How do dominant historical narratives keep hidden the lives and deaths of others, and what do these narratives cost us? From the colonisation of Indigenous lands to the Armenian genocide to the Holocaust, this conversation explores bodies hidden by history, and how writing can work toward a recovery of their stories.
Part of the 2020 Wollongong Writers Festival, this author panel features Australian Indigenous writer Bruce Pascoe, the author of Dark Emu, and Leah Kaminsky, author of The Hollow Bones and The Waiting Room, along with myself discussing My Name Is Revenge, chaired by journalist Osman Faruqi.
When festival director Chloe Higgins approached me about programming a panel, I knew exactly who I wanted to speak with.
Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu is the most revelatory book I’ve read during my decade in Australia. In his survey of early European accounts of the continent, Bruce Pascoe reveals how complex Indigenous agriculture and architecture 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.’
As I wrote in How to Be Australian, I think Pascoe’s book should be part of the citizenship process. All Australians should read it, and consider what this land was, and what it could be again.
There are obvious connections between the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust. Leah Kaminsky is an Australian author who writes, among many things, about being a descendent of Jewish Holocaust survivors, and we’ll be speaking about these connections.
Less obvious but equally fascinating are the connections between the Armenian genocide and the destruction of Aboriginal communities and ways of life. As Pascoe’s book shows, history has been warped, hidden and narrowed. The mechanics of this are far more complex than in the denial of the Armenian genocide, which was a decision made and implemented by successive governments, beginning in the planning phase of the genocide.
This is sure to be a fascinating discussion. Please join us online.
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.
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.
A literary thriller novella set in 1980s Sydney and drawn from true events, including a series of international terrorist attacks, My Name is Revenge is the story of a young man seeking justice. A collection of essays blending memoir, history and journalism accompany the novella. You can download a PDF copy of this book club discussion guide.
1. Had you heard of the Armenian genocide before My Name Is Revenge? If so, how did you learn about it?
2. How does Vrezh’s life in 1980s Sydney contrast with his interior world?
3. Vrezh acts as though he has absorbed his grandfather’s memories as his own. Do you believe it’s possible to have ‘memories’ of events that happened to others?
4. How do you understand the relationship between Vrezh and Armen? How does their father’s behaviour impact them?
5. Can you empathise with Vrezh’s motivations for taking part in an assassination? How do his school experiences in Australia influence him?
6. Do Vrezh’s motivations differ from Armen’s? If yes, how?
7. ‘I couldn’t condone or even empathise with their methods. And yet I understood their motives intimately’ (75). Have you ever empathised with the motives behind an act of violence? Did this surprise you?
8. ‘If there had ever been justice, it was a fluke, an aberration’ (52). Do you believe justice is possible after an event like the Armenian genocide? If so, how?
9. What does My Name Is Revenge reveal about the past and its impact on the present and the future?
10. Vrezh ‘wonders about the Aboriginal people who might have once lived in the NSW countryside. But he lacks the empathic imagination to connect their history to his own’ (77-8). Why do you think Vrezh struggles to imagine the history of others?
11. Norman Naimark argues that genocides never happen in isolation, but are part of an historical continuum. After reading ‘The Crime of Crimes’, do you agree?
12. ‘I’ve studied and written about genocide for nearly a decade. My husband finds this interest morbid’ (101). After reading My Name Is Revenge, why do think Kalagian Blunt pursued this topic for so many years?
13. ‘In my hostel, they told me I am the first Turk to stay there. I’ve heard this everywhere!’ (128). How did the actions of Başak, the Turkish woman who Kalagian Blunt meets in Armenia, make you feel? Would you risk arrest for your convictions?
14. Has this book made you think differently about how we, as a society, remember and understand historical events?
15. My Name Is Revenge includes photos taken by the author. Many of these photos highlight aspects of Armenia today. What do you believe is the intention of these photos?
This month I reviewed the recently released Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad by Canadian author Wendy Elliott. Drawing on archival documents, including personal letters and journals, the book tells the incredible stories of a group of humanitarians working in central Turkey during the final years of the Ottoman Empire.
From 1908 to 1923, Ottoman citizens endured ‘two coups d’état, four regional wars, a world war, a war of independence, and a crippling national debt’ – as well as an unprecedented modern genocide. Elliott traces these events with clarity, intrigue, and a wonderful attention to startling detail.
I had the opportunity to ask her a few questions about her time in Armenia, what drew her to these stories, and what she learned in the process.
