In Rome this month I was lucky enough to be hosted in three different locations to launch my book ‘The Disobedient Wife’: The Open Door Bookshop in Via Della Lungaretta 23 in Trastevere, The Anglo-American Bookstore on Via Della Vite near Piazza Spagna, and a friend’s house near the swanky Piazza Farnese, home to the French Embassy, in the Centro Storico. I thank all the bookshop owners and my friend for hosting me so beautifully – it was a joy to present my book in such wonderful locations.
As part of the presentation, I first showed a ten minute section of a film on Migration in Tajikistan by Al Jazeera’s documentary programme 101 East: ‘Tajikistan’s Missing Men’, which can be seen in full here. This film (the first ten minutes) gave my audience a good idea of the colours, sounds and sights of Tajikistan, as well as the issues facing less well off women since the fall of the USSR. These issues are discussed through the narratives of the Tajik character, Nargis, and her family and set in stark contract to the rights and privileges of the British diplomat’s wife, Harriet, in ‘The Disobedient Wife’.
During these events, I went to some lengths to explain that this book is about a friendship that forms between a poor, courageous local woman and her wealthy, lonely employer. The book is fiction: A collection of stories I heard when I lived in the country, embellished and adapted, and in other words, the product of my own imagination. In the book I do not cast judgement on tradition, religion or culture. I let the characters speak for themselves, as though the book were an anthropological oral history that I wrote down one day with a few people, drinking bowls of green tea on my tapshan.
Except, it was not like that at all.
Instead, the process of writing this novel was both painstaking and painful. Over four years, this book was rewritten multiple times, cut, edited, reworked and repackaged. Eventually, I lost sight of who or what was real and what wasn’t. No matter, as in the end, all I wanted was to write a great story that would open up the colour and contradictions of life in Tajikistan to readers of the world. Hopefully, that is what I managed to do.
I was also asked if this book represents the oppression of women by a particular religion, in this case, Islam. In answer, no, it does not. Women are oppressed by culture, not religion because culture dictates how religious words are interpreted. Culture dictates the habits that form over time, whether they be traditional or religious. The oppression of women is found in many different cultural religious traditions, just as cultural freedoms for women are found in those same religions.
I was asked how I felt able to write about a culture that was not my own. Was this not risky, opening myself up the impossibility of cultural relativism? I answered, no. My character is a Tajik and so yes, I write about her through the prism of Tajik culture, to some extent, but beyond that, she is a human being, with a personality and an individual set of experiences that have shaped her beliefs and character. The ‘tags’ of Tajik/Poor/Woman/Developing Country/Muslim (non-practicing) did not matter to me as a writer. My relationship with her went beyond the categories of ‘otherness’ imposed on her. She was her own voice, an imaginary friend who led me through the nooks and crannies of her story. She did not speak for all Tajiks, she spoke for herself, just as the British housewife does not speak for all expatriate women in Tajikistan, but only for herself. In the book I went to great efforts to make sure that the women did not become cliches of themselves, that they retained the character that was true to them as individuals. How they behaved and what actions they took was set at the start when I developed them as the author of their fate. I kept my own voice out of it and let them speak. Of course, we are talking about women who do not actually exist, though at times they both felt very real to me.
I believe that good creative writers should be able to write convincingly from the point of view of any person, whether male or female, rich or poor, from the East or from the West. That is my job as a writer. I will not bow to the navel-gazing crisis afflicting some anthropologists and restrict myself to writing about white, liberal, feminist, middle class, British women living in Italy just because that is what I happen to be. How dull! I would have to give up writing altogether were that the case, because I find myself rather boring.
At each presentation, I read the following excerpts (here are two of four):
From Harriet, the Expatriate’s Journal:
“in Tajikistan, you can no more choose your friends than you can choose your family. When I meet someone who understands, we cling to each other like twins in the womb. We have the same problems to deal with, day in, day out. All of us have husbands that accuse us of moaning. They don’t appreciate the effort it takes to fill our days, desperately walking the streets of grey, until we know every pot hole, every crack, aimlessly searching for something, something illusive that we never seem to find, I suppose, because it isn’t here. Veronica calls it ‘sehnsucht’. I looked it up; it is German for ‘the inconsolable longing of the human heart for something otherworldly and undefined’. That woman is not as stupid as she looks. I wonder if we are looking for our past selves, looking for the effortless fun we once had, when we knew who, and where, and what, we were.
I once inhabited a dynamic, glistening world of computers and shag pile. I reigned as Queen of my kingdom, exercising control over appointment diaries and the minutes of board room meetings of powerful men. Even the strip lights, grey winter rain and bottom pinching in the lift did not dampen my spirits, I strode to the tube in trainers and navy pinstripe at six and met girlfriends in Soho bars twelve hours later for flirtatious encounters with sexy, rugby-playing bankers from Harrow and Eton. I would wake up satiated, a little hung over, in their beds with views overlooking Canary Wharf, leaving a few moments later, warm with the knowledge that I would have a date that night if I wanted one. Often, I didn’t. I needed no one. Stopping for a bacon butty on the way back to my flat, buying the morning paper, reading the Sunday supplements in bed. It was not a very worthy life, but I had a niche and knew my way around it blindfolded.
