I’m pleased to welcome Annika Milisic-Stanley back to the blog. Annika has previously taken part in my author in the spotlight feature (click here to read that) and kindly donated a copy of her book for my blogiversary giveaway. In this guest post, she’s explaining what’s it’s like visiting a book club to discuss her novel The Disobedient Wife.
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 husband 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…