How Ashley became Australian
Ashley Kalagian Blunt


How Ashley became Australian

August 13, 2020

When alumna Ashley Kalagian Blunt (MRes 2017) moved from Canada to Australia, she thought it would be easy to “become Australian”.

Her recently published memoir How to be Australian about the pleasures and pitfalls of making Australia home will strike a chord with many of us who have arrived in Australia and tried to navigate a different culture and way of life. From tall poppy syndrome and our immigration policies, to kookaburras and huntsmen, anyone who knows and loves Australia, will love this honest exploration of what it means to be Australian.

“I had been writing for years with little success before I started the MRes program at Macquarie,” says Ashley. “The support I received in the program helped me increase my skills tremendously, and within a few years of graduating, I’m now the author of two books”.

How to be Australian has attracted a lot of interest and commentary in the media, with an appearance on Channel 7’s Sunrise when it was released.

Ashley is also the author of My Name is Revenge, a thriller novella and collected essays, which she wrote during her time at Macquarie in addition to her thesis. My Name is Revenge was longlisted for 2020 Davitt Awards, shortlisted for the 2019 Woollahra Digital Literary Awards, and a finalist in the 2018 Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award.

Ashley’s writing appears in Griffith Review, Sydney Review of Books, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian, the Big Issue, Westerly, Kill Your Darlings, the Canberra Times, and more. Her Armenian travel memoir was shortlisted for the 2018 Impress Prize for New Writers and the 2017 Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award, and received a 2015 Varuna PIP residency.

Ashley is also an award-winning speaker. She’s appeared at Sydney Writers’ Festival, Story Club, Little Fictions, the National Young Writers’ Festival and Noted Festival, and is a Moth StorySLAM winner.

Q&A with Ashley

How did your Masters of Research in English help you complete your memoir?
I took the creative writing path within my degree, so my thesis involved an exegesis and creative work. By applying my research to my writing, and then drawing questions from the writing to drive the research, I developed a more rigorous approach to creative work. Before I started my degree, I’d been writing seriously for five years without getting anywhere. Since graduating in 2017, I’ve had two books published.

For all the aspiring writers out there, how important do you think formal study is for this craft?
Unlike, say, dentistry or engineering, there are many paths to becoming a published writer. I decided to pursue formal study because I wanted to take on an intimidating project – which became my first book, My Name Is Revenge – and I knew that having the support of a thesis supervisor would give that idea the best chance of success. If you’re serious about writing, the rigour of formal study can help you achieve your goals.

What advice would you give to anyone wishing to take up formal studies in Creative Writing?
Having a clear idea of the project you want to pursue can be a real benefit. In my case, I’d spent a number of years developing my writing before enrolling at Macquarie, which gave me a more precise understanding of what skills I needed to develop during my studies. If you’re interested in writing, start now, develop a practise – even if it’s only a few hours a week. You’ll get much more out of a degree program that way.

Your memoir has many amusing, light-hearted anecdotes, yet also explores complex issues. How did you successfully balance the two?
I feel like this accurately reflects how I feel about Australia – there’s so much about the country that I find wonderfully amusing, like how kookaburra laughter is used in Hollywood jungle scene-setting, and the way everyone has at least one great spider story. But there’s also a lot of complex issues that, as citizens, we have to learn about and grapple with. The balance comes from retracing my journey of developing an Aussie identity, sharing the entertaining experiences along with the more serious issues.

You published your memoir during the height of COVID restrictions (in June). How did this impact the book release?
The restrictions have had a significant impact. Normally I would have lined up a series of events in bookshops and libraries to coincide with the book’s release, travelling to capital cities and smaller towns. The missed opportunities to connect with both booksellers and readers have made it challenging to get the word out. I’ve also missed out on opportunities to take part in writers festivals, many of which were cancelled. Bookshops and local authors can definitely use your support this year!

Can you name some of your favourite authors?
Bill Bryson, Elizabeth Gilbert and David Sedaris are a few of my favourites, and each inspired aspects of How to Be Australian. Other favourites include Malcolm Gladwell and Australian authors Julie Koh, Tara June Winch and Helen Garner.

What are you reading right now?
I’m reading Songs of a War Boy, the memoir of Deng Thiak Adut, a former child soldier from Sudan who came to Australia as a refugee and now runs his own law firm. I’m not that far into it, but I can already tell it’s a book that will stick with me.

What advice would you give to our international alumni around “becoming Australian”?
I wrote How to Be Australian to reflect this quirky, baffling country back to itself. I’ve been delighted that born-and-raised Aussies have connected with it and even learned things about their country from the book. That said, there’s definitely lots in it that will help expats and migrants better understand Australia. Some of my favourite advice comes from local author John O’Grady, who writes: 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. (I still haven’t mastered returning all shouts, or how much generosity is too much, but I’m working on it.)

You started your memoir with a memory of being bitterly cold in Canada. Do you ever miss that cold climate? And what other things do you miss from Canada or feel nostalgia for?
Every single day that I’m in Australia, I’m grateful that I don’t have to face another Canadian winter. Softly falling snow is beautiful, but the reality of cold winters include suffering painful frostbite, scraping ice off your windshield when it’s minus 40 degrees, and navigating a city made dangerous by ice and exhaust-blackened snowbanks. I do miss the wide availability of perogies and poutine, and being able to fly to places like Mexico and Europe in a matter of hours rather than days. And I miss the particular way Canadians tack ‘eh’ on the end of the majority of their sentences. This has dropped out of my vocabulary, but I’m sure it will return when I’m finally able to visit again.

Purchase a copy of How To Be Australian

Do you have an Australian story to share? We invite you to share your own experience in the comment section below and our favourite will receive their own copy of How to be Australian.


Comments (3)

  1. Bernadette Samonte

    Being an Australian means multi-culturalism. Being exposed to various cultures, people, food delicacies, religious and political beliefs all in one place and living in harmony. This is what being an Australian is all about.

  2. David Bussman

    I enjoyed Ashley Blunt’s interview. As Ashley is relatively new to Australia and its ways, I can heartily recommend, for the purposes of further edification about some earlier explanation/examples concerning Australian conventions and attitudes, the short stories written by Henry Lawson and for visual satisfaction the 1960′s movie “They’re A Weird Mob” based on a book by John O’Grady. Well done, Ashley, and a belated welcome to Aussie from me.

  3. Douglas Howe

    Fascinating. In answer to my question, “why did you migrate to Australia”, a female Canadian engineer working for me some years ago stated “too many Toronto winters” and after working in Russia/Siberia during winter, I can relate to that issue.
    However, my grandparents (born in 1890s) still referred to England as “home” despite being 3rd generation Australian. Being Australian then often meant a colonial without a separate Australian identity although this was rapidly changing. After WW2, European migration significantly impacted Australia and John O”Grady’s book satirises the challenges of learning to be Australian at that time. Living in country NSW, how to be an Australian meant leaving behind all European issues, and often European identity, and adopting the English/Irish/Australian identity of the majority including anglicising names, drinking beer, driving a Holden and living in growing suburbia. Post 1975 and the end of the White Australia Policy has formed Australia into a multicultural society with arguably no single clear identity but broad range of identifying characteristics (the demographers may disagree) . Now anyone can claim to be “Australian” , just keep your name, drink wine, drive an imported car and leave suburbia. Welcome!


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