Book Conscious Review: The Disobedient Wife by Annika Milisic-Stanley

Review by Bookconscious Deb Baker of The Disobedient Wife

bookconscious

The digital world is smaller than the physical. Annika Milisic-Stanley contacted me via Twitter in December, to let me know about her new novel The Disobedient Wife. I don’t usually pursue unsolicited author enquiries, but it turned out we had Cinnamon Press in common. I’ve long admired the work of Jan Fortune and her family, who run this very fine small press in Wales and bring interesting books to the world, and my poetry has appeared in Envoi a few times. So when Jan got in touch with a review copy, I trusted this was going to be a good read.

And it was. I’ve never read a book set in Tajikistan and I’ll bet most of you haven’t either. Milisic-Stanley is a terrific writer, and she brings the beautiful and the bleak alive in equal measure, as in the opening line of the novel, “In the early hours…

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Displaced Dispatch – Best Expat Fiction 2015

Displaced Dispatch – Best Expat Fiction 2015

Just saw this – 6 weeks on… drum roll….

My novel, ‘The Disobedient Wife’ (Cinnamon Press) made the list by THE DISPLACED DISPATCH for BEST EXPAT FICTION 2015!

The Displaced Dispatch is a weekly online magazine dedicated to the ‘expat creative’ or international, people who are global residents, moving frequently and working in a creative pursuit, whether it be fine art, literature, film, food, business or theatre.

Please go to their link here to see the whole list.

Book Review: The Fine Times Recorder

Book Review: The Fine Times Recorder

This week I received a very fine review on ‘The Disobedient Wife’ by the editor of The Fine Times Recorder, an online website on Arts and Culture in the South West UK.

She starts the review as follows:

‘THE “Stans” are mysterious and unknowable, strange lands of ancient cities with slender minarets, vast windswept plains, snow-topped impregnable mountain ranges and people who trace their lineage back to Genghis Khan and his golden horde.

That’s the romantic image – Marco Polo, the Silk Road, dramatic looking people hunting with eagles across the steppes of central Asia.

The reality in the 21st century is, of course, very different. Decades of dominance by the USSR and the inexorable Soviet machine that sought to eradicate cultural differences, turned the “stans” into poor satellites, dumping grounds for all the things that Mother Russia wanted to forget about.’

The Disobedient Wife is a compelling read, and a masterful first novel – as well as the first novel about modern post-Soviet Tajikistan.’

To read further, please go to the link below:

The Disobedient Wife – a window on an unknown land

The Disobedient Wife was published in November 2015 by The Cinnamon Press, UK. It won their First Book Award 2014.

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Book Cover

 

This Week in Writing: Gatecrashing Book Clubbers, #BookConnectors, Literary Critters Get Even, and a ‘Surprising’ Review by an Irish Aussie

This Week in Writing: Gatecrashing Book Clubbers, #BookConnectors, Literary Critters Get Even, and a ‘Surprising’ Review by an Irish Aussie

A Writer’s Diary of the Week…

So, firstly, I had a very good lunch (avocado salad, fish pie, pudding and far too much bubbly Prosecco) with a lovely book club made up of expatriate women living here, in Rome. They hailed from Iceland, Switzerland, Holland, South Africa, the UK, Egypt and Australia.  They read the book in their December holidays, some while skiing, others on the beaches of the South, one in her car, hiding from the family duties of Christmas.

All enjoyed it, luckily, and I experienced a very hazy, surreal, out-of-body experience of eight women all talking at once about the characters in the book as though they lived and breathed.  An argument over who was the most evil; a discussion as to whether a character killed herself or was murdered – it is true – I left it open, though in fact, that was no deliberate act of subterfuge.  I realized, I knew what happened and that was all that mattered when I was writing it.  I was humbled, blushing when they asked,

“So, Annika, do you have any questions for your readers?”

In my fog of egocentricity and gatecrasher’s nerves, it never occurred to me that they might want to be interviewed as to their opinion.  I rummaged through my prosecco-addled brain, searching for a decent question.  Nothing.

“Well, not really,” I blurted.

Oh, the arrogance of the debut author.  I apologize; put it down to naivete.

***

This week, I managed to join a very useful facebook page called Book Connectors, recommended to me by Pam Reader, a prolific book blogger. Authors ask good questions and can post information about upcoming events, bloggers post reviews, and the community seems to be a friendly and helpful one, especially for British writers.

***

I joined an online literary critique forum.  I was not expecting much to be honest, as it is free and very basic in terms of the web design (an uninspiring grey with white font), and format (‘cheap as chips’).  In the absence of my fantastic Editor-on-Tap (she is fighting a valiant battle with cancer), it turned out to be surprisingly useful.  ‘Credits’ are earned by critiquing other writers, which you can then ‘spend’ by uploading your own offerings.  I uploaded the prologue and half the first chapter of my new novel (draft 2, at least, with much fiddling and rewording).

