Our Second Book

black milkOur second book could not have been more different. Elif Shafak is one of Turkey’s most acclaimed authors. This memoir covers the time she was rising to prominence as a writer, struggling with ambivalent feelings about motherhood, and then with the distressing experience of postpartum depression. Although this sounds a potentially dark topic, the book embraces a unique approach to it.

DP: I have started Black Milk and what a great book it is turning out to be. I’ll send you a more detailed post, but just wanted to let you know I have started it and I’m very taken with it

I was very encouraged to read this first message from Dark Puss. I happened to have family visiting and so he got a bit of a head start.

DP: I pick up very clearly on her thoughts that she is, as a woman and perhaps even more so in the male-dominated society that is Turkey, pulled in many mutually contradictory (or conflicting) ways. Her desire to write and to earn her living by doing so is clearly at odds with the traditional role of wife/mother. I like the way she uses her meeting with the childless author Agaoglu as the catalyst for her confrontation with her inner voices, some reasonable, some “traditional”, some practical. These discordant inner voices are loud are they not?

Adalet Agaoglu is 81, one of the ‘foremost literary voices of her generation’, and someone Shafak respects. Having been invited to tea, the conversation comes round to whether the lives of women writers are ruined by having children. Shafak imagines a Turkish version of Judith, the creative sister of Shakespeare that Virginia Woolf conjured up in A Room of One’s Own, and the notion provokes such inner turmoil that she has to excuse herself. In the bathroom, ‘I take a deep breath, grab a candle and start descending the mossy stairs to the dungeons of my soul.’ In her inner world she finds Little Miss Practical, Dame Dervish, Miss Ambitious Chekovian and Miss Highbrowed Cynic, four  ‘Thumbelina’s or finger women who represent different aspects of her personality and are constantly in battle for supremacy. As Shafak wrestles with her inner voices, she weaves in and out of her own story the tales of other women writers who have faced the same conflict over motherhood: Sylvia Plath, Zelda Fitzgerald, Simone de Beauvoir, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and many others.

L: I’m loving the vivid and lively way she is telling this story. The combination of snippets of biography and her conversations with the Thumbelinas is delightfully done. I’d been concerned I’d find them twee, but Shafak writes about them with such verve and vividness that I was won over. She explores her own ambivalence about mothering with honesty and insight, and I liked the political/military tone she gave to her finger women; the way they moved through different forms of self-government was excellent.

Elif Shafak describes a ‘coup’ that takes place in the middle of the night when the Thumbelinas inform her that they have secured a fellowship for her at an American college, Mount Holyoke. They believe they can force Elif to concentrate solely on her mind and leave the troubles of the body behind. Although she is not settled or especially happy in America, she begins to write the books that will make her famous, as well as a column for a Turkish newspaper.

DP: At first I wondered if I was going to like the Thumbelinas, which I thought was quite a risky concept to put in a book like this but I was fairly rapidly won over by them. A huge pleasure for me was her wit in writing about herself and her situation. I loved her description of how the readers of her column in a conservative Turkish paper were more amazed/concerned that no one was eating the squirrels than that lesbians were walking hand-in-hand on her campus. Her dry comment that this was progress certainly made me smile.

On a trip back home she meets the man who will become her husband. And during this period, she discovers two Thumbelinas she never knew about: Mama Rice Pudding, a latent maternal instinct and Blue Belle Bovary, her delight in her feminine sexuality, a particularly difficult aspect of self for Turkish women writers. These finger women complain about the oppression they’ve suffered under the rule of the more cognitively concerned foursome. When she falls pregnant, Mama Rice Pudding gets completely out of control. And then when she falls into depression, the djinn, Lord Poton, locks all the finger women up in a box.

DP: I liked her serious (academic?) introspection as to her feelings. She writes perceptively about the myriad of forces that pull us (men and women though she concentrates on women) to conform, to behave to local (often patriarchal) norms and the conflict that generates.

I know very well people who have suffered from moderate to severe depression (though not associated with post-partum) and I thought her description was honest, though for me the only slightly weak part of this marvellous book was her conversation with the djinn which somehow failed to work for me.

L:  I have to say that the section on her depression was disappointingly glib. The Thumblinas drifted into fairy tale – shut in their box by an evil djinn, until eventually they were let out, unchanged apart from having learned a useful lesson, and then they all lived happily ever after. I felt this was too gentle for the ugly, messy, real business of transition that women go through when they enter motherhood for the first time. I’m sure some women manage the change with ease. But for a lot of us – and Elif Shafak was one of them, clearly – it’s a process of destruction, followed by a slow and painful rebuild. Plus I felt there was a lot she wasn’t saying: what about that court case and trial that she had to go through when pregnant? What about the fact her husband was away on military service (of all things!) just when she was dealing with a newborn? I don’t think I could give this book to a woman in the throes of postpartum depression, though for a woman who felt fearful in advance, it would work. 

