Review of ‘My Name is Revenge’ by Ashley Kalagian Blunt

My Name Is Revenge - cover

What if a book is gripping and gritty and deeply emotional, yet also informs you? Not in an obvious way, but so subtly you don’t even notice? Ashley Kalagian Blunt’s novella and reflective essay, My Name is Revenge—recently published as a finalist in the 2018 Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award—does just this.

The first section, the novella, is set in 1980, but flashes back to the past. It centres around Vrezh, a Sydney university student living at home with his parents, his older brother Armen and his invalid grandfather. Armen has become secretive of late, and Vrezh decides to find out why. He suspects his brother is involved in a secret Armenian group planning attacks on Turkish diplomats. Living up to his name, which means ‘revenge’, Vrezh also dreams of retribution for the terrible crimes committed against his grandfather’s family and countless other Armenian families during the Armenian Genocide—crimes that left his grandfather orphaned as a young boy, crimes that give his grandfather nightmares to this day. A foreboding atmosphere builds, layered with the pain and anger felt by everyone in the family. But Vrezh is not as single-minded as his brother, and he begins to realise that good and evil are not always black and white. He expresses this uncertainty to Armen, who treats him with disgust. ‘It was as if Armen had sliced through the flesh of his chest, peeling it away to reveal a heart that was Armenian, but not sufficiently so.’ It is this complexity of character and plot, the examination of right and wrong and all the gradations in between, that gives the novella its potency and poignancy.

The essay that follows is a wonderful counterpoint to the fictional world. It clarifies true historical events within the novella, and explains more about the Armenian Genocide. The essay also details how Kalagian Blunt is connected to the story, both personally and as a curious writer. This makes for heartbreaking but compelling reading.

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. You begin to comprehend the horrors of what happened, and the repercussions for Armenian families as the trauma echoed through generations.

My Name is Revenge is immersive and affecting, written with balance and compassion. Ashley Kalagian Blunt has created a striking and important two-part work.

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A crazy good Monday

Richell-Longlist-2018-Blog-HeaderMonday morning I was dialling my ‘other mother’ Lynsey, who lives on Vancouver Island, to wish her a happy 80th birthday. As the phone rang, my eyes flicked to my computer screen, and I saw an email from Will Dawson, executive director of the Emerging Writers Festival, letting me know I’d been shortlisted in the 2018 Richell Prize. My heart almost stopped. I’d been stunned to get longlisted last month, let alone making it any further.

I talked to Lynsey for about an hour, then got off the phone and stared for awhile at the emails and tweets and messages coming in. My eyes filled with tears. I started replying. After awhile, I messaged my husband and my best friend. I called my dad. I called my mum.

When I collected my kids from school they were excited, but that night, my son was disgusted to discover I hadn’t posted on social media. I tried to explain that several other writers had posted on my behalf, that I’d received heaps of congratulations and I didn’t want people to feel they had to do it all over again. He was still unimpressed. “Nope. You should have posted. That’s what you do.” Then I worried that the judges or Richell prize organisers and supporters would think I wasn’t grateful for the shortlisting, which is the furthest thing from the truth. I am so thrilled, and so thankful.

So here I am today, posting about my Monday, which was the very best Monday of my life.

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how’s the writing?

If you’re a writer, do you get asked by friends and family for writing news? When they see you, do they ask So, how’s the book/poetry/play coming along? and then Any news?

I’m lucky enough to have friends and family who ask, and I often wish I did have news to share, but mostly when they ask How’s the writing? I reply – Well, I’m doing it. I’m writing. They look at me kindly like I’m not very bright and they say to me gently, Well, that’s good.

Every time I hear this question, as thoughtful and well-intentioned as it is, I feel a little at a loss. Because I rarely have any news. Now and then something exciting happens, but it can be months from one small success to the next. And logically I know this is part of being a writer, that doing the work is what it’s really about, that getting published or winning competitions is great, but it isn’t going to happen every week. Most weeks we’re just doing it, just writing, trying to translate something funny, or tragic, or magical into words. Yet in my upbringing there was a focus on ‘achieving’, or perhaps it’s the influence of our culture, too – telling us we’re not really a ‘success’ unless we’re lining up trophies on the shelf. Sometimes I feel silly saying Well, I’m doing it. (Especially when the other person laughs!)

So today I’m here to offer comfort and company to all the other writers out there, especially those feeling weighed down, weary or short on faith. It’s tough, I know. Don’t feel silly if you don’t have a thrilling answer lately when asked about your writing. We’re here. We’re putting words on the page. And all the very best things take time.

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listening

I met a friend’s new partner, Julie*, a few weeks back and she was solidly drunk. That’s not the point of the story, but I’m sure she would have been less forthcoming without the wine.

This sweet, slurring lady had no sooner figured out who I was married to (my husband has the same stressful job as this lady) than she began quizzing me—”What’s it like being married to him? How do you cope with listening to him when he gets home from work?”

At first, I tried answering her briefly and laughingly—”Oh, he doesn’t say much about his day anyway—his usual answer is ‘Standard’.” But Julie persisted. “No, seriously.” She was all eyes. “Don’t you find it draining, listening to him?” After awhile, I realised Julie was worried about her own need to discuss work, her own need to de-brief after a stressful day, and whether it was too much for her partner.

