When ink joins with a pen, then the blank paper can say something.
Rushes and reeds must be woven to be useful as a mat.
If they weren´t interlaced, the wind would blow them away.
– Rumi –
"Writing was my suitcase. I knew I could take it with me wherever I went." Elif Shafak
Beware. The celebrated Turkish writer Elif Shafak—known for brilliantly crafting novels that cross the bounds of time, culture and belief—has placed the heart of her new novel, The Forty Rules of Love, in the hands of a dangerous man: Rumi, the thirteenth century Sufi poet. He is a wildcard whose message of love and connectedness is breathtaking in its possibility and heartbreaking in its practice. Settled thus, Shafak deposits his ageless question in the lap of modern readers: How will love transform you?
Bringing disparate elements into focus is something Elif Shafak has done all her life. Brought up by a single mother who worked as a diplomat, her nomadic childhood took her throughout Europe and the Middle East. Creating fiction became her stability. “Writing was my suitcase. I knew I could take it with me wherever I went.” The pattern continued into adulthood. Some writers crave routine, but Shafak was comfortable writing anywhere and worked day and night when in the throes of a new novel.
Before long, her work found a home. Since 1998 when her first novel, Pinhan (The Sufi) was published and won the Rumi Prize given to the best work of mystical fiction in Turkey, Shafak has written seven works of fiction and two nonfiction books. Currently, the best-selling female writer in Turkey, Shafak has also won international acclaim for her novels. But in 2006, after giving birth to her first child, Shafak could not write. Being a new mother was a threshold experience and it was not clear if her suitcase, the way she created stability, would make it through the journey. The supermother myth—the idea that mothering came easily to everyone else and that everyone else was doing it better—discomposed her. “Mothers need time to develop,” she contends. “You work on it, fail, work on it some more. We need more openness in society to discuss this emotional turbulence.”
Black Milk, a collection of fiction and nonfiction pieces to be published here next year, chronicles her journey through this turbulence of postpartum depression and new motherhood. During this time, she worked to create an inner harmony, “a mental democracy rather than a dictatorship.” This way, she could listen to her nomadic self complain about settling down without letting it rile her. Traditionally proud of her independence, Shafak had to get comfortable asking for help. She learned, too, that she is happiest when she is productive and that this elevates the quality of the time she spends with her family. She accepts that guilt—either over not working enough or not being with them enough—hovers constantly. “One of the grand illusions of our time is that we can be perfect all the time. It is an imposition on our shoulders.”
Bolstered by the support she received in Turkey for Black Milk, Shafak, pregnant with her second child, found the inspiration to write again. The Forty Rules of Love, published there in 2009, catapulted to the top of the fiction charts. In it, Ella Rubenstein, the main character, seems fully aligned with a predictable order—successful husband, three gregarious teenagers and a new job with a prominent publishing firm. Ella works on a manuscript about Rumi and his mentor, the mercurial dervish Shams of Tabriz. Theirs is a powerful relationship that irradiates the two men and everything around them. It also carries seismic implications into Ella’s life.
“Be grateful for whatever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond,” ends Rumi’s poem “The Guest House” and it aptly applies to Shafak. Appreciation and mindfulness sparkle in her voice. Can Shafak envision herself settling down? She laughs gently and borrows from Rumi. “He has a great metaphor using a drawing compass. The static end stays still while the drawing leg circles around. I have a base and I can move around that base. It is both local and universal. There is harmony in all.” Bewitched by the fact that every paragraph in this article begins with the letter B? Each chapter in The Forty Rules of Love begins similarly in tribute to the first letter of Rumi’s "Mathnawi," his master work of poetry.
I AM Modern
Jessamyn Ayers writes and lives in Loudoun County with her husband and two children. The perfect day for her includes some combination of reading, writing, running, working with her dogs and baseball. She is currently working on a novel.