Last week I wrote an interesting interview for the Dorset Writers Network, an Arts Council England and Dorset Community funded organisation that supports writers in Dorset county in the U.K.
Unlike other interviews, the DWN asked me questions about how I write (the process) and wanted to know whether I would write novels set in Dorset in future.
In ‘The Disobedient Wife’ I have actually made Dorset a refuge for one of the main characters, her childhood home. It made sense that this woman would run to Dorset in times of emotional difficulty. I am lucky to come from such a beautiful part of the U.K, a place where so many creative people live, inspired by the natural landscape.
The interview published on their website can be found here.
Further information on the Dorset Writers Network can be found here.
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.
So today I had an experience not unlike giving birth. My book was born. I have done it three times, and this came close. Ripping open brown paper-wrapped boxes to find clean, fresh books inside with my words, MY words inside them. I picked a book up. If it were a baby, it would have cried, shocked to be in the open air. I held it close to my body, I cradled it in my hands, feeling the smooth, soft cover with my fingertips. I made this, I thought. Happiness warmed me in yellow light. I could hardly believe it was real, only it was, I held a tangible, solid block of printed paper in my hands. It was heavy and smelled of the library, a dry, saw-dusty smell I adore. If only I could bottle the smell of a new book and wear it behind my ears or add it to my fabric conditioner, I thought.
Then I opened the first page. Legalese, a blurb of copyright and British library storage, my name and the name of my publisher. A list of acknowledgments, names in chronological order, a memory-keeper of the time I spent writing, rewriting, editing, writing again and editing again, each reader offering me constructive comments, or helping me with research. Four years interspersed with moving houses, painting pictures and bringing up children alone with the Man away.
My dedication: To the Women of Tajikistan and to another unsung heroine, my Mother. She cried for the longest time when she read it, she told me later. She has been ill, fighting cancer in her typical, stubborn, spirited way, rising from her bedchamber to play tennis not five weeks after her last major operation. She worked for many years with vulnerable children in care and gave them her protection to the best of her ability. They still call her as adults, checking in. They still love her, they still trust her. She really is a true, unsung heroine.
My children stood in a huddle around the boxes with wide eyes, staring at the pages in my hands with a look of wonder. My eldest, a plucky, lovable rogue (his teacher’s words) came forward to hug me violently, holding my waist with wiry arms. Then he tried to read the first chapter. He struggled, stammering his way through several sentences.
‘Perhaps I will wait until I am a bit older to read this Mum.’
‘Yes, I think so,’ I said, thinking of the raw content of my novel, a tale that charts a woman’s escape from an abusive man who would rape her in broad daylight if he could, just to settle old scores. A book that does not flinch from describing the backward trajectory into dogma and tradition that encapsulates ‘modern-day’ Tajikistan for a poor woman of low reputation. ‘It’s definitely a book for grown-ups,’ I said and I ruffled his hair. ‘Wait until you are eighteen, or perhaps sixteen. Probably better that way.’
My book THE DISOBEDIENT WIFE is coming out in 4 days, after almost 6 years in the making.
I started writing it when I lived in Dushanbe, the Capital city of a country called Tajikistan. Most people I speak to have never heard of the place and no wonder. It is a country almost totally cut off from the outside world. When I lived there, the BBC World Service was banned and journalists and writers were routinely harassed and imprisoned.
I started writing the novel because I found the stories I heard so fascinating. My usual mode of writing, the short story, did not seem to do justice to their tales of hardship and endurance and before I knew it, I had a novel on my hands. I chose to write mainly about women. The voiceless women born in Soviet times, now living in a State that is on the one hand a Police state; a Nanny State; a State in which the President can tell you how to dress and what to do with your teeth; and, on the other, a State where women’s rights enshrined under the Communist ethos of equality for all are routinely ignored. Academics have written widely on the phenomenon of retraditionalisation, specifically examining impacts on women. By this, they refer to the resurgence of religious and cultural tradition in society since the fall of the Soviet Union. My book is in essence about this same subject. It is also about another disobedient wife – a British diplomat’s trailing spouse. I leave it up to you to decide which of the intertwined narratives, the British expat or the local Tajik is the disobedient wife. Or perhaps it refers to them both. You will have to read it to find out.