Truth. History. Genocide.
As an authority figure in Ashley Kalagian Blunt’s My Name is Revenge says, we know how “contentious various narratives can be.” These are the words of a principal to a student, young Vrezh, expelled soon after.
Vrezh’s misdeed? He tried to bring to the attention of the school faculty events relating to the Armenian genocide, in which the Ottoman government murdered over one million Armenians. Systematic torture, rape and violence sought to eradicate the Armenian people, and in his telling of the history his grandparents survived, Vrezh experiences “proof that justice, if as rare as snow in Sydney, did exist.” It is a short-lived victory – and yet a powerful and pivotal moment of defiance, one on which future decisions hinge.
My Name is Revenge is Vrezh’s story years later. Now a man contending with the isolation and displacement often experienced by subsequent-generation migrants, Vrezh is drawn into a planned attack on those considered culpable for the continued denial of the genocide. In an accompanying essay, a feat of writing in itself, the author reveals her struggle with Vrezh’s chosen course of action. The nuanced depiction of his family life, and the continuing impact of his people’s diaspora, makes Vrezh a multi-layered and compelling protagonist.
Perhaps because of its format, My Name is Revenge reads as a ‘masculine’ book, heavily involved in the stories of men, while women’s narratives are secondary. It would be meaningful to read about women’s experiences in the genocide, but again, a novella cannot be all things at once.
The Armenian diaspora, as Kalagian Blunt describes, is often a double displacement. For Vrezh’s family, it is difficult to imagine a country more distant from their homeland. Vrezh imagines his family’s return to that sacrosanct soil, and the reunion of all his extended relatives, spread across the earth. Partly to blame, of course, is the pervasive USSR, having absorbed what remained of Armenia into itself.
Vrezh found himself in a classroom full of red-headed Rebeccas and sandy-haired Jasons. In their mouths, Vrezh became Reg.
Vrezh’s perspective is uncannily identifiable. I doubt there are any migrant kids who haven’t faced some form of ridicule in the process of their ‘assimilation’ into Australian culture. Also eerily reminiscent: Vrezh’s struggle to complete a family tree as part of an assignment, with so many relatives unaccounted for and unlikely ever to be recovered in person or records.
My Name is Revenge is a crime novella, one infused with unexpected depth and meaning. The story could easy have been a full-length novel, one in which Vrezh vies with the duelling forces in his life and the seeming futility of searching for justice. It is an unanswerable question many have to find peace with: how can a single person hope to reshape an accepted history? And yet to deny suffering, to move past atrocity as belonging to the past, only fuels that sense of injustice over generations. Currently, Australia does not officially recognise the Armenian genocide, though the EU has. Turkey remains firm with its policy of denial, despite increasing calls for acknowledgement from within the country.
Best known for her comedic work – though I believe comedy operates best seated in tragedy – Ashley Kalagian Blunt’s accomplished My Name is Revenge is a gritty story of justice denied and how it reverberates in the lives of migrant families.
Image: Syria – Aleppo – Armenian woman kneeling beside dead child in field “within sight of help and safety at Aleppo”, circa 1915-1919