Interview by Samuel Elliott
Where did the idea for My Name Is Revenge come from? Was it during your two months spent travelling to Armenia in 2012?
I was interested in the Armenian Genocide when I first learned about my great-grandparents survival of it, when I was a teenager. I found that a little shocking, that I hadn’t know about it, this part of my family’s history that I hadn’t know about before, so I started reading about it then.
But I really got interested in writing about the genocide when I met a Turkish woman.
We were both about twenty-six years old, we met through a volunteer program. When I first got this email notifying me that I’d be working with a Turkish woman, I got this reaction, that I’d never expect myself to have. I thought – I don’t want to work with this person, then I thought what a ridiculous reaction to have, it’s not like she was personally involved in the genocide, go and meet her.
Of course, she was lovely. We became friends and then I ended up asking her later about what she knew about the genocide and basically she wasn’t particularly interested in history, but that it was all a lie and made up. I told her my family story and then we basically agreed to disagree. She moved back to Turkey and we said we’d stay in touch but I didn’t hear from her for a long time and so that whole experience made me want to write about the genocide.
That was a whole decade ago that that started and then I travelled to Armenia, I did that projected, I interviewed all my family and then I actually wrote a completely different book. But then, the idea of My Name Is Revenge, came along, and that came from an interest in the terrorist attacks, real-life terrorist attacks that happened around the world in the 1970s and 80s and they were committed by Armenian men for the very political purpose of drawing the world’s attention to the Turkish government’s ongoing denial of the genocide.
Although a lot of the books I was reading sometimes mentioned the genocide, it was rarely discussed in any way. And I felt that it was such a key development in the story, because it was that cycle of violence that was just continuing and playing out, I wanted to dig into that part of the story. I learned that there had been a terrorist attack here in Sydney in December 1980, of the Turkish Consul General and his bodyguard were assassinated in broad daylight and this ended up being, at the time, the biggest manhunt in Australia’s history, the assassins were never caught either.
I thought it would make people more interested in learning about the history behind that incident and so that’s why I decided to try writing about it.
What sort of challenges did you then face writing about that particular historical event? Some of the events are very much factual, but the characters themselves that are featured throughout the novella are fictional – so what sort of challenges did you face blending historical events with fiction?
I think the biggest challenge in writing the novella, was getting into the mindset of those fictional characters, because they were so different from me.
First of all, writing men, from a male’s perspectives, was a challenge. Normally I write stories that are centred around women and female points of view. Adding to that challenge was writing from the viewpoint of a terrorist, which I really felt was important, in terms of what I was trying to say about how this cycle of violence will continue unless, at some point someone steps in and stops it. The thing about this terrorism was, I can completely empathise with the motivation behind it, because they were the same motivations that were driving me to write. But I couldn’t empathise with the methods. I’m the most pacifist, non-violent person, I would never even imagine getting involved something like a terrorist cell. So, I had to really work and think about the mentality – who were these men? What were their lives like? What would take their lives in this direction?
So empathising with them, but also holding them at arm’s length – that was the big challenge of this piece.
There’s a familial dynamic at the core of the novella and what comprises the main scope of it – that of the two brothers, Vrezh and Armen. As all these characters are fictitious I wanted to know if this was one of the main elements that you first thought about when it came to writing the novella? And if so, what made you want to write about that dynamic?
When I first started writing the story, I only had the first brother in my mind, he had no sibling, was just a single guy. I knew I had to place him in the family dynamic, because these men in real life who were involved in these terrorist groups, they were mainly the grandchildren of genocide survivors, so they had grown up in these families with these stories of survival.
I knew that family dynamic had to exist and that the grandfather was a key player in the story as well. So I started with Armen, the more violent and forthright with the two brothers, but this goes back to what I mentioned earlier when I said I struggled to connect with him, because as I was trying to write him I realised I just couldn’t get into his mindset, I just don’t get him, I’m so far away from him.
So, the writing, didn’t really work. I was researching the writing of violence and one of the techniques of writing it, is having it from the point of view of the person committing the violence.
