Part 15 (2/2)

Black Milk Elif Shafak 93330K 2022-07-22

Seeing the expression on her face, I decide to follow a different tack. ”I'm not ready for this birth; I don't know what to do. Nine months is too short.”

”First, calm down,” she says tenderly.

”But what am I going to do?”

”Nothing,” she says.


”You are so used to doing something all the time, not to have to do anything terrifies you. But it is, in fact, calming to do nothing. Don't worry, your body knows what to do, as do the baby and the universe. All you have to do is just surrender.”

Surrender is not a great word with me, so I bite my lip and sigh.

”Do you know that the Sufis believe the world is a mother's womb?” she asks. ”We are all babies in a womb. When the time comes we have to leave the world. We know this but we don't want to leave. We fear that when we die we will cease to exist. But death is actually a birth. If we could only understand this we wouldn't be scared of anything.”

Imagining the world as one big womb and the billions of us human beings, of all races and religions, waiting to be born into another life has a calming effect on my nerves.

”Dame Dervish,” I say. ”How I've missed you.”

”I've missed you as well,” she says. ”Now go and surrender. The rest will come of its own accord.”

Two days later, early in the morning, I wake Eyup up and we calmly head to the hospital. All of the breathing practices, prenatal yoga, black caviar, broccoli salads and even Little Women lose their significance as I surrender.

Books and Babies Likening children to books is not a common metaphor in the world of literature, but likening books to children surely is. Jane Austen considered her novels as her children and spoke of her heroines as ”my Emma,” ”my f.a.n.n.y” or ”my Elinor.” When George Eliot talked about her books, she referred to them as her children. Likewise, Virginia Woolf 's diaries teem with references to writing as a maternal experience. While examples abound, I find it intriguing that it is always female writers who employ this metaphor. I have never heard of a male writer regarding his novels as his children.

As widely held as the metaphor might appear, there is one crucial difference between babies and books that should not go unnoticed. Human babies are quite exceptional in the amount and intensity of care that they require immediately after being born. Helpless and toothless, the infant is fully dependent on his or her mother for a long time.

Books, however, aren't like that. They can stand on their own feet starting from birth-that is, from their publication date-and they can instantly swim, just like newborn sea turtles: excitedly, doggedly, unsteadily-from the warm sands of publis.h.i.+ng houses toward the vast, blue waters of readers.

Or perhaps novels resemble baby ducklings. As soon as they open their eyes to the world, they take whomever they see first to be their mothers. Instead of the authors, ”the mothers” may be their editors, their translators or, yes, their loving readers. If indeed that is the case, once the books are born, their authors do not really need to keep an eye on them or discuss them; just like books do not need to give interviews, pose for photographers or tour around. It is we writers and poets who crave the recognition and the praise. Otherwise, books are in no need of being nursed by their authors.

One woman writer who jeered at the egos and ambitions looming in the world of art and culture was the legendary Dorothy Parker. Five feet tall and slight, her physical presence may not have been overwhelming, but the words that poured forth from her pen still astonish and amuse readers today. In her capacity as the ”most renowned lady wit in America,” the sharp-tongued critic for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker wrote about a wide range of topics without hiding her claws. She was the most taciturn member of the famous Algonquin Round Table and yet she remains the most renowned of them all.

Having a special knack for loving the wrong kind of men, ever-impossible men, she suffered from several unhappy affairs, depressions, miscarriages and an abortion. But perhaps none of her relations.h.i.+ps left a deeper mark on her life than her on-again, off-again marriage to the actor and playwright Alan Campbell. Like two planets...o...b..ting around the same path but never really meeting, they tired each other out endlessly-until the day in 1963 when Campbell committed suicide. Parker herself survived several suicide attempts throughout the years-each episode, perhaps, worsening her addiction to alcohol.

As a fierce advocate of gender equality and civil rights, Parker was critical of the dominant social roles of her era. In her poems, short stories and essays, she questioned all sorts of cliches and taboos. One of her earlier poems summarizes her take on life.

If I abstain from fun and such,

I'll probably amount to much;

But I shall stay the way I am,

Because I do not give a d.a.m.n.

Her close friends.h.i.+ps with Das.h.i.+ell Hammett and Lillian h.e.l.lman have been a favorite topic among literary historians. Years later, when asked if there was ever any compet.i.tion between the two women writers, h.e.l.lman replied, ”Never.” Theirs was a dependent relations.h.i.+p, of which she claimed, ”I think between men and women there should be dependency, even between friends. . . . Independent natures aren't worried about dependency.” In the paranoia of the early 1950s, it didn't take long for them to make their way onto the famous Hollywood blacklist. Not that they cared much. They were creative and self-destructive; they were members of a generation that drank, quarreled, argued and laughed abundantly; and they died either too early or too depressed.

