Even gooder news

I’m excited to share that my manuscript, Full of Donkey: Travels in Armenia, has been shortlisted for the Impress Prize for New Writers, in the UK. If it wins, Impress Books will publish Donkey!

Impress Prize for New Writers 2018 shortlist Ashley Kalagian Blunt

I began writing Full of Donkey in 2010, when I received a Winnipeg Arts Council grant to fund a research trip to St Catharines, Ontario. There, I interviewed my father’s family and other members of the Armenian community. I was deeply curious about how my great grandparents’ survival of the Armenian genocide of WWI had affected their lives, our family, and my cultural identity.

I continued to research the Armenian community here in Sydney. Then, I travelled to Armenia, where I spent two months interviewing pretty much everyone who would talk to me, with the help of many wonderful Armenians, as well as American Peace Corps volunteers. The project received a Varuna PIP Fellowship, which meant I was lucky enough to spend a week at the wonderful National Writers’ House in the Blue Mountains. The manuscript was also shortlisted for the Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award in 2017.

You can read an adapted excerpt from Full of Donkey published by Griffith Review and accompanied by my photos.Armenian genocide family memoir Ashley Kalagian Blunt

In July, the shortlist for the Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award was announced, and included my other Armenian project, A Flicker of Justice, No More. Set in Sydney in the early 1980s, this novella explores the consequences of the ongoing denial of the genocide. It’s also my first work of crime fiction, a genre I’ve always loved.

Writing about the genocide has been an important part of my life for nearly a decade now. I hope both Full of Donkey and A Flicker of Justice will come to full fruition soon so I can share them with you.

 

Symptomatology A-Z

The spookiest thing about chronic fatigue is that science doesn’t understand it. As one of my doctors explained, no branch of medicine ‘owns’ this cluster of illnesses yet. In other words, they don’t know where the problem originates in the body. Maybe it’s caused by inflammation in the brain. Maybe it’s a gut flora issue. Maybe it’s an ancient Aztec curse.

Also spooky is the way chronic fatigue affects the entire body and the brain. One theory has to do with a problem in the way the body creates or uses energy at a cellular level. This means the cells are affected throughout the body – brain cells, muscle cells, lung cells, etc.

Whatever their cause, my random assortment of symptoms would make a strange alphabet book.

A: Alcohol intolerance
Long before I realised I was sick, I’d have one drink and feel parched for hours, even if I drank a litre of water after. It was like I’d had a glass of sand. Then that one drink would wake me up in the middle of the night and keep me up for a couple of hours. I assumed this is just what happened when you hit your mid-thirties.

A, again: Air hunger
Air hunger is a fun term for not being being able to get a full breath. It feels like a metal band is around your lungs, preventing them from fully expanding. This is why my GP thought I’d also coincidentally developed asthma. Air hunger comes and goes, and can last minutes or hours. I often get it when I’m doing something physical, like walking, but it can also happen when I’m sitting at my desk. Nothing like being winded from typing to remind you how sick you are.

C: Concentration impairment
My brain is affected in all kinds of ways. Like all these symptoms, this one comes and goes. Some days I can’t focus on anything and will wander the apartment, randomly starting things, then abandoning them after five minutes.

E: Energy spikes
Occasionally I feel fantastic and have to restrain myself from attempting to answer all the emails/clean all the things/run all the errands/write three books to make up for lost time.

F: Fatigue
Fatigue is more than tiredness. When I’m tired, I can still do things. Fatigue is the body’s determination to stop doing things, and after a time it becomes impossible to override.

H: Headaches
Maybe fatigue related, who knows?

I: Insomnia
I assume this is the brain forgetting how to sleep.

J: Joint pain
At first I thought I’d escaped this symptom. Then my left ankle and right wrist simultaneously developed a peculiar crunchiness that also randomly comes and goes.

L: Light sensitivity
The more tired I am, the more light hurts my eyes.

M: Memory problems
I’ve struggled with both short- and long-term memory since becoming ill. At my worst, I couldn’t read because by the time I got to the end of a sentence, I couldn’t remember how it had started.

More M: Muscle weakness
I’ve heard about many people with chronic fatigue who physically can’t get out of bed. Though I had a few days like that, mine isn’t nearly so bad. Still, most days my hair dryer feels like it’s made of solid concrete.

N: Noise sensitivity
My brain became particularly sensitive to noise. It struggles to filter out background noise, and when I get tired, I can’t separate the sound of someone talking to me from background sound. I’ve also realised sound takes a physical toll on the body. In an especially loud room, I can feel sound, like lying on speaker.

