The past six months have been a funny time for me, reading-wise. While I have read some amazing books and loved every word of them, I’ve also had uncharacteristic longeurs, when nothing on my shelves (or what I can see of them) fitted my reading mood. During the most recent of these slumps I worked my way through the last year’s archives of Tales from the Reading Room and picked out a few books which appealed to me; when they arrived, I put them safely aside until A Moment of Great Need (approximately two weeks later). Then I settled down with a cup of tea, a poorly, sleeping child and the first of the books: Black Milk. litlove’s discussion of it with Dark Puss, is here.
I am a writer.
I am a nomad.
I am a cosmopolite.
I am a lover of Sufism.
I am a pacifist.
I am a vegetarian and I am a woman, more or less in that order.
That is how I would have defined myself until I reached the age of thirty-five.
Up to that moment, first and foremost I saw myself as a teller of tales. Once upon a time, people like me shared their stories around a campfire, under a sky so wide you could never be sure where it ended, if it ever did. In Paris, they scraped together the money for rent by writing for newspapers. In the palace of a despotic sultan each story earned them the right to live one more day. Be it the Anonymous Narrator, Balzac or the beautiful Shehrazat, I felt connected to these storytellers of old. The truth is, like many other novelists, I felt closer to dead writers than to contemporary ones, and perhaps related more easily to imaginary people than those who were real – well, too real.
That was how I lived. That was how I planned to go on living. But then something totally unexpected, miraculous and bewildering happened to me: motherhood.
Elif Shafak is a very successful Turkish novelist and one of the few who have been published in English. Black Milk is an inventive, witty account of her change in heart from determined spinster to wife to mother and her reconciliation of all the apparently competing elements of her psyche. Within ‘the labyrinth of [her] soul’ is a ‘harem’ of ‘Thumbelinas’ – tiny women representing different selves – Little Miss Practical, Dame Dervish, her spirituality, Miss Highbrow Cynic, her intellectual persona, and Miss Ambitious Chekhovian, the driven novelist. They bicker constantly (and entertainingly) and govern her through uneasy and shifting alliances, oligarchy, monarchy, dictatorship. Later she encounters two suppressed aspects: Mama Rice Pudding, her maternal side, and Blue Belle Bovary, her sensuality. Interspersed with this story are accounts of other women writers – Jane Austen, Louisa M. Alcott, Simone de Beauvoir, Toshiko Tamura, Zelda Fitzgerald, Toni Morrison, and more.
The Thumbelinas might look like a nauseating idea, but in fact I found them charming, funny and the highlights of the book. They allowed Shafak to explore her complicated persona in an amusing but perceptive way. You don’t need to be a writer or, I think, a woman to appreciate her fears about parenthood and its pressures on self-identity. The rest of the book was enjoyable but in my opinion less successful. I found the summaries of other women writers’ lives and the ‘lessons’ they offered Shafak wore a bit thin after a while, some of them felt a little pat. But what really disappointed me were her accounts of postpartum depression and motherhood. After the birth of her daughter, the Thumbelinas are banished to a box by the djinn of postpartum depression, Lord Poton. While vividly described, he offered little to illuminate Shafak’s experience to me and I felt no wiser about the condition after reading it than before. And then, once Lord Poton is defeated, Shafak’s husband Eyup suggests they hire a nanny and it’s the end of the book! What of the conflicting demands – self-introspection against selflessness, restlessness against stability, the energy and time for writing against those for mothering – over which Shafak and I had pondered for so many pages? Do the Thumbelinas really live harmoniously together? How does she manage such a successful writing career, two children (and a husband!) and a life divided between London and Istanbul? Is Shafak suggesting that actually it is easy, after all?
Despite my complaints about the ending, I loved Shafak’s humour, wild imagination and lively style and will definitely be seeking out her novels. Does anyone have any favourites to recommend?
And many thanks to litlove!
Also, happy Friday the Thirteenth...