Books as Medicine/ The Freedom to Write

Sandra Cisneros puts it perfectly:

“You can’t please everyone. It’s the best I can do, it’s important to me and I put it together. I hope my readers like it. If it’s not their prescription they can put it back.”

via The Disobedient Wife by Annika Milisic-Stanley.

As I sit down this weekend I am taking stock of the coming week in the UK, a week when I will be launching my debut novel in three venues, speaking on two radio stations and traveling to my hometown to promote my debut novel.

I am frightened of negative reactions to the book but I soothe my fears with Cisneros’ proposition that books are our medicine.  Not every book suits everyone, just as not all prescriptions will cure our ills.  I even find that depending on the mood I am in, I can feel like reading a certain book or not.  In times of stress I enjoy soft yoga classes but in happier times I would rather go for an exhilerating run with my dog.  And just as readers are free to read my book (or not!) I, as a writer, am free to write.

This week I will be thanking my fate, the luck that led to my being born and bred in Britain.  In the U.K, creativity is still nurtured.  Fantastic art organizations like The Dorset Writer’s Network and Artsreach are funded to support writers so that people like me have the chance to share their books with others.  Organisations like my publisher, Cinnamon Press are supported to publish innovative fiction.  Without this support to small independent press houses, most of the most interesting creative writing in the UK at the moment would never be seen by the general public.

I also love the U.K because it is a place where free expression is closely guarded and protected.  I feel privileged that unlike aspiring writers from Tajikistan, I can write my stories without fear of imprisonment or exile.  This will be uppermost in my mind as I attend events hosted by my Publisher and by local people with bookshops in my home county, Dorset.  The Disobedient Wife is the first Literary Fiction to come from Modern-day Tajikistan in decades, not because there are no local writers, but because they are not allowed to write or publish freely.  I remind myself daily to be grateful at what is no more than luck.   The luck to be born in a place where I can express myself without fear for my life or for the lives of my loved ones.

During the week I work part time with refugee men at a day centre in Rome, trying to find them jobs, no easy task in this city.  People often ask why migrants come to Italy without prospects of work, with hard-earned qualifications and degrees that will never count in Europe.  Sometimes, they left much better material lives in their home country.  I met a civil engineer from Pakistan last week and asked him why he had left a relatively good job as a land surveyor in Islamabad.  He frowned and raised his hands in a gesture of despair tinged with disdain.  He clearly felt that my question was inane.

“I cannot continue to live there, where I am from”, he said.  “I come from the Tribal areas under Taliban control and have no freedom.”

“But you worked in Islamabad, I said.  He shook his head.

“It does not matter, they reached me.”

He was angry, his fury at the politics of his homeland and frustration at the penury of his present circumstances oozing from every pore.

“I did not know I would be homeless and jobless here,” he said.  “But I still want to stay here, in a country where I do not fear for my life.”

I thought about the price he had paid for his freedom.  It is the same for Eritreans, Afghans and other refugees, many highly qualified accountants, office managers, logisticians and engineers now looking for jobs in Rome as kitchenhands, cleaners and carers; the most menial work; the work that locals do not want to do.  Undoubtedly, their life savings line the pockets of human traffickers, the schooling that their parents scrimped and saved for, wasted.  It is the price they pay for the freedom we Europeans take for granted.

Just after I finished this article I heard of the arrest of Hossam Bahgat, a well known journalist in Egypt, detained for his writing. I hope he is released soon.

https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/11/egypt-arrest-of-prominent-activist-hossam-bahgat-another-blow-for-freedom-of-expression/

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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.’