As it is now, I fill in time and count days. My friends here in Tajkistan understand how an article in a magazine, a song or a sudden craving for an unavailable food can make me weep. They share the frustration of being a trailing wife trapped in a luxurious prison, the loneliness of the forsaken career, no one to converse with all day long but a silent journal or a sulky, resentful maid.
To outside eyes I know we look spoilt. The endless purchase of new curtains! The continuous packing and unwrapping, a mountain of cardboard boxes and brown tape for ten lifetimes, the paper cuts and a river of tears for broken heirlooms. The ceaseless newness of the expat wife’s curse; a life lived on the move. The upheaval of an existence in constant flux, painfully uprooted from all that we know and love, every two to three years.
Henri says I chose this when I married him. ‘Stop complaining, you are better off than ninety-nine percent of Tajiks,’ he tells me. That may be true. Yet, when we met I had only ever been to Ibiza and the Costa Brava. I thought diplomatic life sounded glamorous. What a joke.
And a section from the main body of the book, about Nargis, our main protagonist:
“Well, if Henri dared hit me I would leave him straight away,” she said. “I would go home to England with the kids and get divorced.” Nargis frowned and scrubbed the pot harder. Some do! She thought.
Emma shook her head.
“Aye but they can’t just leg it! A woman who tries to get divorced will be disowned or laughed outta court unless she’s got a nice, rich old man. It’s a total scandal to get divorced here, it’s ‘haram’ like, you know, shameful. Women without men to protect them get treated like whores because so many end up on the street. It’s hard to remarry and they lose their children to their fella’s family.”
Nargis nodded vigorously and forgetting herself, perched on a chair.
“They lose their children?” repeated Harriet. She looked astonished. Nargis’ scar started to sting. Emma smiled sadly.
“Straight up love. It gets worse.” Emma read again from her presentation. “‘Some women, usually second wives, are only married with the Nikoh, an Islamic marriage ceremony performed by a Mullah. They’re supposed to register the marriage officially, but they often don’t bother.’”
“But why do these women agree to become concubines?” asked Harriet, perplexed. Emma shrugged.
“Dunno. Loadsa reasons. Some are dozey but others are just out on their arses, sorry, I mean ‘poor’. They got no choice. Parents get a nice dowry for a virgin. Others are older, by that I mean older than twenty-five and scared of being bin-bagged, chucked out on their todd. Second wives have no legal rights whatsoever. If their fellas meet someone else though, it’s a doddle.” She read out loud: “There are many stories of men calling wives from Russia to tell them Talok three times over the phone. Afterwards, these men believe they are divorced under Islam, even though Islamic scholars have publicly spoken out against it.”
“Can you imagine, Nargis?” Harriet blurted.
“Yes. Is real. You foreigners don’t know…” Nargis reddened and sprang from the chair trembling. Her scar ached now. Emma’s eyes narrowed.
“What’s up Nargis, love? I hope I haven’t offended you like?”
“I had bad second husband. Parents made me marry him after Ahmed, my first husband die.” Nargis recalled the intense pressure she had felt not to be a burden. Gulya had been particularly vociferous.
“An only son with a nice home and good prospects, yet he is willing to marry a widow with two children! He could have anyone, but he wants you, you lucky girl. You won’t get better than that,” she whispered insistently. Numb with grief and unable to think straight, she had eventually succumbed. Tears came to Nargis’ eyes, dismissed in a blink.
“Did he deck yer?” Emma put a fist to her own face. Nargis nodded.
“Yes, he beat me and little boy and took baby, only nine week old. I had to live on street until parents forgive me.”
Emma touched her arm. Nargis’ cheeks burned.
“But I was never prostitute. Caravan of Faith, Americans people, help me with cleaning job to please their Jesus. Eventually milk for baby dry and husband went in Russia. Baby stays with Bibi… Grandmother.”
“Nargis, I honestly had no idea.” said Harriet. She was peering at her with an almost perverse curiosity, as though she had come to work naked. Nargis grimaced, embarrassed at her outburst. She had revealed too much and she hated herself for the scandalised pity in Harriet’s voice. She shook off Emma’s hand and backed out of the room.
“Sorry. Please forget what I say…”
“Nargis sweetheart, please don’t be embarrassed,” said Emma. “What you’ve been through is nothing to be ashamed of. In the U.K we’d call you a ‘Survivor’.”
Nargis baulked. Her eyes flashed.
“I have no shame. I proud.”
For all those who came to the ROME events to hear me, Harriet and Nargis speak, I thank you.
My next reading will be in GENEVA at Payot Rive Gauche (English Bookshop), in February 2016 (date TBA soon).