A friend who writes, also reads. She, like I, has been an expatriate for many years, moving from country to country, crisscrossing the continents of Africa and Asia as a way of life. We both have a rich store of memories that we use to glean stories, refusing to settle into the norm or restrict ourselves to writing about our countries of origin. We prefer to relive our experiences, both the good and the bad, blending them into the stories of others, both real and imagined.
Story telling is a wonderful way to archive our lives, writing the stories of ourselves and of
others as we imagine them to be, but at times it feels like hard toil, especially towards completion, when the draft is rewritten a multitude of times, checking language, continuity, characterization and plot tension; all the threads that run through a good novel, knotting the detail in upon those threads like a carpet maker. The end result; a strong, beautiful book.
This friend, the writer, wrote today with comments on a chapter of my new novel, ‘The Girl with the White Suitcase’. Set in Rwanda, Kenya and Italy, it is a coming of age story about an intelligent, young refugee with a multi-ethnic background who cannot choose sides in a war. It is an ambitious novel that seeks to ask questions about the nature of identity in conflict, inter-racial love, forgiveness, tolerance and female friendship.
With fresh eyes, she can see the things I can no longer see, the little mistakes. She gives me new ideas and demands that I check and recheck the language, continuity and suspense. It is that very suspense that keeps the reader beheld, the tension holding the pages tight in the reader’s hand. Without it, the book will fail.
The importance of fresh eyes cannot be overstated, and this is a shout out to thank all the beta-readers out there, helping writers to be the best they can be. THANKS!
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.
I am working on my second novel now, with a working title: Refugee Queen.
This book is set in Eastern Africa and Europe (the UK and Italy) and centres on the journey of survival/ coming of age of a multi-ethnic refugee girl. As with the first, it is an international novel, set in several countries. It’s more ambitious than The Disobedient Wife as I change setting and characters frequently. She escapes civil war, then sexual bondage to a pimp in Nairobi. Later she has to survive life in the camp, a refugee ‘haven’ where her life is in danger. She is another survivor who prevails; the kind of person I love to write about.
As with the first book, I had to think long and hard about the nationality of the person with which the protagonist has her main relationship. In the Disobedient Wife, I chose to make the husband of my British Expatriate character Belgian. Partly because I adore the french language, but also because I wanted him to have certain turns of phrase and personality traits suitable to the misogyny of an older husband with a trophy wife: A masculine, sexy Poirot, if you will.
In this second book, I was initially attracted to the idea that the main love interest for the girl should be a fellow exile: Rootless and unable to return to his country, either through fear or because of a deep sense of mistrust in his homeland. I imagined him as an Iranian Communist, a person with a deep sense of lacking, who misses the sights and smells of a childhood gone forever because the Iran of the 1960s and 70s has ceased to be.
I wrote the passages of their courtship but realised the idea of an Iranian man in a position of authority, however well traveled and educated, falling in love with a woman like her, was rare to the point of unrealistic (or vice versa). I searched my memory to think of a single example of a Persian-African couple in my many years abroad. I do not why it is so rare, whether it is cultural barriers or not. I work with West African men and Afghan/ Pakistani/ Iranian men at a refugee centre in Rome. They rarely mix as friends, even though they have much in common: English/ Italian as a communicating language; religion (many of the West Africans are Muslim); and, their present situation and living conditions as migrants in Italy. Even with so many things in common, disagreements and misunderstandings are a daily reality and we employ ‘peacemakers’ to negotiate the cultural divide. I noticed this in the classroom too, as clear as a bass relief. Yet Iran does, in fact, have an African origin community of Afro-Iranians, the descendants of Zanj slaves brought to Persia to do domestic labour from Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique. I could not think of a single example of such a couple from all my years working in the region however, so it simply made no sense to me. Write what you know, or at least, what you have experienced.
Instead, I have made him a Southern Italian, with an Iranian, Communist revolutionary ex-wife. I think that many Italian men in authority would risk all for love, they are romantic, they like to bend the rules, as though they are only there for the bending. So no, he is not himself an exile, nor does he suffer the great Lack that I described, but it is enough that he understands the dilemma of exile, rather as I do, married to a Bosnian for nearly twenty years. An Italian-Rwandan marriage makes perfect sense in my mind. Most Italian men adore beautiful dark women and treat them reverently, like living Goddesses, though of course, this can take the form of sexual harassment at times, especially as there are many trafficked Nigerian girls lining the streets of Rome’s outskirts. I know many happy interracial couples here and I see examples before me every day.
Perhaps it is a cop out, to accept the negative aspects of a reality many would rather gloss over and then to change my characters to fit. Making realistic decisions about ‘my people’ is important to me as a writer though. They are mine to make as they are my creation, but still, I agonize over the detail. I have no political motives with my writing, I just want a good story. The way I figure it, someone else with greater knowledge than mine can explore the Iranian-African love affair. I need it to make sense, to have continuity, and though the characters are all figments of an overactive imagination, my readers need to believe in them as much as I do.