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A Burst of Sunshine: Review of How to Be Australian

The latest book by Ashley Kalagian Blunt is a burst of sunshine on a grey-sky day, a fresh take on life, love and this vast country we call Australia.

Strictly speaking, How to Be Australian is memoir, relating Kalagian Blunt’s experience of moving from her birthplace, Canada, to Australia, while at the same time adjusting to marriage with her husband Steve. The book details Ashley’s impressions and discoveries, and reveals how she and Steve cope with this geographical and emotional transition.

But How to Be Australian is more than straightforward memoir.

It describes intriguing facts and unusual incidents with bemusement, admiration or even horror; it analyses some of Australia’s foibles, brilliance and oddities. I was about to close the book when I flipped a page and saw the headline ‘Why I put a cracker up my clacker’.

It’s funny, but also sweetly tender. It wasn’t brazen or overt. His love was a quiet pat on the hand. It was the loyalty to come and sit beside me while I dripped my messy emotions everywhere…

It expresses Kalagian Blunt’s big, blossoming love for Australia. Taking in the busy splendour of Circular Quay, I felt like someone had handed me the crown jewels.

Yet it’s more than these things, too. The book asks questions about the concept of home. I lay awake, feeling homesick for a home I hadn’t yet found. It addresses the issue of fitting in, or not fitting in. It relates to pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, or feeling unable to cope when anxiety rises. It’s about intimate relationships, how they fray, and how they strengthen. It seeks to understand friendship — sometimes a delicate dance, but even more so when there are cultural differences. I was earnestly — still too earnestly, after all these years — trying to understand this country…

How to Be Australian brims with acute observation, hilarious anecdotes and honest emotion. It’s a dazzling combination.

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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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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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How to Write – a manual for distractible writers

Step 1. Check email, in case you have won some nationwide competition or had a world-renowned journal accept one of your stories.

Step 2. Check Facebook. There could be a writing opportunity on a page you’ve liked. Or a cute puppy video.

Step 3. Check Twitter. You may hear some interesting news that prompts you to write a brilliant new piece of fiction. Or creative non-fiction. Or a cool sort of limerick.

Step 4. Check Instagram. You may get good ideas for a snack.

Step 5. Get a snack. And a drink while you’re at it.

Step 6. Sit back down. Open your document. Yes, just go to the toilet. Be quick.

Step 7. Write. Stay there. Do not access the internet, ring people or text people. Write.

Step 8. Briefly congratulate self. You’re writing!

Step 9. Keep writing.

 

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In Praise of Twitter

I never really got Twitter. Up until six months ago, that is. It seemed like Facebook in hyperdrive, and I hardly ever post on Facebook, so why would I use Twitter? On Facebook I can just slip around finding out how everyone is, admiring their growing-up children and holiday snaps, so again – why Twitter?

I joined to find out. Because you never really know if you don’t try something. And even then, you have to give it time. For example, when I first tried wine (as a twelve-year-old on New Year’s Eve, just a small sip) I thought it was disgusting. Now I feel differently.

At first on Twitter there was not much going on. Well obviously – I was following maybe twenty people and about two people were following me. But slowly I began to follow more people – mostly writers, since none of my non-writer friends are on Twitter – and I began to interact a little. After reading an article I enjoyed in The Australian, I tweeted to the journalist, who responded with a comment. I re-tweeted tweets by other writers. I realised there is a whole writing community out there, linked by Twitter on a day-to-day basis. It’s supportive. It’s informative. And it’s fun.*

It’s also a bit addictive, so I’m trying to be intentional in how I spend my time. But I’m happy to spend some of that time on Twitter, connecting with other writers and hearing about their news. Because writing is a lonely business – the actual bum-on-chair writing – and interaction with other writers who understand the whole hair-pulling joy …. it’s a great tonic.

If you feel so inclined, I might see you on Twitter 🙂 @FionaRRobertson

*This post is not funded by Twitter

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It’s a Brand New Year

img_2709This time of year is my favourite, despite the oppressive Brisbane heat, despite the extra roll of chub around my middle (thanks so much, Christmas gingerbread), despite my on-holidays children who leave yogurt-coated bowls on couches and don’t refill the water jug and ask to be driven around like I’m some sort of chaffeur.

It’s my favourite time of year because I secretly do like my kids, because that gingerbread was good and because a fresh new year is ripe with possibility. Anything could happen.

There are things I want to achieve this year and I’m sure you’re the same. Many of us are setting goals and planning steps towards those goals – either on paper or in our heads. (I plan to complete my short story manuscript, kindly assisted by the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre Fellowship I received last month, wahoo! I get to write for 2 weeks in Greenmount, Western Australia!) But it’s not just this possibility of achievement that I mean.

A new year feels like everything could be better. Our capacity for patience, our tolerance. Our generosity of spirit. Our attention to emotional detail, our care for those who too often get forgotten. Our ability to forgive. Maybe our hearts can even soften towards ourselves, because sure as eggs we’ll mess up. So we try again, and we might just do well. We’ll do the best we can and that fills me with hope.

