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The power of a story

By Elif Shafak, Special to CNN
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Elif Shafak: The politics of fiction
  • Elif Shafak is an award winning novelist who writes in Turkish and English
  • She spoke about storytelling and identity politics at TED Global conference
  • Shafak's next novel will focus on experiences of an immigrant family in London, England
  • In an excerpt, she writes about a Turkish mother's bitterness at having daughters but no sons

Editor's note: The following excerpt, "The Story of Pembe," is from a forthcoming novel about an immigrant family in London, England, by Elif Shafak, who spoke about storytelling and identity politics at the TED Global conference in Oxford, England, in July. Shafak is an award-winning novelist who writes in Turkish and English. Her books have been translated into 30 languages and she is the most widely read woman author in Turkey. TED is a nonprofit organization dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading," which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

London (CNN) -- 22 November, 1947; A Village Near the River Euphrates

When Pembe was born, her mother was so sad she forgot about the pain she had suffered for twenty-six hours and the blood oozing between her legs, and tried to get up and walk away. At least, that is what everyone said -- everyone who was present in the delivery room on that blustery day.

As much as she might have wanted, the new mother could not go anywhere. To the surprise of the women in the room and her husband waiting in the courtyard, she was yanked back into the bed with a new wave of contractions. Two minutes later the second baby was born. Another girl, only smaller.

Watch an interview with Elif Shafak

This time the new mother did not attempt to run away. She gave a wisp of sigh, burrowed her head into the pillow and turned toward the window, as if straining to hear fate's whisper in the wind. If she listened attentively, she thought, she might hear an answer from the skies. After all, there must have been a reason, an explanation unbeknown to her but obvious to Allah, as to why He had given them two more daughters when they already had six, and still not one son.

Thus the new mother clamped her lips shut, determined not to say a word until Allah had explained to her, fully and convincingly, the motive behind His actions. During the next forty days and nights she did not speak a word. Not when she was cooking chickpeas with sheep's tail fat, not when she was giving her six daughters a bath in a large round tin bucket, not when she was making cheese with wild garlic, not when her husband asked her what she would like to name the babies. She remained silent as the graveyard by the hills where all her ancestors were buried and some day so would she.

The incredible power of stories

It was a small, secluded Kurdish village with no roads, no electricity, and no secrets under the sun. Whatever took place in one corner was heard, at once, by everyone else. Secrets were a luxury only the richest could afford and in this village no one was rich.

The village elders were three ageless men who spent their time in the only teahouse contemplating the mysteries of the universe and the stupidities of the politicians while they sipped tea out of glasses fragile as life. When they heard about the new mother's oath of silence, they decided to pay her a visit.

"We came to warn you that you are about to commit sacrilege," said the first man who was so old the slightest breeze knocked him down.

"How can you expect Allah the Almighty to talk to you when He is known to have spoken only to prophets and saints?" asked the second man who had a few teeth left in his mouth. "Surely there was no woman among them."

The third man waved his hands which were stiff and gnarled. "Allah wants to hear you talk. If it had been any other way, He would have made you into a fish."

The woman listened, now and then dabbing her eyes with the ends of her headscarf. For a moment, she imagined herself as a fish -- a big, brown trout in the river, its fins glittering in the sun. Little did she know that her children and grandchildren would, at different times in their lives, feel attached to different kinds of fish, and an affinity with the piscine would run in the family for generations to come.

"Speak!" said the first old man. "It is against nature for your kind to be quiet. What goes against nature goes against Allah's will."

When the guests had left, the woman approached the cradle where the twins were sleeping. The shimmer from the lighted hearth painted the room a golden-yellow, giving the babies' skins a soft glow, almost angelic. Her heart mellowed.

She turned to her other daughters who had lined up beside her from the tallest to the shortest, and said, in a voice both hoarse and hollow:

"I know what I'll name them."

"Tell us, Mother!" the girls exclaimed, delighted to hear her talk again.

The woman cleared her throat and said, with a sigh, "This one will be Kader and the other, Yeter."

"Kader and Yeter," the girls echoed in unison.

"Yes, my children."

Upon saying this, the woman smacked her lips as if the names had left a sour taste on her tongue. Kader and Yeter. Destiny and Enough. This would be her way of telling Allah that even though, like a good Muslim, she was resigned to her fate, she had had her fill of daughters and the next time she was pregnant, which she knew would be the last time because she was forty years old and past her prime now, He had to give her a son and none other than a son.

That same evening when her husband came home, the girls rushed to give him the good news:

"Daddy! Daddy! Mother is speaking."

"Daddy! Daddy! Mother has named the babies."

Pleased as he was to see his wife talking again, the man's face clouded over when he learned about the names she had chosen. Shaking his head with disapproval, he remained silent for a long, awkward moment.

"Names with an insinuating message to the skies might offend Allah," he muttered, as if talking to himself. "Why draw His wrath upon us? Better stick to ordinary girls' names and be on the safe side."

He had an alternative pair of names in mind: Pembe and Jamila -- Pink and Beautiful. Names like sugar cubes that melted in your tea, sweet and yielding, with no sharp edges.

Though the father's decision was final and irreversible, the mother's choices would not be easily forgotten. They lingered in memory and stayed around, tied to the family tree like two flimsy kites caught in the branches.

Thus the twins came to be known by both names: Pembe Kader and Jamila Yeter -- Pink Destiny and Enough Beauty.

And such would be the names printed in the newspapers around the world one day.