Annika Milisic-Stanley: Why I write
How did you start writing?
At the age of twenty-two, I left the UK to work as an anthropologist/ project writer in Kenya, and never looked back. I have lived overseas for the last twenty years. My stories and novels are, therefore, usually about an assortment of expatriates and locals sharing experiences and clashing or fusing cultures to create something exciting and new.
I paint and write, but never at the same time. I started writing vignettes in my early twenties, almost like a journal of flash fiction stories. I shared them through letters and with close friends and saved each one as a memory, a little like we save our photographs in albums as a reminder of a moment or a time in our lives. That is not to say that these necessarily recorded happy moments or memories. Many were written in difficult circumstances, when writing became a form of self-help or therapy.
One day, I started one of these vignettes and it developed and expanded, filling chapter after chapter with words. At around chapter 8, I saw that I had produced the beginning of a novel. I continued to write, realising that my book 'The Disobedient Wife', would be the first to describe modern-day Tajikistan since the fall of the USSR, describing the lives of poor, urban women. Union writers in Tajikistan were routinely hounded, assassinated and imprisoned, with around ten men dying per year in suspicious circumstances from 1990-2000, according to Wikipedia (I have found no other source on this phenomenon). There are very few Tajik women writers documenting the female experience through fiction, and none in English. For these reasons, the book took on new importance to me, and I was determined to get it published. After many rejections on the basis of 'marketability', it won 2015 First Book Award at Cinnamon Press.
What do you like about writing, and what do you write about?
I love the challenge that writing a novel sets, knowing I have to delve into my imagination for inspiration for characters or places. I enjoy the process of mapping out a character; their personality traits, family background, cultural or religious influences. I observe the details of a place, or use video, photographs and memory to remember sounds, smells and colours, even music. I like to tell five-dimensional stories.
Writing keeps me learning about the world: Seeking out the answers to random questions through hours of research. My debut novel led me to examine the heroin trade in Tajikistan; how heroin is processed, smuggled, and what happens to the smugglers when they fail or try to leave the trade. I also researched domestic violence, and the atmosphere and activities of the Tajik women's refuge. I spent many hours reading Soviet history, Islamic funeral rituals and Tajik recipes.
For the book I am now writing, I spent several months reading harrowing testimonials from Rwandan refugees and Human Rights Watch. They gave me nightmares, which gave me a very real sense of what a young girl might feel having escaped a genocide. I searched for images of Kenyan slums, read up on Kenyan desert geography, flora and fauna, East African practices in witchcraft, Catholic catechism and traditional medicine.
I enjoy honing my craft. Writing creatively in English and using words in simple but effective ways to describe a feeling or a landscape. Editing and polishing my work, the fastidious process of rewriting, and rewriting again, over and over, until I feel it can't be better than it is.
Lastly, when my readers tell me that they have learned about a hitherto unknown part of the world as a result of 'The Disobedient Wife', or when it is clear that my book has raised a little awareness, the years I spend writing (and agonising over) a book are all worth it. Mostly, I am happy to think that my book has given someone enjoyment, even if only for a few hours.