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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Kate Mossman on extreme pop tourism: who would fly 5,000 miles for a gig?

Glen Campbell’s daughter says, “Dad, she’s come 5,000 miles to see you!” I add, “How sad is that?”

I only became a journalist because I once travelled five thousand miles to see Glen Campbell do a concert, and a friend said that if I liked him that much, maybe I should write about it.

I was working for a children’s charity at the time. Consulting a seating plan of the venue on my work computer, I established that A15 was in the middle of the front row. If I sat there, I would be about 12 feet away from Campbell. The seat lay in suburban Los Angeles – so I saved pound coins in a Quality Street jar from August 2006, and in March the following year I set off.

I knew that LA was the size of Wales. I can’t drive, but planned to take buses from Santa Monica as far as they went and walk the rest of the 42.4 miles to the Haugh Performing Arts Centre at 1,000 W Foothill Boulevard, Glendora. On the appointed day, I marched along a motorway, Discman in hand, listening to “Wichita Lineman”. I was helped along by a wall of warm air from the side of passing trucks. My eyes streamed with wind and grit.

In the foyer of the venue, a man was talking on his mobile phone: “Dude – I’m here. The demographic is, like, deceased.” He was right to say the crowd was on the older side. Glen was 70 then, and yet to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

I watched him singing in that effortless way of his: the keyboard player once said, “It’s like a bird flying. It’s like someone breathing. It is easy for him.” His hands looked smooth and papery like the ones on the armrests next to me. His daughter, whom I’d chatted to on the Glen Campbell Fan Forum, took me into the wings and said, “Dad, Kate has come all the way from London to see you!”

“How sad is that!” I snapped at Glen. Embarrassment is one of the principal emotions associated with extreme music tourism, should you actually meet the artist.

On finding I had no means of getting back to my hostel that night, a middle-aged couple took me to their car for energy bars and bottled water. They went an hour and a half out of their way for me, making a detour by the campus of Pepperdine University at midnight and up to the floodlit memorial to Thomas E Burnett, Jr, one of the men who bust their way into the cockpit of United Airlines Flight 93 on 9/11.

After that night, gigs became my access to Middle America, an excuse to get to towns and suburbs I’d never otherwise see. Stranded in the mountains of Colorado after the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, I hitchhiked back to Denver with five frat boys who passed around a Coke-bottle bong. I learned how to while away a night in picket-fence towns with unspoken curfews and venues that chucked out by ten. CVS Pharmacy and Dunkin’ Donuts are the places to go, if you’ve enough battery left on your phone to locate them.

I flew to America to see Bruce Hornsby in freezing Albany, upstate New York, two winters back. Hours on the train track after the gig, no other passengers. A police car watched at a distance till the Amtrak ground in at 1.30am.

I get a kick from the effort and uncertainty of it: the tight connections, interminable waits and the addictive, stoned state you slip into from travelling for far too long. The alienation is counterbalanced by the strange comfort of spending the night in a room with the musician who soundtracks your daily commute back home. On a deserted platform in a closed-up town, with everyone you know fast asleep across the Atlantic, you’re just a leaf edging across a vast continent. Anything could happen to you.

Hornsby played in Pennsylvania this month. I was the only non-Amish person on the bus to Intercourse. I fed on samples from the Amish relish factory, and at dusk I walked miles to find a motel down a strip of road with no sidewalk, past a jumble of old gravestones pushed together in the middle of a modern traffic island.

I dumped my bag and jogged down the dual carriageway to the venue, arriving as the band took to the stage. For them, it was just another gig.

 

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain