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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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.

cultural detachment

 

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.

voice

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

inpressbooks

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

The Cultural Identity of a Character

credit: www.blackwomenhaveitgoingon.wordpress.com
credit: http://www.blackwomenhaveitgoingon.wordpress.com Annette Harrison

I am working on my second novel now, with a working title: Refugee Queen.

This book is set in Eastern Africa and Europe (the UK and Italy) and centres on the journey of survival/ coming of age of a multi-ethnic refugee girl.  As with the first, it is an international novel, set in several countries.  It’s more ambitious than The Disobedient Wife as I change setting and characters frequently.  She escapes civil war, then sexual bondage to a pimp in Nairobi.  Later she has to survive life in the camp, a refugee ‘haven’ where her life is in danger.  She is another survivor who prevails; the kind of person I love to write about.

As with the first book, I had to think long and hard about the nationality of the person with which the protagonist has her main relationship.  In the Disobedient Wife, I chose to make the husband of my British Expatriate character Belgian.  Partly because I adore the french language, but also because I wanted him to have certain turns of phrase and personality traits suitable to the misogyny of an older husband with a trophy wife: A masculine, sexy Poirot, if you will.

In this second book, I was initially attracted to the idea that the main love interest for the girl should be a fellow exile:  Rootless and unable to return to his country, either through fear or because of a deep sense of mistrust in his homeland.  I imagined him as an Iranian Communist, a person with a deep sense of lacking, who misses the sights and smells of a childhood gone forever because the Iran of the 1960s and 70s has ceased to be.

I wrote the passages of their courtship but realised the idea of an Iranian man in a position of authority, however well traveled and educated, falling in love with a woman like her, was rare to the point of unrealistic (or vice versa).  I searched my memory to think of a single example of a Persian-African couple in my many years abroad.  I do not why it is so rare, whether it is cultural barriers or not.  I work with West African men and Afghan/ Pakistani/ Iranian men at a refugee centre in Rome.  They rarely mix as friends, even though they have much in common:  English/ Italian as a communicating language; religion (many of the West Africans are Muslim); and, their present situation and living conditions as migrants in Italy.  Even with so many things in common, disagreements and misunderstandings are a daily reality and we employ ‘peacemakers’ to negotiate the cultural divide.  I noticed this in the classroom too, as clear as a bass relief.  Yet Iran does, in fact, have an African origin community of Afro-Iranians, the descendants of Zanj slaves brought to Persia to do domestic labour from Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique.  I could not think of a single example of such a couple from all my years working in the region however, so it simply made no sense to me.  Write what you know, or at least, what you have experienced.

Instead, I have made him a Southern Italian, with an Iranian, Communist revolutionary ex-wife.  I think that many Italian men in authority would risk all for love, they are romantic, they like to bend the rules, as though they are only there for the bending.  So no, he is not himself an exile, nor does he suffer the great Lack that I described, but it is enough that he understands the dilemma of exile, rather as I do, married to a Bosnian for nearly twenty years.  An Italian-Rwandan marriage makes perfect sense in my mind.  Most Italian men adore beautiful dark women and treat them reverently, like living Goddesses, though of course, this can take the form of sexual harassment at times, especially as there are many trafficked Nigerian girls lining the streets of Rome’s outskirts.  I know many happy interracial couples here and I see examples before me every day.

Perhaps it is a cop out, to accept the negative aspects of a reality many would rather gloss over and then to change my characters to fit.  Making realistic decisions about ‘my people’ is important to me as a writer though.  They are mine to make as they are my creation, but still, I agonize over the detail.  I have no political motives with my writing, I just want a good story.  The way I figure it, someone else with greater knowledge than mine can explore the Iranian-African love affair.  I need it to make sense, to have continuity, and though the characters are all figments of an overactive imagination, my readers need to believe in them as much as I do.

For more on being a black girl in Rome, check out this fantastic short film by Pizzoli Media: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AznUhel2LqQ&feature=youtu.be