Author Elif Shafak comes to terms with her all-black closet.
Of all the colors in the universe, there are two that I am particularly fond of: purple and black. The former is for writing. All my fountain pens have purple ink. The latter is for wearing. I wear black a lot—like, on-all-occasions- without-fail kind of a lot. I had to admit to myself just how often I wore it when my children peeked into my wardrobe the other day and started describing the items inside: “A black jacket, a black skirt, a black top, another black jacket...”
Whenever I run into a woman sporting multihued garments and accessories, carrying her choice of style with perfect ease, I smile in admiration. But no amount of respect is enough for me to follow her lead. Maybe for a day or two, I try. I tell myself that enough is enough and I will brighten up my wardrobe. “It is time for me to have an outfit to match every tone in the color spectrum,” I declare. The craziness that gets hold of me, though powerful while it lasts, dissolves. Whether I am giving a talk at a literary festival or picking up my kids from basketball, I wear black.
I am a nomad—intellectually, spiritually, and physically. Ever since my childhood, I have moved from one city to another: Strasbourg, Ankara, Madrid, Amman, Cologne, Istanbul, Boston, Ann Arbor, Tucson. For the last eight years, I have been commuting between London and Istanbul. One day, at the Istanbul Atatürk Airport, a reader recognized me and asked if we could take a selfie. When we stood side by side, the contrast was startling: She was all vivid colors, and I the opposite. Smiling, she said, “You don’t write gothic novels, but you dress like a gothic writer!”
Here is a memory: I was a 22-year-old aspiring writer when I decided to leave everything behind and move on my own from Ankara, Turkey’s capital, to Istanbul, Turkey’s craziest and wildest city. My first novel had been published to modest acclaim, and I had just signed a contract for a second book. The same week, I was invited to give a talk at a major book fair. I woke up that morning feeling slightly nervous and decided that lavender was the color of the day, thinking it would go well with my long, permed hair, which I’d just dyed the brightest shade of ginger. Donning a billowing, pearly purple skirt and lavender top, I showed up on time—only to stop in my tracks and feel absolutely petrified as soon as I entered the conference room.
The male writers had taken care with their appearance (matching shoes and belts, gold and silver rings, necklaces), but the female writers were completely devoid of color. They wore no accessories and no makeup. The panel went well; the discussion was lively. When it was over, one of the older female novelists murmured in an icy voice: “A little advice, darling. You speak eloquently. But if you want to be taken seriously, you have to look more serious.”
The experience was repeated on numerous occasions. Whenever I was in the company of the Turkish literary establishment, trying to understand their ways, I heard that nagging voice at the back of my mind telling me I was out of place. I had thought Turkey’s cultural circles would be more egalitarian. I was wrong. I understood that in this part of the world, a male novelist was primarily a novelist; no one cared about his gender. But a woman novelist was a woman first, and then a writer. I started noticing how many female scholars, journalists, writers, intellectuals, and politicians were trying to cope with this “glass wall” by systematically defeminizing themselves. It was their strategy to survive patriarchy and sexism. Then it became mine.
Slowly, I changed my style. I asked the hairdresser to get rid of the red in my hair. I discarded the blues and the greens and the oranges in my wardrobe. Then came black rings, black necklaces, and black jeans. I was not a peacock. I would be a crow. Black provided me with a kind of armor, less for protection than demarcation; it drew a border between my inner world and the outside world. The only thing that remained untouched was my fiction. Storyland had its own colors. It could never be reduced to one shade.
Here is another memory: I was born in Strasbourg, France, to Turkish parents. My father was completing his PhD in philosophy. My mother dropped out of university just before I came along, assuming that love and family were all she needed. Ours was a flat abuzz with idealist, liberal students of all nationalities. My parents wanted to save the world, but their marriage failed and they went their separate ways.
Mum and I returned to Ankara, taking refuge with my grandma in a conservative Muslim neighborhood. There were eyes watching our every move from behind lace curtains, judging. A young divorcée was regarded as a threat to the community. But Grandma intervened: “My daughter should go back to university. She should have a job.” I was raised by Grandma, whom I called anne (mother), for a long time. My own mother, I called abla (big sister).
I was a lonely child, an introvert. Many afternoons I climbed our cherry tree with a new novel. I would read and eat cherries and spit the pits left and right, pretending I could reach the bleak brown and gray houses in the distance. I dreamed of bringing a shade of cherry red into their lives.
In the meantime, Mum threw herself into her studies. Sexual harassment was rife on the streets. She would carry large safety pins in her handbags to poke molesters on buses. I remember how “modestly” she dressed—skirts that reached her ankles, thick coats, absolutely no makeup. Eventually she became a diplomat. In the male-dominated world of foreign affairs, too, she continued wearing “nonrevealing” clothes. She wanted to look as strong as possible.
This summer, when I retreated to a little town in Cornwall, England, to start my new novel, I decided to pack just one dress. I had a plan. Since a breezy fishing town had no reason to specialize in black garments, I would have to purchase a few variegated items. My plan worked—for a day. The next, I was in a cab heading to the nearest mall for black clothes.
I am comfortable in black, but I am not comfortable with being too comfortable—hence the impulse to always question myself. I realize, albeit reluctantly, that my resistance to bright colors might be rooted in negative personal experiences, each of which has left a subtle but stubborn impact. Oh, I know what commercials will tell me. I know the slogan of our times: “Just be yourself! Forget the rest!” But are not memories and experiences, and the way we responded to them, also part of what constitutes “the self”?
After so many trials and errors, I have accepted that I actually love wearing black. The color that turned into an entrenched habit in response to a patriarchal world has, over time, become a faithful friend. I do not have to change, so long as it makes me happy and remains a personal choice. Since I am not inclined to wear colors but like to have them around, I’ve found another solution: I keep my accessories flashy—turquoise rings, magenta bracelets, sunglow scarves. The darker my clothes, the crazier my accessories.
There are many seasons in a woman’s life. Seasons of black, seasons of colors. None is eternal. Life is a journey. It is also hybridity—a mixture of contrasts. As the poet Hafez wrote, “You carry all the ingredients / To turn your existence into joy, / Mix them.”
Elif Shafak is a Turkish author, activist, and speaker. She has written 10 novels, including The Forty Rules of Love and The Bastard of Istanbul. Her newest novel, Three Daughters of Eve, will be published December 5.