Parker was not a great fan of romantic love, domestic life or motherhood. When she spotted a mother who fussed over her child in public, she didn't waste any opportunity to pa.s.s judgment on the scene. To her, motherhood seemed like some kind of entrapment and perpetual unhappiness. Her mind was corrosive, her mood volatile, her sarcasm legendary and her dark eyes brimful of mischief-almost up until the moment that she died of a heart attack at the age of seventy-three, alone in a hotel room.

If ever there was a voice in the world of literature throbbing with rage, compa.s.sion, justice and love-all at the same time, all with the same vigor-it was Audre Lorde's. She was a soul with many talents and multiple roles: poet, writer, black, woman, lesbian, activist, cancer survivor, educator and mother of two children. Early on she had changed her name from Audrey to Audre not only because she liked the symmetry with her last name but also because she simply could. She loved re-creating herself again and again, remolding her heart and her destiny, like two pieces of soft dough. In a ceremony held before her death she was given yet another name, Gamba Adisa-”Warrior: She Who Makes Her Meaning Lucid.”

At times, she was her own mother, and at times, her own daughter. She saw herself as a link in an endless chain, as part of a ”continuum of women.” Bridging differences across the boundaries, challenging racism, s.e.xism and h.o.m.ophobia, Lorde encouraged what she saw as ”the transformation of silence into language.” Through words we understood ourselves and each other, and brought out the inner wisdom that existed in each and every one of us. Connecting was one of the things she did best-writer and reader, white and black, sister and sister. ”I am who I am, doing what I came to do, acting upon you like a drug or chisel to remind you of your me-ness, as I discover you in myself.”14 In her autobiographical novel, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Lorde took a closer look at her childhood in Harlem and her coming-of-age as a black lesbian feminist. She said she had always wanted to be both man and woman, adding into her personality the strongest and richest qualities of both her mother and her father. Her writing was suffused with the belief that the synthesis between seeming opposites was perhaps what made us ourselves. In every woman there were masculine traits and in every man, the feminine. As such, treating the two s.e.xes as if they were mutually exclusive was a big deception and a step away from understanding humanness in all its complexity and fullness.

Strikingly, motherhood is redefined in Lorde's work and glorified without being sanctified. It is divine but there is nothing sacred about it. Lorde believed that there was a black mother in all of us, whether we were mothers or not. Men, too, had this quality inside, although quite often they chose not to deal with it. Lorde's metaphor of the black mother was the voice of intuition, creativity and unbridled pa.s.sion. ”The white fathers told us 'I think, therefore I am,' and the Black mother within each of us-the poet-whispers in our dream, 'I feel, therefore I can be free.'”

Lorde did not reject rationality or empiricism outright, but wanted to make it clear, once and for all, how limiting each was in grasping the world. Too much a.n.a.lytical thinking and wors.h.i.+p of abstract theory did not sit well with her. Her connection with language and her hand on the pulse of the universe was unashamedly sensual. She regarded self hood-and, therefore, womanhood and motherhood- as essentially multilayered. Thus she refused to be pigeonholed into any single and static category. She was always many things at once, and after her death, she remains so.

If Audre Lorde were alive today and we had met, she would probably have laughed at my six finger-women and then brought out her own numerous finger-women so that they could all dance together under a warm summer rain.

Sandra Cisneros is an eloquent writer and an outspoken scholar who calls herself ”n.o.body's mother and n.o.body's wife.” She has always talked candidly and courageously about the difficulties-and beauties-of being a single woman from a patriarchal background and a writer on the border of two cultures, Mexican and American. She says, ”I think writers are always split between living their life and watching themselves live it.”

Born in Chicago in 1954, the only daughter in a family of six sons, Cisneros closely observed the making of manhood and how painful it could be for those who did not fit into given gender roles. Though she grew up in a crowded, noisy house, she received a lot of love from both parents and was given her own s.p.a.ce. ”I am the product of a fierce woman who was brave enough to raise her daughter in a nontraditional way,” she says.