1. What first took you to Armenia? What drew you back?
In 2006 I was asked by a Canadian international development agency to go to Vanadzor as a Volunteer Advisor to train a group of women in skills I’d acquired while working in various executive positions in not-for-profit organizations. I was welcomed by them so warmly I immediately felt at home, and I was eager to return. The next year I was invited to Gyumri, and in 2009 I completed two assignments in Yerevan. Canadian funding for the program was discontinued in 2010, or I would have returned regularly.
2. How did you come to write the story of Susan Wealthy Orvis and her fellow humanitarians?
In 2014, my one-time interpreter and now-friend Kamo Mayilyan heard about Susan Wealthy Orvis, an American missionary who had saved thousands of Armenian orphans after the genocide. We co-authored an article about her, and were contacted by her great niece who had seen it. She offered us access to a hundred-year-old trunk that contained Susan’s original letters from her time in Turkey. From then on, Kamo was determined I should write the book. For many reasons, it took several months of persuasion on his part and research on mine before I accepted.
3. What was the first thing that made Susan appeal to you as a character? I remember the moment clearly. I was reading her unpublished manuscript about her journey to help establish a relief centre in Alexandropol (Gyumri), Russia in 1917. She travelled more than 7,000 miles from Dubuque, Iowa during World War I and the Russian revolution, and I was impressed by her lack of naiveté, her living-by-example style of evangelism rather than proselytizing, and her willingness to roll up her sleeves to tackle seemingly insurmountable problems. But what tipped the scales for me was when, under armed attack, instead of frantically praying for divine salvation, she thought about the psychology of William James and a bear! I was so startled, I laughed out loud. I realized I liked her very much and could spend the years it would take to write the book in her company.
4. Grit and Grace is full of details that range from surprising to shocking, like the man who treated the bullet wound in his leg by stuffing scrambled eggs in it. What details or moments stand out most for you?
I can instantly think of four:
1) nurses Rachel and Blanche’s befuddled attempt at removing tar caps from children’s heads to cure them of favus (a dreadful scalp disease);
2) the horrible conditions of the conscripted Ottoman soldiers in winter, without coats, forced to wrap their feet in rags or go barefoot, fed only a third of a ration, and housed in filthy, vermin- and disease-filled shelters – and still expected to fight battles;
3) the absurd incident in the Marash hospital when the pharmacist, who had once been in the Ottoman army, screamed across the courtyard at a group of Nationalists, “You know it’s not permitted to fire on a hospital! The Director Doctor Madame is very angry about it, and will hold you responsible. The Director says you are to stop firing at once!” and amazingly they did; and
4) the entire village of brave Armenians, Greeks and Turks who defiantly stood together against the gendarmes who tried to deport the Armenian residents, thus forcing the gendarmes to leave empty-handed.
5. What personal lessons came out of writing this book for you?
My parents, who grew up during WWII, always spoke of the duty of a citizen to pay attention to issues and to vote because society can rapidly change for the worse when there is apathy. I was reminded of that while writing about how the Ottoman Empire went from euphoria in 1908 to genocide in 1915 – only seven short years – and as I listened to daily news reports of radical changes occurring around the world, which continue today. But the most profound lesson was to be careful of my speech. Our brains are programmed to find the fastest, easiest way to do something, so it’s natural to make generalizations. However, I learned that saying everyone or always or never is not only not true, it promotes the concept of Us versus Them. And that’s the first step of a slippery slope towards violence. I was careful not to generalize in the book, but I now watch my words in everyday speech, too. I don’t want to contribute even in a small way to a negative or destructive society.
We launched My Name Is Revenge on April 10. The crowd was amazing, and the signing line-up lasted for practically the entire event. My husband Steve was MC, and he introduced the guest of honour, author Emily Maguire.
In Emily’s speech, she described the first time she learned about the Armenian genocide, about ten years ago. Flipping through a library book, she saw Arshile Gorky’s painting, The Artist and His Mother. Gorky was a survivor of the genocide, the caption in the book informed her. She’d never heard of it. That evening she had dinner with a group of artists, and asked them about it. Some had heard of it, but no-one could give her any specifics.
She connected this to Hitler’s infamous 1939 quote, ‘Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’ and she described My Name is Revenge as ‘a gut punch of a book, a necessary and urgent shout back to the silence’.
I wrote this book for people like Emily, who may know little or nothing about the genocide simply because it hasn’t been spoken about nearly enough – in our school textbooks, in our books and films, in our public discourse and private conversations.
After the speeches, we ate cake. Steve had been worried about the cake, because I ordered it off the internet, so how did I know if it tasted any good? I was more concerned with how the cake looked, and it looked pretty darn good.
