LITERATURE - INTERVIEW - Elif Shafak:
Writing with Black Ink
In her poetic and compelling memoir, Black Milk, international, bestselling author and journalist Elif Shafak, author of The Forty Rules of Love, The Bastard of Istanbul, The Flea Palace, and the forthcoming Honour among others, brings us into a world where creativity collides with marriage and motherhood. Not only does Shafak lay bare her struggles with postpartum depression, which led to a year-long writer's block, she shows the particular anxiety women share whether they choose to become wives and mothers, or not.
Most of us have heard voices in our heads telling us what we should or shouldn’t do, especially women who are grappling with decisions about their careers, marriage and motherhood. But Shafak’s skillful storytelling shows how a "Choir of Discordant Voices", finger-sized Thimbelinas inside her head cajole, tease, berate and encourage her, becoming her life-line as she navigates through a maze and fog of depression.
While the finger women compete with one another for space and prominence in Shafak's mind, she ultimately turns to other women writers: Sylvia Plath, Ayn Rand, Gorge Eliot, Louisa May Alcott, Zelda Fitzgerald, Sandra Cisneros, Doris Lessing for guidance and weaves their stories about sexuality, creativity, work, love, madness, and motherhood into her own.
“When the postpartum depression hit, it caught me completely unguarded. Stretching out in front of me like a dark tunnel that seemed to have no end, it scared me out of my wits. As I tried to cross through it, I fell down several times and my personality was shattered into pieces so small there was no way I could glue them back together again. Yet, at the same time, the experience helped me to look within and meet anew every member of the mini harem I had carried inside of me all those years. A depression can be a golden opportunity given to us by life to face head-on issues that matter greatly to our hearts.”
Elif Shafak, Black Milk
WRR: It struck me when reading Black Milk that so many women writers, including those whom you mention in the book, suffer angst about juggling careers against the stereotypical lives expected of them. How and when did you decide to write this book?
Elif Shafak: First came the depression. Then came the book. As I was writing Black Milk I was tackling a question that I had never felt the need to ask myself before: how do you manage to remain a consistent individual when you have multiple voices and needs deep inside? How to be plural and coherent at once?
I realized all this time I had had a monarchy inside me. I had cherished some sides of me at the expense of others. Black Milk tells the story of how that inner monarchy turned into an inner coup d’etat, and then inner anarchy, and finally, inner democracy.
“Katherine Mansfield once remarked …”True to oneself! Which self? Which of my many hundreds of selves? For what with complexes and repressions and reaction and vibrations and reflections, there are moments when I feel I am nothing but the small clerk of some hotel without a proprietor.”
Elif Shafak, Black Milk
WRR: Was it initially your intention to write a book about other well-known women authors’ experiences with marriage and motherhood, or a result of the process of analyzing your own conflict with the decision first to marry and then have children?
Shafak: Initially I was interested in the experience of marriage, motherhood and creativity. As I kept writing about this crossroads I started to explore the lives of other women writers, both from East and West. These were women writers whose works I had always liked and felt close to. But this time I was looking at their lives rather than their writing. It was amazing for me to see how different they were in so many ways and yet when it came to the basic issues of motherhood and creativity; how similar their approaches and failures and achievements had all been. Each and every story is unique, no doubt. And yet there are things that are utterly universal.
WRR: Did writing Black Milk ultimately help you through the depression?
Shafak: Writing Black Milk helped me to reconstruct myself. Odd as it may sound, depressions are golden opportunities to reassemble our inner pieces. Normally we never feel the need to do this. We just carry on with our lives the way it has always been. But when you go through a major depression, you are broken into pieces. You can’t be your usual self, you can’t do the things you have always taken for granted. In that utter chaos there is an astonishing potential to achieve a new order.
Writing this book helped me through my depression, it is true. But I do not say this as if it was a self-help book. Creative writing, by definition, helps us through our dark moments. It helps us to look at ourselves from another angle, from multiple angles in fact, with an honesty and humor that might not come easy in daily life. The moment we can make fun of ourselves, everything becomes lighter.
“I open my eyes and find Miss Ambitious Chekhovian literally right in front of my nose…she looks prim and proper…wearing a military uniform with a badge of rank on her shoulders. Miss Highbrowed Cynic…is puffing on a cigarette…there is an unusual flicker in her gaze, an odd furtiveness, which I can’t quite put my finger on. Behind her…is Little Miss Practical, wearing a parka, black, bulky boots and commando-style trousers with a matching green hooded top. Dame Dervish…a clump of reddish hair has escaped from her turban, and is casting a shadow on her face…is chained to the radiator with handcuffs.“
Elif Shafak, Black Milk
WRR: We all have nagging voices in our heads, judging and trying to balance ourselves, but your finger-women ladies are such a visual and powerful symbol, I was a little uncomfortable at times reading their dialogue and felt like a voyeur. Can you talk about the use of symbolism, including the importance of words, in your writing?
Shafak: In this book there are six finger women, Thumbelinas, that I identify inside my head. Each is very different and has therefore a separate vision. The problem was they had little tolerance towards each other, each being very sure of her own ground. Hence they quarrelled all the time. Some of these finger women, for instance the one who is cynical, intellectual and into books, were more precious for me. Some others, like my maternal, domestic side, (whom I call mama Rice Pudding in the book), were always pushed aside, ignored. We all have multiple voices in our heads, true. But the main question is whether there is freedom of speech there? Can all those voices speak up freely?
WRR: When did your finger women first present themselves to you?
Shafak: I guess I have always been aware of their presence, probably since my childhood, and I have enjoyed visualizing them, wondering how each looks like, talks like. Yet some of them were less known to me than others. That said, even as we speak now I think there are some other voices I am yet to discover. One's discovery of herself/himself is a lifelong process.
