Rome Book Presentations: Some reflections

Rome Book Presentations: Some reflections

AA Launch6In Rome this month I was lucky enough to be hosted in three different locations to launch my book ‘The Disobedient Wife’: The Open Door Bookshop in Via Della Lungaretta 23 in Trastevere, The Anglo-American Bookstore on Via Della Vite near Piazza Spagna, and a friend’s house near the swanky Piazza Farnese, home to the French Embassy, in the Centro Storico.  I thank all the bookshop owners and my friend for hosting me so beautifully – it was a joy to present my book in such wonderful locations.

 

As part of the presentation, I first showed a ten minute section of a film on Migration in Tajikistan by Al Jazeera’s documentary programme 101 East: ‘Tajikistan’s Missing Men’, which can be seen in full here.  This film (the first ten 12027681_755103064612623_4944654579695399856_nminutes) gave my audience a good idea of the colours, sounds and sights of Tajikistan, as well as the issues facing less well off women since the fall of the USSR. These issues are discussed through the narratives of the Tajik character, Nargis, and her family and set in stark contract to the rights and privileges of the British diplomat’s wife, Harriet, in ‘The Disobedient Wife’.

During these events, I went to some lengths to explain that this book is about a friendship that forms between a poor, courageous local woman and her wealthy, lonely employer. The book is fiction: A collection of stories I heard when I lived in the country, embellished and adapted, and in other words, the product of my own imagination.  In the book I do not cast judgement on tradition, religion or culture.  I let the characters speak for themselves, as though the book were an anthropological oral history that I wrote down one day with a few people, drinking bowls of green tea on my tapshan.

Except, it was not like that at all.

Instead, the process of writing this novel was both painstaking and painful.  Over four years, this book was rewritten multiple times, cut, edited, reworked and repackaged. Eventually, I lost sight of who or what was real and what wasn’t.  No matter, as in the end, all I wanted was to write a great story that would open up the colour and contradictions of life in Tajikistan to readers of the world. Hopefully, that is what I managed to do.

I was also asked if this book represents the oppression of women by a particular religion, in this case, Islam. In answer, no, it does not. Women are oppressed by culture, not religion because culture dictates how religious words are interpreted. Culture dictates the habits that form over time, whether they be traditional or religious. The oppression of women is found in many different cultural religious traditions, just as cultural freedoms for women are found in those same religions.

AA launch8I was asked how I felt able to write about a culture that was not my own. Was this not risky, opening myself up the impossibility of cultural relativism?  I answered, no. My character is a Tajik and so yes, I write about her through the prism of Tajik culture, to some extent, but beyond that, she is a human being, with a personality and an individual set of experiences that have shaped her beliefs and character. The ‘tags’ of Tajik/Poor/Woman/Developing Country/Muslim (non-practicing) did not matter to me as a writer. My relationship with her went beyond the categories of ‘otherness’ imposed on her. She was her own voice, an imaginary friend who led me through the nooks and crannies of her story. She did not speak for all Tajiks, she spoke for herself, just as the British housewife does not speak for all expatriate women in Tajikistan, but only for herself. In the book I went to great efforts to make sure that the women did not become cliches of themselves, that they retained the character that was true to them as individuals. How they behaved and what actions they took was set at the start when I developed them as the author of their fate. I kept my own voice out of it and let them speak. Of course, we are talking about women who do not actually exist, though at times they both felt very real to me.

I believe that good creative writers should be able to write convincingly from the point of view of any person, whether male or female, rich or poor, from the East or from the West. That is my job as a writer. I will not bow to the navel-gazing crisis afflicting some anthropologists and restrict myself to writing about white, liberal, feminist, middle class, British women living in Italy just because that is what I happen to be.  How dull! I would have to give up writing altogether were that the case, because I find myself rather boring.

At each presentation, I read the following excerpts (here are two of four):

From Harriet, the Expatriate’s Journal:

“in Tajikistan, you can no more choose your friends than you can choose your family.  When I meet someone who understands, we cling to each other like twins in the womb.  We have the same problems to deal with, day in, day out.  All of us have husbands that accuse us of moaning.  They don’t appreciate the effort it takes to fill our days, desperately walking the streets of grey, until we know every pot hole, every crack, aimlessly searching for something, something illusive that we never seem to find, I suppose, because it isn’t here.  Veronica calls it ‘sehnsucht’. I looked it up; it is German for ‘the inconsolable longing of the human heart for something otherworldly and undefined’.  That woman is not as stupid as she looks.  I wonder if we are looking for our past selves, looking for the effortless fun we once had, when we knew who, and where, and what, we were.
I once inhabited a dynamic, glistening world of computers and shag pile.  I reigned as Queen of my kingdom, exercising control over appointment diaries and the minutes of board room meetings of powerful men.  Even the strip lights, grey winter rain and bottom pinching in the lift did not dampen my spirits, I strode to the tube in trainers and navy pinstripe at six and met girlfriends in Soho bars twelve hours later for flirtatious encounters with sexy, rugby-playing bankers from Harrow and Eton.  I would wake up satiated, a little hung over, in their beds with views overlooking Canary Wharf, leaving a few moments later, warm with the knowledge that I would have a date that night if I wanted one.  Often, I didn’t.  I needed no one.  Stopping for a bacon butty on the way back to my flat, buying the morning paper, reading the Sunday supplements in bed.  It was not a very worthy life, but I had a niche and knew my way around it blindfolded.
Open door readingAs it is now, I fill in time and count days.  My friends here in Tajkistan understand how an article in a magazine, a song or a sudden craving for an unavailable food can make me weep.  They share the frustration of being a trailing wife trapped in a luxurious prison, the loneliness of the forsaken career, no one to converse with all day long but a silent journal or a sulky, resentful maid.
To outside eyes I know we look spoilt.  The endless purchase of new curtains! The continuous packing and unwrapping, a mountain of cardboard boxes and brown tape for ten lifetimes, the paper cuts and a river of tears for broken heirlooms.  The ceaseless newness of the expat wife’s curse; a life lived on the move.  The upheaval of an existence in constant flux, painfully uprooted from all that we know and love, every two to three years.
Henri says I chose this when I married him.  ‘Stop complaining, you are better off than ninety-nine percent of Tajiks,’ he tells me.  That may be true.  Yet, when we met I had only ever been to Ibiza and the Costa Brava.  I thought diplomatic life sounded glamorous.  What a joke.

And a section from the main body of the book, about Nargis, our main protagonist:

Harriet snorted.
“Well, if Henri dared hit me I would leave him straight away,” she said.  “I would go home to England with the kids and get divorced.”  Nargis frowned and scrubbed the pot harder.  Some do!  She thought.
Emma shook her head.
“Aye but they can’t just leg it!  A woman who tries to get divorced will be disowned or laughed outta court unless she’s got a nice, rich old man.  It’s a total scandal to get divorced here, it’s ‘haram’ like, you know, shameful.  Women without men to protect them get treated like whores because so many end up on the street.  It’s hard to remarry and they lose their children to their fella’s family.”
Nargis nodded vigorously and forgetting herself, perched on a chair.
“Is true.”
“They lose their children?” repeated Harriet.  She looked astonished.  Nargis’ scar started to sting.  Emma smiled sadly.
“Straight up love.  It gets worse.”  Emma read again from her presentation. “‘Some women, usually second wives, are only married with the Nikoh, an Islamic marriage ceremony performed by a Mullah.  They’re supposed to register the marriage officially, but they often don’t bother.’”
“But why do these women agree to become concubines?” asked Harriet, perplexed.  Emma shrugged.
“Dunno.  Loadsa reasons.  Some are dozey but others are just out on their arses, sorry, I mean ‘poor’.  They got no choice.  Parents get a nice dowry for a virgin.  Others are older, by that I mean older than twenty-five and scared of being bin-bagged, chucked out on their todd.  Second wives have no legal rights whatsoever.  If their fellas meet someone else though, it’s a doddle.”  She read out loud:  “There are many stories of men calling wives from Russia to tell them Talok three times over the phone.  Afterwards, these men believe they are divorced under Islam, even though Islamic scholars have publicly spoken out against it.”
“Can you imagine, Nargis?”  Harriet blurted.
“Yes.  Is real.  You foreigners don’t know…”  Nargis reddened and sprang from the chair trembling.  Her scar ached now.  Emma’s eyes narrowed.
“What’s up Nargis, love?  I hope I haven’t offended you like?”
“I had bad second husband.  Parents made me marry him after Ahmed, my first husband die.”  Nargis recalled the intense pressure she had felt not to be a burden.  Gulya had been particularly vociferous.
“An only son with a nice home and good prospects, yet he is willing to marry a widow with two children!  He could have anyone, but he wants you, you lucky girl.  You won’t get better than that,” she whispered insistently.  Numb with grief and unable to think straight, she had eventually succumbed.  Tears came to Nargis’ eyes, dismissed in a blink.
“Did he deck yer?”  Emma put a fist to her own face.  Nargis nodded.
“Yes, he beat me and little boy and took baby, only nine week old.  I had to live on street until parents forgive me.”
ReadingHarriet gasped.
“My God!”
Emma touched her arm.  Nargis’ cheeks burned.
“But I was never prostitute.  Caravan of Faith, Americans people, help me with cleaning job to please their Jesus.  Eventually milk for baby dry and husband went in Russia.  Baby stays with Bibi… Grandmother.”
“Nargis, I honestly had no idea.” said Harriet.  She was peering at her with an almost perverse curiosity, as though she had come to work naked.  Nargis grimaced, embarrassed at her outburst.  She had revealed too much and she hated herself for the scandalised pity in Harriet’s voice.  She shook off Emma’s hand and backed out of the room.
“Sorry.  Please forget what I say…”
“Nargis sweetheart, please don’t be embarrassed,” said Emma.  “What you’ve been through is nothing to be ashamed of.  In the U.K we’d call you a ‘Survivor’.”
Nargis baulked.  Her eyes flashed.
“I have no shame.  I proud.”

