Today I’m pleased to welcome Annika Milisic-Stanley to the blog. Annika is the author of The Disobedient Wife, published by Cinnamon Press on 20 February 2016 and today she has written a great guest post discussing strong women in exotic locations.
Writing about ‘Strong Women in Exotic Locations’
The title of this piece sums up my first novel ‘The Disobedient Wife’ in five words.
My debut came out in November 2015, published by an innovative, independent press house (Cinnamon Press) after winning their First Book prize for 2014. Prior to this I tried more traditional routes to publish, but while I received praise for my writing and plenty of encouragement from agents, my book had no ‘niche’. It seemed no one wanted to read about strong women in exotic locations (aside from myself). Judging from the reviews I received since, however, this assumption was clearly incorrect. Mainstream readers do want to read about places they have not necessarily visited or even heard of before, and they do like reading about inspiring women.
As a writer, I found myself fascinated by Tajikistan, a newly founded Republic formed after the collapse of the Soviet Union (and after a 5-year civil war). I had lived there for around a year when I began to set down the stories that would become a novel.
Women hold the social fabric of life together in many households, especially with so many men away working as migrant labourers in Russia. At the same time, women are treated as second class citizens, with domestic violence and unofficial ‘second’ marriage so common as to be normal, even though this leaves women without legal rights and social assistance when widowed or forced to flee an abusive marriage. Unlike the U.K, divorced women lose custody of their children, seen as property of the husband’s family (unless his family decide they are too heavy an economic burden). In Tajikistan, the legal framework is only accessed by the elite; those with the money and education to pay lawyers and argue their case in court.
Tajikistan is also interesting because during Soviet times (until 1991, not that long ago), women were educated to secondary level and were not allowed to marry as minors. Now, as the Tajiks search for their cultural identity and cast off everything associated with the Communism of the colonial occupiers, more and more girls are taken out of school and married off by the age of twelve. Cultural tradition (led by a conservative interpretation of religion) is starting to dominate and shape women’s lives.
Despite these problems, Tajik women struck me as strong; working to feed, clothe and comfort children as single parents while waiting anxiously for husbands to return home (a third never return and many divorce their wives by phone from Russia). Inspired, I wrote a fictional tale of an optimistic, resilient woman who manages to overcome all the obstacles thrown in her path. Nargis was born, an single mother and entrepreneur who works for a foreign family as a nanny and starts her own business. Unbeknownst to her, her ex will return to wreak havoc in her life. I dedicated this novel to Tajik women.
At the same time, expatriate women dig deep into their inner strength to manage the quirks and trials of life overseas. They are also ‘strong women in exotic locations’. In Tajikistan, I stayed at home with a small baby like the British character Harriet in the book, and I spent much of my day with women like her friends, though this is where our similarities end. Previously, I had worked and so I found this new lifestyle an eye-opener. Some foreigners sat about complaining, wasting their agency to do something meaningful, but others managed to force change, assisting individuals or organisations. At the start of the novel, Harriet is quietly desperate, feeling that she makes no difference to anyone and that her skills are worthless and unwanted. Inspired by Nargis, Harriet blossoms and grows, refusing to accept her lousy marriage. It is true that expatriate partners must be strong, especially those who are holding families together in order to move to new, lonely, culturally different countries with partners. I would include military families here, and families where the men travel full time, leaving women in charge (and more rarely, house husbands).
I have just completed my next novel, ‘The Girl With the White Suitcase’, a story set in Rwanda, Kenya, Italy, France and the UK. Again, it is about a resilient woman. She comes of age, starting the story as an arrogant, sheltered teenager. Forced to escape her country, she becomes an unaccompanied minor refugee in Kenya, prevailing against the odds with only her education, intelligence and instinct for survival. Like Nargis, she is a feisty character and one that I hope will grab the reader’s hearts right to the last page.
Many of my favourite authors carved this path, including Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (the strong sisters in One Half of a Yellow Sun), as well as many others. I still believe that readers want to read about Strong Women in Exotic Locations and hope to prove it with another well received book.
Thanks for reading!
About the book:
“This book is the first modern-day novel in English describing Tajikistan as it is today. It is a beautiful country, rich with agriculture and tourism potential, but has also become an increasingly harsh place for women with the degradation of their rights and an increase in dogmatism, chauvinism and orthodoxy in poor households, justified in the name of culture. It has a regime run by despotic warlords and is marred by the drugs trade, a murky underworld that co-exists with ordinary life. In 2008, there were a series of small explosions in Dushanbe. No one claimed responsibility. There are ten banned opposition parties in Tajikistan. Many of them are multi-national and would like to see Central Asia become an Islamic ‘superstate’. Religious minorities are not allowed to register new places of worship and all mosques and churches are required to be registered. Proselytising and missionary activity was officially banned in 2008. Dedicated to the women of Tajikistan, The Disobedient Wife intertwines the narratives of Harriet Simenon, whose journal portrays a darker interior world than that of the rich wife of the powerful Henri Simenon, and Nargis, her local nanny and maid, struggling with poverty, yet with a strength that Harriet comes to admire as her own life unravels. Rich with sense of place and deeply humane, Milisic-Stanley brings the acute observation of an artist and social anthropologist to bear on this moving and compelling story of how two women survive and thrive in difficult circumstances.” (synopsis from Amazon)