Annika Milisic-Stanley was born in 1975 in the United States to Swedish and Anglo-German parents, but grew up in Britain. In addition to writing and painting, Annika works as a campaigner to raise awareness on the plight of refugees in Southern Europe. Anikka’s debut novel, ‘The Disobedient Wife’ was published in November 2015 and she is currently writing her second novel. She now resides with her husband and three children in Rome.
Can you share a little bit about your background?
I originate from a tiny village in Dorsetshire, a green, pleasant county of the UK, abundant in country pubs, scones with jam and cream, cricket greens, delphinium beds and frolicking ponies. My parents are Swedish / Anglo-German. I went to school there (both State and private ‘Public’ School) and then left to find ‘real’ gritty life in London, where I attended the School of Oriental and African Studies, majoring in Social Anthropology.
From London, I left to work in East Africa, Asia and the Middle East, first as a social / behavioural studies sociologist, project writer, later as a fundraiser and programme manager for non-governmental organisations. I had three children and worked as an editor from home. I first started writing creatively when I was about 22, venting my rage at the world’s injustices in short stories.
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 about other places, where you feel the author is translating the culture to the reader and drawing humanity together in shared experience.
I also love to read authors who are masters of language. They are the ones that I want to read slowly, in order to savour every sentence. They include: Dennis Potter, Rohinton Mistry, Anita Desai, Amitav Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jeffrey Eugenides, Monica Ali, Linda Grant, Aleksandar Hemon, Alice Munro, Sanjeev Sahota, E. M. Forster, Ian McEwan, Maya Angelou and James Mcbride, among many others. For pure relaxation, I love the sharp writing, humour and social observation of Fay Weldon, Jane Austen and Bill Bryson.
If you could name one book that changed the way you think about fiction what would it be?
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. I read that when I was around 22, working under horrific conditions in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Her book was an absolute revelation and I strongly identified with it on a personal level.
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 had gone through this terrible experience, heard other stories, and I was moved to write about it. As I wrote, a novel developed.
Would I be correct in thinking that there seems to be a lot of personal experience in the book?
There is and there is not. I am not similar to Harriet, in that I actually chose to live an expatriate life long before I met my partner. 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 also 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 (and did not sleep), when I felt completely unrooted and lost and had no friends, no one at all in the new posting. Imagine, moving to an underdeveloped country, thousands of miles from friends and family, with small children, where you know nothing and no one. And then, the spouse has to go to work and learn the ropes, leaving you to get on with it at home, returning late at night or travelling for long periods. It places a huge strain on a family. 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 as an expatriate.
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 also 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 a lot of important themes such as the cultural differences between Eastern and Western women and the oppression and violence that Tajiki women often encounter and handles these issues in a very informed and sensitive manner.
Why did you decide to include these themes 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 the 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. I wanted to write about this.
Can you describe the process of writing your first novel?
The book was written in around five years, with large breaks when I concentrated on other projects and moved my family to three further countries (Egypt, UK and Italy). I did not plan it properly before I started writing. As a result, I had to rewrite it multiple times and edited out around a third of the original manuscript. In retrospect, this was useful as I learned from the process.
How has living in other countries shaped your thoughts and informed some of your writing?
Living overseas has 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 incredibly useful for my creative writing. 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 the reader, an Irish-born man, for example, to relate to a Tajik woman.
What has being a writer taught you?
One never stops learning.
Can you discuss you current writing projects?
I am editing and rewriting a novel with the working title: ‘Queen of Refugees’ at the moment. Similarly to The Disobedient Wife, this novel is also set in different locations (Rwanda, Kenya and Italy) and features a strong, female protagonist. I started writing this book because I was interested in what happens to a person with family from two sides in a war; An object of distrust, who loves and fears both sides simultaneously. I lived many years in Eastern and Central Africa and wrote short stories, so I accessed a wealth of literary treasures to use in the book.
Do you find that writing a second book is harder than the first?
No. The first draft was easier to do. I researched the book and thought it out in my head for a year and then wrote the draft in around 4 months. Now comes the really difficult part: Editing and rewriting, cutting out lazy language and adding layers of subplot. I think this will be always be the part that I find most difficult to grapple with. It takes years. In the meantime, I started book 3, so as not to drive myself insane.
Any writerly wisdom you would like to part with?
I was told many times by agents etc. that my book was ‘unmarketable’, though beautifully written. My problem seems to be that I like writing ‘unmarketable’ books. That withstanding, my advice is:
READ, read, read all the time.
Enjoy writing and do not write with an audience in mind.
In my view, this stops one from feeling free and impedes creativity. Think about the publishing / marketing / audience later, when the book is done. If the book is good, people will read it.
Click below to read a free sample of The Disobedient Wife..