"Who after all speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"
- Adolf Hitler, 1939
Ashley Kalagian Blunt references the above quote many times in her innovative literary creation My Name is Revenge and it is a quote that will stick in your mind long after you finish reading. The work is in two parts: first, a novella of fiction, followed up with a series of three short essays setting the background behind the story and detailing Kalagian Blunt’s own Armenian heritage.
Both sections begin with a true event in Australian history that was decades in the making—the assassination of the Turkish consul-general and his bodyguard in Sydney on the morning of December 17, 1980. The attack was part of a series of international terrorist attacks carried out by The Justice Commandoes of the Armenian Genocide between 1973 and 1990.
For many, the assassination is barely a memory, and for many more, the memory for the motivation behind it will be non-existent, despite the subtle connectedness between Australia and the events that rocked a nation. Kalagian Blunt outlines it for us:
"The Armenian genocide began on 24 April 1915. That this is the day before Anzac Day isn’t a coincidence. The Ottoman government knew British forces were about to burst onto their shores, right near Constantinople, the capital. Feeling what historians have described as a ‘state of siege’, they decided to put into action the plans they’d laid to rid themselves of the Armenians. The Ottomans had come to see their Armenian citizens as an enemy, the reason their empire was crumbling. And so, during the long months of the Gallipoli offensive, some Anzac diggers were witness to the genocide."
In 1915, around 1.5 million Armenians were systematically and brutally targeted for extermination by the Ottoman government. Through her novella, Kalagian Blunt begins to introduce us to a part of history that many have repeatedly attempted to remove from the records. Set in modern-day Australia, shortly after the assassination of the Turkish consul-general, we are introduced to Vrehz. A young man in his early twenties and an Armenian by heritage, Vrehz is still attempting to come to terms with the intergenerational trauma that the events of 1915 have seeped into his family and cultural community. Living at home with his parents, older brother, and grandfather, Vrehz sees the devastation that the attempted genocide of his people has caused first hand. His family history is lost, wiped out, and his grandfather going through the stages of dementia is forced to relive violent nightmares of the traumatic events he witnessed.
Following the news of the assassination, Vrehz, long suspicious that his brother, Armen, is involved with the Justice Commandoes, searches his room and finds the evidence he needs to confront him and force his own way into joining him in his search for justice. It’s a pathway that demands more of him than he expects, ultimately leading into dangerous territory, and challenging every fibre of his moral code. Kalagian Blunt does a remarkable job of juxtaposing the two brothers—one, determined, willing, and ferocious in his pursuit of justice, and the other naive, good-hearted, and conflicted. She wields a convincing portrayal of just how complex ‘radicalisation’ can be.
In her essays, she ascertains that it was important for her not to shy away from the truth and details of what the genocide of her ancestors involved, but equally to allow room for the reader to embrace the story without feeling assaulted by the brutal events. It’s a balance she achieves amazingly well, leaving me feeling the deep emotional pain of her people, yet prepared to continue reading.
Kalagian Blunt goes on to say that in her novella, she’s attempted to explore Vrehz’s struggle “to reconstruct the Armenian cultural narrative in a way that, to his mind, achieves a sense of justice. He is working through the traumatic fragments of family memory in an attempt - however misguided - to develop a healthy relationship with the past.”
Through her essays, she provides not only historical and cultural context but reveals the deep personal connection to the story, too. The trauma faced by Vrehzs’ grandfather is based on the real-life experience of her own great-grandfather, who suffered from terrible waking nightmares towards the end of his life. Scattered amongst her essays are photographs of her own visit to Armenia, and one can see that Vrehz’s narrative, of coming to terms with the past, is very much intertwined with her own. She finishes one of her essays with:
“I will probably be writing about the Armenian genocide for the rest of my life, working to keep it alive in cultural memory, not only because it is part of my story, but because it is a part of everyone’s story.”
These were powerful words for me. I spent an entire semester at university studying war crimes and genocide. For my final year dissertation, I wrote a literature review on the dissemination of media relating to war crimes and genocide.
Not once in my research did I come across the Armenian genocide.
Reading this book has highlighted once more to me how essential work by authors like Kalagian Blunt is. My Name is Revenge is an exceptionally moving and informative collection of writing. More than its historical emphasis, it is a story of family, community, and the importance of telling the stories of those who have, and continue to be, denied a voice.
My Name Is Revenge: A Novella and Reflective Essay
By Ashley Kalagian Blunt
156 pages. 2018.
Buy it here.