Book Review: Black Milk: On Motherhood and Writing
A deep meditation by novelist Elif Shafak that should be mandatory reading for women writers
“Every book is a journey, a map into the complexities of the human mind and soul.”
This easy-to-read but layered non-fiction book by well-known novelist Elif Shafak is difficult to classify into a neat genre. Not surprisingly, the author warns us in the first few pages in a section tilted Note to Reader -
“This book was written with black milk and white ink — a cocktail of storytelling, motherhood, wanderlust and depression, distilled for several months at room temperature.”
There was a time, when Shafak defined herself using an eclectic mix of terms:
I am a writer.
I am a nomad.
I am a cosmopolite.
I am a lover of Sufism.
I am a pacifist.
I am a vegetarian and
I am a woman, more or less in that order.
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.
Early on, Shafak recounts her mother’s surprising response to the news of her wedding in Berlin. Knowing her daughter’s independence, nomadic ways, and devotion to her writing, the mother displays her joy by likening herself to a lucky dishwasher who has found a winning lottery ticket on the sidewalk. Despite this, it is clear that no one is more surprised at the unexpected turn of events than Shafak herself.
We get a glimpse of the fearless and enigmatic writer as the young eighteen-year-old who decides to choose her name as she would like it to appear in a magazine where her first story was about to be published. Happy with her given first name, Elif, she picks Shafak, her mother’s first name to be her last name. By the time we meet her in this book, she is thirty-five, and already a famous novelist in Turkey, living an enviable busy life filled with literary activities and travel.
Her life as an only child, her peripatetic childhood and her love for solitude does not prepare her for a life of settled wedded bliss. But despite herself, she falls in love and rearranges her schedule to make the relationship work. Having defined herself primarily by her books and writing, marriage complicates her life but motherhood brings on melancholy and with it, an inability to write. When she finally comes out of depression, she does the one thing that defines her. Write.
“If I started to write about the experience, I could turn my blackened milk into ink, and as writing had always had a magical healing effect on my soul, I could inch my way out of this depression.”
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.
Only a storyteller of Shafak’s caliber can give life to the contradictory voices within her, give each of them specific outfits, unique personalities, characteristic quirks, and strong opinions. Most women can identify with her state of mind but I doubt most of us would be able to create such a compelling story from it.
Every episode of her life woven into the narrative seems believable and pre-ordained, and most often, decided by the loudest voice in her harem. Carried away by these imaginary conversations, I enjoyed her camaraderie (or lack thereof) with this unruly group of strong-minded mini-women. I empathised with her conflicts, and her ambivalence regarding marriage, motherhood, and its impact on her writing life.
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.
Shafak discovers, to her surprise, that in addition to the original four that she is familiar with, she has two other finger-women embedded within her psyche, a sexy feminine side, and a maternal side, who have been sidelined by her in her attempt to stay true to her calling of writing fiction. Things get confusing as she meets the love of her life and contemplates the practical aspects of settling down.
From women like Alice Walker, Muriel Spark and Doris Lessing who tried to be true to their art and to their children but failed in the latter, there are others like JK Rowling, Toni Morrison, and Susan Sontag who went on to have good relationships with their offspring even as they blazed a trail with their writing.
Shafak’s quest to make the decision that is right for her is not easy. Contemporary writers, across cultures, like Mexican-American writer Sandra Cisneros, Chinese American author Amy Tan, and Elizabeth Gilbert, who confessed her reluctance to bear children and its consequences in her bestselling book Eat Pray Love, have struggled with the decision to bear children.
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.
Shafak honestly observes that a novelist is inherently selfish and an introvert, while a mother is by definition, an extrovert, and a giver. Although unsure of whether it was this dichotomy, hormones, or outside forces that caused her dive into the post-partum blues, Shafak confesses concludes that -
“Depressions happen to us against our will and without our knowledge, but then, slowly and furtively, they may turn into a river in which we willingly paddle.”
Comparing the life lived by her maternal grandmother who married young and depended exclusively on her husband to her mother who chose to bring up her child as a single mother, Shafak is surprised to find that her grandmother weathered the vicissitudes of womanhood better. Greater independence seemed to have come with a concomitant loss of the understanding of the value of support that a woman needs at various stages in her life.
Shafak comes out of her depression by finally accepting the noisy, unruly and competing parts of herself. Only by acknowledging them all and allowing them to coexist, does harmony prevail. Her quest is not over, however. She must undertake this journey every time she sets out to create another masterpiece. Lucky for readers like us because in the year following the birth of her first child, she wrote The Forty Rules of Love.
My opinion: A must read for women writers. An interesting one for everyone else.
Have you read this book? Or come across similar guidebooks for women writers? ? Drop me a note in comments.
Originally published at https://www.ranjanirao.com on April 13, 2020.