The Power of Fresh Eyes

The Power of Fresh Eyes

A friend who writes, also reads.  She, like I, has been an expatriate for many years, moving from country to country, crisscrossing the continents of Africa and Asia as a way of life.  We both have a rich store of memories that we use to glean stories, refusing to settle into the norm or restrict ourselves to writing about our countries of origin.  We prefer to relive our experiences, both the good and the bad, blending them into the stories of others, both real and imagined.

Story telling is a wonderful way to archive our lives, writing the stories of ourselves and of

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Book Signing, Trieste

others as we imagine them to be, but at times it feels like hard toil, especially towards completion, when the draft is rewritten a multitude of times, checking language, continuity, characterization and plot tension; all the threads that run through a good novel, knotting the detail in upon those threads like a carpet maker.  The end result; a strong, beautiful book.

This friend, the writer, wrote today with comments on a chapter of my new novel, ‘The Girl with the White Suitcase’.  Set in Rwanda, Kenya and Italy, it is a coming of age story about an intelligent, young refugee with a multi-ethnic background who cannot choose sides in a war.  It is an ambitious novel that seeks to ask questions about the nature of identity in conflict, inter-racial love, forgiveness, tolerance and female friendship.

With fresh eyes, she can see the things I can no longer see, the little mistakes.  She gives me new ideas and demands that I check and recheck the language, continuity and suspense.  It is that very suspense that keeps the reader beheld, the tension holding the pages tight in the reader’s hand. Without it, the book will fail.

The importance of fresh eyes cannot be overstated, and this is a shout out to thank all the beta-readers out there, helping writers to be the best they can be.   THANKS!

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My Debut, winner of the Cinnamon Press Book Prize 2014

 

Beautiful Book Clubs Host Authors….

Beautiful Book Clubs Host Authors….

Yesterday the book club for the United Nations Women’s Guild hosted me here in Rome. Fifteen women gathered to listen and discuss ‘The Disobedient Wife‘ (Cinnamon Press 2015).thumbnail_disobedient_cover%20draft%206

Insights:

The title does not do justice to the central theme of the book, that close friendship and mutual support between women can be crucial to overcoming physical or psychological abuse.  I explained that the reason for the slightly flippant title was one of commercial appeal – I wanted a snappy, short sort of title that people would remember, and I didn’t want to put readers off!

I was asked if I thought the expatriate experience for women is more or less the same no matter which country you live in, to which I answered no.  I found people with different world views and priorities in Tajikistan than in Egypt, for example, where the former were mainly Embassy families, missionaries, NGO workers, and the latter, Oil Industry Executives.  In Egypt I had to work harder to find like-minded friends, but eventually of course, I did (and many were, in fact connected to oil).

suitcaseOne reader made the point that there are phases of experience that we probably all go through as expatriates, including the sense that as the years pass we become more and more dependent, especially if we move frequently and are unable to hold down or build our own careers.  It also may be potentially more of a blow when our children leave the nest, as then we really are absolutely alone, without access to the ready networks that international schools provide (whether or not one makes use of them).  One could say the same though, for many women anywhere, and it is a real reason why I believe that all expat ‘trailing spouses’ need space to develop that they can call their own.  For expats of course, this is complicated and must be mobile.  Thankfully, with the internet, all sorts of possibilities have opened up for us.

Another point that was made, was that domestic violence is endemic here in Italy and is on donnathe rise.  The reasons for this are not clear, but one member explained that as the economic situation in Italy worsens, tempers fray and women bare the brunt of frustration and anger men feel as a result. There is an organisation working in Rome to provide shelters for women as featured in The Disobedient Wife, called Differenza Donna.  http://www.differenzadonna.org/ which I want to highlight here, in case I have any Rome-based readers read this post. There will be a march on 26th November.  My friend Mary shared this report on this here: https://wideplus.org/un-special-rapporteur-on-feminicide-and-violence-against-women-in-italy/

Have a good week.

Autumn – Back to Life

Autumn – Back to Life

The children are back to school and already the heat of August is a dim memory as the cold nights draw in, and the trees start to shed their leaves for winter.  Though temperatures in Italy are higher than in my native home, I look forward to this time of year, loving

autumn-italy

pumpkin soup, bonfires and the flickering candles above my hearth.  It is a time to resume serious work, a time for me to submit my latest manuscript and bite my nails as I wait. I enjoy the cooler weather, sliding into my jeans gratefully after a summer sweating in shorts.  Yesterday evening, I sat watching my eldest play football.  Perched high above him fullsizerender-jpgon colourful, cracked bleachers, the wind blew as the sun descended behind the trees and Italian mothers shivered in ski jackets.  I sheltered behind my enormous handbag and drummed sandal-clad feet on the thin metal floor, bemoaning my lack of foresight to carry a coat. Autumn caught me on the hop.

It is a weird month, September, a sudden rush into the real world again after ten weeks lazing about on beaches, shouting, comforting, driving, mediating and mollifying children.  One weekend working flat out to edit a fascinating document on Migration, Conflict and Food Seccultureurity, another; working to polish and pearl my latest novel.  On both these weekends I should have been relaxing, playing with the family, and I found myself stuck to a screen like Cyprus sap.   The ugly head of cultural appropriation and authenticity arguments popped up again to sully these weeks, with a controversial outburst at a literary festival and the answering ripost posted the day later to be reprinted in the Guardian.  Having completed my report and novel, I marveled at the difference between the ‘real’ world of conflict alleviation and writings on migrant suffering and the ‘creative’ world where to form policy based on focus group discussions, (the refugee ‘VOICE’), led by foreigners would be seen as ethically spurious.

