The second memoir I wrote was a romantic comedy about how my boyfriend and I finally decided we could live on the same continent. When I had an adequate draft, I sent it to a manuscript assessor. ‘It works’, she said. ‘You could write the next one about life in Australia.’
How could I write a third memoir? I thought. I’m only 32.
The first memoir didn’t even start as a memoir. I’d planned to tell the story of my great grandparents’ survival of the Armenian genocide. In 2010, I received a grant to research the history of my family and of the Canadian Armenian community my great grandparents helped to build. Though they had died a few decades earlier, I assumed I could piece together enough of their story for a non-fiction book. But I discovered only fragments remained -the inconsistent memories of my relatives and some photographs. Instead of becoming a book in itself, my family’s story began my obsession with Armenia’s modern history. It became the catalyst for a two-month research trip to Armenia and over a hundred interviews I collected both there and among Australian Armenians (by then I’d already moved to Australia).
When I wrote my first draft, I didn’t know anything about writing a book. The draft was stuffed with everything I’d learned about Armenian history from the late 1800s to today, and nearly every single interview. It was 200,000 words.
At least I realized that I needed a reliable manuscript assessor. With the help of travel memoirist Claire Scobie, I eventually cut the draft to the sleek 75,000 words that were later shortlisted in the 2017 Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Awards. Through the revision process, the shape of the narrative came to tell the story of the country from the turbulence of the genocide, to Soviet occupation, to independence, through both the experiences of my family and those who shared their stories. But the thread that holds that complex narrative together is my quest to understand the resilience of people who survived Armenia’s bleak history, and how that history shaped me as I became a witness-bearer, generations removed, to the genocide. In telling stories of others, I’d also written a memoir.
After four years of writing about genocide, war and societal collapse, I was ready for something a bit lighter. I was quite versed now in travel memoir writing. I loved the genre, and I had a bit of travel experience to draw on; I’d spent my twenties as an expat, living and working in South Korea, Peru and Mexico before coming to Australia. So I sat down to write my one sweeping personal saga – how I left the love of my live overseas, and, after much melodrama and three continents, we finally sorted out how to be together.
But then, this too was an intimidating book to write. I’d long suspected that, despite my interest in genocide, my writerly voice was more comedic, and I should be following my natural inclination. I really didn’t want to. Writing is hard enough. If you’re also trying to be funny, you may as well teach yourself to swallow swords while tap dancing.
I finished the romantic comedy memoir, then tried to leave comic writing behind. Drawing on my knowledge about the Armenian genocide, I began writing a Very Serious Novella About Terrorism. Even so, Claire Scobie’s comment kept echoing in my mind like a curse. You could write the next one about life in Australia. When I started doing stand-up comedy for a lark, the horrible truth was confirmed: at heart, I’m a jester.
Let’s be clear: I was a middle-class Canadian who applied for a visa, moved to Australia with her middle-class Canadian husband, and after stumbling through a stack of paperwork, the bureaucratic equivalent of a minotaur’s labyrinth, became a middle-class Australian. It’s not a dramatic or even interesting story. The only way to write it for an audience would be to make it funny.
In many ways, Australia is wondrously hilarious. The casual way many Aussies will recount their run-ins with deadly spiders and snakes; the fabulous slang terms like bubbler, slippery dip, and squiz; the fact that Canberra is derived from an Aboriginal word for tits (it really is, see David Hunt’s True Girt). These are just a few of the thousands of things I love about this country, and over time, I became keen to share that love. I started a file of notes. Soon I had 20,000 words and a title. Much like my Armenian memoir, How to Be Australian, isn’t really about me. It’s a book about Australia told through the perspective of a cultivated character. I’m in all three books I’ve written, but I’m not the main subject of any of them.
I think many people conflate memoir and biography. Biography is a narrow, prescriptive category. A biography tells the story of someone’s life, and how the circumstances of that person’s life made them the inherently interesting person they are. I’m not that person. I’ve led a relatively banal life. Other than those few years I lived in Asia and Latin America, my actual biography would be as interesting as a phonebook. In contrast, memoir is an exploration of a specific topic told through the prism of personal experience. The term ‘memoir’ can refer to books as broad and varied as ‘fiction’ does, as Bri Lee explores in her interview series Memoir at Any Age.
For me, memoir is a vehicle for sharing my interests or obsessions. I was fascinated by Armenia, and the best way for me to tell Armenia’s story was to frame it through my fascination. I’m in love with Australia, and the best way to share that is through my particular perspective on it. And while my second memoir is about my relationship, the larger story is the negotiation of love and personal ambition.
None of my manuscripts are published yet, but I don’t let that discourage me. I’ll keep working to improve them. Knowing me, I’ll also be pursuing new projects soon. Who knows, perhaps I’ll be writing a fourth memoir before I turn forty.
Ashley Kalagian Blunt is an award-winning writer based in Sydney. Her non-fiction work Full of Donkey: Travels in Armenia was shortlisted for the 2017 Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award. She’s been published by Griffith Review, Sydney Review of Books, The Australian and Kill Your Darlings, and has appeared at Story Club, Noted and the National Young Writers’ Festival.