The Beauty of the Book Club (for this Author)

The Beauty of the Book Club (for this Author)

In November 2015, Cinnamon Press published my debut, The Disobedient Wife, winner of their First Book Award 2014.  I am a long-term expatriate, moving every 2-4 years.

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 guammaphusband 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.

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Book Conscious Review: The Disobedient Wife by Annika Milisic-Stanley

Review by Bookconscious Deb Baker of The Disobedient Wife

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The digital world is smaller than the physical. Annika Milisic-Stanley contacted me via Twitter in December, to let me know about her new novel The Disobedient Wife. I don’t usually pursue unsolicited author enquiries, but it turned out we had Cinnamon Press in common. I’ve long admired the work of Jan Fortune and her family, who run this very fine small press in Wales and bring interesting books to the world, and my poetry has appeared in Envoi a few times. So when Jan got in touch with a review copy, I trusted this was going to be a good read.

And it was. I’ve never read a book set in Tajikistan and I’ll bet most of you haven’t either. Milisic-Stanley is a terrific writer, and she brings the beautiful and the bleak alive in equal measure, as in the opening line of the novel, “In the early hours…

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Language: Happiness, Cultural Dislocation and Belonging

Language: Happiness, Cultural Dislocation and Belonging

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.

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Displaced Dispatch – Best Expat Fiction 2015

Displaced Dispatch – Best Expat Fiction 2015

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.

Naples, Italy: Book Presentation

Naples, Italy: Book Presentation

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 Ndisobedient_cover-draft-6aples, 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.

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Book Review: The Fine Times Recorder

Book Review: The Fine Times Recorder

This week I received a very fine review on ‘The Disobedient Wife’ by the editor of The Fine Times Recorder, an online website on Arts and Culture in the South West UK.

She starts the review as follows:

‘THE “Stans” are mysterious and unknowable, strange lands of ancient cities with slender minarets, vast windswept plains, snow-topped impregnable mountain ranges and people who trace their lineage back to Genghis Khan and his golden horde.

That’s the romantic image – Marco Polo, the Silk Road, dramatic looking people hunting with eagles across the steppes of central Asia.

The reality in the 21st century is, of course, very different. Decades of dominance by the USSR and the inexorable Soviet machine that sought to eradicate cultural differences, turned the “stans” into poor satellites, dumping grounds for all the things that Mother Russia wanted to forget about.’

The Disobedient Wife is a compelling read, and a masterful first novel – as well as the first novel about modern post-Soviet Tajikistan.’

To read further, please go to the link below:

The Disobedient Wife – a window on an unknown land

The Disobedient Wife was published in November 2015 by The Cinnamon Press, UK. It won their First Book Award 2014.

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This Week in Writing: Gatecrashing Book Clubbers, #BookConnectors, Literary Critters Get Even, and a ‘Surprising’ Review by an Irish Aussie

This Week in Writing: Gatecrashing Book Clubbers, #BookConnectors, Literary Critters Get Even, and a ‘Surprising’ Review by an Irish Aussie

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

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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.

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Book Review: An Armchair By The Sea

Book Review: An Armchair By The Sea

Bex Hughes, a book review blogger, kindly posted her thoughts on ‘The Disobedient Wife’ on her book blog ‘An Armchair By The Sea‘ on 9th December, 2015.

I was tickled at the thought that she was late to work last Monday because she was unable to put down my book, but I hope she didn’t get into trouble with anyone as a result!

Check out her ‘Classics Club’ reading list, ‘Make Mine An Indie’ – a list of Independent Publishers and their books, including my Publisher, Cinnamon Press, and her ‘Five Star Books’ – Lists of best books for 2015 and 2014, to which Bex says she will add ‘The Disobedient Wife’.  She also organizes biannual book swaps through her ‘Ninja Book Swap’. It is a lively and interesting sites on all things book and I am grateful to Bex, because it is people like her who keep the art of reading alive.

Long live book bloggers!

Happy reading…

Annika

 

 

 

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

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/