O: Orthostatic intolerance
This is my new favourite term. I get so tired that it’s unbearable to be upright, even when sitting. As soon as I lay down, I feel significantly better. I thought I was going crazy until I discovered the term for this exact symptom.

R: Reactive depression
Well, sure.

S: Sore throat
Frequently waking up with a sore throat is one of the reasons I spent a year thinking I was coming down a with a flu and just had to rest a lot to ‘fight it off’.

T: Temperature dysregulation
Prime example: my brain no longer suggests I remove my jacket before I end up with a heat rash.

W: Wakefulness
Being absolutely exhausted but lying awake all day is pretty much the definition of a waking coma, isn’t it?

Z: Zzzzzzzzzzzzz
Other days I sleep 16 hours or more.

spirit animal chronic fatigue sufferers
Current spirit animal

 

 

Chateau Relaxo (and other houses I’ve known)

Comedy post chronic illness house namesSince I first began aimlessly wandering my neighbourhood (a side effect of being sick), I’ve collected nearly 150 house names. I’d passed most of these places many times before, and never paid attention to them. When I was healthy, I always had somewhere to be and something on my mind. Now my mind is desperate for distraction. Also, I walk much slower.

I still find the concept of naming your house quirky, because houses in Canada didn’t have names. It’s as odd to me as if people slapped name plates on their furniture. ‘Welcome, this is our couch, Sylvester, and our loveseat, Wooloomooloo.’ Odd, and oddly endearing.

After collecting so many names, I’ve realised there are a few broad categories the house names fall into. These include:

Place names: this seems to be the most common. Some of the names are obvious, like Indiana, Nebraska, Lochinvar, Chippendale and Austin. Others are less obvious, but on researching them, they turn out to be more obscure place names. Clutha is a town in New Zealand, Uralla is in New South Wales, and even Chelveston is a town in England.

Women’s names: Many of the houses also have women’s names, such as Shirley, EvelynElvira, Isabella, Tara, and Edna. Women, like houses, cars and boats, are basically property, right?

Roses, because people like roses, I guess: Eden RoseRosebank, Rosebriar, Rosedale

I’ve also discovered a few standout names:
Best Australian film reference: Bonnie-Doon 
Worst Bart Simpson reference: Kalamunda
Best language mash-up: Chateau Relaxo

And the award for most inappropriate house name … Pompei!
Comedy post chronic illness house namesI’m curious about the train of thought that led the owners to name their house after the site of an infamous volcano eruption that killed numerous people. Sure, it happened 2000 years ago, but the violent destruction of a community is still the first thing people will think about when they visit. You may as well name your house World War II.

Here is the complete list of house names I’ve discovered since my original post in April:
house names chronic illness comedy

The real question is this: what would I name my house, assuming I could ever afford one? When I lived in South Korea, my apartment building was steam heated, and the pipes creaked and groaned through the winter. I referred to my apartment as The Belly of the Iron Dragon, which lacks a certain lyricism, I’ll admit.

I assume in the case of houses with place names, the names refer to where the owners’ families came from. If this is the case, I could name my future house Winnipeg, or The Peg or even Peggers. But since I live Down Under, I could broaden this tradition and name it Up Over. While I’m still waiting for the cost of housing to miraculously drop, maybe I’ll name my sofa.

Hit me up with house names, if your neighbourhood has some good ones. I’m eager for more!

 

Faking it

I performed at The Moth Grandslam to an audience of 500. It went all right. I felt the kind of exhaustion where your individual bones are tired. Here is a photo of me on stage, reaching out to hug a ghost, apparently.

Ashley Kalagian Blunt performs at The MothSome days it’s obvious I’m sick, even to look at me. Mostly I look fine though, while experiencing kaleidoscopic variations of symptoms that can change hourly. Your health can be an incomprehensible grab bag of crap, it turns out.

Some days I feel fine. I usually get one of these days every two weeks or so, though it’s never predictable. I can’t say, ‘Well, last Thursday I felt good, so next Thursday should be fine to book tickets for that thing I’m really keen to see.’ Never book tickets is rule #1, because next Thursday is going to be a miserable day. Or not! No-one knows.

Some days I feel so good, I start to think I must be getting better. This is how I felt last week on the Sunshine Coast. I had multiple days in a row where I felt pretty great, which I’d forgotten was possible.

But I can never just enjoy something. My brain is hardwired for imposter syndrome, that fun condition where you doubt your accomplishments and fret about being exposed as a fraud. Sometimes when I feel good, my brain applies imposter syndrome to my illness, and tries to convince me I was never really sick, I was just being lazy and weak. How could I be as sick as I claim, when I feel so good right now? This has heightened since I learned that Munchausen by Internet is a thing. Munchausen syndrome sufferers feign illness for attention, and now they can do that fairly easily online, posting about imaginary symptoms. So maybe I’ve been faking it all along!