We both agreed that this was essentially a splendid book, so inventive, well-written and funny.

DP: I never ever felt I was the “wrong sex” as a reader!

L: I’m not surprised. I found it a markedly ‘masculine’ take on women’s issues – one that intellectualised feelings or transposed them into allegorical scenes, one that stressed the need for autonomy and independence above all else and one that kept rigorously away from the vicissitudes of living inside a woman’s body, particularly over the period of gestation and birth.

One query arose that I couldn’t answer to Dark Puss’s satisfaction:

DP: There is a short chapter in which Elif explains why she has the surname Shafak, entitled “Women who change their names”. I’ve always been puzzled as to why (at least in countries where there is no legal implication and in the late C20 onwards) women generally still seem to change their names on marriage. I cannot see any logic to it, cannot see what the benefits are, can only see the hassle of changing all your documents etc. For women who write or are known publicly it seems an even more bizarre choice to me! Shafak doesn’t enlighten me greatly here, although she writes lucidly about the historical reasons why the Brontes, Mary Evans etc. chose male names. Do you understand why so many women still wish to change their surnames in societies like ours in the UK? Why would you wish to subsume that very public part of your identity to that of another? Why do men so rarely do it?

I suggested to Dark Puss that it was a way to signal belonging that was considered romantic, and that for my own part I liked the feeling of having two aliases as if they gave me different options of who to be. But these comments didn’t explain the matter for him. Any thoughts to help him out here?




38 thoughts on “Our Second Book

  1. Elif Shafak is a very talented writer, I think. As for name change – I think there are sometimes very good reasons why women want to change their name from their father’s – childhood abuse for one; for people of Caribbean descent the awareness that the family name is that of a former slaveowner is another. On a personal note, an ex of mine decided to keep my name following divorce, resulting in a whole brood of little Ansells in a faraway land (the only ones in the country) none of whom are of my own making.

    • Ooh those are good reasons, and none I’d thought of. How strange to think of the Ansell line carrying on apace elsewhere and apart from you. That should be fun for your family tree in generations to come. And yes, we both really liked Shafak’s writing and will be reading her again.

  2. I agree about the liberation of an alias. All my important personal documents are still in my maiden name (which has caused a couple of near disasters airplane ticket wise) and am embracing my blogging moniker and have even had mail addressed to Mrs C (thank you Litlove).

    • You were very welcome! I loved having Litlove as a possible self too (she is generally much smarter than me). My only problem with the aliases sometimes arises when paying in shops. ‘Oh can you just remind me of the name on that card?’ I used to ask, hoping that the salesperson would not start calling the fraud department. Thank goodness for chip and pin!

  3. I don’t know the answer to DP’s question. In my generation, it was just what was done. I don’t think we thought about it much. Although we probably should have. Now it’s different.If I remarried, I would not do it again. When you stop to think about it, it is so very strange. This sounds like a very good read and I’ll have to keep my eyes open for it.

    • Dear Grad, I’m glad I’m not the only one who is puzzled about changing names! We both strongly recommend this book to you. The humour was unexpected (to me) and it is the first of her books that I have read.

    • When Dark Puss asked me this question it was the same day that yahoo covered a news item about the royals and the comments section was full of irate people complaining that calling Prince William’s wife ‘Kate Middleton’ was an insult. So a chunk of the population here thinks it’s still the ‘done’ thing. I agree if I remarried I wouldn’t bother to change my name again – unless it was a really nice surname. I’m shallow as a teaspoon.

  4. I just read and reviewed this book and my reaction was close to Litlov’s. Maybe the experience of mothering made us aware of what pain Shafak left out or glossed over. I thought the book was a fine introduction to the topic for women and men who hadn’t realized the problems of post-partum depression or the larger problems of combining motherhood and creativity. For someone like myself who has struggled with these issues in my own life, the book was disappointing. I wish she had at least written more explicitly about her own initial experience with her new infant.

    Some women have written about writing and publishing being traditionally viewed as an inherently male act. Men have been taught to take command; women have been told to be sacrificial. Men were the ones taking authority to define, rather than finding meaning in nurturing others. Pen as penis. Some of this over-simplistic, but I believe there is grain of truth there also. I never feel as audacious and like I am stepping out of my place as when I have actually mailed an article to a publisher.

    Taking a man’s name has traditionally meant you belong to him; he will represent, support, and protect you. Traditionally women had the benefits of that. We should no longer assume that will happen, no matter how well intentioned the man. But the dream lives that someone will take care of us. Besides, society wants and expects to deal with a man as the head of the family; not women as heads or as individuals. I found even public schools had trouble with mothers and fathers with different names. I am glad to see things changing.

    • MD, I’m pretty sure you’d feel the same way – after having a long chronic illness that was invisible, I get very antsy about writers glossing over what can’t be seen. I know show-not-tell is a big rule in writing these days, but what if there’s nothing to show? I feel the rule has seeped into society, or society has affected writing, and either way we treat the invisible with contempt or indifference. Depression is exactly the same as chronic fatigue – there’s nothing to see and not necessarily any obvious reasons why. So it’s up to writers who have this amazing ability to tap into the power of the ineffable, to put words to these conditions in ways that really convey them to people who haven’t suffered and don’t know what it’s like, or who have suffered and need solidarity. I think it’s really important, and when writers like Shafak make light of their condition, it’s ultimately a disservice to everyone who has to go through it. To be fair to her, she does say that weakness has become the shameful condition for womanhood, and that’s not right. I cheered at that point, but was sorry she didn’t take it further.

  5. And can you imagine women in Communist China do not change their names after marriage? Beats me… I’ve always thought about this issue. But I think the romantic factor as you mentioned is still valid and something we all want to uphold even. I know, hard to explain. And, despite being one with an independent mind, I wasn’t bothered at all with following my husband’s name, never regretted it for all these decades. Beats me… 😉

    • How about that! I had no idea about Communist China; well, it’s fascinating to learn something new. And sometimes it just IS hard to pinpoint the reasons we do things!

  6. Another fascinating book–and I loved following your discussion–both books have now been added to my wishlist. As to the name thing….and I’m from a younger generation who has had friends both take their husband’s last name and hyphenated the two names–I took my husband’s name–and I think it did have something to do with the romantic aspect of being in a relationship, and maybe it had something, too, to do with identity–of starting something new and becoming someone different–it was quite exciting at the time, the thought of being married and part of something bigger than myself–it’s an interesting question and one I never thought about–just knew I wanted to have a new last name. Now, after having gone through a divorce and even still two years later dealing with legal issues as I am still untangling myself from it all–I would never, ever consider taking the name of my spouse. Now I see it as losing part of my identity–strange how things change over time, becoming someone else that I wouldn’t want to be. In other cultures a woman keeps her name and any children have hyphenated names–taking their father’s first and then the mother’s follows–seems fair that both parents get credit! I wonder if any cultures actually take the woman’s last name? Surely it must have been a property thing to begin with (though am just assuming that)? Not much fun as a woman to be thought of solely as property.

    • I like the idea of being part of something bigger than oneself. I hadn’t thought of that, but I know what you mean. If you and your husband and any children all have the same name, there’s something very neat and cohering about it all. I’m pretty sure you’re right, and it was all to do with property in the first place. Plus, you have my every sympathy for the untangling that has to be done now – I can well imagine it is complex and never-ending! I kept my maiden name for work because I just knew the university had a dozen departments with my name on the database and I would never, ever be able to reach them all. But I did take on a married name, too. I like the idea of hypenating, but our names would not have gone together at all well! I wonder if there are other cultures where the woman’s name is the one that’s kept – I’ll have to have a google trawl!

      • I’m still at a loss here. I do not feel any less part of my family than if we all had the same surname. I am very, very close to a couple of people that I share no blood or surname with.

      • Actually in retrospect I totally agree with DP–what is in a name anyway? and you can feel more like “family” with people you are totally unrelated to sometimes than with people you share a blood relationship with. So I have to put it down to my own romantic ideals and youthful naivete. Now I am older, wiser and hopefully more thoughtful about it all.

  7. Well, you both have pushed the book to the front of my TBR pile!

    And as someone newly married, I don’t have an answer for DP other than to say that it doesn’t matter a whole lot to me either ways. If my husband ever wants to do the paperwork to get my last name changed I don’t think I’ll mind!

    • I’d love to know what you think of it if you do read it, Juhi! And it sounds as if you have kept your name so far, yes? I expect a lot of young women don’t mind either way now, and it’s the amount of admin that decides it! 🙂

      • I’m still amazed that women don’t mind either way. Or perhaps I should be amazed that I do! I of course fully understand those arguments about abusive fathers, or unloved surnames, but those are good reasons for changing your name per se, not for changing it because of marriage.

      • Yes! I currently use my pre-marriage last name. And I AM cognizant of the fact that my indifference would not be possible had it not been for the women’s rights movements of these past few decades. 🙂

        On that note, what books would you recommend for someone who’s somewhat confused and struggling to understand what she thinks of as her two different selves – the career woman and the homemaker. (As a part of shifting countries I am in between jobs right now and have found to my surprise that I LIKE cooking, and building a nest for myself and my husband and the gentler pace of life that I find myself in vs the corporate world of the last 7-8 yrs). Would love your thoughts and book recommendations both!

  8. This sounds interesting although I can’t help with the name thing, except to say if I had inherited a name from some ancestors in an unfortunate trade, like Miss Dishwasher or Miss Tastytart, I think I’d go for the change, unless the spouse was equally burdened, like Mr Witchdunker, or like the characters In Blackadder, called Ploppy? I once knew a Scots lady with an English name whom it was claimed married an Englishman with a Scots name to get her own name right!
    On names and gender I was interested that when the imprisonment turns up for the girls, it’s a man who has the power:
    ‘And then when she falls into depression, the djinn, Lord Poton, locks all the finger women up in a box.’

    • Lol! Wherever did you find those names from? They are hilarious! Before I got married and used to complain from time to time about my surname, my dad would say ‘Rothschild’s a nice name. Windsor’s a nice name.’ I could see where he was coming from! You make a good point about the male djinn. I hadn’t thought about that at all!

    • What little I have read about djinns suggests that some are (depicted as) male some can be either male or female and some might be said to be unsexed. Since they are the “hidden ones” it may be perhaps not something one can determine easily! Some classes of djinn appear in animal (or monster) from to humans.

  9. Another author I’d like to read. I just read her essay in 50 Shades of Feminism and it was one of the more interesting ones.
    As for the name change…. A few years ago I was very hostile to the idea of taking the man’s name. I’ve changed my mind. A friend of mine changed it because she didn’t want to be reminded of her sad childhood anymore. I have a difficult French name nobody can pronounce and due to the high amount of Slavic immigrants whose names end on a c as well I get into strange situations on the phone and elsewhere which are often annoying, all this are good reasons to chnage it, should I get married. Plus —- whether I have my father’s name or my husband’s both it’s still a man’s name but nowadays the second one would be chosen. I’m pragmatic, I’ll choose the one that sounds nicer. I predict, I will end up with an British name. 🙂

  10. I kept my name because it’s mine, and then I didn’t change it because of being an author. But now my children don’t have same last name as me. We considered hyphenating, but that made it too long, so we settled on my h’s surname for them. And now I am the only one in my family with a different last name. That’s the only reason I would see for changing it. But then if my daughters married and took their h’s name, they wouldn’t have the same surname as each other or me (if I had changed it), anyway. I know someone who kept her name for work, but for all other purposes, she and her husband both changed their name to a new one which in meaning combined both, and which their children share.

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  12. I changed my name when I got married- mainly because I liked the idea of creating a new kind of family identity, the idea of being a unit and I guess the idea that any children we might have would also clearly belong to both of us. It seemed easier- certainly I think it was legally easier for me to change my name than for my husband to, or for us both to- but it seemed easier to all have one name. But now I still haven’t officially changed my name on most important documents, and changing my name/juggling two identities doesn’t seem that easy. Although sometimes I do like the option to have both- I can hold on to my family ties, as well as clearly creating new ones. It’s an interesting question- and I’ve seen it bring out strong feelings!

  13. This issue of women writers having children reared its head not long ago. Have you heard about? Lauren Sandler said women writers should have no more than one child and then women writers with more than one got all in a huff. The debate still rages.

    As for name change upon marriage, I did not change mine. I received some angry comments from my future in-laws when I said I wouldn’t be changing it. My family were generally baffled but chalked it up to one more weird thing about me on their ever growing list. It makes officials/businesses confused that my husband and I have different last names and when we recently refinanced our house the loan officer mistakenly had us as unmarried and had to make a quick change on the documents. In spite of frequently bumping up against confusion and sometimes low-level hostility, I am glad I kept my name. Why do so many women still change their names? From my perspective family pressure, fear of confusion, worry over what name any children will have, and romantic delusion. Though I have met a few women who chose to change their names because they liked their spouse’s name better than their own.

    • Hello Stefanie, glad to hear you stuck out against prejudice. I cannot imaging why anyone should be angry that you kept your surname. I wonder why it would worry people what surname their children have? You just chose one of the two adult surnames – is that a problem?

      I don’t think my wife and I (we kept our “original” surnames) have ever had any problems with officialdom. My son has never been confused that his parents have different surnames either.

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