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Gönderen Konu: An Interview with Elif Shafak  (Okunma sayısı 2273 defa)

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Aralık 05, 2011, 12:51:23 öö
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Elif Shafak: Motherhood is sacred in Turkey

Novelist Elif Shafak grew up with two very different models of Turkish motherhood – her modern, working, educated mother and her traditional, religious grandmother

Elif Shafak. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

Three months before her first child was born, Elif Shafak, Turkey's leading female novelist, found herself facing prosecution and a potential three-year prison sentence. Her crime? She was accused of insulting "Turkishness" in her novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, through a fictional character whose ancestors had been murdered in the Armenian genocide.

On the day of the trial, protesters inside and outside the courtroom jostled and slapped at the defendants – dozens of Turkish writers and intellectuals – shouting and throwing objects at them. "More disturbing than the actual trial," Shafak said at the time. "Very aggressive, very provocative."

The case was eventually dropped, only to be taken to a higher court. The trial took place a few months later. Shafak had just given birth and was not present. After a 40-minute hearing, she was acquitted.

After the case, Shafak fell into a postnatal depression that lasted for several months. Were the two linked, the legal ordeal and the postnatal depression? "I don't want to make too much of it," is all she will say, four years on. "The book was very well received, sold well and was read by a wide range of people – people who wouldn't normally break bread together. I gave readings, talks, book signings all over Turkey. People in England see only a very small part of the picture. Turkey is a complex, diverse society."

Shafak, 38, is clearly more comfortable finding other explanations for her postnatal depression. Her heart-shaped face, with its planed cheekbones and startling green eyes, becomes more animated as we move away from the topic of the trial. "I had led a very nomadic life before having children. I hadn't lived in the same house for more than a year, 18 months, my whole life. I'd lived out of suitcases. I lived an unconventional life. If I was writing a novel, it would become the most important thing in my life. I would stay in that story day and night, completely isolated from everything for several months. And then when it was finished, I'd emerge into the world once more. But that pattern of working is very difficult with children. Becoming a mother, I had to learn to become settled. But you can't ignore a book. It needs your full attention. If I ignore my novel for two days and I got back to it, she is cross with me. When I had my children, I had to change the rhythm of my writing." She stops for a moment, then adds with wry understatement: "There was a period of panic."

Shafak is not the first novelist to struggle with the challenge of combining a writing life with a mothering life. As the novelist Bell Hooks put it: "One cannot have a family, even a non-traditional one, and be a committed artist without tremendous struggle."

Virginia Woolf's husband forbade her to have children at all, fearing that the combination of writing and raising children would destroy her already fragile mental equilibrium.

Out of her own panic, Shafak produced a powerful autobiographical novel about her experience of postnatal depression. "I called the book Black Milk because it shows that mother's milk is not always as white and spotless as society likes to think it is. And because out of that depression I was able to get inspiration. Out of that black milk I was able to develop some sort of ink."

Shafak's children are now three and two. "Motherhood has not slowed me up as a writer, but it has changed me," she says. In retrospect, she does not view the experience of postnatal depression negatively. "The first illusion of depression is that you are the only one who has ever been through it. The second illusion is that it will go on for ever. But depression is a golden opportunity to reassemble the pieces when they are broken. It made me look inside. And what I found inside me were six women – all quarrelling! Black Milk is their voices, arguing it out, making the transition from hierarchy to democracy."

Does the idealisation of motherhood make it harder for women in Turkey than here in Britain? Shafak ponders the question. "Motherhood is so sacred in Turkey. It must be perfect. There is no room for ups and downs."

But she also thinks that the experience is different for each generation, and that perhaps the adjustment to motherhood is harder for women with intellectual and professional aspirations. "I grew up with two different models of womanhood: that of my mother, who was an educated working woman, very cultured and modern, and that of my grandmother, who was much more traditional, superstitious, religious. Women like my grandmother were, perhaps, better prepared for motherhood in some ways. Her generation would protect new mothers from jinn [a spirit in Muslim belief who could assume animal or human form] by not leaving them alone for a moment in the first month. For my mother's generation, it was harder. There was no room in their mental framework for the ups and downs. For my generation, too, motherhood has to be perfect."

