White Saviour Complex and Writings on Africa

White Saviour Complex and Writings on Africa

An Existential Crisis… at 4am Italian time.

I have nearly finished my second fictional novel, set in Rwanda and Kenya, with chapters in the UK, France and Italy. And now, I am not sure what the feck to do with it.

Everything I read lately suggests that no matter what I write, IF I AM NOT AFRICAN, I AM NOT PERMITTED (by the global liberal public at large) TO WRITE ABOUT AFRICANS.  I put this in Caps Lock to emphasize my frustration and, frankly, my white-knuckled fear of the backlash potentially heading in my direction.

First, I find myself faced with a myriad of potential obstacles over ‘marketability’, and now this; a literary mess of White Saviour-dom to muddy the waters for everyone.  Tsk!  The hashtag #LintonLies is a scathing twitter response from outraged Zambians to a feature in The Telegraph on July 1st, 2016; a new ‘GAP year’ memoir.  Ms Linton is accused of lying (she worked at a fishing lodge on Lake Tanganika in 1999, aged 18, a ‘skinny white muzungu with long angel hair‘).  Rather than memoir, some claim it is ‘warped fiction‘.  She describes hiding in ‘jungle‘ (the environment there is savannah), and fearsome, near-death encounters with Congolese soldiers (Zambia has never faced aggressive military incursions from Congo according to people who live and work there).  What really incenses Zambians though, is her ‘White Saviour Complex‘: her friendship with a little orphan girl ‘who found no greater joy than to sit on her knee and drink coca-cola‘ (sic).

While I understand the infuriation, my heart sank, knowing this can hurt all non-African writers interested in Africa.  Linked (perhaps unfairly, by a Huff Post blog post on the memoir), reading Granta Magazine’s tongue-in-cheek essay by Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainaina; ‘How to Write about Africa’, the resentment of some African writers at the White portrayal of Africans and Africa in literature seems stronger than ever.  Running through his list of ‘taboo’ subjects and cliches, I can almost see sarcasm dripping off my laptop, with good reason.  Happily, I appear to have adhered to all his ‘taboos’ 😉

Now, I would like to state that my book is NOT about a White person ‘saving‘ an African.  It is about a strong, educated 17-year old of strong faith, from a middle-class background.  She comes of age, against the odds, as a lone refugee in Kenya.  She does receive help from (and she helps and supports) friends who happen to be Mixed-Race and Black AND White, and she maintains a strong sense of her own agency throughout.  I contrast her life with that of another girl growing up on a rough Marseilles housing estate, demonstrating that daily life in Europe is certainly not (for some) all it is cracked up to be.  Later, my heroine marries an Italian, facing the challenge as an Italian citizen of colour with panache.  Unlike the aforementioned Memoir author, I tried hard to move beyond Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘single story’, but the reality of life for refugees in Kenya does emerge… I cannot pretend that in 1994-1997, the refugee camps in Kenyan deserts didn’t exist, or that they were lovely places to live, run by uncorrupted altruists.  I cannot pretend that refugees were housed in clean accommodation in Nairobi with running water, electricity and toilets.  Adichie too, writes of war, corruption, poverty and servants.

So… yes.  I reference a little of the book (set from 1994-2004), on a distant experience as a white expat in Kenya to imagine the fictional world of a young Rwandan woman, 20 years ago, though mostly, I use research and imaginary voice.  I do not know if that will work for my readers, African or not.  Obviously I need fiction reviewers who remember life 20 years ago in Kenya and Rwanda to rip my book to shreds when they find something in a voice that does not ring true, before it gets into print.  A painful, but essential part of the process.

 

Incidentally, do ‘African writers’ (a silly term for people from 50 countries with 2000 languages, as Taiye Selasi pointed out,) face the same problems/ criticisms when writing memoir or fiction about ‘Other’ continents?  Do they feel boxed in by their origins, as I do tonight?  I don’t want to make assumptions either way.

A writer, Damyanti Biswas, blogged on ‘voice‘, answering many of the queries raised recently by “The Linton Affair”.  In a response to a Black American author, she wrote: ‘Should the truth of your condition be limited to the fact that you’re Black, or also and equally, that you’re human, that you’re a living, sentient being?’  As a writer, I ask this question of myself all the time, rejecting the real-life categories I am assigned in life.

Lastly, I wonder sometimes whether Western publishers will still want to take a chance on a fictional novel half set in Africa that isn’t written by an African.  I guess I can only wait and see, or throw away 2 years of work and start afresh on politically safe turf this side of the Mediterranean.  The thing is, my wonderful, fictional heroine won’t let me do it.  I have given her a voice, and she won’t be quietened.

