It was only after several years of studying the Armenian genocide, in an effort to write about my family’s history, that I learned about the terrorist groups. There were two – the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, and the Justice Commandos. They primarily targeted Turkish diplomats, committing over 200 assassination attempts and bombings around the world from the mid 1970s to the early 90s. Few history books, however, mention them.
After reading for so long about Armenians as victims, this handful of perpetrators leapt off the page, shocking me. Not because of the violence; since 2001, I’d grown accustomed to reading about terrorism. I was startled by something I’d never expected to feel: an intimacy with the terrorists. I couldn’t condone, or even empathise with, their methods. But I understood their motives, deeply and personally.
My great grandparents were survivors of the genocide. I learned their stories and those of other survivors alongside the broader history of xenophobia, cruelty and geopolitical callousness that fuelled both the genocide and its denial by the Turkish government. This ongoing injustice motivated me to write just as it had ASALA and the Justice Commandos to murder.
It was disquieting to see my own anger, grief and powerlessness reflected in the actions of terrorists. This discomfort diverted me from my effort to write about my family; it was the starting place for what would become my first published book, My Name Is Revenge.
I didn’t know that at the time, of course. I invested a lot of energy in trying to convince myself not to write about this topic. I had lots of writing ideas, many of which didn’t involve genocide at all. Why attempt the hardest one, the one that felt bound to fail?
If I was going to write my discomfort, I felt it had to be from the point of view of the terrorists. I believe understanding the reasons behind violent crime is essential to combatting it, and I had spent years studying the roots motivating these men. I wanted to recreate my sense of discomfort on the page – the immorality of the violence juxtaposed with the deep injustice of the genocide and the denial. I wanted readers to feel what I felt, and what I imagine these men must have felt, and then to go further, to imagine experiencing those feelings more intensely, to imagine have been raised to value aggression and vengeance.
To do that, I’d have to find a way into the mindset of people who believed that the way to resolve the trauma of violence was through further violence, and I’d need to do it both objectively and with empathy.
To some Armenians, even today, ASALA and the Justice Commandos aren’t terrorists. They’re justiciars, ‘administrators of justice’. I didn’t believe these men were justiciars. But I believed that they believed it, and I could understand why.
I was compelled to try to write this, but I didn’t have to show it to anyone, I reasoned. I could write it, fail miserably, and bin the draft. And even if I failed, it wouldn’t be a waste of time. As Stanford psychology professor Greg Walton said on The Knowledge Project podcast, ‘It’s when things are difficult that you are learning.’
Still, I kept putting it off. Here’s the truth – I was scared. Not of failing to write something publishable, not of the work being difficult. I was scared of what it would take to tackle politically motivated terrorism from a personal perspective.
My aim wasn’t to mitigate responsibility for the international attacks committed by Armenian terrorists, but to honestly acknowledge the trauma that underlies this violence. But what if I wrote something honest and heartfelt, and, in doing so, made it seem like I condoned these acts of violence? What if my empathy for the group’s motivations was conflated with approval of their methods? In the current climate of online public shaming, it felt especially risky to experiment, even in private.
I’d like to say I made a considered decision to take on the project because I saw its inherent value. I’d like to say I analysed my fears and reached inside myself and found a kernel of bravery or self-confidence or even just daring. I didn’t. Instead, I tried my hardest to shy away. But after the idea had nagged me for more than a year, I decided to try it out of exasperation. If I wrote the story and it didn’t work, I hoped my brain would stop obsessing about the idea. (If I’d known the project would become my first published book, trust me, I would have started it a lot sooner.)
I started researching the writing of violence to see how other authors have approached this challenge. Drawing on Norman Mailer, Andy Kissane suggests that writing from the point of view of the perpetrator is more likely to alienate readers, but this can be mitigated by providing insight into the motivations for the violence. Because motivation was at the heart of my project, this was encouraging.
My initial plan was to write from the POV of an unconflicted perpetrator like Armen, one of the two brothers in My Name Is Revenge. Armen came easily to the page, but when I tried to write my way into his perspective, I couldn’t relate to him. His thinking remained opaque to me, and so Vrezh stepped in to bridge the gap between my pacifist soul and his brother’s hardline militancy. Vrezh and Armen are both involved in the planning of the next Justice Commandos attack in Australia, but Vrezh is a ‘hesitant’ terrorist, a reluctant follower.
The word vrezh means revenge in Armenian, and some Armenian parents do name their children Vrezh. How would it feel to grow up with a name like Revenge, I wondered, to be raised to hate because your family had been the victims of hate? I struggled to write Vrezh too – like Armen, he’s wildly different from me. But I could empathise with him, and I hoped readers would too.
In the final version of my book the story is told solely from Vrezh’s point of view. In this way, I’ve followed in the tradition of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, using the ‘less-violent’ character as a narrator to contrast his ambivalent approach to violence with that of his brother. Vrezh’s narration, with all his doubts and hesitations, I believe, makes the story more palatable to readers.
It was only once I figured out Vrezh’s worldview that the story came together. By the end of that process, I felt confident that I was writing something worthwhile, that in no way condoned the violence it portrayed.
Now I see that I spent as many months trying to talk myself out of the story as I did actually writing it. In hindsight my fear was as much about taking on a project that felt so beyond my skillset as it was about writing terrorism.
Ashley Kalagian Blunt is a Sydney-based author. Her first book, My Name Is Revenge, was shortlisted for the 2019 Woollahra Digital Literary Award and was a finalist in the 2018 Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award. Her writing appears in Griffith Review, Sydney Review of Books, Westerly, the Australian, the Big Issue and Kill Your Darlings. Ashley is a Moth StorySLAM winner and has appeared at Story Club, the National Young Writers’ Festival, and Sydney Writers’ Festival.