On Writing, Motherhood and the Harem Within

A crisis in one's life need not be an entirely negative experience. Elif Shafak, a Turkish best-selling author and now mother of two, used hers to come to terms with herself. She tells the story in her soon-to-be-published book, Black Milk. Sabine Kleefisch tells us more

Elif Shafak (photo: picture alliance/dpa)
Elif Shafak, b</i>. 1971 in Strasbourg, is one of the most popular female writers in Turkey

​​We all know the situation. Faced with an important decision, we carefully and rationally weigh up all the arguments, finally reach a decision about what the best thing to do is, and then our gut feeling intervenes and we end up doing something completely different. Often, what we end up doing is down to what our so-called inner voice tells us.

For Shafak, it is all a little more complicated than that. Instead of having one inner voice, she has six, two of which she discovered rather late – and, who knows, there may even be a few more.

And this is not the only thing that is a little different with her. For most women, the mid-life crisis hits after a few years of marriage, having children and being a housewife, when they suddenly find themselves wondering if that is all there is.

Elif Shafak, on the other hand, had already enjoyed a long and successful career as a famous writer, and was independent, single and childless when, in her mid-thirties, the sight of a pregnant mother accompanied by her two children on a boat trip across the Bosphorus knocked her completely out of her stride. What then happened, she describes in her book Black Milk, which is due to be published in English in April 2011.

Split personalities

The German title of the book (Als Mutter bin ich nicht genug), which roughly translates as "As a mother I am not enough", might lead readers to expect an endless stream of self-pity and moaning about the injustices of being a woman in a man's world. On the contrary, the book is a highly entertaining story of a search for personal happiness. And it is by no means a story told only for women. It is for anyone who at some time or another has felt unhappy with themselves or uneasy with the idea of being forced into a mould or playing a role.

With a mischievous twinkle in her eye, Shafak takes us on an unpretentious and slightly off-beat journey in search of the things that really matter in life. Her inner voices are not simply vague feelings that break through from the depths of her subconscious.

She sees them as little finger-length figures, each of which has a name and very specific ideas on how Shafak should be living her life. And they have very practical methods for turning their ideas into reality.

However, there is little love lost between her little "finger women", as Shafak calls them, and she has great difficulty negotiating her way through the maze of their contradictory demands.

She feels confused as she slowly comes to the realisation that, despite her rejection of the "classical woman's role", she would really like to have children. She is afraid, however, that as a mother she will no longer be able to be a writer, and writing is everything to her. Meanwhile, the ticking of her biological clock gets louder and louder.

Of muffins and Fascism

In order to get an idea about the compatibility of writing with marriage and motherhood, she decides to take a look for herself at the lives of other famous women writers. The American poet Sylvia Plath, for example, who, as she discovers, experienced steamy passion, tempestuous marriage and finally divorce before taking her own life via the domestic gas oven, leaving behind two motherless children in the process.

The stories of most of the women's lives she looks at read like manuals on unhappiness and self-destruction. Does that mean that motherhood and writing are quite simply incompatible? Driven on by the more career-minded of her finger women, Shafak takes refuge in a women's college in the US. During the flight, she has her first encounter with her maternal finger woman, the plump and good-natured Mama Rice Pudding.

The discussion with her about why it is that Shafak denies her maternal side quickly becomes a political discussion. Mama Rice Pudding extols the virtues of the simple life; Shafak quotes Hannah Arendt. The little finger woman almost despairs: "Oh God," she says, rolling her eyes. "Don't you see what you are doing to yourself? I'm talking about marriage, children and muffins, and you're giving me Hitler and the Nazis." Unsuccessfully she tries to interest Shafak in buying organic courgettes at the farmers' market and the homely effect of scented candles for the apartment. In the end, all the running away and denial counts for nothing, because it is not Shafak who makes the right decision, it comes by itself – one just has to let it.

The benefits of hard times

And she does. "I'm tired of my prejudice. I'm tired of missing out on the beauty of small things, of being against marriage and family life, of torturing myself, dragging my suitcases from city to city and country to country."

It is an insight that leads Shafak to make one of the weirdest marriage proposals ever to the man she has unexpectedly fallen in love with. She tells him that although, theoretically, she is still opposed to marriage, she has nothing against him marrying her.

Her impulse marriage is followed by the first pregnancy and by a full-blown postpartum depression. Just as with her other inner voices, she also begins to talk to her depression, which assumes the form of a nasty little genie with glowing eyes, goatee and wire-rimmed glasses.

She can no longer say whether it was this difficult phase in her life that brought her to write the book or, conversely, the writing of the book that led her out of depression. But it doesn't really matter. It is what the genie makes her aware of that is the essential aspect of the book – the discovery that one should never subjugate any facet of one's personality in order to conform to any role models.

There is much humour and self-deprecation in the author's descriptions of the wrong turnings she makes along the way, but there is also some discomfort as, more than once, she confronts us with our own prejudices and stereotyped ideas.

Despite the bleakness and seriousness of the months of depression, she manages to maintain her wry sense of humour when she writes about this time so that we are never in any danger of becoming depressed as we read. It is, indeed, more likely that the book will show some readers a mental back door out of their own difficult times.

At the same time, the narrative interplay between the passages of real autobiography, the fictional disputes with the little finger women and the evil genie, the discussion of the fates of famous writers and the occasional interweaving of Oriental tales and fables is a real delight.

In all of these dimensions of her narrative, Shafak demonstrates a sure command of language, an appreciation of its beauty and its visual power and her delight in the comedy of situation. It is rare indeed to encounter a true journey of self-discovery told so entertainingly and with such imagination.

Sabine Kleefisch

© Qantara.de 2010

Elif Shafak, Als Mutter bin ich nicht genug, is due to be published in English under the title Black Milk: On Writing, Motherhood, and the Harem Within by Viking Books in April 2011.

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

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