For the third installment of my What are Women Reading series, I’m so happy to share the rich conversation I had with the lovely Farrah Abdel- Latif, an emerging poet, online spiritual coach and good pal of mine.
I met Farrah when we were both studying at the University of Toronto for our Masters in English and have always admired her confidence to speak loudly and clearly for what she believes in. An Egyptian, person of colour, who spent half of her life living in Egypt, Farrah never shies away from sharing her candid thoughts and opinions. I think it’s this authentic voice that breathes life into her simple and elegant poetry.
Along with running her own tutoring business, Farrah recently began doing live poetry readings. You can catch her at On Pleasure: A night of storytelling on March 13, presented by With/out Pretend, and find her work through her Instagram handles @farrahsha (poetry) and @astralpharaoh (astrology). Her poem ‘Dear Ethar’ was also published online at altmuslimah.com
I met with Farrah last week for a wide-reaching conversation on feminism, motherhood, the role of spirituality in society and the book she’d choose to recommend to all women if she could.
Here’s what we talked about:
Me: Maybe you can start by talking about how you came across this book, how you ended up reading it and the story behind that.
Farrah: It’s actually tied into the poem that I wrote- the poem I wrote about reading other authors. When I went to Turkey this past summer with my mom, I was on a mission to find a Turkish author that I really like. I have some from Egypt and all these different places, and I was actually not sure which one of those I would pick. But I picked this one, in specific, because I think it’s the one that is more synchronized with what I’m going through mentally.
I found it in Turkey- I was just going through book stores. The lady in one of the book stores- I think she saw that I was looking- she goes, have you heard of Elif Shafak? I was like, no, and she wasn’t even saying she yet, but like, Elif Shafak is the number one author in all of Turkey. The whole time I’m thinking this is a man. And she goes: and the best part is it’s a woman. I was like, send me to her.
I go to the section. I bought three or four books by her. There’s The Forty Rules of Love. She’s really into Sufism and Rumi.
Me: I don’t know Rumi super well, but I know Hafiz and I love his poetry, which is also Sufism.
Farrah: Exactly. I think The Forty Rules of Love plays on Rumi’s life even, but this one is a memoir. It’s a nonfiction piece. When I read this- even the title, Black Milk: On the Conflicting Demands of Writing, Creativity, and Motherhood-
Me: You felt like you could relate to that.
Farrah: Yes, and on so many different levels. Not just in terms of, I’m married, and the idea of having a baby is prominent in my mind. In my life, you know how I was going from, I need to work and make all this money, in this hyper- masculine mentality. When I was deciding, no, I need to put more effort into being creative and actually giving this time, I went out and cut tutoring students. But then the very real notion of, what are you going to do if you get pregnant, came up. When you’re being creative, you’re being selfish. You’re focusing on your feelings and your emotions, and you can’t give as much.
Me: You’re focusing on yourself and obviously if you have a child, your priority can’t be yourself any more.
Farrah: Yes. This book was a message. She’s writing this in 2007, more than ten years ago. The way she speaks about motherhood is at this very interesting moment in time when we were breaking that notion again. We were coming out of that phase of, if you’re going to be a mother you can’t be an intellectual. I think that’s what was needed after first-wave feminism, second-wave feminism.
Me: Well, I think- 2007 is right around, or just before, Bad Feminist was published in 2012. Sheryl Sandberg did that TED talk on leaning in and then wrote the book. From what I remember that’s all around 2010 and that’s what kind of kicked off that third-wave.
Farrah: Yes. In this one point she says, we said goodbye to Mrs. Weakness. She says the modern woman abandoned Mrs. Weakness, and a part of that was abandoning motherhood in her mind. The memoir starts with her meeting an older Turkish author. This older, female Turkish author invites her into her home for tea and is essentially asking her, are you going to be a mother- putting her on the spot as this younger female author representing the new generation. She tells her, I chose not to have children because I think it’s impossible to dedicate to your work and be a true literary success if you’re going to spend your time among kids and writing. It makes Elif go on this internal struggle.
Me: Yeah. Is it impossible for me to be a writer and also be a mother?
Farrah: Yes. What this memoir does, which is so fascinating, is that in-between her life, she embeds stories of other women authors. For example, she talks about Sylvia Plath, she talks about Simone de Beauvoir. She talks about everyone. She talks about them in groups, and I find it interesting that as you get closer to the women who have mothered, they’re all women of colour. They’re the first ones to say, we can do both.
