Artist statement – on becoming a crime writer

A large paper with smaller bits of text pasted to it in random places, with scribbled writing, sitting on a desk

My first publication happened when I was seven, in the Young Saskatchewan Writers school district anthology. In my copy, a message from my grade one teacher reads, ‘Keep writing stories.’

In 2017, I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, and ended up mostly homebound and unable to participate meaningfully in my own life. I was grateful I’d developed a writing practice before I became ill.

Creative work gave me solace, even when I could only write or read for 15 minutes a day. Where the illness creates non-negotiable limits, creativity frees me. Along with author James McKenzie Watson, I co-host a podcast on writing, creativity and health to explore their interconnectedness.

Author signs copies of My Name Is Revenge

A century ago, my family were victims of the Armenian genocide, one of the greatest crimes in human history. My first book, My Name Is Revenge, interrogates its legacy. My second, How to Be Australian, explores the experience of fostering a new national identity in adulthood. The connection between these is mis-seeing, misunderstanding: feeling and being othered.

Living with chronic illness is likewise an experience of being mis-seen and misunderstood. As convenience-seeking creatures, we too often reduce life to simplistic narratives, slogans and bromides. We rarely tolerate nuance.

Books and writing enable us to go beyond surface understanding. The space reading provides for nuance is essential to addressing the complex issues we’re facing as a global society. Reading also allows us to better understand ourselves and others. It encourages careful seeing.

A stack of journals, a writing project

Crime fascinates me – who commits it, how it’s investigated, and what it tells us about our society. How much crime is happening on the internet on any given day? What drives some psychopaths to commit crimes, but not others? How do people end up in cults? What does QAnon reveal about our reality? Why are we so willing to sacrifice our privacy? What drives misogyny? Why do we, as a society, become hyper focused on some crimes, but not others? Why are we so interested in stopping certain crimes, but not others? How does trauma make people vulnerable to crime? Is the focus of our criminal justice system true justice, or retribution? How do we keep ourselves safe?

A small home office with desk, computer chair, fairy lights, and lots of books on shelves

During the first years of my chronic illness, I spent hundreds of hours in bed, listening to true crime podcasts. An exceptionally law-abiding person, I often have nightmares about being falsely imprisoned. I’m a prisoner to illness, but these dreams trace back farther, perhaps epigenetically, to the false accusations that led to the mass murders of my relatives. What gives others the audacity to warp their fictions into destructive and harmful realities? What could have led them to other choices?

I love it when a story immerses me in its world; I want to gift others with this experience. Yet criminals are storytellers too. Conspiracy theorists, cult leaders, con artists and scammers don’t just create stories, but live them. They craft a narrative with the hope of persuading others around them. And the internet provides a space for criminals to curate false identities and fake realities.

During the development of my artist statement

I harbour no fantasies about stepping outside the bounds of accepted behaviour: I want to unscrew the skulls of people who do, to examine their inner workings, to know why. Crime narratives are often overly simplistic. ‘Evil’ people commit inhumane acts, and ‘justice’ is often their death or permanent incarceration. This ignores the fraught complexity of our world and our responsibility to acknowledge our societal complicity.

I want to push the limits of crime fiction, and dig into the muddy, nuanced reality of crime, from ransomware to murder to genocide.

Dark Mode cover by Ashley Kalagian Blunt, a black cover with a plant motif featuring dahlias, black bat plants and voodoo lilies

Note: I developed this artist statement in a workshop with Sarah Sentilles. The experience gave me invaluable insight into my artistic practice. Sarah’s expert guidance helped me to clearly articulate my processes and approaches, first and most importantly for myself. I highly recommend her workshop for any artist, including fellow writers.

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