For all those who came to the ROME events to hear me, Harriet and Nargis speak, I thank you.

My next reading will be in GENEVA at Payot Rive Gauche (English Bookshop), in February 2016 (date TBA soon).

Aa signing

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

The Book Is Born

The Book Is Born

books arrive to rome

So today I had an experience not unlike giving birth.  My book was born.  I have done it three times, and this came close.  Ripping open brown paper-wrapped boxes to find clean, fresh books inside with my words, MY words inside them.  I picked a book up.  If it were a baby, it would have cried, shocked to be in the open air.  I held it close to my body, I cradled it in my hands, feeling the smooth, soft cover with my fingertips.  I made this, I thought.  Happiness warmed me in yellow light.  I could hardly believe it was real, only it was, I held a tangible, solid block of printed paper in my hands.  It was heavy and smelled of the library, a dry, saw-dusty smell I adore.  If only I could bottle the smell of a new book and wear it behind my ears or add it to my fabric conditioner, I thought.

Then I opened the first page. Legalese, a blurb of copyright and British library storage, my name and the name of my publisher.  A list of acknowledgments, names in chronological order, a memory-keeper of the time I spent writing, rewriting, editing, writing again and editing again, each reader offering me constructive comments, or helping me with research.  Four years interspersed with moving houses, painting pictures and bringing up children alone with the Man away.

My dedication:  To the Women of Tajikistan and to another unsung heroine, my Mother.  She cried for the longest time when she read it, she told me later.  She has been ill, fighting cancer in her typical, stubborn, spirited way, rising from her bedchamber to play tennis not five weeks after her last major operation.  She worked for many years with vulnerable children in care and gave them her protection to the best of her ability.  They still call her as adults, checking in.  They still love her, they still trust her.  She really is a true, unsung heroine.

My children stood in a huddle around the boxes with wide eyes, staring at the pages in my hands with a look of wonder.  My eldest, a plucky, lovable rogue (his teacher’s words) came forward to hug me violently, holding my waist with wiry arms.  Then he tried to read the first chapter.  He struggled, stammering his way through several sentences.

‘Perhaps I will wait until I am a bit older to read this Mum.’

‘Yes, I think so,’ I said, thinking of the raw content of my novel, a tale that charts a woman’s escape from an abusive man who would rape her in broad daylight if he could, just to settle old scores.  A book that does not flinch from describing the backward trajectory into dogma and tradition that encapsulates ‘modern-day’ Tajikistan for a poor woman of low reputation.  ‘It’s definitely a book for grown-ups,’ I said and I ruffled his hair.  ‘Wait until you are eighteen, or perhaps sixteen.  Probably better that way.’

The Disobedient Wife – My Debut Novel – is out in 4 days

The Disobedient Wife – My Debut Novel – is out in 4 days

So, welcome to my Author Site.

I am a Disobedient Author. Why?

I will explain later, no time now.

My book THE DISOBEDIENT WIFE is coming out in 4 days, after almost 6 years in the making.

I started writing it when I lived in Dushanbe, the Capital city of a country called Tajikistan. Most people I speak to have never heard of the place and no wonder. It is a country almost totally cut off from the outside world. When I lived there, the BBC World Service was banned and journalists and writers were routinely harassed and imprisoned.

I started writing the novel because I found the stories I heard so fascinating. My usual mode of writing, the short story, did not seem to do justice to their tales of hardship and endurance and before I knew it, I had a novel on my hands.  I chose to write mainly about women. The voiceless women born in Soviet times, now living in a State that is on the one hand a Police state; a Nanny State; a State in which the President can tell you how to dress and what to do with your teeth; and, on the other, a State where women’s rights enshrined under the Communist ethos of equality for all are routinely ignored.  Academics have written widely on the phenomenon of retraditionalisation, specifically examining impacts on women.  By this, they refer to the resurgence of religious and cultural tradition in society since the fall of the Soviet Union. My book is in essence about this same subject.   It is also about another disobedient wife – a British diplomat’s trailing spouse. I leave it up to you to decide which of the intertwined narratives, the British expat or the local Tajik is the disobedient wife. Or perhaps it refers to them both. You will have to read it to find out.

More at http://www.facebook.com/MilisicStanley