Thanks for stopping by. And Happy New Year!

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In the Aftermath

Yesterday we watched Donald Trump claim victory in the US Presidential election. It felt like a day the world will never forget. My friends and family were shocked, exchanging a flurry of emails and texts, and on Facebook and Twitter many others I know did the same. We were flayed. So if we’re all the way over here, mostly middle class, mostly white, how do marginalised Americans feel? How do people of colour feel in America right now? What about people who are LBGTQIA, how are they coping? And Mexican Americans, what emotions are they experiencing? How do Muslims in America feel right now, to be vilified in the way they have been by this man, to have been branded as terrorists purely for their religious beliefs? How do women who have been sexually assaulted feel now that this man, who has been caught on tape boasting of his ability to get away with sexual assault, has been elected to the highest political position in the land? I don’t know what they’re feeling but I’m guessing it’s not good. I think I’d be scared and angry and betrayed – not so much by Donald Trump but by the people all around me who voted him in.

So now that this has happened, what next? It seems like many of us have needed time to process this information – to let the result sink in, to despair for a humanity that would vote for this man, to cry or swear or roar with anger. And I’m talking Australians here, so again I can only try to imagine the distress many in the USA are going through. But after this acknowledgement of pain, what next?

I guess we have to go on. We have to look to the future, and each do what we can to combat racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-Muslim sentiments. We have to treat each other with love and kindness, and that includes all the people who voted for Trump. Here in Australia, we have elected members of parliament who have racist and xenophobic platforms, and we still don’t have laws that allow gay marriage. So we have a lot of work to do right here.

I might have fears but I don’t want to be fearful. I want to stay open to others, open to possibilities, open to love. And yes, I’m aware it’s a hell of a lot easier for me than for many others. So that being the case, I better work harder.

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Taking stock in November

Do you have Novemberitis? It’s a thing, really. I reckon it’s a thing. In November, you can start to get restless because really you’re running out of time for whatever goal you were hoping to achieve this year (to finally make peace with your mother, to stop hating kale, to get that three-book deal). You can see December looming and you know it’s going to whizz by and then bloody hell … what happened to 2016?

Some of us will have had successes. Some of us will have had nothing but discouragement. Some of us will have had small victories. The fact is, we’re all trying hard.

And for writers, that’s really what counts. The main thing is the writing, the doing, the learning, the improving. The getting published bit feels so vitally important, but really it’s the process that matters most of all. So if all that happened this year was that you wrote and re-wrote and edited and maybe submitted, plus you ran a household or a sales team, fed the cat and phoned your sister and ate some steamed greens now and then – well surely that’s a successful year. And success feeds on success.

Writing seems to me to be a constant apprenticeship; to write is to be forever learning. So every day spent writing pays off, adds to the next day. Nothing is wasted, not even the words we throw away.

I have a mild case of Novemberitis but I know the best remedy. #amwriting 🙂

 

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Taking Rejection like a Boss

I am the Rejection Queen! Watch me laugh in the face of defeat!

Actually, I don’t consider receiving a rejection letter to be a defeat. Not anymore. I don’t love rejection emails, but they don’t ruffle me like they used to. When I first started submitting stories to magazines, anthologies and competitions (four years ago, almost to the day), every ‘it’s not for us’ email stung. I cried once or twice, wondering if I’d ever get anywhere with writing. Over the next year or two I had a couple of positive replies, the occasional writing ‘win’, but so few and far between! Still, as time went on, rejection emails affected me less and less. I grew a thicker skin and began to believe in myself, just a little.

These days, I read the email and move on. Mostly I feel neutral, like I do when I’m cleaning my teeth. Sometimes I sigh, but that’s about it. I’ve decided it’s simply a numbers game. Write, re-write, polish, send out. Write, re-write, polish, send out. I don’t wait for replies on anything – I just go on to the next project. (Or sometimes I bake. There are times when cake is needed first.) I figure spending time mourning a story not accepted just gets in the way of finding the next possible placement for that piece, or blocks the writing of a fresh, new story.

I just counted them up, and since my very first submission, I have sent out 89 pieces (many of these are repeat submissions). I try to have at least ten stories out at any one time. Currently I have twelve pieces out there in the big, wide world, so I’m happy with that. I figure all I can do is write the best work I can and send it to well-suited homes. The rest is in the lap of the writing gods.

I’m hoping for some good news soon. I’m ready for an acceptance email or a competition win. But if nothing happens, if the next writing mail is a rejection, I’ll pull on my big girl panties, adjust my Rejection Queen tiara, (make a quick red velvet cake) and take it like a boss.

*Feel free to leave a comment … I wrote this in the hope that other writers might feel less alone, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.*

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Big award for female writers

I stumbled across this today – an award with a huge prize ($50,000 US) available to women authors with a short story, novel or screenplay that ‘gives an insight into the lives of women’. The deadline is June 8, so you have a little time (and the shortlist comes out June 22).

Got something you could submit? Here’s the link.

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