a Literary Citizen’. Mason suggests ways to be a better literary citizen and support the writing community: buy new books — from local bookshops — and read them, subscribe to literary magazines, attend author events, be a fan and campaigner, and embrace generosity.
Screen Shot 2019-11-03 at 4.19.23 pm.png
By the time Mason’s article appeared in Newswrite, I’d at least started reading local authors. But his suggestions made me realise there was much more I could be doing, and maybe it would help me towards getting published, as it did for Mason. I decided to dedicate a year to following his advice: in effect, I’d give this ‘supporting others’ thing a try to see if it would pay off for me.

A lot of Mason’s advice is straightforward and simple. I immediately subscribed to a few literary magazines I’d been reading online. Having their issues show up in my home as physical objects with heft and texture made their contents more memorable (especially compared to the endless blur of online reading). I got a better sense of what I might pitch to each and even did so successfully.

I scrutinised my reading and shopping habits. On the list where I track my ‘books read’, year by year, I began to highlight the Australian authors in yellow. Over the last year, almost every entry has been as close in shade to golden wattle as Microsoft provides.
Now I specifically buy Australian authors. To increase the number of local books I could purchase, I started giving my favourite local authors’ books as gifts. Not sometimes, but for most gifts I give.

When I mailed my sister an autographed copy of Zoë Norton Lodge’s Almost Sincerely, she wrote to say, ‘I adore that you had the author sign it for me. Even if I don’t like it, that makes it a definite keeper!’ She’d never had a signed copy before — maybe lots of people haven’t.

Attending a lot of author events, usually one a week, has taught me what works for me. Let’s be honest: I’m shy and am pretty sure people can see the word ‘awkward’ tattooed on my face. I feel more encouraged at smaller author events, where there’s a better sense of community than at larger festivals.

At library talks and bookshop readings there’s much more opportunity to interact with authors. I’ve made some of my best connections this way, including Walter Mason himself, who I first met at a book launch. But I’ve also been able to meet other attendees who are inspired by the same authors, and even ended up in my current writers’ group due to a connection I made at a writing event.

Mason describes the schedule of help and promotion he keeps, his Spreadsheet of Loving Kindness. I decided to try it for myself. There’s a reason it’s a spreadsheet, I discovered. It takes some organisation to pull off. It wasn’t an organic process, but a plotted one. I compiled a list of people I knew who were doing great things and started going through it person by person.

This was time-consuming. I often left it to the weekend, then scheduled a series of posts for the week. This did get me some social media engagement, and it was a great way to keep on top of all the interesting things my favourite people were doing. But scheduling my posts risked making them routine and predictable. Organisation stripped the spontaneity.

Another of Mason’s key points is to embrace generosity, to ‘be the fan you wish you had’. So, instead of giving up when things get challenging, I need to experiment with ways to bring more spontaneity and fun into my efforts.

At the heart of Mason’s article was the idea that if you’re aiming to get published, your efforts to support the writing ecosphere might end up helping you, as they did for Mason himself — and as they eventually did for me. But beyond getting published, everything else else I’ve gained is even more important to me.

I’ve discovered a community of people I connect with, made wonderful friends, learned a lot and felt inspired. My passion ended up leading me to a job that I love. And I feel more at home in the world and confident in myself. In writing this, there was no other way it could turn out than as a love letter to the Australian writing community.


A version of this article was first published in Newswrite back in 2016, before the chronic fatigue hit. Since then, it’s been hard to get to writing events; evenings are difficult, and my energy can be erratic. I’ve missed so many book launches and author talks. But I’m trying to find ways to become more involved in the community again.

Along with author Amanda Ortlepp, I’ve running a monthly writing meet-up. It’s free, you just need to be a member of Writing NSW. You can rsvp for upcoming dates via my events page. If you’re a Sydney-based writer, it’d be great to meet you there. Otherwise, find me online and say hi!

PS. Walter Mason is doing a talk at the Theosophical Society on 20 November. Check it out!