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

Review by Bookconscious Deb Baker of The Disobedient Wife

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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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Language: Happiness, Cultural Dislocation and Belonging

Language: Happiness, Cultural Dislocation and Belonging

The other night I walked from the Vatican San Pietro down through the gathering dusk to a presentation in Arenula, at the Center for American Studies.  I had half an hour, so I decided to stop for a Spritz Aperol in Campo Di Fiori and enjoy the sun’s warming rays. Spring arrived to Rome this week, along with a famous Pulitzer Prize winning author and Italophile, Indian-American writer Jhumpa Lahiri.

She has a new bilingual book, In Other Words, about her journey learning Italian.  It is impressive, much loved by Italians, as she came here having learned the language in the USA as a hobby and now claims to only want to write in Italian.  I went along because her short stories in ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ remain some of the best that I have ever read on cultural dislocation.  I was curious.  Her name popped up before at literary events in Rome, because it is rare that an author with her prestige and background decides to write in Italian.

The talk took place in an old marble-floored room with an imposing fireplace, wooden ceilings, paneling and a raised podium.  Judging from the accents and looks of those around me, half the audience were Italian, half American.  Many wore expensive jewelry and heels, their hair lacquered in spray, necks doused in perfume.  A high class, well heeled crowd then, aside from the smoker behind me who cleared his throat frequently and in the most disgusting manner.  He had a flat, scratchy New Jersey accent.

The talk began: She was heartbroken that she had to leave Rome.  Her sense of surprise at how she belonged in Rome after a life of cultural dislocation: ‘I never felt at home in the USA because my parents were at war with the country’.  I know, from her writing, what she referred to.  The clash of cultures found in so many South Asian households in the West, a universal experience of migration.  She described herself as a language ‘orphan’.  My mouth fell open, an then I smiled.  This, from an author who won the Pulitzer?  She learned English at school but spoke only Bengali at home.  English was never spoken in her house, yet her own Bengali never surpassed childhood level.  (Lahiri cannot read, or write Bengali, a surprise to me).  ‘I am like a child when I speak Bengali.’  This reminded me of my parents.  Their Swedish remains locked in the idioms and language of the late 1960s.  She said, ‘When my son was born, I spoke to him in Bengali, but by the age of seven, I could no longer express myself properly.’  So English, therefore, must surely be her mother-tongue, giving her a sense of home?  No, she said. English is still the language of the outside, a language that excluded her own kin.  This left a cultural space in her life.

This reminded me of British disappointment (expressed in the media) with South Asian origin, first generation, British-born citizens.  If Lahiri, a feted author, winner of prestigious prizes and university fellowships felt this way, what about other children of immigrants?  How often we hear the refrain, ‘But how could he have joined them/ fought against British soldiers in Afghanistan/ blown up the bus?  He was one of ours, he was born in Britain, went to British schools.’  I thought about this sense of not belonging and how much language plays a role.  Her sense of belonging in Italy took no one by more surprise than Lahiri herself.  The quintessential feeling of happiness this gave her, surpassed all her expectations.  I felt happy for her.

Lahiri’s book was written in Italian, and translated into English by someone else.  Side, by side, the two languages on opposite pages. She recorded it as an audio book in both languages.  I loved the idea that spoken out loud, Lahiri had to acknowledge that she was still no expert in Italian, it did not come naturally to her the way English does.  Yet, the English version, translated by someone else, did STILL not feel like her writing.  Delicious irony.

Finally, the ‘elephant in the room’, so I saw it.  By her own admission, Lahiri is a person of high status, with access to the American Center Library etc.  She rented an apartment in the old center and important people wanted to know her. They sought her out.  She hung out with ex-Ambassadors and other elite types, peppering names in her ‘Italian Life’ anecdotes.  I thought of all the other ‘culturally dislocated’ people in Rome, the Afghan refugees I work with, the economic migrants from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, desperately trying to assimilate, failing every day.  I thought about others I know with good jobs at the UN, treated with disdain outside the workplace.  The Indian husband of a friend working in London who whispered, ‘It starts as soon as I leave Leonardo Da Vinci Airport.’  They might learn Italian fluently, but will still fail to fit in.  I thought about the daily rejection they face for jobs, for friendship.  Their struggle to find a voice.