That’s what I was thinking while feeling great on vacation. So great, in fact, that I decided to walk up two flights of stairs. The first flight of stairs winded me pretty badly, but for some reason I didn’t take this as a warning sign. The second flight of stairs pretty much destroyed me. My lungs decided they no longer functioned, my whole body started to ache, and I had to stop and put my head on a bannister for a while.

To recap: I’d been feeling fine, walked up approximately 60 stairs, and spent the rest of the day feeling like I’d been trampled by a zebra. It was a relief, frankly, to have such a stark reminder that despite feeling well, I’m actually still stupidly sick.

Of course I felt well on the coast. I wasn’t cooking meals or running errands or doing laundry or chores or catching buses. All I did was walk along the beach and read, and sit in companionable quiet with Steve. Check out how flat this beach is! That’s some smooth walking.

Ashley Kalagian Blunt on Sunshine BeachThe occasional lack of symptoms doesn’t mean I’m well, which is frustrating. If I feel fine for a day, I want to work full time and exercise and return to my actual life. But as soon as I try to do something a healthy mid-30s person would do, like walk up a few stairs, I’m reminded of why I need to spend month after month sitting around, not doing much of anything, letting life pass by.

 

Brain worms: A Love Story

I’m in The Moth GrandSLAM this August – and here’s the story that got me there. It’s probably the greatest love story of all time (and my friends’ favourite story about me, ask any of them), so no wonder it won The Sydney Moth StorySLAM in April 2016.

This was the start of the now classic genre, a story in which I almost die, featuring my husband in the role of himself. This one takes place during my travels through Armenia.

The Moth is a live storytelling event that began in New York in 1997 and now takes place internationally. The theme was kin (the caption says jokers, but the caption is wrong).

A few things I particularly like about this video are how it feels like the camera is pushed flat up against my face, at what is definitely my most flattering angle. Also, that I’m sporting my trademark hairstyle, the clump. It’s gonna catch on, trust me.

 

Good news, for a change

I know I’ve been whinging about being sick for a while now (and there’s more where that came from!) but I do have some good news.

Screen Shot 2018-07-25 at 9.22.16 pm

My novella, A Flicker of Justice, No More, was shortlisted for the Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award. This means you lucky ducks can read an excerpt on the State Library Victoria Tablo page. This novella is a crime thriller based on true events, including a terrorist attack in Sydney in 1980.

Screen Shot 2018-07-25 at 9.19.36 pm

Also, I’ve had one of my favourite short stories accepted for publication in Verandah issue 33. It’s called ‘Pre-Morbid Status’ and it’s as dark as it sounds! That’ll come out in September, so hold your breath!

Also also, back in 2016 I was the winner at one of The Moth’s StorySLAM events. Which means I’ll be competing in the GrandSLAM at Sydney’s Metro Theatre on Tuesday 7 August. This will probably be your only chance to see me perform live this year (and I know you’ve been lying awake in bed at night, wringing your hands, sweating about when you’ll be able to see me on stage again).

The Moth is a competitive storytelling event that takes place around the world, and you better believe I’m sticking to my oeuvre: a story that involves me almost dying, and also my husband in the role of himself.

Is it a good idea to perform while I’m sick? No, probably not. Am I going to do it anyway? Yes. Yes I am. I personally will only be on stage for five minutes and IT WILL GIVE ME A REASON TO LIVE. At least until 7 August. After that, all bets are off.

Being sick is like being trapped in a car while your husband goes hiking

“Trapped” might be overstating it, since the car doors were unlocked, though metaphorically you could say I’m trapped by illness, and therefore it’s an accurate interpretation of our trip to the Blue Mountains last week.

I’m still sick, and still taking regular breaks from the whole-lotta-nothing I generally do most days. And it’s still boring and lonely and heartbreaking, and also not nearly as bad as it could be, so I’m trying not to complain, even when I get left in the car by the side of the road to nap in the backseat while Steve and his cousin go hiking in the mountains.

FYI, I love hiking.

Being sick is like being perennially stuck in the car while everyone else does stuff you used to do, but without you. Sure, I can pose with the best of them. Look at me at Echo Point, smiling like a healthy person and convincing everyone I’m having a great time!

Ashley Kalagian Blunt on chronic illness

And I was having a great time, in the sense that I was relieved to have escaped the apartment for a day, and have the mountain scenery to distract me, even though I spent most of the drive feeling like I was being run over by a tractor.

