Book signing in Trieste: Cafe San Marco

Book signing in Trieste: Cafe San Marco

This week I was lucky enough to be invitedIMG_1270 by the International Welcome Club of Trieste Region (IWCTR) to come and give a talk on my book, ‘The Disobedient Wife’.

The venue chosen, Cafe San Marco, is popular with Trieste readers and writers alike, with several literary events (as well as others, such as wine tasting), held every week. It is located in via Battisti 18. Founded in 1914, it became famous as a rendezvous for intellectuals and writers including Italo Svevo, James Joyce and Umberto Saba, a tradition that continues to date with Claudio Magris. A meeting point for Trieste’s irredentists, the café was destroyed by Austro-Hungarian troops during the first World War but was reopened when hostilities ended.  Brass-coloured leaf motifs cover the ceiling and circular pictures of thespians and jesters adorn the walls like portholes looking into a different era.

One side of the cafe is for coffee drinkers, the other for books.  Towards the back of the cafe there is a delightful space for presentations, and this is where our group met.IMG_1266

Around eighteen people came, some of whom struggled with the English, but who valiantly stayed to listen to the end. Others were British like myself, or long term expatriates from other countries living in Trieste, interested in hearing a talk about a little-known part of Central Asia.  As usual, I showed my film, and explained the socio-political and economic situation in Tajikistan in the present day.

‘The Disobedient Wife’ is literary fiction rather than biography or travelogue, but it inspires discussion about traditional culture, religion and the fall of the USSR wherever I take it.

2016-05-26-PHOTO-00000011

It was interesting to hear parallels drawn between the onset of fascism in Italy (and therefore, education for women frowned upon), and the situation in Tajikistan today with tradition overtaking the ‘Soviet’ ideal of egalitarianism between the sexes. As usual, I took away as many observations and knowledge for myself as I gave to others.

All in all, a great book talk. Thanks to IWCTR.

triestecaffe

 

 

 

Heaven is…

Heaven is…

Lying in bed after a long run in the Italian morning sun with my laptop and a cup of English tea.  Feeling the words form, the story lines merge.  Using images of African queens for inspiration, researching witchcraft and confession, rebellion and refugee poetry.  This is my idea of a heavenly day.

Silence, words, tea and time.  No sound outside, except birdsong and the rustle of wind in leaves.

Grateful.

writing

disobedient_cover-draft-6

My book, ‘The Disobedient Wife’ by Annika Milisic-Stanley is published by Cinnamon Press Ltd (UK)

 

 

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.

disobedient_cover draft 6

 

Writing Point of View – The Search for a Voice

Writing Point of View – The Search for a Voice

This week I spent hours rewriting sections of my draft novel – working title. This book is about a young, privileged teenager.  She is at Catholic boarding school, but lives with her Grandmother in the holidays.  The novel is set in a Central African country in the Great Lakes with a troubled inter-ethnic history.  It is on the verge of civil war, but the teenager tries to ignore this out of deep-seated fear, hiding in pop music and school work.  During her Easter holidays, the situation boils over and she finds herself the target of violence and persecution, fleeing to become a refugee in Kenya.

This week, I was worried that in the third person omniscient narration mode, readers will not feel they are sufficiprocessently inside the protagonists head to care enough about her to read on.  While writing ‘The Disobedient Wife‘, my debut novel, one of my editors told me to increase the voice of the British expatriate character as she was more ‘relatable’ to my ‘market’ than the Tajik. In this new book, my non-Western character will be going it alone… and will have to hold the reader until Chapter 8, when a French aid worker gets her voice.

She needs to be compelling and three dimensional, especially as she is a character from another cultural world than our own.  It is up to me to ensure that the readers will feel an emotional bond for this young woman that overrides any prejudices or assumptions about her based on nationality, race or age.

voice

With this in mind, I decided to embark on an experiment in Point of View (POV), transferring my novel, chapter by chapter into the 1st person immediate narrative.

There were results almost straight away. As I wrote in the ‘I’ format, I found myself relating to the character more as a teenager, a girl on the cusp of adulthood who is about to befall a huge, life changing calamity.  I answered my own questions (how could she have been kept in the dark so long, how did she handle the increasing danger in her situation) and I discovered new facets to her personality and upbringing, including a rather snobbish attitude towards her fellow villagers and her politically extreme Aunt, the ‘peasants’.

She emerged from each scene as a fully fledged human being, with defined flaws and faults, insight and emotions.  Those insights, moments of thought and reveals in dialogue have been reinserted in the third person omniscient narrative, with excellent results. In the end, I prefer the literary quality of this more traditional writing style, it suits me better as a story-teller. I find 1st person difficult to read and sometimes ‘slightly jarring’, as my Mother has put it.

Now, time to stop blogging and get nikewritingback to the task… 100 pages down, 200 more to go.

Have a great week, bloggers 🙂

Annika Milisic-Stanley

 

 

 

 

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

The Cultural Identity of a Character

credit: www.blackwomenhaveitgoingon.wordpress.com
credit: http://www.blackwomenhaveitgoingon.wordpress.com Annette Harrison

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.

For more on being a black girl in Rome, check out this fantastic short film by Pizzoli Media: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AznUhel2LqQ&feature=youtu.be