It’s scary but nobody cares

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:
A Snakey handling a snake at the La Perouse Snake Show in Australia
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.

Ashley
xo

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You can write in trees

NYC trees font by Katie Holden 'More Trees Please' on Ashley Kalagian Blunt
Artist Katie Holten has created a living tree alphabet for New York, based on NYC trees. Each letter is its own tree: A for Ash, B for Birch, C for Crab Apple, etc.

You can download the font free from nyctree.org! As they explain, ‘The New York City Tree Alphabet is an alphabetical planting palette’ and they’re planting submitted messages around the city with actual trees.

The font is lushious and a joy to play with. Here’s a short excerpt from my current manuscript in progress, How to Be Australian, written in nyctrees, and with the translation beneath. The page looks like a forest!

Ashley Kalagian Blunt 'How to Be Australian' in NYC Trees font
Unlike the birds, trees didn’t factor into our conversations beyond ‘wow, a lot of these trees have some sort of bark disease.’ Walking through my neighbourhood surrounded by anonymous trees was a reminder that I was a stranger here. As an elementary school student on the Canadian prairies, I had to collect leaves, glue them to paper, and draw and label the trees those leaves were once part of, like the world’s most boring CSI episode. But the exercise ensured that my adult self knew Canada’s birch, pine and Douglas firs without knowing this mattered. No-one in Sydney was going to force me to collect leaf samples and label them, though I wished they would. I kept telling myself I’d buy a book of Australian trees, but I was drowning in academic theory on diasporan cultural identity.

‘Do you think they’d let me sit in on a grade three class for a few days?’ I asked Steve toward the end of May, peering at him from behind the pile of textbooks on the kitchen table. ‘Just to learn about the birds and the trees?’

It’s fascinating thinking about our knowledge of trees as a type of literacy. I’d love to see an Australian version of this alphabet, with banksia, eucalypt, moreton bay figs, wattle (my person favourite). And maybe then I could finally develop my Australian tree knowledge!

I did make some progress on my Aussie flower knowledge lately, thanks to some lovely people who taught me about pink heath, flannel flowers and gum blossoms:

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

Ashley
xo

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Brisbane: more than Discount Melbourne?

I travelled to Brisbane last week for the launch of Griffith Review 63: Writing the Country, which features an excerpted chapter from my current manuscript, How to Be Australian.

Despite living in Australia for eight years, this was my first time in Brisbane, the traditional land of the Turrbal people. I’ve visited all the other capital cities, so Brisbane had a lot to live up to. My first impression, with its yellowish river, walking bridges, and Southbank tourist hot spot, was ‘huh, Discount Melbourne’. Brisbane skyline travel photo by Ashley Kalagian BluntBut is Brisbane more than that?

One thing Brisbane has to offer is Wheel of Brisbane. It’s not the Wheel of Brisbane, just Wheel of Brisbane. This made me think that it’s a Queensland version of the popular game show Wheel of Fortune, but all the prizes are cane toads.

IMG_1215.JPG

Brisbane is also home to the world’s longest running science experiment. The pitch drop experiment uses bitumen (aka asphalt) to demonstrate the liquidity of a compound most people would consider a solid (few other liquids can be shattered with a hammer). The experiment is effectively an hourglass filled with bitumen instead of sand, and drops have been falling from the top compartment in the bottom since 1930, at a rate of about one drop every nine years. Thrilling!

As Atlas Obscura points out, this experiment not only outlived its creator, but will likely still be around when all of us are dead and buried.

I was hoping to visit the pitch drop experiment in person, but I was quite unwell in Brisbane (this is where I’m at with my chronic fatigue: well enough to travel, too sick to enjoy myself). No worries though: you can watch the pitch drop LIVE ON WEBCAM.

Tens of thousands of people have tuned in since the pitch drop went live. This digital connectivity is a far cry from life in Brisbane just over a century ago, when the flood of 1893 destroyed the Victoria Bridge, leaving no means of communication between North and South Brisbane. It’s a good thing the pitch drop experiment wasn’t happening then, that’s all I can say. There would have been riots.

My Brisbane explorations also included the Queensland Museum. In fact, this was the first place I visited, because I arrived in the city under a roasting noon sun and needed to find somewhere cool, quiet and dimly lit.

I was expecting to learn some Queensland facts and maybe see some taxidermied snakes. I was not expecting to see the most brutally violent museum display I’ve ever encountered in my life, but of course I did, because this is Australia.

(Maybe skip the next photo if you’re not into mummified animal remains.)

