In her exploration of life in rural Australian, author Yumna Kassab draws on horror, crime and gothic inspiration to craft a thematically linked experiment in form and style.
Yumna Kassab is a writer from Western Sydney. She studied medical science and neuroscience at university. Her first book, The House of Youssef, was listed for prizes including the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, Queensland Literary Award, NSW Premier’s Literary Award and The Stella Prize.
Books and authors discussed in this episode – Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au – Karl Ove Knausgaard – Blindness by Jose Saramago – Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain – The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann – The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez – Divorce Is in the Air by Gonzalo Torne – Raise the Titanic by Clive Cussler – Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke
“What I would ultimately like, you know, my huge big goal [for the book, is that] people can look back on this and say, ‘You know, there are bits in that – as a non-Indigenous person – I didn’t understand, but that’s okay, and I don’t need to acquire and learn and make meaning for everything in that book,’ because sometimes parts of that book are for Aboriginal people, some parts are for Yuwaalaraay people, and other parts are for Yuwaalaraay senior people.”
Our first guest for 2021 is Yuwaalaraay author Nardi Simpson. From North West NSW freshwater plains, Nardi is a founding member of Indigenous folk duo Stiff Gins, and has been performing nationally and internationally for 20 years. Her debut novel, Song of the Crocodile, was a 2018 winner of a black&write! writing fellowship.
Speaking to us from a beach on the Northern Rivers, Nardi delved into the intercultural aspects of the book, and of navigating modern society as an Indigenous person in Australia.
Song of the Crocodile is set in the fictional town of Darnmoor, in regional NSW. The story spans four generations of the Billymil family and their effort to sustain their Indigenous culture and community despite the overt and covert racism of the settlers, and the corrosive impact of intergenerational trauma.
Filled with ancestral spirits and Yuwaalaraay language, it presents both an insight into an ancient worldview that understands the healing power of the natural world, and a sharp, affecting critique of Australian society.
Her book reminded me of my own research into my family members’ survival of the Armenian genocide and the process of weaving that research into fiction when writing My Name Is Revenge.
“What happened to those families is basically what happened to my family,” Nardi says. “I wanted to understand that, and I didn’t want to judge it.”
Going too much into detail on the connections would be a spoiler for both Nardi’s book and my own, but one of the broad strokes points we both explore is how much has been lost due to the violence suffered by both communities – not just lives, livelihoods, homes and land, but also cultural knowledge and worldviews.
It’s a great conversation, and Nardi is a fascinating speaker and well as a powerful writer.
In this episode, we also discuss Bindi by Kirli Saunders, The Road to Woop Woop by Eugen Bacon, and James’s thoughts on reaching the end of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-book memoir series.
When WA author Monique Mulligan prepares for an author interview, she really prepares.
And by that I mean she convinces her husband to go to the shops for condensed milk so she can make homemade caramel slice. Look at these beauties. Monique interviewed me for the Koorliny Arts Centre’s program Live: Stories on Stage this week, and she was definitely in the spirit of How to Be Australian.
Her baking prowess made me realise I’ve never made caramel slice. It also made me realise there’s a good reason for that: I would eat the whole pan in a day. As much as I’m a strong advocate for Australia embracing its place in world history as the homeland of the caramel slice, I’m also aware that too much caramel will one day give me diabetes.
Instead I bought a single gigantic caramel slice from a local cafe. What it lacks in flavour it makes up for in size.
Monique shared her own experience of moving from Sydney to Perth. She also asked some excellent questions, including how I would convince Canadians to visit Australia once we can all travel again. The answer to that is four simple words: “Australia – now spider-free!”
(Technically Australia isn’t spider-free, but that discovery can be part of the fun once visitors arrive and walk into a human-sized golden-orb spider web.)
She also asked if she were going to move to Winnipeg for a year, what three things would she need to know. One of my key tips is about driving in snow.
Swirling snow decreases visibility and the streets get icy slick unless the gravel trucks have been around to spray grit at the intersections. The key rule in these circumstances is to never slam your brakes. Slamming your brakes causes your tires to lock. When that happens, your vehicle becomes a two-ton metal cannonball on an unknown trajectory and you’re just along for the ride. When driving on ice, you’re meant to triple your braking distance and pump your brakes gently, like you’re giving CPR to a baby with your foot. One of our audience members also asked how my husband feels about being a central character in the book, and if he had veto power, which is an excellent question. Steve told me that he didn’t want to read the book because, to quote, “I was there, I don’t need to read it”. But I made him read it anyway, because that’s what marriage is about.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve never understood why Australians bother with the drop bear myth. It’s like a morgue trying to freak out visitors with a plastic fly in the complimentary punch bowl. If Aussies want to freak out foreigners, they can simply relate their own everyday encounters with deadly creatures, such as finding a funnel-web spider submerged in an air bubble in their swimming pool, or discovering a brown snake in their washing machine, or being bitten by a redback spider at the age of three and taken to the GP’s office to be told, ‘It’s probably fine.’ These are all actual experiences Australians have related to me, unsolicited.
There was once an African safari park outside Sydney that advertised its lions and tigers and bears with a commercial jingle featuring the refrain, ‘It’s scary but nobody cares.’ While I can’t imagine the phrase inspired many theme park visits, such nonchalance in the face of potential death would be the perfect national motto for Australia. Sure, some Aussies do care, but the national attitude is pride in not caring. Another local once told me – again, unsolicited – about the white-tailed spider bite that turned his arm the greyish pallor of a three-day-old corpse. He related the experience with underlying satisfaction, as though it ranked high among his personal achievements. White-tailed spiders are scary. This guy not only didn’t care, but was damn proud of it.