I sat there as the talk ended, swathed in disappointment, and I realised, I had waited in vain for a moment that never came.  Not even one word alluded to it.  I hope Lahiri realises that racism may not touch her in her gilded tower, but it blights the daily existence for many people in this city.  Is she so far removed from their reality?  Her head, buried so deep in her Italian dictionary?  Far from ‘happy’ in Rome, they are, by turns, frightened, sad, dejected and humiliated.  Does she know that her experience is unusual for a foreigner of South Asian origin here?  Perhaps she is tired of talking about these issues in the USA and sought a new, less political voice here as well as a new language.  I couldn’t help feeling though, that in not acknowledging these issues during her book presentations, she wasted countless opportunities for discussion and change, failing those for whom she has so often claimed to speak.  It was a terrible letdown.

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Writing Point of View – The Search for a Voice

Writing Point of View – The Search for a Voice

This week I spent hours rewriting sections of my draft novel – working title. This book is about a young, privileged teenager.  She is at Catholic boarding school, but lives with her Grandmother in the holidays.  The novel is set in a Central African country in the Great Lakes with a troubled inter-ethnic history.  It is on the verge of civil war, but the teenager tries to ignore this out of deep-seated fear, hiding in pop music and school work.  During her Easter holidays, the situation boils over and she finds herself the target of violence and persecution, fleeing to become a refugee in Kenya.

This week, I was worried that in the third person omniscient narration mode, readers will not feel they are sufficiprocessently inside the protagonists head to care enough about her to read on.  While writing ‘The Disobedient Wife‘, my debut novel, one of my editors told me to increase the voice of the British expatriate character as she was more ‘relatable’ to my ‘market’ than the Tajik. In this new book, my non-Western character will be going it alone… and will have to hold the reader until Chapter 8, when a French aid worker gets her voice.

She needs to be compelling and three dimensional, especially as she is a character from another cultural world than our own.  It is up to me to ensure that the readers will feel an emotional bond for this young woman that overrides any prejudices or assumptions about her based on nationality, race or age.

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With this in mind, I decided to embark on an experiment in Point of View (POV), transferring my novel, chapter by chapter into the 1st person immediate narrative.

There were results almost straight away. As I wrote in the ‘I’ format, I found myself relating to the character more as a teenager, a girl on the cusp of adulthood who is about to befall a huge, life changing calamity.  I answered my own questions (how could she have been kept in the dark so long, how did she handle the increasing danger in her situation) and I discovered new facets to her personality and upbringing, including a rather snobbish attitude towards her fellow villagers and her politically extreme Aunt, the ‘peasants’.

She emerged from each scene as a fully fledged human being, with defined flaws and faults, insight and emotions.  Those insights, moments of thought and reveals in dialogue have been reinserted in the third person omniscient narrative, with excellent results. In the end, I prefer the literary quality of this more traditional writing style, it suits me better as a story-teller. I find 1st person difficult to read and sometimes ‘slightly jarring’, as my Mother has put it.

Now, time to stop blogging and get nikewritingback to the task… 100 pages down, 200 more to go.

Have a great week, bloggers 🙂

Annika Milisic-Stanley

 

 

 

 

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.

Displaced Dispatch

Displaced Dispatch

This week, my book ‘The Disobedient Wife’ got a mention in the ‘Displaced Dispatch’ a so-called ‘home for international creatives’: A website that incorporates all international news on fine arts, literature, food and theatre, including street parades in The Bahamas and door-to-door singers in South Wales. It is a great site, with articles on the pain of expatriate ‘re-entry’ on return to home…

Check it out!

LINK: DISPLACED DISPATCH

 

Inpress Books Interview: Read All About It – The Disobedient Wife

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I am happy to report that Inpress Books have published an interview about ‘The Disobedient Wife’ on their website.  The questions focused on my academic and working influences: how social anthropology/ research shapes my writing of fiction.  Please click on the link below to read it:

http://inpressbooks.co.uk/blogs/books/61724421-read-all-about-it-the-disobedient-wife-by-annika-milisic-stanley