Cisneros says she wants to tell the kind of stories that do not get told. The House on Mango Street is the riveting story of Esperanza, a Mexican-American girl growing up in the Hispanic quarter of Chicago. The book deals openly with machismo, chauvinism and the struggle of a woman of color to find her own voice. Esperanza soon discovers that writing heals her wounds, frees her soul. It helps her to develop her natural talents, find out who she really is and resist all kinds of indoctrination that limit her choices in life due to her gender, culture or cla.s.s.

Questioning both Mexican and American constructions of femininity, Cisneros wants to explore alternative models of womanhood. Her views on marriage and motherhood have always been controversial. In an interview she says in many ways she still feels like a child. And precisely because of this, because she is still one of them, she doesn't pick up children and fuss over them. That is not what one child does to another. Cisneros explains how throughout her twenties and thirties she put off marrying and starting a family in order to focus on her writing and work. When she reached her forties, however, she felt like she had to get married soon, not because she wanted to but because her father wanted her to. It took her some more years to realize she didn't need to do this-a realization that brought her to a final decision: She would not get married. When asked why she chose not to start a family of her own, her response is intriguing: ”My writing is my child and I don't want anything to come between us.”

Dorothy Parker, Audre Lorde and Sandra Cisneros-women who refused to identify female creativity with reproduction and pursued their writing with pa.s.sion. We learn from them to look with a new perspective into the making of womanhood, sisterhood and manhood, respectively. Reading their works wakes up our souls, pierces the sh.e.l.l of our daily habits. Learning more about their lives makes us realize that the cultural predispositions that have been bred in each and every one of us since early childhood are neither incontestable nor unchangeable. True, the three of them led different personal lives and came from diverse backgrounds. But there is one thing they have in common: They did not take gender roles and barriers for granted. They questioned the established norms and, most important, changed the world by changing themselves first.

A Sea without a Sh.o.r.e The baby is sleeping in the crib. Whoever came up with the expression ”to sleep like a baby” doesn't know what he is talking about. Babies doze in bits and pieces, waking every so often as if to check whether you are still there and the birth were not only a dream.

As for me, I don't sleep at all. The second I close my eyes, unpleasant thoughts and discomforting images barrage my brain. Who knew that my head was such an a.r.s.enal of anxieties? I haven't been able to sleep properly for days. Around my eyes there are circles as dark beige and round as the simits15 of Istanbul. Never had it entered my mind that my heart could hold so bleak an anguish.

I am wearing a long, lavender nightgown with sporadic shapes across the breast line. One of the shoulder straps has snapped and been tied into a hasty knot. But because one strap is now shorter than the other, the neckline-from a distance-looks sloped, giving the impression that I am sliding to one side, like a sinking s.h.i.+p. Perhaps I am. As for the shapes on the gown, though they seem to be the creation of a crazy fas.h.i.+on designer, they are in fact breast milk and puke stains.

It has been seven weeks since I gave birth.

I want to be a brilliant, perfect mother but I end up doing everything wrong. I am all thumbs when it comes to changing diapers, burping the baby or figuring out how to end bouts of hiccups. My self-confidence has become a scoop of ice cream melting fast under the duress of motherhood. It would have helped if Eyup were by my side, but he has gone to serve his compulsory military duty. For the next six months he will get military training in a small division in North Cyprus, and I will be on my own.

Five nights a week a television channel shows reruns of Wheel of Fortune for those who cannot sleep. Two blond women in skimpy miniskirts and glittery tops turn the letters on the manually operated puzzle board. I sit and watch. The letters spell D_ PR_ _ _ ION, but I refuse to read it aloud.

Meanwhile, a giant wheel of fortune is spinning inside my brain, flas.h.i.+ng its gaudy bulbs. I apportion my daily tasks into slots of different colors and give points to each, except they are all negative.

At the end of each day, I add up my points, always ending in the red. My record of motherhood so far resembles a plummeting stock-exchange index. I have a deep suspicion that other women were told to spend years preparing themselves for the transition that comes with the birth of a baby, and I missed the memo. How am I-who could not even manage womanhood naturally and effortlessly-now going to manage motherhood?

I know I need help but it never occurs to me to ask for it.

I think of Doris Lessing-a remarkable writer and pursuer of ideas. Born in Persia in 1919, the n.o.bel laureate spent her childhood on a farm in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). She was raised by a domineering mother and sent to a Catholic school, where she was taught to be a proper and pious lady. She remembers much of her colonial childhood today as a time with ”little joy and much sadness.” Lessing dropped out of school when she turned thirteen, ran away from her home and from her mother two years later and basically had to raise herself.