It tasted as good as it looked. After it was cut, the restaurant placed it under a heat lamp (by mistake, I assume) and by the end of the evening the last few slices had melted into a lump of warm chocolatey goo.
I felt great at the launch. I was careful to rest a lot in the days leading up to it, and did as little as possible the day of the launch itself. I find evenings especially hard; they’re usually when I’m most worn out. But the night of the launch, my body flooded me with adrenaline. And everyone was so generous and kind, as evidence by the four bouquets of flowers I received. (My apartment has never been so full of flowers!) Lots of people commented on how great I looked. I tried not to talk about being ill, because I wanted to forget about it for the night. People saw me full of energy, bright and bubbly.
I left feeling like a cement truck had run over me. Every muscle in my body hurt. I spent all of Friday in bed recovering.
In general, my chronic fatigue has improved significantly. Last year I wouldn’t have been able to attend an event like the book launch. But I’m still not recovered, even though I may look and act like it in small bursts. CFS is inconsistent, which makes it complicated to explain.
I’m very grateful I was able to organise and attend the launch for the book that marks ten years of writing on the Armenian genocide. But I also think it’s important to reflect on the complexity of living with invisible illness.
Thanks again to everyone who attended the launch (like crime writer AB Patterson, who wrote this great post about it). And special thanks to all the amazing, brilliant and uncommonly attractive readers who have left reviews on Goodreads and Amazon.
Tonight is my first ever book launch. I started writing this book ten years ago. Except it wasn’t this book; it was a different book.
Ten years ago I planned to write a book about my great grandparents’ survival of the Armenian genocide. I knew they’d both lost their entire families, and ended up in Canada as orphans in 1920. I knew Paravon, my great grandfather, had hidden in a tree while his family was murdered and his village burned to the ground. So, in early 2010, when the Winnipeg Arts Council foolishly encouraged me with a research grant, I thought it would be easy to travel to my great grandparents’ Armenian community near Niagara Falls, learn their story, and write a book about it.
I had no idea that in the coming years I would end up writing two master’s theses on the Armenian genocide, spending two months in Armenia, and interviewing nearly 150 people in Canada, Australia and the Caucasus about Armenian identity.
What’s driven me through a decade of research and writing is that I find Armenia fascinating. I was long fascinated by the genocide, by how a government could callously and blatantly organize the murder of 1.5 million people, and then go on to deny it for decades in the face of overwhelming evidence. But the more I researched Armenia, the more fascinated I became. When I travelled to the Caucasus, I grew obsessed with first the Soviet history, and then the cold and dark years of the 1990s, when much of the country was without electricity or gas. Armenia is full of resilient people with amazing stories. I also became fascinated by Armenia’s history as the world’s first Christian nation. I was astounded when I visited its centuries-old monasteries.
So I spent five years writing and rewriting a travel memoir of Armenia and everything I’d learned there. That manuscript was shortlisted for two awards, one in Australia and one in the UK.
And in the meantime, I became fascinated by the wave of global terrorism that began in 1973. Conceived as retribution for the denial of the genocide, that wave of terrorism reached Sydney in December, 1980. When I learned about Armenian terrorists targeting Turkish diplomats, I was startled to find that, despite abhorring their methods, I intimately understood their motives. So I wrote the novella that became My Name is Revenge.
When I started writing ten years ago, I had no idea that the book about my great grandparents’ survival would become a travel memoir of Armenia – and until recently, I had no idea that my first published book would be another book entirely, a book of my collected writing on Armenia that came out of all of that research. My Name is Revenge is an attempt to capture what has fascinated me, and to share the connections between Australia, Canada and the genocide, and the urgency in its historical lessons.
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.)
What 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 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.
It’s been a year since I was diagnosed with post-infective fatigue syndrome, and about two years since the symptoms first began. In that time, I’ve spent a lot of hours on the couch/in bed, feeling frustrated and trying to remind myself that resting is recovering.
Before I was diagnosed, I watched a lot of TV. I’ve watched more TV in the last two years than in the entire previous decade. TV seemed like the thing to do when I was too tired to read. However, my doctors told me TV can be very mentally draining.
To allow myself to actually rest while I’m resting, the doctors recommended I listen to audiobooks or podcasts, an activity I can do with my eyes closed. As a result, I’ve listened to a lot of podcasts this year. Sometimes I listen to an entire series in a day.
One upside of being ill is that I’ve had the opportunity to lean into things I find wildly exciting, including serial killers, zombies, cults and genocide. You know, the usual topics ladies enjoy.