This is the opening to ‘It’s Scary but Nobody Cares’, an article about coming to terms with Australia’s reputation for deadliness, published by Griffith Review. It’s an excerpt from my memoir-in-progress, How to Be Australian. The full piece is free to read now!
Here’s a little bonus I couldn’t squeeze in:
Australians have a delightfully weird relationship with their deadly wildlife. The La Perouse Snake Show is a perfect example of this.
Running once a month for the past century, the snake show takes place inside this rather low fence. Visitors gather around and dangle their children’s legs tantalisingly into the arena, where a ‘snakey’ (the genuine professional term) hauls a variety of live snakes out of brown sacks and gives a little spiel about each of them.
Steve and I happened upon this by accident while visiting this historic part of Sydney, and we were captivated. Particularly when the man said, speaking directly to a potentially lethal snake in the cutesy voice used for puppies and toddlers, ‘You’ve got tiny little fangs, don’t you?’
This country will never cease to enthrall me. Also, I move that all writers be called wordies; it’s got a real ring to it.
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!
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:
I can identify all the Aussie birds on my skirt, but not all the flowers. I had a theory they were state emblems (warahtah for NSW, Sturts desert pea for SA) but banksia isn't a state flower. There's also what I think is blue gum (?) + little white flowers + little pink ones! pic.twitter.com/zrmfvl36ta
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.
Way back in July, I was shortlisted for the Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award. I’m immensely pleased to share that my novella was selected as one of the award finalists and is now an e-book! It has a new title and a snazzy cover.
A thriller 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.
My Name is Revenge is available from Booktopia and Amazon, as well as iBooks and wherever ebooks are sold.
You might like to read it, particularly if you like thrillers, new insights into 20th-century history, or fiction set in Australia. It’s a novella, which means it’s short as. Plus there’s an essay at the end that delves into the story’s historical context. And I heard you saying just the other day how much you love essays!
You might like to tell your friends about it, since word of mouth is still one of the main ways people find out about new books. You could send them the link right now.
If you read it, you might like to leave a review on Booktopia or Amazon, since the number of reviews a book receives is a key factor in its success on these platforms, thanks to the magic of algorithms. Plus you’d totally be my hero.
Before visiting Melbourne in September, I read Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne. It’s one of the City Series from NewSouth, ‘travel books where no-one leaves home’. I’ve spent several years working my way around Australia while reading my way through this series. Melbourne has been my favourite yet.
There’s a moment in the book where Cunningham is learning letterpress at a workshop downtown while listening to AFL (Aussie-style rugby) on the radio and taking soup breaks to stay warm. ‘I realised,’ she writes, ‘that I felt about as Melbourne as it’s possible to feel. It was a good sensation, one akin to (but colder than) waking up and taking an early morning dip at Bondi Beach and consequently feeling very Sydney.‘
This is my favourite description of both Melbourne and Sydney.The letterpress workshop took place in the Nicholas Building. I was keen to visit it because of Cunningham’s description of the three ‘lift operators’ that work the building’s elevators. ‘Joan has been spending her days in the lift for thirty-five years, and its walls are covered with newspaper clippings and photos of children, grandchildren and animals. Some of the animals are her pets, others belong to building tenants.’
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to ride in a lift like that? It seemed too good to be true, and it was. Melbourne was published in 2011. Sometime since then, the lift operators have vanished. There were no newspaper clippings or photos, and I had to push the lift buttons myself.
Still, I was already inside and decided to wander around the Nicholas Building, which had the vibe of a curious relic. I was immediately rewarded with this sign on a seventh-floor door:
What is the Royal Over-Seas League? I’ve entertained myself by tossing around possibilities for days, and I’ve come to hope they’re the Avengers of the Commonwealth, like the Justice League but British, knighted by the Queen maybe – and I had stumbled on their Australian headquarters!
I was also rewarded when I reached the top floor.
Amid the mess of graffiti, I found a real gem:
So now I know what I’ll carve on my tombstone. I’m even toying with the idea of having my skeleton put on a pole, like one you’d find in a science lab, and positioned beside my tombstone, perhaps holding a sign inviting photos. Could be a real tourism opportunity for whatever lucky city I’m buried in!
Being sick, I wasn’t able to do a lot in Melbourne. In my wanderings through the Nicholas Building, I went through the wrong door, got trapped in the stairwell, and had to walk down several flights to exit on the ground floor. The exertion of walking down stairs made me nauseous. And when stairs make you nauseous, that’s when you know it’s time to return to your hotel and go to bed at 4:17 pm.
Still, it was a treat to wander along different streets, sit in different cafes, and catch up with some the many friends who’ve moved to Melbourne. The theme of this catching up was definitely Let Me Tell You About How My Body Has Turned On Me, but that’s fine. I’d much rather people ask about my crazy illness than pretend everything is normal. And I’m slowly slowly slowly (like a sloth through tar) getting better, so I feel optimistic. I know I’ll eventually visit Brisbane and Adelaide and even Alice Springs, and read those books. Who knows what unexpected wonders I’ll stumble upon. ~