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 a freelance writer in Berlin and a former 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

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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