Me: That is very interesting.
Farrah: It was so interesting. I don’t know if it was on purpose or not, or if her research just showed that. She has one section of authors where they’re all either rejecting the notion of mothering or becoming activists. It’s almost as if their stories give her strength to live out her own story.
She starts off by being torn and then she goes to somewhere in England to study. She makes a pact with herself under this tree that she’s going to be barren forever and she’s never going to have children. Then she meets a guy.
Me: (laughing) Of course. She meets a guy, and then she ends up becoming a mother.
Farrah: Yes. She falls in love. She becomes a mother. She thinks during her pregnancy, I can do it all, it’s fine. She’s characterized as this person who doesn’t seem like she’s ever quit. A lot of very masculine energy: go go go, I need to win, I need to make it. When she gives birth, she gets postpartum depression. It stops her.
Erin: Oh wow.
Farrah: There’s this whole layer of literariness, and the modern world, and the real world. But I guess her spiritual attachment to Sufism and Rumi is very prominent too. There seems to be a spiritual crisis that culminates in this postpartum depression.
The spiritual crisis is that she compartmentalizes herself into six people. You’re first introduced to four: Miss Highbrowed Cynic, who’s the literary, ambitious person. You have my Lady Ambitious Chekhovian. She’s the intellectual. She’s always smoking cigarettes and wearing gypsy clothes and you can find her in the library. Then you have Little Miss Practical. She’s like the HR. And you have Dame Dirvish. She’s the spiritual one. The guru. The shaman. Always saying these elusive sayings. She’ll come to her in a crisis and she’ll say, ‘there is no crisis.’
There’s this shell that is her and she is always trying to go into herself and meet with these women. They’re always arguing with each other. They can never see eye to eye. She parallels this spiritual crisis with a government situation. At first, she has an oligarchy. They’re all powerful, but they can’t agree. Then when she starts dreaming of being a mother, there’s a coup d’etat. Marshall Law. They tell her you’re going to this new school, you’re going to focus on your literary stuff, this is a once in a life time opportunity.
On the plane to go to the school, she meets another one of her. Mama Rice Pudding. She goes, who the hell are you? I’ve never met you before. She tells her, I used to be with you when you played with dolls and you shut me away when you started being ambitious. When the others saw you were interested in mothering again, they were afraid I’d come out, so they’ve locked me away in the dungeon.
She feels bad for her, so she hides her. She’s messed up, she thinks, is this a part of me? I didn’t know this part of me existed.
Me: It’s like something from the unconscious coming up above the surface.
Farrah: Yes, exactly. At the beginning, I have to read it to you. She goes:
I’m not trying to argue here that we should be guided by a bundle of superstitions or expect health care to cover decorations of garlic strings and evil-eye beads in maternity wards. What I am saying is that women of premodern times- through their old wives’ tales, traditions and beliefs- recognized an essential fact that we are not that good at acknowledging. Throughout her life, a woman goes through several major stages, and the transition from one to the next might not be easy. She might require additional help, support and guidance before she starts living fully in the present again. As a woman moves from one day to the next, struggling, problem solving, organizing and controlling, there are times when the machine of her body may falter. It is this simple and age-old wisdom that we have lost touch with in our determination to be successful, strong and always perfect.
Me: It reminds me a lot of this writer I read in university, Jacques Ellul. He has this book called The Technical Age and the whole book is about STEM- math, science and technology- and how they continue to overtake. There’s a bit of a power balance and they’re very much privileged in our society. There’s an increase in rationalism. He calls it technique. Everything is rigid. But what’s problematic is that humans are profoundly irrational creatures. You’re emotional, you have layers of conscience. It’s like circle within a square. You’re trying to box yourself into this rigid environment. I think it also comes from the separation of church and state, increased atheism. Religion and spirituality is kind of forgotten about.
Farrah: I love that you just said that.
Me: But I think there’s a need for it. I think that’s why there’s so much new age spiritualism, born again Christianity. It has a resurgence. I think you need some of that in life to be happy.
Farrah: And it kind of gives it credibility, that whole category of spirituality. When I read this, I wrote, ‘Why not? We are going back to this magic’ now.
Me: It’s huge. Even something like yoga. People don’t just go to yoga for yoga. You go because the yoga teacher is giving these spiritual talks about setting intentions and breathing. There’s a spiritual component and I think that’s what people are attached to.
