A Writer: Workhorse and Butterfly

A Writer: Workhorse and Butterfly

In this article, writer Ann Pratchett talks about writing fiction and non-fiction. Like her, I find writing non-fiction easy, and fiction very difficult. One taught her to be a workhorse, the other, a butterfly. Like her, I write non-fiction for money in the bank, re-writing thumbnail_disobedient_cover%20draft%206technical documents and editing the English. I do it to deadline and I do it for a living. Like her, I write fiction for pleasure. I do it because I love it, but I do it like a butterfly, flitting back and forth from the manuscript, settling for brief moments to tweak and write, change and rewrite. I have no deadlines apart from the desire to see my fiction in print, pushing me forward to complete stories and novels.

There is a great need to forgive yourself as a writer or as an artist, knowing that what you have produced is the best you are capable of, even if it might not be perfection in your eyes. Self-forgiveness is key to making art, as well as embracing mistakes, perhaps allowing those ‘wrongs’ to lead you in a different, better direction.  Just as with painting, creative writing requires superb technique as well as creative lightness and self-forgiveness.

Here is the article:

The Workhorse and the Butterfly: Ann Patchett on Writing and Why Self-Forgiveness Is the Most Important Ingredient of Great Art

 

 

 

Musings on another amazing book review…

Musings on another amazing book review…

…this time, because this reviewer, the author Georgia Rose, refers to my use of language, a true compliment for someone like me, someone who spends hours on every sentence, perfecting each passage in each chapter.  And then waking up to do it all again. Over and over and over.

Book reviews from the blogger world motivate, inspire and comfort in equal measure. They are given willingly, without prejudice or payment, like hand-wrapped parcels from perfect strangers, popping through the cyber letterbox.  This one tasted all the more sweet because it happened to arrive on my Birthday.

And what better compliment than to read, “I never wanted it to end…”?

http://www.georgiarosebooks.com/bookreview-for-the-disobedient-wife-by-annika-milisic-stanley-milisicstanley-rbrt-tajikistan/#comment-5407

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Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty Interview

Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty Interview

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.

Radio Free Europe

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.

The full interview is here  in Tajik and HERE in Russian

 

 

Have a good week.

 

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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Dear Expats: You CAN make friends for life

Dear Expats: You CAN make friends for life

A month ago, I traveled to Geneva for a book signing and presentation of ‘The Disobedient Wife’, my debut novel published with Cinnamon Press.  Held at Payot Genève Rive Gauche, a fancy four-floor building in the heart of the shopping/ commercial district in Geneva, it is a stone’s throw from the famous geyser in Lac Leman.  It crouched at the foot of Geneva’s old town, trolleybus tracks snaking their way in parallel to the contour of the lake.Geneva Payot Poster  It was great to meet new people, readers and fellow writers, people who worked and lived in Tajikistan, a Tajik, Azeri and an Afghan and their friends, spouses and colleagues.  Mainly though, the reason for my joy found meaning in the presence of genuine, loving friends, each representing different phases of my expatriate existence.

Expatriate life can be viewed through the prism of a novel in draft form, a work of art in progress.  One lives in episodes, or phases, with each posting or country;  a new, challenging, exciting chapter to be lived each day, in each moment in time.  The richness of the lifestyle is colored by the culture; the tastes, sounds and smells of each place.  That does not mean to say that when I move, I leave nothing of myself behind.  I know expatriates who seem to manage this, moving forward to furrow an endless track through time without looking back, without regrets.  I have come across these.  They make great friends as props in a scene, or extra guests at a party.  Lousy in the long-term, they shield their hearts from the pain of separation, choosing self-defense over love and friendship.

I am not one of those.  Even as I try to thrive on the movement (workplace, social circle and the material possessions of home,) my heart breaks with each move.  Most of the time when I leave a country, I feel as though my soul will tear into two, the old friends sadly abandoned even as I feel a familiar, happy excitement for the new experience ahead.  Tears are shed and leaving parties held, but I hold on to hope that some day, somewhere, we will meet again.

An unexpected bonus of publishing a novel has been exactly this.  I reunite with friends and go for sushi with five strangers to each other from five chapters of my life.

The first:  A friend – one of my oldest and dearest – my room-mate at school.  I count boarding school as my first early expatriate experience, living in a strange land far from everything that spelled home.  She stayed by my side for five years and together, we battled the joys and despair of puberty.  She came to visit my university and supported me as a bridesmaid at my wedding.  We ran together to breakfast in long overcoats to hide our pyjamas.  We ate toasted teacakes and drank coke floats in Tanners Cafe.  We sat in long detention on Friday nights, scribbling passages from Pilgrim’s Progress, caught with vodka and orange squash in our second year.  She is still staunchly loyal and kind, my comforting pal, ever since easing the homesickness I suffered in my first weeks away.

A Croatian friend:  We met in Kenya in 1998, a few weeks after I met my life partner, also her friend.  She attended our wedding, patiently translating the entire ceremony for my elderly father-in-law who couldn’t speak English.  Her kitchen, sweetly scented with bunches of roses hanging upside down from the ceiling.  She lives in Geneva, bringing up children whilst holding down a career as a psychologist for the traumatized and mentally unwell.

An Italian friend:  From life in Burundi, she is an incredible cook with a beautiful eye for interior design, a huge empathy for the downtrodden, abused women of this world, with a penchant for salt in the swimming pool to save her tan and… breeding puppies.  She gave me two dogs, Vuk and Crni, my faithful hounds in Burundi and Kenya.  She still has their mother, an old lady now, living with her in Geneva.

A Somali friend:   He happened to be on mission to Geneva from Addis Ababa.  We knew each other in Tajikistan, his children played with mine and his wife often came by for tea and conversation.  She cooked us French Rabbit Stew, my first and last taste of fluffy bunnies (sorry!).  He lived in Dushanbe prior to the collapse of the Soviet Empire, speaks fluent Russian and has a vast knowledge of the world during the Cold War, Glasnost and Perestroika, having lived through it.

An Austrian friend:  My sweet ‘soul Mama’ yoga teacher and chill out pal, whom I knew in Cairo, a bendy athlete with her feet in the air, her children the same age as my own.  She recently relocated to Geneva from Egypt.  She misses the sun and her flowery roof terrace, but skis every weekend, kick-starting her career once more as a Primary School teacher.

These friends came along to the signing.  They brought their friends and colleagues from work and home, cheered me on and lifted my heart with moral support, hugs and smiles.  I have not mentioned the incredible generosity of old friends online, the ones from Dushanbe and Cairo who originally read the book and offered useful, detailed comments, the ones who live on every continent and share my websites, read my reviews, support me by reading my book at their book clubs.  The friends, old and new, here in the beauty of Rome.  They promote my work across their networks without me asking.  I am lucky.

I have reflected on this since my trip to Geneva and every time, I feel a soft glow in my chest, as though my heart is held by many warm, careful hands.  The fear I once harbored, that the fluidity of expatriate life would leave me without solid, lifelong friendships… utterly unfounded.

To read more about the book, please visit here

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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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Displaced Dispatch

Displaced Dispatch

This week, my book ‘The Disobedient Wife’ got a mention in the ‘Displaced Dispatch’ a so-called ‘home for international creatives’: A website that incorporates all international news on fine arts, literature, food and theatre, including street parades in The Bahamas and door-to-door singers in South Wales. It is a great site, with articles on the pain of expatriate ‘re-entry’ on return to home…

Check it out!

LINK: DISPLACED DISPATCH

 

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