Elif Shafak is a Turkish writer, one of the most well-known Turkish writers, famous for books like The Bastard of Istanbul, Honour and The Forty Rules of Love. Black Milk – on motherhood and writing – is a non-fiction (or a blurred-boundary at least) book/memoir covering her uncertainty about motherhood and the post-partum depression she suffered after the birth of her first child. The book covers a long period starting with the moment she realises she might, despite all prior appearances to the contrary, want to one day be a mother to a point several months after her first child was born when the depression finally lifted. Interspersed with her personal narrative is an exploration of what it means to be a woman, particularly what it means to be a woman and a writer, and the conflicts and challenges this presents particularly when set against societal expectation. She also examines the lives of many other female writers, the challenges they’ve faced and the choices they made – whether that was to become a mother or a wife or to eschew both in order to focus on their writing. Through these various explorations she reveals a truth which is known to all women: there is no one model of womanhood, no one right choice, no single path.
Shafak writes with an engaging voice and whilst I haven’t read any of her fiction – Black Milk is my introduction to her work – I can understand why she is an extremely popular writer. She writes with lightness and joy and has the gift of storytelling which carries you through the book. One of the tools she uses to explore the nature of her own identity is a little quirky fiction involving six finger-sized women that she refers to as her ‘Thumbelinas’, each representing a part of her character. These personifications are quite separate little beings with independent lives and ideas. To begin with we know only of Little Miss Practical, Miss Highbrow Cynic, Milady Ambitious Chekovian and Dame Dervish, the dominant parts of Shafak’s identity, but as we go through the book we are introduced to Mama Rice Pudding and Blue Belle Bovary, the feminine and motherly aspects of her character which she has repressed. It’s a mechanism that I would normally be inclined to find quite annoying, but in Shafak’s hands it is charming and illuminating and fitting with her storytelling persona. And it is a good way of demonstrating the conflict that many women feel in their lives, as they struggle to fulfil all the idealised roles which are thrust upon them. I certainly relate to the sense of conflict, the split personality feeling that Shafak identifies here.
The theme of conflict runs through the book. Shafak, as a prominent writer, begins to recognise that her determination to be a respected writer has overruled her innate femininity, she has quashed it in order to be taken seriously. She describes here how her body and outlook changed after she renounced her feminine desire for motherhood:
“Before two weeks have passed my body starts to show signs of change. First my hair, then the skin on my face and hands dries out. I lose weight. My stomach flattens. Then, one day, I realize I have stopped menstruating. I don’t get my flow the next month, or the one after that. At first I don’t pay any attention to it – in fact, I am even relieved to be rid of womanhood. Wouldn’t it be liberating to free myself of femininity and sexuality, and become a walking brain?”
How I recognise that feeling, the freedom of becoming a walking brain. Yet she also recognises that in sacrificing her femininity, she also sacrifices her sexuality and her desire, as she describes here:
“She could have a point. But there is something she doesn’t recognize. It’s not only me or us female writers who as a matter of self-protection shy away from depiction of graphic sexuality in our books. The same goes for female academics, female reporters, female politicians and those women who tread into the business world. We are all a little desexualised, a little defeminised. We can’t carry our bodies comfortably in a society that is so bent against women. In order to be a “brain” in the public realm, we control our “bodies”.”
Another recognisable point. To be respected, it helps to be male and if you aren’t male it helps to quash your femininity as much as possible. As someone who works in an industry dominated by men, it is a condition I heartily recognise.
Shafak eventually meets a man, Eyup, who she falls in love with and they are married. In fact, she proposes to him. A short while later, despite all her uncertainties, Shafak becomes pregnant and she embarks on the mysterious journey that is motherhood, encountering the loss of personal space and privacy as well as the fear of being a terrible mother. Much of what she describes will be recognisable to many women.
What lifts the book to something more than just a well told story is the way she explores and elucidates the lives of other female writers. There is a huge array of writers mentioned in the book including, but not limited to: Julia Kristeva; Virginia Woolf; Marguerite Duras; Toni Morrison; Alice Walker; Simone de Beauvoir; Ayn Rand; Doris Lessing; Alexandra Kollontai; Sevgi Soytal, Sylvia Plath. She also ventures into the territory of wives of famous writers, wives whose lives were dominated by, and in some cases stolen by, their husband’s work like Zelda Fitzgerald and Sophia Tolstoy. I came away from the book with a huge long list of writers I want to read, as well as a healthy respect for those I’ve already encountered.
Black Milk is a very entertaining book. It is entertaining but it has a very serious core. When Shafak talks of her depression she does it with a lightness of tone which belies how terrible the experience is but that she’s talking about it at all is something of a revolution. She is not the perfect mother, not even a perfect human being or a perfect writer, but she is honest and insightful and extremely clever. And if she embellishes here and there, and throws in a few storytellerish flourishes it only makes the book all the more readable.
Black Milk: on motherhood and writing is published by Penguin Books.