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

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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