Thanks for reading.

My debut novel, ‘The Disobedient Wife’ won the Cinnamon Press Book Award in 2014, and was published in 2015.  A compelling tale of love and loss, it is set in Tajikistan.  For online reviews and info, click here

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Lamentations on Book Promotion by a debut author… and #Bookreview #RBRT THE DISOBEDIENT WIFE by @MilisicStanley #Tajikistan #TuesdayBookBlog

Lamentations on Book Promotion by a debut author… and #Bookreview #RBRT THE DISOBEDIENT WIFE by @MilisicStanley #Tajikistan #TuesdayBookBlog

A fabulous review for my new novel!

This comes at a good time, when my writing is struggling. I published my debut in November 2015 after winning a literary competition for unpublished novelists with Cinnamon Press. I will be forever grateful to their judge, who picked my book out from thousands of others.

Since then, it has not been easy to find reviewers, or promote the book, even though the disobedient_cover draft 6 reviewers who do read it have all given me wonderful 4 and 5 star reviews, comparing the book to a bestseller, and doing their best to spread the word on social media.

It is a tough market out there though.  The book industry is heavily influenced by the big presses and their entourage of journalists, literary critics and media culture vultures.  It is heavily London-centric, a problem for someone writing in English but living in Italy. Having spent most of my adult life in developing countries, I have no contacts, and know no one.

Many yearly debut novel competitions require the publisher to pay a large fee – there are ‘book clubs’ and others placing books in prominent position in high street chains and supermarkets that ask upwards of £50,000 to submit books.  My publisher is a small, independent press, funded by the Arts Council and certainly has no spare funding for this.

The industry is biassed towards the marketable, the commercial genre fiction books, 2016-05-26-PHOTO-00000011especially crime and romance and chick lit, the funny, light reading stories written for women relaxing after a long day at work, or lying on a beach bed in Ibiza.  There is nothing wrong with that, I understand that everyone needs to make money – this is not about art, this is business. Still, it is a bitter pill to swallow when I realize I have spent the past 6 months using up my scarce, valuable writing time as a mother of three on the funny art of self-promotion when I should be writing my second, third and fourth books.  And barely  1000 books have sold since November.

Luckily I do not live on the income my writing, as after hosting 10 promotional events, I doubt I even broke even.  It was never about the money anyway. I do wish though, that little books like mine had greater prominence on book shop tables. I do wish that I could rely on more than word of mouth and well intentioned friends to promote my book.  I am writing my second novel, sick in the knowledge that soon, the merry-go-round of letter-rejection-letter-rejection is to begin again.

And so here we are.  One of my most generous reviewers, Rosie Amber and her Book Review Team have published a wonderful review of The Disobedient Wife, for which I am truly grateful.

Today’s team review is from Georgia, she blogs at Georgia has been reading The Disobedient Wife by Annika Milisic-Stanley #Bookreview for The Disobedient Wife by Annika Milisic-Stanley @Milis…

Source: #Bookreview #RBRT THE DISOBEDIENT WIFE by @MilisicStanley #Tajikistan #TuesdayBookBlog

Apanthropinization: A New Word

Apanthropinization: A New Word

Today I learned a lovely new word.

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With the events of this past week: The Orlando mass shooting, the lovely Minister of Parliament (human rights defender and mother of two) shot dead in a small town in Yorkshire, I feel more and more like apanthropinzing. Retreating into the garden to gaze at my dahlias and sniff the roses.

Of course, with a husband in humanitarian work, and with my volunteering with refugees this just is not possible. We have to face reality, and try to make the world a better place in any minute way that we can. disobedient_cover draft 6

This week I finished the third draft of my latest book, ‘The Girl with the White Suitcase’ (or ‘The Virgin’s Daughter’, I cannot decide: Which do you think is the better title?).  It does not hide from the ugly truth of the world, but it has an uplifting, ultimately heart-warming ending, full of hope.

As with my first novel ‘The Disobedient Wife’, I write to explore the issues that interest me, though they may be dark, and somewhat hard-hitting. I cannot apanthropinize with my own books, and I refuse to join the reams of authors who do.

Have a great week! 🙂

Biography:

Annika Milisic-Stanley was born in 1975 in the USA to Swedish and Anglo-German parents, but grew up in Britain. After graduating from the School of Oriental and African Studies, she worked with humanitarian projects in Nepal, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, India, Burundi and Egypt as well as living in Tajikistan for several years. Annika now lives in Rome. In addition to writing and painting, she works as a campaigner to raise awareness on the plight of refugees in Southern Europe.

