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Read All About It: 'The Disobedient Wife' by Annika Milisic-Stanley

From Cinnamon Press this month comes The Disobedient Wife, a story of solidarity between two women by writer, artist, and social anthropologist Annika Milisic-Stanley. Set against the backdrop of Tajikistan, the novel tells the story between Harriet, the wife of a wealthy and influential man, and Nargris, her maid who struggles with poverty. On the surface, it seems that the two women have little in common in terms of social class and experiences; in spite of this, they find common ground in the face of difficult circumstances and begin to understand each other.

There is an emphasis on the stories that women have to tell and the battles that women everywhere, but especially in Tajikistan, endure every day. It highlights certain hardships that not everyone may be aware of and are handled in a bold yet sensitive manner.

The setting of Tajikistan is central to the novel. Its recent history and effects of a civil war as well as the underlying corruption of crime and power in certain areas serves to create a unique story of struggle, which is perhaps particular to those who have experienced it first-hand. It ties with Milisic-Stanley’s own understanding of living in Dushanbe and her background in social anthropology, making for precise, delicate, and personal writing.

What inspired you to write this story?

I lived in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, between 2007 and 2009.  I had small children and ran mother and baby groups and a playschool from my home.  I met expatriate women, Tajik mothers and nannies from all walks of life and I found their stories both fascinating and shocking.  I knew women working with gender programmes to help vulnerable women of second, Islamic marriages with divorce, victims of domestic violence and patriarchal child custody traditions. 

There are many Tajik women entrepreneurs but debt is rife. In Dushanbe, many women become heads of households and run small enterprises buying and selling while their husbands leave to be migrant labourers in Russia.  A third of these migrants divorce their wives by telephone and women have to bring up their children alone.  Most divorced women are thrown out of their in-laws’ homes and sent home to their parents in disgrace. For divorced women, life is difficult as marital breakdown is considered shameful and a dishonour to the wife's family; the woman's fault. 

It is very difficult for a woman to remarry but a divorced woman is seen as little more than a prostitute.  I was especially shocked that a woman could lose her children (including small babies) to her ex-husband's family, even if she could prove that she has been physically abused.  Some abandoned women feel they have no choice but to put their children into orphanages, where at least they will get something to eat.  Much of this has only happened since the collapse of the Soviet Union as the Communist State provided women with solid legal rights. 

I was also interested in the murky backdrop of criminality and repression that infused all daily life in Dushanbe.  It was frequently said that Dushanbe was a very safe city because all the criminals were in positions of power, run through networks affiliated to clans.  Shops were open money-laundering enterprises, staffed by taciturn men in black leather jackets who looked like nightclub bouncers.  People with successful businesses were extorted. Luxury vehicles sped through the city with tinted windows.  I wanted to write about it.

How does your experience of social anthropology affect your writing?

My background in social anthropology affects my writing in multiple ways. Firstly, I am careful not to make women and men of different ethnicity/ religion (to my own) a cliché of themselves in Western eyes.  I am very aware of my responsibility to my characters: to show them as individuals with all their own quirks and foibles rather than as socio-cultural stereotypes. 

As a result of my academic training, I am also very interested in what happens when cultures clash – the initial fallout from a relationship like the one between the British expatriate and the local Tajik in the book, for example.  My British character has little cultural awareness and I play with that in the story, when I have her ask the local woman ridiculous questions about 'Tajik Ways'.  Other expatriates in the book cling to their Western identities and disapprove of those who 'turn native' or get too intimate with the local people.  Many of the conversations in the book were inspired by my own experiences of spending time with expatriates like these; people with absolutely no cultural sensitivity whatsoever.  They were great fun to write, even though I personally find their discourse repugnant.  Many authors have explored this situation before me, the most famous of course, being the writer Rudyard Kipling in 'Passage to India'.  Again though, I tried not to stereotype the 'typical' Western expatriate and had examples of people who were Western but also culturally sensitive. 

Sometimes I feel my academic training can block me as a writer and I have to consciously fight the urge to be politically correct/ neutral at the expense of writing about what I view as  negative aspects of a culture/ traditional practice (for example, domestic violence in the name of religion or Tajik tradition).  I use the story and the characters so that the readers can make up their own mind.  Unlike the classically 'pure' social anthropologist, I do not remain a neutral bystander, but rather I encourage debate through the writing.  There is a fine line between writing politically motivated literature and being neutral to the point that your characters lose their voice.  I hope I have achieved this balance

What do you think is the importance of bringing social issues into literature? 

I tend to feel rather let down if I am reading a book that does not bring social issues into literature.  As a writer, social issues and themes are the springboard for my stories.  I am not sure it is a conscious choice as I happen to find social issues interesting and I enjoy using literature as a tool to explore and debate them.  I have never liked literature without a strong plot and social themes.  This is personal, as I know there are many people who consider reading for pleasure as an opportunity to escape into the type of literature that does not necessarily bring gritty social issues to the foreground. 

What would you most want to achieve with this novel?

I hope my readers feel they have learned something new about the city and people of Dushanbe.  I want my readers to be shocked at what some Tajik women endure as well as admiring how they overcome their obstacles.  I am aware that certain Tajiks might feel that in choosing a poor, vulnerable second wife as the main local character, I am not representing the country as a whole.  I do not, however, pretend that this book will represent an entire nation.  I hope that readers will identify with the characters and move beyond thinking of them in exotic 'otherness'.  Mostly though, I hope that my readers will enjoy reading a good story.

The Disobedient Wife is now available to order on our website for £9.99.