An article I wrote for bookbywomen.org about my motivations for writing my novels… Enjoy the read…
An article I wrote for bookbywomen.org about my motivations for writing my novels… Enjoy the read…
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.
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.
Review by Bookconscious Deb Baker of The Disobedient Wife
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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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).
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.”
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.
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I wrote 'The Storyteller' (Holland House, 2016). I'm writing my next novel.
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