Elif Shafak: Strength is our ability to accept and deal with our weaknesses

Turkish novelist Elif Shafak on motherhood, writing and our depleted understanding of postpartum depression.

Black Milk is your first memoir, yet it retains fictional qualities, such as the pint-sized characters called “Thumbelinas” who represent various aspects of your personality.

I believe that in all of us, whether you’re a mother, a woman or a man, there are multiple selves and multiple voices. When we go out into the public sphere, we bring one of those voices to the fore. Before giving birth, I prioritised my intellectual and cerebral voice. Without being aware of it, I looked down on domestic work and rejected my maternal side.

You describe yourself as a “woman who is split inside” in the book, then talk about Julia Kristeva’s notion of the symbolic unity a child can bring. Yet the book refers to your experience of depression, which is often expressed as a kind of fragmentation.

At the beginning, there was a monarchy among the Thumbelinas. In time, they formed a plutocracy as they tried to topple my intellectual side. Then came anarchy, oligarchy and finally democracy. I tried to give all of them an equal voice. I think that out of fragmentation, oneness can be obtained. Motherhood is a tremendous experience for helping people see this. When we fall down, we break into pieces and that can be scary – but then you try to recompose yourself. What you make is not the same but better than before.

Pregnancy is sometimes treated as trivial – a quick recovery is expected. I liked the emphasis you placed on your grandmother’s advice, which others might have seen as useless and superstitious.

Women need more than just hospitals. This is a big change – spiritual, intellectual, physical – and it cannot be learned in a day. For me, it was quite ironic that my grandmother, who is less educated and more typically “Middle Eastern”, was more accepting of the idea of post-partum depression than my mother, who was raised in a more secular culture and better educated. My grandmother’s friends would describe the depression in terms of an evil djinn but they knew to take care of a woman for 40 days after she gives birth – somehow, there was an acceptance of depression that has been lost.

You seem purposefully neutral on the choices of the women writers you discuss. The book refuses to tie up the question of motherhood and writing.

Absolutely. In Turkey, though not only in Turkey, the pressure on women is tremendous: “When are you going to have kids? When are you going to get married?” Politicians talk about it on TV. It’s very hard for women to retain their autonomy. I wanted to show respect for an array of choices and ways of living.

And how has the reaction been?

It was amazing. It’s like something that stands in front of us but nobody talks about, especially in Turkey. I got very personal, very emotional emails and messages from all kinds of women.

I think we need a corrective on childbirth in Britain right now. The icy, flawless production of the royal baby seemed eerily distant from the reality of childbirth.

Even with the best intentions, people’s expectations are so high. The perfect baby. The perfect mother. Images are so important. I don’t think British people deal with emotional turbulence any better than people in Turkey – we don’t want to see weakness in the public arena, particularly at work. We want to see strength but I think there is something wrong with our definition of strength. For me, strength doesn’t mean being strong all the time. Strength is our ability to accept and deal with our weaknesses.

Recently there was a fierce reaction to an article in the Atlantic which suggested that a woman with intellectual aspirations should have only one child. Did you see it?

Yes, I did. I’ve heard the argument before and this kind of generalisation seems very problematic to me. I cannot know a person’s life. Look around: there are plenty of women who are perfectly happy without any children. I have friends who have adopted kids. I have friends who have three kids. I don’t think one formula should be imposed on all women.

Elif Shafak’s “Black Milk” is published by Penguin (£8.99)

Turkish novelist Elif Shafak, who suffered with postpartum depression after giving birth. Photograph: Muammer Yanmaz.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

Show Hide image

Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.