Book Review: Black Milk: On Motherhood and Writing

A deep meditation by novelist Elif Shafak that should be mandatory reading for women writers

Book cover for Black Milk by Elif Shafak
Book cover for Black Milk by Elif Shafak
Photo credit — Ranjani’s personal archives

Disparate selves and fragmented identity

Not surprisingly, the book unpacks this complex concoction of traits and preferences to bring a semblance of order to the tumultuous journey that Shafak undertakes to make peace within herself to find Oneness. By using elements of fantasy, Shafak draws readers into her personal story of post-partum depression and spins a tale as only she can.

Battling the mini harem within

Her conversations with other women embolden her to look deeper inside herself to the cause of her situation. There Shafak finds four tiny Thumbelina-sized women who comprise the Choir of Discordant Voices who have been determining the course of her life and dragging her willy-nilly down thrilling and fascinating paths.

Women writers across ages

Proving that she is not the only one but one among a long line of women writers who have grappled with this dilemma, Shafak presents case studies across centuries and cultures. Her initial conversation with 81-year-old Turkish author Adalet Agaoglu, who chose to not have children, makes her think harder about her own preferences. She provides examples by describing vignettes of the lives of Louisa May Alcott, Anais Nin, Ayn Rand, and many others who had chosen to dedicate themselves to their writing instead of getting distracted by family concerns.

Across ages, women have been discouraged from pursuing lives of the mind, and restrained from indulging in creative fields.

Similar to Judith, the hypothetical sister of Shakespeare brought to life by Virginia Woolf, Shafak creates an oriental contemporary in Firuze, a hypothetical sister of Fuzuli, a poet who is much respected by Arabs, Persians and Turks to make her point. It is no surprise that women are systematically marginalised by being considered to be of value to society solely for their bodies, to be used for procreation and to serve men.

Making sense of motherhood

In one chapter, Shafak reproduces an abridged diary of her pregnancy where she finds herself carried away by hormones, a nesting instinct, and nostalgia for her intellectual life. Once the baby arrives, all of her doubts and uncertainties about her ability to perform the role of a perfect mother coalesce into depression which she personifies into the form of a djinni, Lord Poton, who succeeds in silencing the six finger women and keeps close watch on her as she struggles.

Written by

I write insightful personal stories about my scientist, immigrant, travel life. 4 books Share memoir journey

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store