Farrah: I agree with you. Going back to her personalities, when she falls in love, she meets her final personification which is Bluebell Bovary, who is like a sex goddess. She’s always in makeup and tight clothes and wears colour. Obviously, that was a reconnection with her femininity. She accepts her more willingly, and then she gets pregnant. They have no choice but to bring Mama Rice Pudding out. She declares monarchy. She gets out of control. And then there’s anarchy.
Anarchy hit and postpartum depression come around the same time. She puts them in a box and locks them away. She forgets about them. For the six months she’s with Lord Poton, that’s what she calls her depression.
In this time with Lord Poton, she realizes that life isn’t all about doing things and planning things. Sometimes you just need to be present and be one with yourself. If you’re constantly at war with yourself, you’re never able to sit with yourself in the moment fully and wholly, and experience it because there are going to voices in your head pulling you here and there.
She calls her time with Lord Poton fascism. When he leaves, is when she finally accepts him: I kind of like you because you helped me, and I wouldn’t have been able to make all these realizations had you not come.
She goes to the box and says, I know democracy is not perfect, but it’s the best we have. And now all of you are going to have an equal say. It’s her attempt at oneness. She acknowledges we’re not all going to agree and we’re not all the same people, but we’re not going to succeed if one of us fails.
Erin: And we have a shared interest in the well being of the state.
Farrah: (laughing) Exactly. She has her kid, and she ends up getting a nanny. What I find interesting is- now, this is us being the Canadian critics who are so used to looking at colour dynamics and race relations. But I feel like she hasn’t tapped into that privilege. She didn’t even acknowledge it was a privilege.
Erin: I think, yeah, especially in Toronto. It’s something you’re so conscious of all the time. How is this a privilege, in terms of race, socio-economic status. The reality is she had access to a nanny so she could have it all. But if you don’t have the financial resources, there’s no nanny.
Farrah: I don’t even think she realizes it. But embedded in her personal story are the stories of coloured authors. She speaks of Toni Morrison and these women who didn’t have a nanny, who had children, and had to wake up in the early hours of the morning to write and then take care of their kids and do their job as an editor. That, to me, is the epitome of doing it all and making it all happen.
And then I start making these judgements, because that’s a judgement. It’s a spiral of, how do you call someone out for their privilege but then … I think I’m still finding a nicer way of speaking of women and their accomplishments. I think this is kind of what she’s trying to do too. You don’t need to judge. You just accept that everyone does what they can.
Erin: And I think that’s the value of stories, and sharing stories, in general. It’s sharing different approaches to life, different ways of doing things. If you have a diverse body, a multiplicity of stories, you see there isn’t just one way. You have to do what’s right for you.
Erin: This book sounds amazing. I can’t wait to read it. I think you’ve touched on a lot of these points already, but why was this book the one you decided to choose?
Farrah: I think it stems from my need, or maybe my feeling, that when I was doing my Master’s, people were always advocating for people of colour but never listening to them. It happened to me so many times. People were speaking on their behalf but if I tried to make a statement that was against what the status quo thesis was in conversation, I’d get shut down. It was almost like they were only interested in listening to the voices of people of colour who furthered their own agenda.
For example, only Muslim people who were fiercely for Muslim advocacy were allowed to speak. Whereas me, coming from someone who lived half my life in Egypt, I don’t have such positive views of Muslim society. I have a lot of criticisms of my people. There are a lot of people who have disgusting mentalities that you don’t agree with, like homophobic mentalities, lack of freedom, misogyny. If you claim to be against certain ideals but because you want to be an ally to every minority, you’re going to support people who would spit on your ideals. So where is the disconnect. Why are you so afraid to criticize something that’s wrong, just because it’s Muslim?
And so, because this was a memoir, and it was a personal voice, and all the other books I had from Egyptian authors were all fictional, I wanted to choose something that was like, these are the POC voices that you guys don’t listen to. The privileged ones, or the non-minorities. Like we’re not minorities back home. We don’t always feel undermined or underprivileged. You can’t always treat us as lesser than, or smaller than. We’re a minority in Canada contextually, but not necessarily globally, that can’t be the only way you see me. And so-
Erin: You were interested in sharing that. Sharing a different perspective.
Farrah: Exactly. She isn’t writing from Canada. This book was written in Turkish. You don’t get that POC minority voice. I wanted it to not be that.
Erin: And as you were saying, she has privilege in a lot of ways. That’s kind of an alternative voice.
Farrah: Exactly, so that was mainly why I chose it.
Erin: All right. Amazing. This was great.