Facebook: www.facebook.com/MilisicStanley

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/26256488-the-disobedient-wife?ac=1&from_search=true

Twitter: @MilisicStanley

Blog: www.thedisobedientauthor.com

Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Disobedient-Wife-Annika-Milisic-Stanley/dp/1909077828/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1466078696&sr=1-1&keywords=the+disobedient+wife

Amazon Kindle/ USA: https://www.amazon.com/Disobedient-Wife-Annika-Milisic-Stanley/dp/1909077828/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1466078749&sr=8-1&keywords=The+Disobedient+Wife

Musings on another amazing book review…

Musings on another amazing book review…

…this time, because this reviewer, the author Georgia Rose, refers to my use of language, a true compliment for someone like me, someone who spends hours on every sentence, perfecting each passage in each chapter.  And then waking up to do it all again. Over and over and over.

Book reviews from the blogger world motivate, inspire and comfort in equal measure. They are given willingly, without prejudice or payment, like hand-wrapped parcels from perfect strangers, popping through the cyber letterbox.  This one tasted all the more sweet because it happened to arrive on my Birthday.

And what better compliment than to read, “I never wanted it to end…”?

http://www.georgiarosebooks.com/bookreview-for-the-disobedient-wife-by-annika-milisic-stanley-milisicstanley-rbrt-tajikistan/#comment-5407

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Book signing in Trieste: Cafe San Marco

Book signing in Trieste: Cafe San Marco

This week I was lucky enough to be invitedIMG_1270 by the International Welcome Club of Trieste Region (IWCTR) to come and give a talk on my book, ‘The Disobedient Wife’.

The venue chosen, Cafe San Marco, is popular with Trieste readers and writers alike, with several literary events (as well as others, such as wine tasting), held every week. It is located in via Battisti 18. Founded in 1914, it became famous as a rendezvous for intellectuals and writers including Italo Svevo, James Joyce and Umberto Saba, a tradition that continues to date with Claudio Magris. A meeting point for Trieste’s irredentists, the café was destroyed by Austro-Hungarian troops during the first World War but was reopened when hostilities ended.  Brass-coloured leaf motifs cover the ceiling and circular pictures of thespians and jesters adorn the walls like portholes looking into a different era.

One side of the cafe is for coffee drinkers, the other for books.  Towards the back of the cafe there is a delightful space for presentations, and this is where our group met.IMG_1266

Around eighteen people came, some of whom struggled with the English, but who valiantly stayed to listen to the end. Others were British like myself, or long term expatriates from other countries living in Trieste, interested in hearing a talk about a little-known part of Central Asia.  As usual, I showed my film, and explained the socio-political and economic situation in Tajikistan in the present day.

‘The Disobedient Wife’ is literary fiction rather than biography or travelogue, but it inspires discussion about traditional culture, religion and the fall of the USSR wherever I take it.

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It was interesting to hear parallels drawn between the onset of fascism in Italy (and therefore, education for women frowned upon), and the situation in Tajikistan today with tradition overtaking the ‘Soviet’ ideal of egalitarianism between the sexes. As usual, I took away as many observations and knowledge for myself as I gave to others.

All in all, a great book talk. Thanks to IWCTR.

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The Beauty of the Book Club (for this Author)

The Beauty of the Book Club (for this Author)

In November 2015, Cinnamon Press published my debut, The Disobedient Wife, winner of their First Book Award 2014.  I am a long-term expatriate, moving every 2-4 years.

My public outings at book shops and cultural venues to launch the novel are terrifying, thrilling joy rides.  I prepare myself for the public onslaught.  I thicken my skin to handle rejection or negative criticism, whether on the subject matter of the novel or on the quality of the writing.  I suffer sleeplessness, worrying about the typo that escaped the beady eye of my editor;  the story itself – is it strong enough to withstand the storm of a fussy readership?  I can only compare this anxiety to my feelings when I exhibited paintings for Dorset Arts Week in 2012.  Hauling my mother into the studio, as I could not bear watching art lovers examine the minutiae of each canvas in critical contemplation.

Luckily, my fears are unfounded. The book has been well received, with good reviews by bloggers and magazines.  I am, as it turns out, my own worst critic.

Another venue for discussion on my novel is the eponymous ‘Book Club‘.  Intimate gatherings of educated, intelligent (mostly) women with an interest in literature.  They come together to eat, drink and tear apart a novel.  Book clubs are diverse and complex in terms of age, cultural background and education/ professional sphere.  At the last one, I met a jolly nun, before that, an Icelandic artist.

