Invite the author to your book club!

In a book club? I love talking to readers, and I’m happy to make a virtual appearance at any book club meeting.

We can do this via Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, or whatever technology suits you. If you’re in Sydney, I may even be able to make an in-person visit. Contact me about booking a free online author event for your book club, bookstore or library group.

You can also use the questions here as a discussion guide, or download a PDF version.

As a bonus, you can jazz up your book club event with these cocktail pairings, created especially for the book!

How to Be Australian by Ashley Kalagian Blunt blue banner

1. In the opening pages of How to Be Australian, we step into a minus 40 winter day in Winnipeg. How does this set up Ashley’s experiences throughout the book?

2. Ashley and Steve arrive in Australia on a one-year visa, and Ashley expects this will be her only opportunity to live abroad with Steve. How does this expectation shape her first year in Australia?

3. On her arrival in Australia, Ashley notes, ‘I had the dizzying sensation that this was the start of my adult life.’ But by the time she and Steve are applying for PR, she says, ‘I’d transitioned from onset adulthood into what was, apparently, the rest of my life.’ How is the theme of adulthood explored throughout the book?

4. Ashley describes herself as ‘generations dislocated’ and without a homeland. The theme of dislocation and belonging is raised throughout the book, not only for Ashley, but among diasporan Armenians and for her classmate Noelle and Kamilaroi performer Matty Shields. What insights about home does Ashley’s journey offer?

5. Ashley summaries John O’Grady’s advice from They’re a Weird Mob: ‘Return all shouts. Don’t be a bludger. Don’t lose your temper when your workmates ridicule you – and if they’re Aussies, they will. If someone does you a favour, return it, but don’t overdo generosity. Abuse your friends to their face, but not in private.’ Do you agree with this advice? What would you add?

6. Ashley struggles with the concepts of tall poppy syndrome and cultural cringe. What does she conclude about them?

7. ‘I felt most at home in myself when I was travelling. Perhaps because as a traveller, there was no expectation of feeling at home.’ How does Ashley’s relationship with travel affect other aspects of her life?

8. Although Ashley suffered bouts of depression in Winnipeg, she arrives in Sydney believing that, for her, ‘“Australia” was practically a synonym for happiness.’ Her anxiety builds up gradually. When she does take steps to address it, her recovery is likewise gradual. Why do you think it took so long for her to recognise her mental health struggles?

9. ‘I was afraid. I was inadequate. I was failing at something, even if I couldn’t say precisely what.’ How is Ashley’s anxiety influenced by her perspectives on her marriage, career, and sense of home?

10. Ashley and Steve have very different worldviews. Whose did you relate to more?

11. ‘Life, I’d come to learn, was never resolved. My marriage, my mental health, and my identity were ongoing processes, not moments frozen in time.’ How does this insight apply to your own life?

12. Other than a visit to South Australia, what aspects of Australiana did you feel were missing from the book?

13. ‘As Canada’s Commonwealth sibling, Australia felt distinct yet familiar.’ What assumptions did you have about Canada before reading this book? How were they challenged or upheld?

14. What questions would you expect to be on the Australian citizenship test? What questions would you want to include?

 

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

From euphoria to genocide

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.

Author Wendy Elliot in Republic Square, Yerevan, Armenia
Author Wendy Elliott in Yerevan, Armenia, 2006

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?
Elliot.jpgI 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.

To read the full review of Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad, visit Newtown Review of Books. Learn more about Wendy Elliott on her website.