Out of all the podcasts I’ve listened to this year, here are ten I highly recommend:
The Great Crime
I’ve studied the Armenian genocide for nearly a decade, but I’m still learning a lot of interesting details from this podcast narrating the genocide’s history. It’s well delivered, and exactly as its website promises: “open and accessible to everyone, whether you’re familiar with the subject or totally unaware of this often forgotten, misunderstood, and fundamentally tragic saga.” Also, turns out it’s from New Zealand.
Uncover: Escaping Nxivm
“NXIVM calls itself a humanitarian community. Experts call it a cult.” This investigative podcast from Canada’s CBC is a fascinating look into the group’s leader, Keith Raniere, and a member’s struggle to escape.
Everything is Alive
Okay, you might not be into genocide and cults, but I dare you not to be utterly delighted by these imaginative interviews with inanimate objects. The host works in interesting true facts about each object. In my standout favourite episode, Ana the Elevator, we learn about architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s plans for a mile-tall skyscraper with nuclear-powered elevators. But the best moment is when Ana sees a video of ‘outside’ and exclaims, ‘Is there no weight limit outside?’
In the Dark
This crime-focussed investigative podcast has two seasons. The first unravels the disastrous investigation of a boy kidnapped near his home in rural Minnesota, a crime that went unsolved, with no trace of the boy, for 27 years. The second season investigates the circumstances surrounding a Mississippi man tried six times for the same crime over 21 years. He maintains his innocence. Both seasons are fascinating and revelatory.
The Happy Face serial killer was imprisoned in 1995 after the violent murder of at least eight women. What’s particularly interesting about this retrospective is that it’s narrated by his daughter, who was a teenager when he was arrested.
Don’t confuse We’re Alive with the only other fiction podcast on this list, Everything Is Alive. We’re Alive is four seasons of zombie attacks set in Los Angeles and the southwest United States. Season 1 is interesting, the story moves along. Season 2 starts to build on season 1. Then season 3 pulls together all the narrative threads from the first two seasons and takes the story to a new level.
With over 100 episodes, Criminal looks at crime from a wide variety of angles, featuring interviews with culprits, victims and experts. My favourite episodes include: #15 He’s Neutral: a man who solves his neighbour’s crime problems with a Buddha statue. #51 Money Tree: a woman whose mother stole her identity for credit fraud. #85 The Manual: a murder investigation and the manual used by the killer. #101 The Fox: the story of two 1970s plane hijackers who met in prison.
Malcolm Gladwell is an author and investigative journalist who looks at a wide variety of social and historical issues from surprising and compelling angles. I also recommend all of his books.
A true crime podcast examining the Atlanta Child Murders: “Nearly 40 years after these horrific crimes, many questions still remain.” The narrator, Payne Lindsey, has another podcast called Up and Vanished. I tried to get into it, but I found both seasons very slow.
Bonus: Atlanta Monster also has the best theme song of all the podcasts I’ve listened to.
Story Club A growing collection of true stories from comedic narrators, recorded live in Sydney.
I’m probably going to spend a significant chunk of the coming year in bed again, so I’m pretty desperate for new recommendations. Please send them my way!
The first review of My Name is Revenge has been published, and it’s come from the delightful Fiona Robertson, an Australian short fiction author, currently shortlisted for the 2018 Richell Prize! Fiona has perfectly captured what the novella does and why. You can read her review here. (Obviously it’s positive, otherwise I probably wouldn’t tell you about it. Or maybe I would, who knows.)
You can purchase My Name is Revenge at any ebook retailer, including Booktopia, Amazonand Apple iBooks.
As you finish and catch your breath, you realise you’ve devoured a fascinating narrative and essay, but you’ve also learned about the Armenian Genocide of World War I, in which as many as 1.5 million Armenians were killed by order of the Ottoman Government. … My Name is Revenge is immersive and affecting, written with balance and compassion.
– Fiona Robertson, Australian author
I’ve also received this endorsement from Katerina Cosgrove, who has likewise written about the Armenian genocide:
Ashley Kalagian Blunt delivers what truly potent novellas are capable of: awakening us to new possibilities of thought and feeling. As with Orwell’s Animal Farm and Garner’s The Children’s Bach, this story raises questions that linger and does not give us easy answers. Raw, intense and at times unbearably tender, Kalagian Blunt gives voice to survivors of the Armenian genocide — voices that cry out to be heard in their power and poignancy, their historic hurts and continuing hope for redemption.
I’ve added a page to this site where I’ll continue to share reviews and news about the novella. Of course, you’re welcome to leave a review on Amazon or any ebook site as well. Unless you hate it. Then maybe … don’t?