So I told Julie that sometimes when my husband has a tough day and comes home wired and tired, he’ll talk a bit about it and I’ll listen. I’ll give him a hug, make him food or tea. But I reassured Julie that my husband does the same for me if I have a rough day (rarely due to work these days), and I think that’s normal in a relationship. I told her I don’t think one person’s bad day is something for the other to ‘cope with’, it’s part and parcel of being supportive. She seemed unconvinced, and said she hates how she needs to talk about work, hates burdening her partner.

The whole conversation struck me as odd. It made me realise that listening is often seen as a favour performed. And I feel this too sometimes—a profound gratitude if someone simply listens intently. Yet focussing on others when they speak, especially our friends and family, should be the most basic courtesy.

I’m often guilty of drifting off during conversations. My son tells me all about his bike ride and how coming down this specific hill his speed reached blah-de-blah-de-blah and I tune out and realise I’ve missed a chance to connect. My mother calls me and tells me something about a neighbour and I switch off and start planning dinner in my head. But I want to do better. I know when someone listens well, I feel the gift of it all day, the pleasure of being heard, maybe even understood. And it is no small thing.

After my talk with Julie, I am reminded to listen more closely. To pay attention. To give others that fundamental care.

*not her real name. Obviously 🙂

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a letter home

ANZAC Day has prompted me to write about a letter I found amongst a pile of my grandmother’s papers passed on to me. This letter still brings tears to my eyes, even after multiple readings. When I collected it from the framing shop, I had to blink rapidly as I thanked them for their work. The letter now hangs in our living room.

The letter is from my great-grandfather, James Trickett, to his two sons, one of whom was my Papa (my mother’s father). James wrote a long and loving five-page letter, filled with life advice for his boys. The tone is hopeful for his return and yet the instructions prepare his sons for his possible death.

This is the first page:

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James did survive to travel to France, but according to a letter from his commanding officer, in late January, 1917, he complained of a headache, and then suffered a ‘bilious attack’. He became very unwell, and eventually was taken to hospital, where he was diagnosed with ‘spinal meningitis’. He died in early February, 1917.

Here is the last page of his letter:

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Here is the entire letter on the wall:

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Lest we forget.

*Just in case anyone is concerned, the letter is framed with archival matting and tape, and has maximum UV protection glass. The letter is also hung on a wall which is not touched by any direct sunlight, and which receives only muted daylight.

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small and vital details

A story I was writing left me cold. I couldn’t figure out why. The plot was decent, the characters seemed plausible, the setting intriguing. But the whole thing was flat and lifeless.

I tried the usual things — asking myself questions about the characters so I could know them better. Getting rid of redundant phrases and adjectives. Powering up the verbs.

The story was still not right.

So I started adding details.

Instead of the character complaining that her husband ‘wanted the same foods every day’, the wife despaired that her husband wanted ‘steak or fried chicken day after day’.

Instead of the woman buying the cat ‘expensive toys’, I wrote she bought the cat ‘mouse toys and a plush bed he ignored, preferring to sleep in the armchair’.

Instead of a boy fearing ‘bugs and spiderwebs’ in a cellar, he feared ‘spiderwebs and bugs as long as his boy fingers’.

And suddenly the story was real. I believed it. I could see the plush cat bed that Elvis the cat ignored, I could picture the husband chewing through his steak (or fried chicken) night after night, and I could see those long, black bugs, scuttling away.

I realised how details can make a story true. As readers, we buy into a story, (or a poem, a screenplay, a play) if these ‘facts’ give it the ring of truth. They are small and vital details.

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A few good things

Good things have been happening.

In November I went to the Brisbane book launch of The Art of Disappearing by Elisabeth Hanscombe, and met Elisabeth for the first time. Here we are, admiring her book together!IMG_3812 2

It was a real thrill to meet her, and I realised later I’d already read and admired her work in Meanjin. The book is wonderful – the writing so effortless, honest, heartbreakingly good.

My friend Karen Hollands was chosen for a Hachette Manuscript development program.  My writing group buddies Warren Ward and Nikki Mottram won Katharine Susannah Prichard Fellowships for 2018, and Warren came runner-up in the latest New Philosopher writing competition. And my lovely friend Edwina Shaw was selected by Screen Qld to develop her Dear Madman manuscript as a screenplay, won a Katharine Susannah Prichard Residency, and has other projects in the pipeline too.

Fellow medico-turned-writer, my friend Louise Allan, has released her beautiful book The Sisters’ Song to widespread acclaim (I’m halfway through and I am spellbound).

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And in my neck of the woods, late last year I received a couple of rejection emails from well-regarded Australian literary journals, with warm, helpful feedback and suggestions to submit further work. I tried to be pleased, as I knew that might be the only encouragement I’d get for awhile. The last acceptance I’d received was December 2016, the last competition news (a shortlisting) was in March of last year.

Then early this month, a message arrived from a writer friend asking me to read some of my writing at their upcoming book launch. I was so touched and of course excited, too! I was still buzzing from that piece of news when two days later an email arrived saying a submission I’d sent to the Quart Short Literary Readings (in Adelaide) had been accepted, and that my story would be read by a professional actor at the Summer Shorts evening – next Tuesday January 16th, at the Bibliotheca Bar and Bookstore. I’ve never had anything I’ve written read aloud, nor have I ever read my stories for an audience. These new and wondrous experiences await!

If you’ve got some writing news to share, I’d love to hear it. (And if you don’t, hopefully your news is coming very soon!)

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