Her husband, Eyüp Can, a journalist, has been a vital support. They share a commitment to an egalitarian marriage, and his involvement with the children is essential to her ability to maintain a balance between writing and bringing up children. Next year, she and Eyüp will be moving to the UK for several months while she works on her new book. They will share the childcare and her husband will commute between London and Istanbul. "If there were any competition between us, it wouldn't work. He is very unusual for a Turkish man."

Shafak's childhood was similarly peripatetic and international. Due to the demands of her mother's job, they were often physically apart, in different cities and different countries. Much of her childhood was spent living with her grandmother in Ankara. She was born in Strasbourg in 1971; her father was a philosopher and her mother a diplomat. Her parents separated soon after the birth and she was brought up by her mother. "It took me a long time to overcome my anger towards my father for his absence. A very long time. Fury is a stimulating force, but in the long run, it is a destructive one. It's not good for the soul. I had a lot of fears in relation to my father, but the thing about fear is that if you exaggerate it, you start to believe it."

She is now on good terms with her father and her half-brothers by his second marriage. Her relationship with her mother is very close. "To be a woman diplomat and a single parent was not easy for my mother, but she is a very independent woman, very determined. The mother-daughter relationship is not composed of one colour only, but we are very good friends. There is huge love between us."

Already something of a celebrity in Turkey, Shafak is having an increasing impact on the international literary scene. She has a reputation for blending western and eastern elements in her fiction, and in her journalism she is a bold and outspoken critic of her country's politics. She is seen by many critics and readers as an exciting, innovative, politically challenging writer. Besides having won many literary awards in Turkey and abroad, she has a large and devoted readership. "If people like your novels in Turkey, they take you into their hearts," she says. "My readers write to me about their personal lives: they invite me to their weddings; to share their most intimate joys and sorrows. I have a very strong connection with my readers. It is rewarding and very humbling."

Perhaps, too, her readers love her because she writes about things that touch so directly on their lives. Her new novel, The Forty Rules of Love, already a bestseller in Turkey, is concerned with questions of motherhood and selfhood. Ella Rubenstein, the middle-aged American housewife and mother at the heart of the novel, is unhappily married to an unfaithful and neglectful husband, and in thrall to the needs of her children. Her own life and needs and aspirations have been lost along the way, as has her belief in love.

Shafak has taken a significant risk in The Forty Rules of Love in making Ella a rather dull character, certainly at the start of the novel – the kind of woman you wouldn't want to have coffee with because you know she'll just drone on about the kids. Shafak agrees, but defends the decision. "I didn't want Ella to be extraordinary. I wanted her to be someone you could recognise instantly, whether you're a Muslim woman in a headscarf in Ankara or a Jewish woman in Boston. I wanted to write about the capacity for transformation even in uninspiring material."

If love is one of Shafak's themes, Sufism is the other. She first became interested in Sufism as a college student in her early 20s, and it has reverberated through her writing and her life ever since. In The Forty Rules of Love it takes centre stage as both theme and subject matter. The contemporary love story between Ella and Aziz, a Scottish Sufi novelist, is interwoven with a historical narrative set in 13th-century Turkey about Rumi, the Sufi poet, and his mentor, the mystic and dervish Shams of Tabriz.

"The more you read about Sufism, the more you have to listen. In time I became emotionally attached. When I was younger I wasn't interested in understanding the world. I only wanted to change it, through feminism or nihilism or environmentalism. But the more I read about Sufism the more I unlearned. Because that is what Sufism does to you, it makes you erase what you know, what you are so sure of. And then start thinking again. Not with your mind this time, but with your heart."

Sufism, motherhood, writing: Shafak feels she has found a way to align these three vital elements in her life. "Writing is very lonely work. A novelist for years lives in an imaginary world, creating characters, killing them. It is very self-centred. It's a job that requires a big ego. But in Sufism there is no hierarchy. No one is superior to anyone else. Motherhood has changed me. Each book changes me and makes me a different person."

The Forty Rules of Love, by Elif Shafak, is published by Viking, £12.99. To order a copy for £9.99 (including UK mainland p&p), go to or call 0330 333 6846


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