Our 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?