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

BBC/YouTube screengrab
Show Hide image

Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.