I got a great review for The Disobedient Wife: Terry Tyler Book Reviews
Check it out!
Thank you to Rosie Amber‘s Book Review Team… ❤
I got a great review for The Disobedient Wife: Terry Tyler Book Reviews
Check it out!
Thank you to Rosie Amber‘s Book Review Team… ❤
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.
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.
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 sufficiently 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.
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 back to the task… 100 pages down, 200 more to go.
Have a great week, bloggers 🙂
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
On Saturday, 12th March, I will be whisking my way to Naples on the Freccia-Rossa high speed train to spend a morning with the lovely people of the International American Women’s Group of Naples, who have invited me to come and present ‘The Disobedient Wife’ to their group, as well as a wider audience.
I’m excited to see the ancient metropolis of Naples, as though I have lived in Rome, Lazio for the last 30 months, this will be the first visit to my neighbouring city in Campania region. The reasons I haven’t dared go to date seem cowardly, even ill-informed when I think about them now. Rowdy, countryside-born children unused to the hustle and traffic of the city; stories of motorbike muggings from visitors; the organized corruption and rubbish piled up to rot in the streets. All this served to turn my compass north whenever I felt a desire to explore new places in Italy.
Now though, I have a wonderful, all expenses paid, opportunity to see something of Naples, soak up the sights and smells for another, longer visit later this summer on my way to Sorrento, Capri and Iscia… who knows? I can’t wait!
If you are in Naples on 12th March 2016, if you are an avid reader, or a fellow writer… and would like to see my presentation, please contact me here and I will put you in touch with the Naples AIWG Coordinator. The plan for the morning: I’ll show a short film, read several excerpts from the novel and hold a question and answer session. I’ll have some books to sign with me, should anyone want to buy one. The presentation is from 11:30 – 13:00.
To remind you, The Disobedient Wife is a compelling read about two women in Tajikistan: A diplomat’s wife and her maid, a local woman from Tajikistan. The story examines life in a Central Asian outpost and the changes that have affected women since the collapse of the Soviet apparatus. Themes: Infidelity, Drug trafficking, Cultural Tradition versus modernity and women’s rights.
It won the Cinnamon Press New Book Award in 2014 and was published the following year, a few months ago, in November 2015.
A Writer’s Diary of the Week…
So, firstly, I had a very good lunch (avocado salad, fish pie, pudding and far too much bubbly Prosecco) with a lovely book club made up of expatriate women living here, in Rome. They hailed from Iceland, Switzerland, Holland, South Africa, the UK, Egypt and Australia. They read the book in their December holidays, some while skiing, others on the beaches of the South, one in her car, hiding from the family duties of Christmas.
All enjoyed it, luckily, and I experienced a very hazy, surreal, out-of-body experience of eight women all talking at once about the characters in the book as though they lived and breathed. An argument over who was the most evil; a discussion as to whether a character killed herself or was murdered – it is true – I left it open, though in fact, that was no deliberate act of subterfuge. I realized, I knew what happened and that was all that mattered when I was writing it. I was humbled, blushing when they asked,
“So, Annika, do you have any questions for your readers?”
In my fog of egocentricity and gatecrasher’s nerves, it never occurred to me that they might want to be interviewed as to their opinion. I rummaged through my prosecco-addled brain, searching for a decent question. Nothing.
“Well, not really,” I blurted.
Oh, the arrogance of the debut author. I apologize; put it down to naivete.
This week, I managed to join a very useful facebook page called Book Connectors, recommended to me by Pam Reader, a prolific book blogger. Authors ask good questions and can post information about upcoming events, bloggers post reviews, and the community seems to be a friendly and helpful one, especially for British writers.
I joined an online literary critique forum. I was not expecting much to be honest, as it is free and very basic in terms of the web design (an uninspiring grey with white font), and format (‘cheap as chips’). In the absence of my fantastic Editor-on-Tap (she is fighting a valiant battle with cancer), it turned out to be surprisingly useful. ‘Credits’ are earned by critiquing other writers, which you can then ‘spend’ by uploading your own offerings. I uploaded the prologue and half the first chapter of my new novel (draft 2, at least, with much fiddling and rewording).
Then I waited, biting my nails.
The ‘critters’, as they call themselves, did not hold back:
“I don’t like starting critiques on the negative, but there’s no way to avoid this: your opening sentence is tell—tell that is flat, written in passive voice, and unimaginative.”
Oh dear. I laughed out loud, he was right. He was getting even too – I recognized his ‘name’ – I’d ‘critted’ a chapter of his book the day before, asking him to work harder on characterization. I don’t think that writers should make it their religion not to use passive to be verbs, sometimes you need to… but… I conceded the point. I got praise for my pretty use of language. Within an afternoon, I spring-cleaned the upload, replacing passive she/he had/ was into fresh, immediate dialogue. Much improved, I look forward to the critter’s responses to the next two uploads. I expect a serious dressing down, though I tried hard this time . As the author, it is hard to catch mistakes – hence the need for great editing.
Lastly, I received a review from Writerful Books, an Australian publishing house based in Melbourne. It can be found here: Writerful Books Review
I loved that the reviewer was honest enough to open the review with:
“This was a surprisingly good read.”
I don’t know what initially put him off – the pinkish lettering of the title font, perhaps? The little Tajik woman in the corner of the cover? I grinned, imagining his sighs as he opened it and settled down to read. Did he start the book in trepidation, thinking himself sentenced to review a new sub-genre of Central-Asian Chick Lit?
It was a lovely review, take a look! 🙂
All in all, a very good start to Writing in 2016.
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. 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.
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.
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.
In 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 minutes) 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.
I 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.
As 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:
“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.
“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.”
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).
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I wrote 'The Storyteller' (Holland House, 2016). I'm writing my next novel.
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