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…
This week I was lucky enough to be invited 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.
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.
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.
Last week I was contacted by Tajik journalist Khiromon Bakoeva at Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty and participated in an interview with her about ‘The Disobedient Wife, my debut novel on Tajikistan.
RFE/RL’s mission is to promote democratic values and institutions by reporting the news in countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established. Their journalists provide what many people cannot get locally: uncensored news, responsible discussion, and open debate. To visit their website, click here.
I am very happy that I am finally starting to find a platform through which to reach Tajiks, especially, I hope, women. This is challenging as the country is far from open and without fluent spoken and written Tajik myself (I did speak it badly when I lived there but left 7 years ago) , it is not easy to reach people in the country. During the interview I encouraged any Tajiks listening to write, and publish, especially women. I wish my publisher would consider having the book translated into Russian and Tajik, but sadly I fear that financial constraints will not allow this to happen.
Khiromon asked me numerous questions:
Why I wanted to write about Tajik women… Because I think they are strong, brave and generally pretty awesome!
The disobedient wife is Nargis. Why is she disobedient?… Actually there are several in the book, but the Tajik woman named Nargis is disobedient because she has dared to leave her husband, thus becoming a figure of scandal and contempt in her community. The other wife is a British Expat.
Did I sense that radicalisation is a problem in Tajikistan and do I think women can help to solve this problem by talking to their sons?… certainly when I lived there no, Dushanbe was a secular, fairly safe place and people did not seem at all ‘radical'(willing to die for a cause), only traditional. There were isolated incidents targeting the Prime Minister but nothing major. This might have changed since… and yes, of course mother’s may be able to help persuading their sons not to go and fight in radical wars, but most importantly, something has to be done to help the youth to find jobs and build lives (Tajikistan is suffering now from the huge drop in the Russian ruble because so many families rely on remittances from Tajik workers in Russia). When people lack hope they are vulnerable to the excitement and opportunities they think may open up by fighting in a religious war. (We are seeing the same thing in Bosnia, another country with a crippled economy and high youth unemployment).
The book referenced the main character Nargis accusing international aid workers of partying all the time… This was just on one page and referenced her feeling of invisibility as a waitress at receptions for international expats. An ex-aid worker myself, I do think some of the ‘academics’ prefer to sit behind a computer with data, rather than get out and talk to the actual people they are helping, especially in countries without an acute emergency crisis, such as Tajikistan…
Use of Tajik words and phrases in the book, why?… To add richness to the language used, and to let the reader have a sense of the language. I love Tajik proverbs.
Have a good week.
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 husband 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.
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. 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
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.
I have to confess, I have not read the Pulitzer Prize winning stories of Olive Kitteridge, but I saw them recently, cooped up in the cultural abyss of Sky TV in Italy…
This fantastic series came on in place of the usual crappy criminal intrigues and lousily illogical sitcoms and I sat up, transfixed from the start. A series of stories set in Maine about an incredibly blunt, (I would say on the Asbergers spectrum), intelligent woman named Olive. I loved her right away for her flesh-coloured stockings and refusal to change her hair. My husband turned to me as we watched, grinning.
‘Now that is something you would say,’ he kept saying.
Yes, it was true. I found myself nodding, laughing, agreeing with her. I recognized the fraught family scenes, the misunderstandings and the inability she had to keep her mouth SHUT. I loved her for her faults, the nearly (but not quite) affair. The cut to the chase comments to her husband when he grew obsessed with his young, vulnerable shop girl widow. The impatience she had for false, pretentious types with Californian suntans and cabriolets. I loved the kindness and empathy she showed towards her friend with mental illness, and later, the son. I liked that she gardened, preferring live flowers to the dead in a vase.
The best of course, mentioned in this interview – the feverish hiding of one shoe, a bra and an earring in revenge, possessions of her new daughter-in-law. A scene made in comedy heaven.
This is a writer with books I will buy, secure in her hands, knowing I will love them. I adore her admission that she writes for herself, that she made it after 15 years of hard graft and endless rejection, and that she never gave up. You inspire, brave Elizabeth. I am a huge fan.
Interview of Elizabeth Strout: Here
I nearly called the book ‘A Tale of Tajik Flowers’ and named several drafts with this title. Yes, ‘The Disobedient Wife’ is a much better title and I am glad I changed it. But why flowers?
When I lived in Tajikistan I was delighted to notice that many women’s names are also the names of flowers. My landlord was an elderly civil engineer, as fond of Soviet era machinery as he was of roses. He insisted that Tajikistan was where the rose – Sad Bagh originated. In my garden, I was lucky enough to enjoy the garden he had lovingly planted. Cultivated to bloom from May to November, we had climbers and ornamental, sweet scented roses. I dried their petals and put them in bowls. On weekends, and when it was warm enough out, I reclined on a tea platform (Tapshan), shaded by hundreds of delicate pink and red climbing roses. We had purple lilac trees, daffodils and tulips as well as fruit and nut trees and vines that gave us fruit almost all year round (quince, plum, cherries (3 types), apples, pear, grapes, walnuts, pomegranate, fig, mulberries, strawberries). We even had one tree that gave us half sour cherries and half sweet. The variegated irises were a sight to behold each May, deep burgundy, indigo and yellow, growing on half shaded bank above the ditches that ran around the lawn. There was a cracked greenhouse without a roof where I grew Italian and purple basil that grew to two metres, yellow tomatoes and rows of lettuce and rocket.
We had guards who asked me for use of land in return for digging and watering, of course I readily agreed. One of them, a burly, friendly man, accompanied me three days in a row to help me lift rocks from the riverbed into the boot of my car. They were pink, green, purple and white, smoothed down by the rushing water, like huge marbles. I used them to line borders and made a rocky mosaic around huge clumps of day lilies and michelmas daisies. My predecessor had planted long lines of daffodils and laid new lawns with dutch grass seed for her pony. I brought tulips to Dushanbe in a suitcase when I saw a magnificent display in one of the guesthouses popular with World Bank consultants one spring.
The city of Dushanbe is not a place where one finds great natural beauty, aside from the tall sycamore trees that line old Soviet avenues. The buildings are mostly Soviet-era, decrepit and ugly. The pavements are grey and cracked, lined with ditches that run with grey mud and dancing refuse. The winters are grey and the winds bite, the only flash of colour; the orange fruit of the persimmon tree. The harshness of the winter months is why Tajiks welcome spring with such joy. They celebrate with the ancient Zoroastrian festival Nav Ruz. Green shoots of wheat are made into a soup, cherry trees blossom and glittering, mono-browed brides go out with their dark-suited boys with slicked back hair. Live bands play in the park.
As I learned the Tajik language, I found it sweet that so many girls are named after the most beautiful aspect of Central Asian nature, the flowers.