“I grew up seeing two different types of womanhood. On the one hand was my mother—a well-educated, modern, Westernized, secular Turkish woman. Always rational. Always to the point. On the other hand was my maternal grandmother, who also took care of me and was less educated, more spiritual and definitely less rational. This was a woman who read coffee grounds to see the future and melted lead into mysterious shapes to fend off the evil eye.”
Elif Shafak, Black Milk
WRR: Turkish idioms are so descriptive and playful, and I think of western, especially American writers, as traditionally linear. Do you think the use of symbols and metaphors are more cultural in nature?
Shafak: In traditional Turkish culture, particularly oral culture where women are very active, time is circular. We start narrating a story by saying: “Once there was once there wasn’t, back then I used to rock my father’s cradle…”
This is an amazing preamble to any story. Right from the start we know we are entering a topsy-turvy world, the world of stories and magic. It is rich with metaphors and idioms. I like to blend this kind of storytelling with the narrative techniques in the West.
“As common as the word depression is across languages, there are still noteworthy cultural differences. In Turkish…one says ‘I am at depression’ instead of ‘I am depressed’. The word is used as if depression were less a state of mind than a specific area, a dark corridor with only a weak light bulb to illuminate the place. The person who is depressed is thought to be not ‘here’ but in that ‘other space’ separated by glass walls.”
Elif Shafak, Black Milk
WRR: You write easily from either a western or Turkish perspective. Do you think of your audience as you are writing?
Shafak: I do not necessarily see myself as writing from either a Western or a Turkish perspective. I write from my own perspective, you know. That's my feeling. And what characterizes this personal viewpoint is perhaps, an effortless synthesis, an amalgamation of several cultures. I like hybridity.
“I remember an adept analysis once made by Erica Jong. She said it was not that hard today for women writers to finish or publish their works. The real difficulty for us was to be taken seriously. ‘I have never seen a review of a woman writer in which her sex was not mentioned in some way.’ (said Jong)”
Elif Shafak, Black Milk
WRR: Reflecting on a quote from your book: “Still today there remains a rule in place: Male writers are thought of as “writer” first and then “men.” As for female writers, they are first “female” and only then “writer.” Black Milk is your story, but really it is a story of all women struggling against ourselves every day trying to seek balance and acceptance. Why, do you think it remains so much more difficult for women? Do we still live in a world where women are seen (or accepted) as either the Madonna or whore?
Shafak: It is not an easy question. On the one hand, obviously, we as women have come a long way and the world is not what it used to be. On the other hand, patriarchy has not been fully challenged everywhere around the world. Just the opposite, in fact. And even in places where male-dominated discourse was questioned it has surprisingly made a comeback. I am not claiming that things are easy for male writers either. However, I think women writers meet some additional challenges and difficulties for several reasons. In patriarchal settings older women are respected, which means women are thought to be cut off from their sexuality, femininity. As long as you are not there yet, you will always be seen as a “woman” first and then a "writer". This distinction is subtle sometimes. At other times it is out there in the open. But in any case a woman artist/writer has to struggle harder to earn her place.
WRR: Other than writing about “women’s issues,” what, if any, advantages might women writers have over their male counterparts?
Shafak: I think at the end of the day, our pen, our writing has to be bisexual. We need to have both male and female voices in us so as to grasp better the human condition. I love the freedom that comes with art and literature. When I am writing I can be a man, a Chinese, a Russian, from 17th century, from here and there and everywhere. So I prefer to see it in this light rather than making two sweeping generalizations as "women writers" and "men writers".
WRR: Women read male and female authors with equal acceptance, and will often note several male authors as their “favorites.” In your research, which female authors do men read and extol?
Shafak: Men read less fiction than women. This is a common pattern throughout the world. Interestingly, many, in some cases most, fiction writers happen to be men. So it is like men write and women read fiction. This is a pattern that I would like to see change.
“Mama Rice Pudding purses her lips and pouts as if she can read my thoughts. ‘You never let me speak, not once! You stored me away in the depot of your personality, and then forgot all about me. All these years, I’ve been waiting for you to accept and love me as I am.’”
Elif Shafak, Black Milk
WRR: You have mentioned that motherhood has required you to change your writing routine, but how, if any, has it changed the context of your work?
Shafak: Motherhood has changed me, my life, and my writing routine. It is a whole package, I think. Overall it has rendered me a more patient person. Perhaps I have become more selective too. How much time I will spend outside on the street, whom to meet when, you become more selective about these because now you are doing many more things at once. So you start to use your time more wisely. All of this happens naturally, without us even being aware of it.
WRR: Do you see similarities between how you were raised between two cultures (Europe and Turkey), with how you are raising your daughter and son?
Shafak: There are similarities. Living in several cities, nomadic existence, commuting between cultures... Nonetheless there are also many things that are essentially different. I did not grow up in a stable family environment. It was just me and my mother. And we were constantly traveling. My childhood was shaped by a continuous sense of loneliness. I was quite introverted. So the setting is very different to start with. And of course my children have their own personalities. This makes everything different.
WRR: I’ve read where you have reconciled your relationship with your father and his family. Does this connection have more relevance now that you are mother?
Shafak: I don’t have a positive bonding with my father. He was never part of my life. This is the nature of our relationship. But after becoming a mother myself, I did not close the door of my heart. Whatever we might have or have not gone through with our parents in the past, our children are independent individuals. They do not need to shoulder the burden of their parents' stories. So even though my story with my father is a mess, my children can have a good connection with their grandfather and I respect that.
Photo (c) Muanmer Yanmaz
To read Angie Brenner's 2006 interview with Elif Shafak, click here: A Writer on the Edge of Culture
To see Elif Shafak's 2010 TED Talk, click here: The Politics of Fiction
For Elif Shafak's website click here:Elif Shafak