I have been hosted at several here in Italy, as well as holding a few on Skype with overseas clubs, where fortuitously, most members are themselves long-term expatriates.  They relate to the confusion and loneliness of one of the main characters, Harriet, and tell me, ‘I know women just like her/ her friends’.  Some even go far as to say, ‘I recognize the conversations in the book, they are my own.’  Equally though, I meet British and Italians, non-expats, who relate to her loss of self, her former identity clashing with marital/ societal pressure to conform to the new environment.  I meet Western women who prefer to relate to the Tajik character Nargis, crossing the cultural divide to form a virtual relationship with her based on admiration and respect.

They know what it is to move with a husband, searching for meaning anew every few years.  The familiar sense of invisibility brought on by the question; ‘What does your guammaphusband do?’  I gain new insights at these meetings, as literature directs the conversation into deeper topics than at a typical social gathering.  For example, one reader compares the setting of Dushanbe to Guam, where she once lived.  Guam is an island housing thousands of women and children on an American airbase.  The locals live off base in comparative poverty, serving as maids and nannies to dissatisfied, lonely women left for long periods on a ‘small rock’ in the middle of the Northwestern Pacific Ocean.  Most book clubbers appreciate the main premise of the book, that Harriet will not find true happiness or satisfaction so long as she cuts herself off from the culture and the people she lives with.

In these book club meetings, Harriet is often used as a verb: ‘I have been ‘Harrietted’/ She gets ‘Harrietted’ quite often’ or as a noun: ‘There are plenty of Harriets in Singapore’.  This delights me.  Most wonderful of all, I sit through lively arguments between book club members as to what Harriet or Nargis should/ would do in a given situation, or how they felt at a certain moment.  I have the surreal, delicious sense that the characters live as real people in lively, intelligent minds, as though we are discussing long-lost relatives at a family reunion.  This is confirmation that I did my job; the figments of my imagination live on, past the confines of the page.  I answer questions about the characters beyond the finish line; what happens to Nargis and Harriet next.  Often, someone brings up the good looking driver, or debates who exactly is the real villain of the piece.

We usually discuss traditional culture as opposed to generalizing about religion.  I go to great pains to point out that the book is not about ALL women in Tajikistan, nor ALL expats.  It is fiction, after all, not a sociological report.  We see the point of view of Nargis and Harriet, but do not go beyond them into the political realm.  Of course educated, wealthy women in Tajikistan experience better lives than Nargis, with more opportunities and less barriers to progress.  Class and tradition hold back the poor and unfortunate, with socio-economic hardship and male migration compounding their impact on women.  Nargis has also to deal with a blighted reputation and an abusive, immoral ex-husband.  This leads to the juxtaposition created by the character Patty, a frustrated, hard-line Republican American who believes that ‘the poor deserve to be poor because they do nothing to better themselves’.  We discuss the belief that life for women like Nargis may have been better during the Soviet Union.  I especially enjoy talking about this with readers who remember the Cold War era.

In conclusion, I love being invited to book clubs, feeling in them a sense of my own responsibility as an author.  The positive energy generated in these book club meetings justify the years spent poring over a manuscript to check continuity in story-line, plot and character.  The re-writing and re-reading that became so tedious as to bring on physical nausea.

Literary fiction is a powerful tool, a subliminal way to raise awareness without lecturing.  I am glad to provide readers a new place for fiction, a young Republic with an ancient history and culture, a fascinating country, cut off from the outside world both during Soviet times and since independence.  A place where until recently, writers could not function freely, held under the lens of political dictatorship (from 2011-2013, social media took off in Tajikistan, but even those in the diaspora remain cautiously optimistic).  This, in large part, is why I wrote the book.  Mostly though, as an avid reader myself, I wrote the book to entertain people with a good story.  As an guest author, I enjoy book club meetings because they confirm that I managed to do both.

And let us not forget the crispy tacos served with spicy guacamole and a frozen margarita…

For more information on the book below, please visit: www.facebook.com/MilisicStanley.  It is available at Waterstones, Foyles, amazon (.com, .co.uk, .it, .ca, .ru) , bookdepository.com and wordery.com as well as at independent bookstores by order.