I fiercely defend the right to write, and I love to write about different people and places, digging towards the Universal human experience.  I grew tired reading the animosity on chat threads, wary of arguments between angry American writers and commentators who clearly couldn’t think beyond their individual contextual circumstance, imposing their especial problem on everyone, everywhere.  I felt the frustration setm1ep back – the years spent listening in social anthropology classes; told to study, yet rendered impotent to put the knowledge into practice by my background and identity.  Thankfully, the argument was laid to rest within days as the dust settled. Aminatta Forna wrote a wonderful piece on author pigeon-holing, ‘Don’t judge a book by it’s author’; calming my mood back down to a steady whir.

Meditation resumed, the daily practice of switching down the mind, transcending the conscious mind to find the inner flow of mind waves that run deeper than thoughts.  It was an epiphany –  In many ways, I thought, this sort of transcendence is needed in the world of cultural discourse.  Let us transcend our outer boundaries and cast off the barriers that people want to build between human beings.  Let people unite and write.  I realise, as I return to the practice, tm3that I have never thanked my Mother enough for allowing me to take a TM Course a few years ago.  (Thanks Mum!)  It revives and restores, leaving me refreshed even when tired.  Creativity increases, as does intuition. Negativity recedes.

So, onwards into autumn.  A new book to write, a new book to get printed.  And the baby, my debut.  ‘The Disobedient Wife‘, to keep promoting and pushing out into the world – a reluctant child clinging to my skirts.

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Writing From The Heart, Not For The Market

Writing From The Heart, Not For The Market

An article I wrote for bookbywomen.org about my motivations for writing my novels… Enjoy the read…

Writing From The Heart, Not For The Market

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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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Literary Wives: The Disobedient Wife by Annika Milisic-Stanley

Literary Wives is an on-line book club that examines the meaning and role of wife in different books. Every other month, we post and discuss a book with this question in mind: What does this book s…

Source: Literary Wives: The Disobedient Wife by Annika Milisic-Stanley

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

 

 

 

 

Calling All Geneva’s Trailing Spouses, Expatriates, Internationals and Writers

It was the best way to start 2016. Yesterday I firmed up a date for a new event to launch my debut ‘The Disobedient Wife’ (Cinnamon Press UK) in Geneva, Switzerland. The book signing will take place at Payot Rive Gauche Bookstore, on Rue de la Confédération 7, 1204 GENÈVE, at 18:00 on 3rd March 2016.Payot1 I will offer myself for conversation and meet up at this informal book signing event. I am hoping that my friends each bring along their friends and that we form a friendly, pop-up crowd, united by our interest in books, reading, writing, Central Asia and expatriate life.

Why Geneva? I chose Geneva because ‘The Disobedient Wife’ is a book that appeals to readers who want to learn about new places and it will suit an international kind of reader. It is a book that discusses the Expatriate Trailing Spouse Condition – the unique experience of trailing another person this way and that way across the globe, first for love and later for lack of reasons not to.

Yes, I know I will get into trouble for this, for admitting that we trail. But we do trail. In my case, I trail because my husband always had the better job, he is older than I, with the better salary; for us, it was a no-brainer.

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Book Cover

We trailing spouses follow and support and take out our tools to carve out a temporary niche in our new existence. We bounce from place to place and we learn to cope with culture shock, opening ourselves up to new experiences. We learn the street chat of umpteen languages and become genius map readers, mastering google earth. Unlike our spouses/ partners with their work, we have no ready-made ‘family’ and so we become brilliant at making friends on the hop. We abandon our shyness and approach anyone speaking our language or with children the same age, if we are parents. A shared coffee after drop off at school can lead to life-long friendship. I once approached someone simply because she was wearing hiking boots… I love to hike. Others fall by the wayside almost as we board the plane out, never to be seen again. The established communities hate us for that; our perceived coldness, our ability to cut ties, face forward. “The constant goodbyes killed me in the end. I stick to permanent residents now,” a Kenyan told me.

creating yourself

We have no comfortable office to go to each morning with a beaming, kind secretary and so we find our own places to gather: the coffee shops, community centres, school meetings, baby groups, book clubs and sport grounds of our new posting. We have no organizational relatives waiting to back us up, a Motherly boss or a brotherly colleague, no comfort of the familiar face from a workshop five years before, now seated in the office next door.  We must search anew for work in every country we land in, hustling for consultancies, teaching jobs or volunteering. I do not mind this. It stretches us and keep us mentally limber, even as we despair over the disjointedness of our CVs, the career opportunities gone, the lost pension plans and PhD places. I have had to abandon my development projects, my art studio, a kindergarten business and significant career paths as a civil servant, a UN worker, an anthropologist; transforming myself as I move.  I am Mistress of the Fresh Start.

As the years pass, even our countries of origin change or dwarf to insignificance.  Too much happens to us as nomads and we find that cannot relate when we return, our eyes are too wide, our minds too open.  We no longer truly ‘fit’. Our only home, then, is in the arms of our spouse, an insecure ‘putting-all-your-eggs-in-one-basket’ kind of existence if you aren’t lucky enough to keep your marriage alive…

Geneva has a huge community of non-Swiss internationals and many of them live with husbands and wives who have experienced this daily condition for years on end.  I am hoping that many of them will come, seek me out. That they will read the book and find comfort in it, in the Expatriate character’s renewal.  In her finally creating herself to be the person she wants to be after years of confusion.

look within