And that can really turn readers off, readers aren’t going to necessarily want to read that. You can create a character that sort of bridges that gap, it’s called the Lesser Violent character. So, compared to another character in the book, this character is much more relatable. So that’s when the younger brother stepped in and became Vrezh, and became the main point of view protagonist. He’s much more hesitant, he’s much less certain, he’s willing to commit violence, but only if he believes that that will lead to justice. But he is much more moralistic about it. He wants to make sure that, if they have to commit violence, they are doing it in a much more ethical, in his mind, ethical way, as opposed to his brother as you kind of suspect, the more you get to know him that he would probably be out committing acts of violence anyway, even if he wasn’t raised in this family.
I know that some of the essays that comprise the second half of the book were written over the years, but I wanted to know how much different your process is for writing creative non-fiction to writing fiction. Particularly when it’s about quite tough subject matter, as a lot of this collection is deeply, deeply personal. Do you have two different processes? Or is it all kind of similar?
It’s quite different actually. My fiction process involves a lot more drafts and a lot more mess. I’m currently working on a new novel right now, I basically wrote 40,000 words and got to a point where I realised, OK, the book is about this. So I scrapped almost all of it and went back and started from chapter one, but now I know the story better and I know the characters better and it’ll probably happen again. I might get 60,000 words in this time and then go back and scrap almost all of it, but the next draft will be so much more insightful and the characters will be better, it’ll be working much better.
And that was definitely what I did with this novella better, there was just huge, huge amounts of words that were discarded, to get it down to that working draft that I was happy with.
Whereas with my creative non-fiction, I feel like I generally know what I want to say going in, so there’s a lot of reworking at the sentence level, at the structure level, but usually the material I start with, is usually what I end with. Just in a lot more refined form.
You made mention in a couple of the essays, about trying to trace your family’s history as best you possibly could. A lot of it can’t be traced. Particularly the stories of your great-grandparents, Mariam and Paravon. I felt like there was a notion of lost history that pervaded throughout the novella and the collection of essays and I wanted to ask how much that impacts and inspires your writing.
When I started, back when I was twenty-six and I met this Turkish woman and decided I want to write a book about all this, what I felt was that I was just going to write a book either non-fiction or a fictionalised version of Paravon and Mariam’s story, and that would be that.
I didn’t grow up with my Armenian family, they lived in Ontario, near Niagra Falls and I lived in Western Canada. So, I had met them, but didn’t know them that well. Mariam and Paravon had died when I was young, but I thought I’d just go and interview the family about their story, and then write it. It was going to be a simplistic process.
When I went there, and started asking questions, that’s when I realised how much of that story, their story, was just gone. The villages names. They had remembered them, they had known the names, the family used to know them because Mariam and Paravon used to talk about them, but then nobody had written down that information.
Then I came along, like thirty years later, asking these questions. And people would say, go ask your cousin, go ask your aunt, they’ll know for sure. But nobody could give me those names and then you realise easily things are lost. How fast we lose these things.
The reason that Paravon and Mariam came to be in Canada, was because, at the time, Canada was not accepting refugees, but Paravon had an uncle who had come in to work, before the genocide, so he had been in this little town in Canada, in Saint Catharine’s, just working.
After the genocide, the Red Cross was trying to connect family members around the world. I assume that’s how they must have gotten in touch.
What to me was really interesting about this story, was that the uncle had no children, had no wife. There are photos of him, he was around, he lived in the community until he died. But no one could tell me anything about this man. I visited his grave even, his grave is there with the family, but there no record of his life. It was like, they knew his name, they knew where he worked, because all Armenian men worked at the same factory, but the family could tell me nothing about him.
It made me so sad, that this man that had such an incredible life, and it’s just gone. There’s a gravestone, there’s a photo and there’s a name, but even in another generation that name will be gone too, because who will know who he was? I feel that’s one of the reasons I write. It’s to help create memory in a more stable way and more lasting way. I think that’s one of the most amazingly powerful things about the written word.
I know you’ve written on a wealth of disparate subjects over your career, I wondered how much this subject in particular took its toll on you. Particularly because you wrote about it for years on end and almost all of it concerns your family’s history with the Armenian genocide and all the atrocities inherent with that. Was it tough to write? Or was it cathartic?