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Dear Expats: You CAN make friends for life

Dear Expats: You CAN make friends for life

A month ago, I traveled to Geneva for a book signing and presentation of ‘The Disobedient Wife’, my debut novel published with Cinnamon Press.  Held at Payot Genève Rive Gauche, a fancy four-floor building in the heart of the shopping/ commercial district in Geneva, it is a stone’s throw from the famous geyser in Lac Leman.  It crouched at the foot of Geneva’s old town, trolleybus tracks snaking their way in parallel to the contour of the lake.Geneva Payot Poster  It was great to meet new people, readers and fellow writers, people who worked and lived in Tajikistan, a Tajik, Azeri and an Afghan and their friends, spouses and colleagues.  Mainly though, the reason for my joy found meaning in the presence of genuine, loving friends, each representing different phases of my expatriate existence.

Expatriate life can be viewed through the prism of a novel in draft form, a work of art in progress.  One lives in episodes, or phases, with each posting or country;  a new, challenging, exciting chapter to be lived each day, in each moment in time.  The richness of the lifestyle is colored by the culture; the tastes, sounds and smells of each place.  That does not mean to say that when I move, I leave nothing of myself behind.  I know expatriates who seem to manage this, moving forward to furrow an endless track through time without looking back, without regrets.  I have come across these.  They make great friends as props in a scene, or extra guests at a party.  Lousy in the long-term, they shield their hearts from the pain of separation, choosing self-defense over love and friendship.

I am not one of those.  Even as I try to thrive on the movement (workplace, social circle and the material possessions of home,) my heart breaks with each move.  Most of the time when I leave a country, I feel as though my soul will tear into two, the old friends sadly abandoned even as I feel a familiar, happy excitement for the new experience ahead.  Tears are shed and leaving parties held, but I hold on to hope that some day, somewhere, we will meet again.

An unexpected bonus of publishing a novel has been exactly this.  I reunite with friends and go for sushi with five strangers to each other from five chapters of my life.

The first:  A friend – one of my oldest and dearest – my room-mate at school.  I count boarding school as my first early expatriate experience, living in a strange land far from everything that spelled home.  She stayed by my side for five years and together, we battled the joys and despair of puberty.  She came to visit my university and supported me as a bridesmaid at my wedding.  We ran together to breakfast in long overcoats to hide our pyjamas.  We ate toasted teacakes and drank coke floats in Tanners Cafe.  We sat in long detention on Friday nights, scribbling passages from Pilgrim’s Progress, caught with vodka and orange squash in our second year.  She is still staunchly loyal and kind, my comforting pal, ever since easing the homesickness I suffered in my first weeks away.

A Croatian friend:  We met in Kenya in 1998, a few weeks after I met my life partner, also her friend.  She attended our wedding, patiently translating the entire ceremony for my elderly father-in-law who couldn’t speak English.  Her kitchen, sweetly scented with bunches of roses hanging upside down from the ceiling.  She lives in Geneva, bringing up children whilst holding down a career as a psychologist for the traumatized and mentally unwell.

An Italian friend:  From life in Burundi, she is an incredible cook with a beautiful eye for interior design, a huge empathy for the downtrodden, abused women of this world, with a penchant for salt in the swimming pool to save her tan and… breeding puppies.  She gave me two dogs, Vuk and Crni, my faithful hounds in Burundi and Kenya.  She still has their mother, an old lady now, living with her in Geneva.

A Somali friend:   He happened to be on mission to Geneva from Addis Ababa.  We knew each other in Tajikistan, his children played with mine and his wife often came by for tea and conversation.  She cooked us French Rabbit Stew, my first and last taste of fluffy bunnies (sorry!).  He lived in Dushanbe prior to the collapse of the Soviet Empire, speaks fluent Russian and has a vast knowledge of the world during the Cold War, Glasnost and Perestroika, having lived through it.

An Austrian friend:  My sweet ‘soul Mama’ yoga teacher and chill out pal, whom I knew in Cairo, a bendy athlete with her feet in the air, her children the same age as my own.  She recently relocated to Geneva from Egypt.  She misses the sun and her flowery roof terrace, but skis every weekend, kick-starting her career once more as a Primary School teacher.

These friends came along to the signing.  They brought their friends and colleagues from work and home, cheered me on and lifted my heart with moral support, hugs and smiles.  I have not mentioned the incredible generosity of old friends online, the ones from Dushanbe and Cairo who originally read the book and offered useful, detailed comments, the ones who live on every continent and share my websites, read my reviews, support me by reading my book at their book clubs.  The friends, old and new, here in the beauty of Rome.  They promote my work across their networks without me asking.  I am lucky.

I have reflected on this since my trip to Geneva and every time, I feel a soft glow in my chest, as though my heart is held by many warm, careful hands.  The fear I once harbored, that the fluidity of expatriate life would leave me without solid, lifelong friendships… utterly unfounded.

To read more about the book, please visit here

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