The display was in a single case. It stood alone from the main fauna exhibition, as if the curators knew it didn’t quite belong, but didn’t know where else to put it. It was at waist height, if you’re measuring by my waist, the waist of a fully grown adult woman. Which means it was at exactly eye level for the average child.

The case contained a dried-out goanna that had attempted to shove an entire echidna in its mouth, spines and all. The spines lodged in the goanna’s mouth and throat and ‘unable to swallow or disgorge, this unfortunate lizard choked to death. Locked together, predator and prey died, then mummified beneath the desert sun.’

IMG_1146 Goanna.JPGThe display’s sign concluded with the line, ‘This curious exhibit was acquired and displayed by the Queensland Museum prior to 1912.’

‘Curious’ isn’t the adjective I would have chosen. But then again, I’m not Australian. (Well, I am. Legally.)

What’s especially sad about this exhibit is that it memorialises the worst mistake that goanna ever made. Maybe up until the day he decided to cram an entire echidna is his mouth, he had a reputation among the local reptile community as being quite clever. I’d hate to have that time I put petrol in a diesel engine memorialised in a museum for well over a century.

I’d also like to meet the naturalist who chanced upon the mummified carcasses and thought, ‘That belongs in a museum!’

Much like all of Australia, Brisbane definitely has unique things to offer. Which is why I love this crazy country so, so much.

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The latest in my Revenge plot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The best news yet

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 fiction by Ashley Kalagian Blunt, writer
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.

 

Pose with my grave and skeleton

NewSouth City Series travel books

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.

Melbourne travel book in Melbourne Laneway
Look how almost perfectly I lined up this shot, thanks to the help of a very patient tour guide.

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.

Travel to the Nicholas Building Melbourne AustraliaThe 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: The Royal Over-Seas League in Melbourne, Australia

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. Travelling in Melbourne Australia, discovering graffiti

Amid the mess of graffiti, I found a real gem: Graffiti in Melbourne Australia

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. ~

PS. The tour guide who helped me out was Local Guide to Melbourne. Highly recommended!

 

Road Trip to the Future

You should definitely buy ten copies of @thebigissue this month, not only because it’s always great, but also because my creepy Tasmanian time travel trip is in there. Here’s a sneak peek: Ashley Kalagian Blunt - Tarrahleah article

This article is excerpted from my current manuscript-in-progress, a memoir called How to Be Australian. It explores the experience of becoming Australian citizens and the complex process of developing an Australian identity through travel, socialising and wild curiosity.

This issue is on sale until 17 May.
Big Issue Magazine 561

 

How to be Australian according to your passport

Your passport contains the distilled essence of Australia. Study its images carefully during the interminable minutes in line at Immigration. Each image is a puzzle piece. Fit them together, and you will know what it is to be Australian.

Australian passport
Australian passport images, in order of appearance

  • Parliament, featuring the largest free-standing stainless steel structure in the southern hemisphere
  • A kookaburra who really wants you to know about travel insurance
  • A Tasmanian devil suffering lockjaw
  • Surf lifesaving chicks about to launch floaty things into the water
  • A camel caravan
  • A thorny devil
  • A depressed wombat
  • A water tank, windmill-thing and what might be a station house
  • People sitting on car bonnets observing a horserace
  • An even more depressed platypus
  • A man being cruel to a herd of cattle
  • An open-mouthed saltie
  • Cricket
  • A smarmy koala
  • A noble dingo who definitely hasn’t eaten any babies this week
  • Two scuba divers checking out coral
  • Beachgoers
  • A page translated into French, Australia’s unofficial second language
  • A pointy-nosed chipmunk?
  • A highway leading to distant hills, with trees
  • A love-struck emu
  • An RV hitched to a ute, maybe Uluru in the background?
  • A bearded dragon who’s ready to party
  • A kangaroo whose grandfather was a horse
  • Two ladies in togs holding a rope in knee-deep water staring down a big wave
  • A lone surfer
  • A patriotic eagle, the eternal symbol of Australian freedom
  • Just a regular echidna
  • A rural town hotel that definitely has a pub
  • A semi-truck (the designers must have been getting desperate at this point)
  • A sulphur-crested cockatoo who just came out of the dryer
  • Maybe a bilby?
  • Girls playing rugby in skirts because females play sport too
  • Another lizard-type thing – wait, is that a goanna?
  • Sailboats on a harbour
  • A man in an overcoat and fedora staring off towards some power lines or possibly a fence with a definite serial killer vibe
  • Also a lot of plants. Give me a break, I’m not a botanist.