Here’s the thing: if you meet up with me, I’m probably flooded with adrenalin at the excitement of being out of the apartment and interacting with another human creature, to the point where I’m talking 7200-words-per-minute and, if you look closely, vibrating slightly. I don’t look sick.

But after, at home, I’ll go straight to bed because my eyeballs are burning and my muscles are aching and my brain is too muddled to figure out dinner (does hummus go with oranges?), even though all I did was sit and drink three cups of lemongrass tea and converse for 97 minutes in a public setting.

You’re right, I’d probably feel better if I’d just stayed home alone all the time, except I would go insane.

I am getting better, but it’s slow. Slow like an overseas letter posted circa 1824. Slow like a slow cooker you forgot to plug in. Slow like Australian internet.

I assumed my recovery would look something like this highly scientific graph, where the x-axis is time, and the y-axis is healthfulness: Ashley Kalagian Blunt on chronic illness

A much more accurate depiction of my recovery looks like this:
Ashley Kalagian Blunt on chronic illness

(Which is of course stolen from Demetri Martin.)

My point, if I have one, is that I’ve been in that swirly mess stage of recovery lately, and writing all 419 words of this has felt like a punch in the face, so I’m going back to bed now, at 11:23 am. Good night.

 

How not to be Australian – part 3

Cradle Mountain summit, Tasmania by Ashley Kalagian BluntDespite becoming delusional, I was making steady progress up Cradle Cliff. Steve, of course, was thirty metres ahead. I stared daggers at his steadily receding back. Despite being far more athletic than me, he’d been keen on Dove Lake trail because he’d somehow gotten the impression that this was a holiday, not an intervention.

Another couple were scrambling over the rocks, making their way down. They were two fit young people in brand-name workout clothes and trainers – trainers, not even proper hiking boots. They jumped from rock to rock like they’d both been bitten by the same radioactive spider.

‘Hey, did you make it up?’ I called. ‘How far is it?’

The guy shrugged. ‘Maybe 30 minutes?’

I nodded, clinging to the edge of the rock face to let them pass.

I can handle 30 minutes.

Five minutes later, I asked another lanky guy the same question.

‘It’s probably an hour, I think.’ He consulted his watch. ‘Yeah, it’s been an hour since I left the top.’

By that time, the optimistic part of my brain had been in overdrive far too long. I gave into full-blown pessimistic fear like the embrace of an old friend: not only was the top at least an hour away, but I was also, right at that moment, actively developing skin cancer.

Tassie hike
The rocks continued straight up. There was no longer any slope, just a cliff face of giant boulders. I’d come so far, and my brain was determined to reach the summit – Year of Success, symbolism, etc. My body, however, did not give a scrub’s tit about success. My body knew I shouldn’t be climbing a chaotic mess of appliance-sized rocks over a 500-metre drop. My body knew I had been out in the heat with limited water for many hours. It knew I often cut myself with dull kitchen knives and had more than once managed to trip and fall over while standing still.

Based on that preponderance of evidence, my body decided that if it couldn’t override my brain by broadcasting its increasing fear, it was going to shut this expedition down the only way it knew how: DEFCON 1 panic attack. My legs and arms trembled. I started hyperventilating. Anxiety threatened to choke me.

‘Steve,’ I called. ‘I don’t think – I don’t think I can do it.’

He turned to look down at me, hanging one-handed off a boulder with the grace of a shaved orangutan.

‘Are you sure?’

In response, I started to sob.

At that moment some of the hikers that we’d passed earlier caught up with us – a family of five, mom and dad and three boys.

The oldest boy might have been 12 and the youngest seven or eight. They were scampering up the rocks like monkeys on a jungle gym. Their parents called to them to wait without actually expecting them to do so. Both parents showed the level of exertion you’d expect from – well, from people on a great short walk. They didn’t look or smell like they’d just poured a bottle of last week’s sweat over themselves. They didn’t seem overly concerned that one of their kids might tumble from the cliff face to an abrupt death below. And what I particularly noted was neither of them was clinging to a rock ledge weeping because their whole year was over before it started.

Steve worked his way down to me. We waited while the parents ambled past us, chatting cheerily. Other hikers were coming down the rocks, and we could tell from their beatific faces that they’d made it to the summit, taken in the 360-degree view, and achieved a meaningful personal goal. More people were making their way up as well, including several other primary school kids who were clearly my physical superiors.