There were definitely points where it was hard. I remember some time I was doing research and I was looking at old photos of orphans that had survived the genocide and one of these little boys in these photos, he looked exactly like every picture I’d ever seen of my dad from that age. And that was just so upsetting.
There were definitely moments like that. But I felt like I was doing something important, something meaningful. That drove me a lot. When I went to Armenia and interviewed people, I was so nervous about that, because I didn’t know what it would be like. Going to this place, and asking these people these kinds of questions. I actually thought that maybe no one would speak to me. The day I arrived at Armenia, I got a taxi from the airport into the capital. The taxi-driver was this wonderful old guy, George, he didn’t speak a lot of English but he spoke enough. We drove past an Armenian Genocide War Memorial, this big central site in Yerevan. He pointed at it, and said never go there and don’t talk about that.
I was thinking, this is the whole reason I came here, the reason I was planning on spending two months in this country. But that was actually the only time I had a reaction like that, the whole time I was there. Everyone else was so happy I was there, they were really happy to share their stories. The fact that someone had come from abroad, and was interested in hearing their stories, got them really excited.
It felt like I was doing something really meaningful, and that drove the project.
You mention at one point in one of the essays, about a notion of enforced silences, which is basically a policy at a national level, where the nation enforces silence on shameful, atrocious histories, in order to wipe them out of the world’s collective memory, and ultimately, out of existence. Do you think that enforced silence as a practice is still prevalent across the world and do you think that the advent and popularity of social media has made it impossible for this practice to continue to prevail? Does the truth of what happened always eventually come out?
There are two Turkish women mentioned in an essay I wrote. One that I mentioned earlier, that I met when I was first becoming interested in the Armenian genocide and writing about it and the second was one I met in Armenia when I travelled there.
They’re kind of counterpoints to each other, because the second Turkish women I met in Armenia, she had travelled to Armenia specifically to come to acknowledge the genocide in person and apologise for it. As soon as I heard about this from someone, I knew I needed to meet her.
I asked her about how she found out about the genocide. Basically, her perspective had changed entirely. So originally, she had the one she learned in school, the one that my original Turkish friend had had, that the genocide was a lie and it wasn’t true. Then she’d heard from other people at university, that actually there was all this history that the government had suppressed. She had then started to look into it, and one of the things was, that she had access to the internet. She was able to access a wide variety of information sources. Prior to the internet she wouldn’t have access to these types of sources.
I think definitely the internet, as a whole, is valuable, in terms of the truth coming out. Social media specifically, I don’t know, because I don’t think people have productive conversations on social media. I feel like you hear what you want to hear, and you either ignore, or argue adamantly against what you don’t believe. So I don’t know how productive social media will be in that debate.
But will the truth come out? I think, there’s so much history we think we understand, but we only have a small piece of the narrative, we have what has been distilled down for easy consumption. I think we’ll only be able to access the truth when we as individuals put in the effort to find it, whether that be the people out there doing the research, or the people out there who are consuming that well-researched, thoughtful analysis, even if it challenges their current thinking.
I’m thinking of something specific like a book like Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe. The response to that is so amazing, so many people have read it and been thinking about it and have been willing to challenge the historical ideas that they have been presented.
But people have to do that though, if people are doing that, then hopefully we will get a better, fuller, closer understanding of the truth of what happened.
Are you working on anything new?
I am! I’m working on a new book coming out later this year with Affirm press. It’s called How To Be Australian. It is a memoir. I’m from Canada originally, so it’s about me coming to Australia and developing an Australian identity. I would describe it as a critical love-letter to Australia. It’s also about the transition between early adulthood to proper adulthood. For me, you turn eighteen, you get out of university and then adulthood sets in.
My Name Is Revenge is available here: https://shortaustralianstories.com.au/product/my-name-is-revenge-2/
About the interviewer: Samuel Elliott is a Sydney-based author that has been published in Antic, The Southerly, Compulsive Reader, MoviePilot, Writer’s Bloc, Vertigo, Good Reading, FilmInk, Veranadah, The Big Issue and The Independent. He is currently working on his novel series, ‘Milan Milton: Heiress’ in between completing a degree and working two jobs within the television industry. Find him at: http://www.facebook.com/samuelelliottauthor