Then I waited, biting my nails.

The ‘critters’, as they call themselves, did not hold back:

“I don’t like starting critiques on the negative, but there’s no way to avoid this: your opening sentence is tell—tell that is flat, written in passive voice, and unimaginative.”

Oh dear.  I laughed out loud, he was right.  He was getting even too – I recognized his ‘name’ –  I’d ‘critted’ a chapter of his book the day before, asking him to work harder on characterization.  I don’t think that writers should make it their religion not to use passive to be verbs, sometimes you need to… but…  I conceded the point.  I got praise for my pretty use of language.  Within an afternoon, I spring-cleaned the upload, replacing passive she/he had/ was into fresh, immediate dialogue.  Much improved, I look forward to the critter’s responses to the next two uploads.  I expect a serious dressing down, though I tried hard this time .  As the author, it is hard to catch mistakes – hence the need for great editing.

Lastly, I received a review from Writerful Books, an Australian publishing house based in Melbourne.  It can be found here: Writerful Books Review

Writerful-Logo

I loved that the reviewer was honest enough to open the review with:

“This was a surprisingly good read.”

I don’t know what initially put him off – the pinkish lettering of the title font, perhaps?  The little Tajik woman in the corner of the cover?  I grinned, imagining his sighs as he opened it and settled down to read.  Did he start the book in trepidation, thinking himself sentenced to review a new sub-genre of Central-Asian Chick Lit?

It was a lovely review, take a look! 🙂

All in all, a very good start to Writing in 2016.

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Rome Book Presentations: Some reflections

Rome Book Presentations: Some reflections

AA Launch6In 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 12027681_755103064612623_4944654579695399856_nminutes) 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.

AA launch8I 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.
Open door readingAs 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:

Harriet snorted.
“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.
“Is true.”
“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.”
ReadingHarriet gasped.
“My God!”
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).

Aa signing

A Note on Tajik Nature

Oil painting copyright Annika Milisic-Stanley
Winter Daffodils copyright Annika Milisic-Stanley

I nearly called the book ‘A Tale of Tajik Flowers’ and named several drafts with this title.  Yes, ‘The Disobedient Wife’ is a much better title and I am glad I changed it.  But why flowers?

When I lived in Tajikistan I was delighted to notice that many women’s names are also the names of flowers.  My landlord was an elderly civil engineer, as fond of Soviet era machinery as he was of roses.  He insisted that Tajikistan was where the rose – Sad Bagh originated.  In my garden, I was lucky enough to enjoy the garden he had lovingly planted.  Cultivated to bloom from May to November, we had climbers and ornamental, sweet scented roses.  I dried their petals and put them in bowls.  On weekends, and when it was warm enough out, I reclined on a tea platform (Tapshan), shaded by hundreds of delicate pink and red climbing roses.  We had purple lilac trees, daffodils and tulips as well as fruit and nut trees and vines that gave us fruit almost all year round (quince, plum, cherries (3 types), apples, pear, grapes, walnuts, pomegranate, fig, mulberries, strawberries). We even had one tree that gave us half sour cherries and half sweet.  The variegated irises were a sight to behold each May, deep burgundy, indigo and yellow, growing on half shaded bank above the ditches that ran around the lawn.  There was a cracked greenhouse without a roof where I grew Italian and purple basil that grew to two metres, yellow tomatoes and rows of lettuce and rocket.

We had guards who asked me for use of land in return for digging and watering, of course I readily agreed.  One of them, a burly, friendly man, accompanied me three days in a row to help me lift rocks from the riverbed into the boot of my car.  They were pink, green, purple and white, smoothed down by the rushing water, like huge marbles.  I used them to line borders and made a rocky mosaic around huge clumps of day lilies and michelmas daisies.  My predecessor had planted long lines of daffodils and laid new lawns with dutch grass seed for her pony.  I brought tulips to Dushanbe in a suitcase when I saw a magnificent display in one of the guesthouses popular with World Bank consultants one spring.

The city of Dushanbe is not a place where one finds great natural beauty, aside from the tall sycamore trees that line old Soviet avenues.  The buildings are mostly Soviet-era, decrepit and ugly.  The pavements are grey and cracked, lined with ditches that run with grey mud and dancing refuse.  The winters are grey and the winds bite, the only flash of colour; the orange fruit of the persimmon tree.  The harshness of the winter months is why Tajiks welcome spring with such joy.  They celebrate with the ancient Zoroastrian festival Nav Ruz.  Green shoots of wheat are made into a soup, cherry trees blossom and glittering, mono-browed brides go out with their dark-suited boys with slicked back hair.  Live bands play in the park.

As I learned the Tajik language, I found it sweet that so many girls are named after the most beautiful aspect of Central Asian nature, the flowers.

Summer Vase Copyright Annika Milisic-Stanley
Summer Vase Copyright Annika Milisic-Stanley