These were Australians – fearless, physically fit, blissfully unconcerned over their children’s daredevil antics. No matter where they were actually from, in that moment, on that mountain, they were Australian – and I, definitively, was not. I might fancy myself a bit of an outdoorsy type, I might genuinely enjoy a great short walk – but so help me, I was going to cling to the Canadian definition of ‘walk’, even if that made me an un-Australian wuss with piddling career prospects.

Sitting on the cliff ledge, I cried for a while.

Steve sat beside me, patting my hand. ‘It’s not a big deal,’ he said.

It was a big deal.

We headed back down. I accepted that I’d have a meandering, futile year just like every other year. Despite my passport, I’m not very Australian, and maybe I never will be. If I do get skin cancer from the vicious Aussie sun, I’m sure I’ll be among the over-anxious minority who don’t survive.

But in the meantime, I might be able to at least find a scrubtit.

 
Lane Cove Lit Awards 2017

This excerpt from my current manuscript-in-progress, How to Be Australian, was shortlisted for the Lane Cove Literary Awards and first published in the 2017 anthology.

How not to be Australian – part 2

By now the trail was a steep outcropping of white rock marked by deep ridges. Chains ran along steel poles drilled into the rock. Using the chains, we hauled ourselves hand over hand. This seemed to be the only way up for anyone other than an actual mountain goat.

Tasmania Cradle Mountain hike by Ashley Kalagian Blunt
We were sweating like Niagara Falls. The forecast was 35 degrees with unrestricted sun, but surely, it would be cooler as we headed up the mountain.

Despite the heat, I was feeling peppy. I couldn’t see the top, but it felt like we were making great progress.

‘This trail isn’t very fun,’ Steve said.

I ignored him. As I climbed, I searched the surrounding bush for Tasmania’s native scrubtits. I was keen to see one, a desire that I will admit was based 100% on their name.

We were nearing the top of the rock face. I called below to Steve to hurry up, and with one last burst of energy I heaved myself the final few steps onto what I could only assume was the summit.

There, in the distance, was what appeared to be another mountain. A completely separate mountain. This new behemoth stood by itself against an empty sky.

Our current mountain had features such as vegetation and a trail and even thoughtfully installed chains to aid in climbing. The beast ahead had none of these things. It was a barren pile of rocks with thrusting upper ridges that looked like the inspiration for Mount Doom. The Eye of Sauron would have been right at home between the horrible crags at its peak.

‘Is that Cradle Mountain?’ I said.

‘I guess so,’ Steve said.

‘I thought we were on Cradle Mountain!’

‘I guess not.’

He looked at me with eyes that seemed to say, ‘Dove Lake is but a one hour descent away. No one has to know we turned back’. Except I’d already told all of the internet that I was starting my new year hiking Cradle Mountain. My pep was waning, but I steeled myself.

Tassie - Cradle Mountain sign by Ashley Kalagian BluntWe arrived at the base of The Real Cradle Mountain. As the trail ascended, it quickly lost all the qualities normally associated with the term ‘trail’, such as being a surface suited for walking on, having edges, and guiding you to a particular destination. Instead, there was a stark metal pole every 50 metres or so, indicating roughly the direction you might want to head. This was the only sign that any human had ever been here before us. Earlier we’d heard cicadas buzzing and possible scrubtits chirping. Now there was no sign of life beyond the lichens on mountain’s brown rock. A hot breeze whistled over the barren landscape. I could have sworn it said go baaaaaaack.

We were walking on apple-sized rocks and then we were stepping over watermelon-sized rocks and then we were lost among prize-winning-pumpkin-sized rocks, piled up like they’d been dumped from a giant sack. Some seemed precariously balanced, as though one load-bearing rock could let go and all of Cradle Heap would collapse into the valley below, with our bodies crushed among the debris.

Tassie - Cradle Mountain trail by Ashley Kalagian Blunt
I was thinking that uncomfortable thought when the rocks around me became larger still. These were refrigerator-sized rocks, and all pretence of walking was gone. Clearly Tourism Tasmania couldn’t grasp the definition of great, or short, or even walk.

Steve and I started clambering skywards. Conscious of how easy it would be to slip and plummet, I placed my feet and hands with a cautiousness normally reserved for holding newborn babies. My heart raced and the whole mountain seemed to sway (cradle like, one might say).

Soon my heart was on the verge of exploding out of my chest, just like a baby alien, but instead of starting a homicidal rampage, it would plop to the ground and slither down the rock face, leaving a crimson trail of defeat.

This excerpt from my current manuscript-in-progress, How to Be Australian, was shortlisted for the Lane Cove Literary Awards and first published in their 2017 anthology.
Part 3