I stumbled across Annika Milisic-Stanley’s debut novel, The Disobedient Wife on Goodreads while searching for ‘Expat Fiction’. After I had posted my 5 star review of her gorgeous novel, we came into contact via social media. I am glad she was able to take time away from her work as a fundraiser for a refugees center in Rome to share this fascinating interview with us.
Interview with Expat Fiction author Annika Milisic-Stanley
What is your background?
I originate from Dorset, a green, pleasant county of the UK, abundant in country pubs, scones with jam and cream, delphinium beds and pony clubs. I attended the School of Oriental and African Studies, majoring in Social Anthropology. I have worked all over the world, as a social/ behavioural studies sociologist, project writer, fundraiser and programme manager for non-governmental organisations. Now, I have children and work as a program fundraiser for a small non-profit day centre for refugees in Rome (www.jnrc.it). I started writing creatively in my early twenties, venting my rage at the world’s injustices through fictional short stories.
How did The Disobedient Wife come about?
When I was in Tajikistan, I found out that women often lose custody of their children, even if they are divorced by their husband (through no fault of their own). Women are then thrown out, shamed by their communities and shunned, losing everything. I found this shocking, having two babies of my own at the time. I knew two women who went through this terrible experience, heard other stories, and was moved to write about it. As I wrote, a novel developed.
There seems to be a lot of personal experience in the book. Could you expand on this?
There is and there is not. I am not Harriet, in that I actually chose to live an expatriate life long before I met my partner, and I have a career in my own right. I have, however, met many women who share her difficulties with low self-esteem and who are lost in the chaos of underdeveloped countries, without opportunities to work or contribute. I have met many young wives with older husbands in the diplomatic core who fight depression and loneliness, left to deal with the constant moving by themselves. Moving with children as a trailing spouse can be very hard. I have had some bad times, especially when my children were very small, when I felt completely unrooted and lost and had no friends, no one at all in the new posting. I don’t have huge sympathy for trailing spouses who ignore hardship and poverty to disappear into the bubble of beauty parlours and leisurely lunches, but I do understand why they do it. I lived in Tajikistan during the time the novel is set, and obviously my own observations on culture, location and daily life litter the book. I have said before, Harriet is an amalgamation of many women I have known.
Did you have to do much research for The Disobedient Wife?
Yes, I did extensive research into the drug trafficking trade, Russian migration, domestic violence and services for battered women in Tajikistan. I researched Tajik proverbs, language and culture in order to ensure that I didn’t make mistakes when writing dialogue/ Tajik cultural practices.
The book touches on important themes such as the cultural differences between Eastern and Western women and the oppression and violence that Tajik women often encounter. It handles these issues in an informed and sensitive manner. Can you talk about why you decided to include these subjects in the book?
I was personally moved by the situation that Tajik women find themselves in now. Economic collapse and migration have placed increased pressure on proud, hard-working people to survive. The stress on men as breadwinners and the cultural vacuum left by the fall of the USSR have impacted women and girls badly, leading to early marriage, increased high school drop out rates for girls and less female decision-making power in the home. As the brain-drain (of Soviet educated families) impacts the country, village traditions gain in importance, seen as culturally ‘Tajik’ in he new Republic. Women have lost the rights enshrined to them by the Soviet State, seen as ‘Colonial’. This has had cultural implications for the whole country, but especially for women and girls.
Can you describe how living in other countries shaped your thoughts and informed your writing?
Living overseas shaped my writing in as far as I am always an outsider, looking in. My academic background taught me to observe and note, to remain politically neutral and to show examples of a hypothesis. This has been useful. I always write with an awareness of cultural relativism and my ‘otherness’. Rather than getting hung up on gender/ racial/ spiritual/ cultural bias, I try to uncover the shared human experience that surpasses these differences. I believe that this is what allows a reader, an American man, for example, to relate to a Tajik woman.
What books or writers have influenced your own writing?
I am heavily influenced by authors who write about outsiders in society, whether due to race/ religion, gender or other reasons, such as mental illness. I enjoy stories where cross-cultural clashes are examined in detail, creating emotional dissonance and identity crises. I love novels on other places, where the author is translating the culture to the reader, drawing humanity together in shared experience.
What has being a writer taught you?
One never stops learning.
About the Author
Annika Milisic-Stanley was born in 1975 to Swedish and Anglo-German parents, and grew up in Britain. After graduating from the School of Oriental and African Studies, she worked in Nepal, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, India, Burundi and Egypt as well as living in Tajikistan for several years. Annika lives in Rome. In addition to writing and painting, she works as a campaigner to raise awareness on the plight of refugees in Southern Europe.
The Disobedient Wife
Tajikistan is a harsh place of political and religious repression. It remains deeply patriarchal. The first modern-day novel in English describing Tajikistan, The Disobedient Wife is dedicated to the women of Tajikistan.
The Disobedient Wife tells the story of two very different women, both trapped in a fabric of a social environment that is hostile to them. Harriet Simenon is the rich wife of a powerful expat business man, with all the privilege that entails; yet her journal portrays a darker interior world of isolation and loneliness. Nagris is her Tajik nanny and maid who struggles with poverty and her subordinate role both at work and as a woman in society in general. Yet Nagris possesses a strength that Harriet comes to admire. As Harriet’s life unravels against a backdrop of violence and betrayal Nagris becomes her support and an unexpected friendship develops.
In a narrative rich with a sense of place and deeply humane, Milisic-Stanley brings the acute observation of an artist and social anthropologist to bear on this compelling story of two women surviving and thriving in difficult circumstances.
Buy The Disobedient Wife now on Amazon.
Enjoy reading this post? Check out Melissa Burovac, Jille Dobbe, Anne Hamilton, Jennifer S. Alderson and Beth Green and Pamela Allegretto’s fascinating contributions to ‘Fiction and Memoirs written by Expats and Travelers month’ while you are here.