Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
How to be Australian
An Outsider’s View on Life & Love Down Under
By Ashley Kalagian Blunt
ISBN: 9781925972801, Paperback, 288 pages, May 2020
I migrated to Australia some thirty-one years ago, and although it hasn’t always been easy, I’ve never thought of going back to live in the US. This year I was particularly grateful to be here. Like Ashley Kalagian Blunt, I have plenty of criticisms of the Australian government, from the treatment of refugees, to the way in which colonialisation and invasion have created a traumatic and ongoing legacy, but I also feel that this is the only place I now want to live. Don’t let the book’s name fool you: How to be Australian isn’t a primer for would-be migrants. There is no guide to how to pass the citizen’s test, tips on the right way to pronounce “G’day”, drink beer, or order coffee (actually there are tips for all of those things, but it’s not the point of the book). The bright, bold cover and large text makes it seem like a book you could devour on a Sunday afternoon, and indeed the prose is light, engaging, and easy to read, but How to be Australian wrestles with serious topics like depression and anxiety, homesickness, dislocation, and what it means to be in a long-term relationship amidst the strain of those things. While there is plenty of self-deprecation, Kalagian Blunt keeps a healthy perspective, referring often to her own privileged position and the choices she knows she has throughout the book.
How to be Australian opens with Kalagian Blunt walking four blocks through a blizzard in her hometown of Winnipeg. The writing is evocative and visceral – there can be no doubt as to the reasons one might want to migrate somewhere warmer:
The exposed strip of flesh on each of my cheeks burned. My toes ached. Every nerve in my body screamed at me to get out of the wind. Like rubbing vinegar into a paper cut, walking into minus 40-degree wind was a cruel mindfulness practice. My mind refused to let me be elsewhere; it figured I was about to die of hypothermia. (xii)
The book moves in a linear fashion as Kalagian Blunt arrives in Australia with her new husband on a one year student visa. The story unfolds in first person present, giving the book a sense of immediacy as the couple discovers the beauty of Sydney harbour, the horror of Sydney’s housing prices, Iced Vovos, giant roaches, giant statues, Vegemite scrolls, huntsmen spiders, Tall Poppy Syndrome, “how’re you going”, bin chickens, and discovering that just because you love something or someone doesn’t mean it won’t be hard. The scope of the book is always broad, allowing for multiple perspectives and interpretations. Kalagian Blunt is a likeable, trustworthy narrator, but she reveals her own confusions and discomfort around fitting in to the reader, so that we are drawn into the story as collaborator:
I lay awake, feeling homesick for a home I hadn’t yet found. A home I ws beginning to realise might not exist. (72)
Though the book pivots around the migrant experience, there are other stories happening in conjunction. One of those is the marriage. The couple are generally tender towards one another, but it’s clear that they are dancing between conflicting needs–around whether to go back to Winnipeg or become Australian citizens, about what is and isn’t an suitable emotional response or way to act in public, and even around what makes for a good sunscreen. Marriage is full of such incompatibilities, and the way in which the couple meet these in the wake of their arrival is an important thread in the book. Kalagian Blunt’s anxiety is another thread, as Kalagian Blunt worries that her husband is contemplating leaving her, the health impacts of drinking alcohol, or the subtleties of pronunciation and communication that allow one to fit in.
Kalagian’s Armenian heritage and her great-grandparents’ escape to Canada is the subject of another story that weaves its way into How to be Australian. The Armenian Genocide is paralleled with the Australian genocide, as well as the ongoing mistreatment of refugees. The clarity of Kalagian Blunt’s prose and the way in which she couches serious topics in slapstick style creates a powerful impact. Even in its darkest moments, there is always humour—a humour that is actually distinctively Australian in its irreverent, dry-pan wit, such as this description of Iced Vovos:
I had declined to try them, not because the pink-striped biscuits were covered in desiccated coconut, which looked like an elderly person’s pubic hair, but because the biscuits themselves looked unsettlingly like woman’s private parts, and the term ‘vovo’ didn’t help. (81)
How to be Australian is beautifully written and paced, with a strong narrative that ties together all of the threads into a broader theme about love, hope, transition, and emotional growth:
I’d come here hoping for a year of easygoing, beach-centric-happiness. I’d learned instead that wherever I was, I brought my internal turbulence with me. My struggles and my response to them, more than anything else, formed my true identity. My project of becoming Australian was as much about gaining that perspective as about feeing at home in a new culture. (246)
Like a Canadian Bill Bryson, Kalagian Blunt looks at distinctive Aussie ‘ways’ with the keen eye of an outsider, rendering those quirks in a way that is instantly recognisable. How to be Australian is a clever, humorous, and deep-seated exploration of Australia and what it means to try to integrate, while simultaneously maintaining a strong sense of self.