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Black Milk: An honest look into motherhood and postpartum career life Open in fullscreen

Ilham Essalih

Black Milk: An honest look into motherhood and postpartum career life

Elif Shafak's book is a touching memoir on balancing motherhood and writing

Date of publication: 6 March, 2019

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Book Club: Elif Shafak's Black Milk is a beautiful and touching memoir delving into her attempts to balance motherhood with a writing career while dealing with postpartum depression.
Black Milk is Turkish best-selling writer Elif Shafak's only piece of non-fiction, a painfully funny and touching memoir on balancing motherhood and writing. The book is unique in its blend of autobiography which Shafak narrates in a fictional, metaphorical way, and a tribute to women writers who, throughout history, were able, unable or simply chose not to deal with becoming mothers. 

In this book, Shafak shares her own struggles of becoming a new mother in 2006 and dealing with postpartum depression, which, according to the description of the book on Shafak's website, "affects millions of new mothers every year, and – like most of its victims – Shafak never expected to be one of them."

The chapters recounting the writer's life describe her journey from being a fervent opponent to the institution of marriage, meeting the love of her life, starting to consider marriage and children, actually going through with both, how she fell into postpartum depression which came hand in hand with severe writer's block, and how she was able to crawl back to health and inspiration.

Being the mesmerising writer that she is, Shafak of course didn't write these chapters in a plain, autobiographical manner. She managed to mold them into an intriguing story that almost feels like fiction.

We are introduced to Shafak's harem of inner voices, which she calls her little fingerwomen, and who all represent different, contradicting parts of her nature. Miss Highbrowed Cynic, Milady Ambitious Chekhovian, Little Miss Practical, Dame Dervish, Blue Belle Bovary and Mama Rice Pudding endlessly quibble and want to take over control, while Shafak must learn, with great difficulty, to find balance without suppressing one or the other.

In this book, Shafak shares her own struggles of becoming a new mother in 2006 and dealing with postpartum depression
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The chapters about her fingerwomen intertwine with stories of more or less famous female writers, from whose lives she draws inspiration and teachings. Each woman she discusses is chosen for a purpose, ranging from Virginia Woolf, Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, George Eliot, the Brontë sisters, Toni Morrison, Sylvia Plath all the way to Fatma Aliye and other influential Turkish writers.

These chapters abruptly interrupt the narrative of Shafak's life, creating pauses and suspense, turning her life into an exciting realistic and metaphorical story that unfolds in a timely and beautiful way.

In the Note to the Reader, Shafak writes that when she first learned she was pregnant, "the writer in me panicked, the woman in me became happily confused, the cosmopolite in me began to think of international baby names, the Sufi in me welcomed the news, the vegetarian in me worried about having to eat meat and the nomad in me just wanted to take to her heels and run as fast as she could. But that is what happens when you are pregnant. You can run away from everything and everyone but not from the changes in your body."

Shafak was mostly worried about what would happen to her career as a writer, and she spends endless pages pondering over whether it is possible or not to have children and continue being a successful writer.

She tried to find answers in the lives of the many women who came before her, but ultimately, she would have to wait and experience motherhood herself to find these answers.

After having her firstborn, she learned that "it was not only "unhappy" or "unfulfilled" women who suffered from postpartum depression. New mothers of every class, status, religion and temperament were susceptible to it".

Shafak was one of them, and she explains that depression "turned you into something less than human, an empty shell of your former self".

Her worries of not being able to balance motherhood and writing ended up painfully materialised when she wasn't able to write for eight whole months. She was "seized by the fear that something had irreversibly changed in [her] and [she] would never be the same again". 

Her worries of not being able to balance motherhood and writing ended up painfully materialised when she wasn't able to write for eight whole months

She felt inadequate in being both a mother and a writer, and her fear of motherhood also translated in her breastfeeding and milk production. When she mentions nursing and writing, she says, "it turned out I could do neither. My milk wasn't sufficient, and each time I attempted to go back into the world of fiction and start a new novel, I found myself staring at a blank page with growing unease. That had never happened to me before. I had never run out of stories. I had never experienced writer's block or anything that came close to it. For the first time in my adult life, as hard as I tried, words wouldn't speak to me".

While these descriptions might feel like dark, pessimist perceptions of motherhood, that's actually not at all what the tone of this book is like. Rather than doing one-sided motherhood-bashing, Shafak writes honestly about the struggles as well as the beauty and happiness of creating life.

This book is, above all, a story of hope, love and healing: "It was okay that I had feared I couldn't manage writing and motherhood at the same time. Had my milk not been as white as snow, that, too, would be okay. 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 perhaps inch my way out of this depression"

And inch her way out of depression, she did, that too ever so magnificently. Since having her first baby, Shafak wrote bestselling novels The Forty Rules of Love, The Bastard of Istanbul, The Architect's Apprentice, Honour, and most recently, Three Daughters of Eve.

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 perhaps inch my way out of this depression

Shafak learned that a woman does not become a mother the very minute she gives birth. It is a learning process; during which she must never forget she can ask for help when she needs it the most.

She writes that women thrive on two dominant teachings: one is the traditional view that says motherhood is a woman's most sacred and significant obligation worth sacrificing everything for; and the other is the 'modern' view in which women have to be 'superwomen' who can manage a career, husband and children seamlessly. Shafak concludes that "both disregard the complexity and intensity of motherhood".

She also concludes that all the lives of women writers from East and West, past and present, show that every case is different. There isn't one single formula for motherhood and writing that suits all. Instead, "there are many beautiful paths on this literary journey, all leading to the same destination, each equally valuable".

The word beautiful doesn't do Elif Shafak's writing in Black Milk justice, but that's exactly what it is. Every single word feels precious and worthy of cherishing, making this, for me, a read that took a long while, because the heaviness of the topic and the beauty of the words made it necessary to read, put down and ponder.

This book is also not your typical non-fiction memoir; it is hypnotising, suspenseful, and the many stories of female writers make it extremely interesting and educative.

Ilham Essalih is a Belgian-Arab book reviewer and PhD student in Postcolonial Literature. Her research focuses on gendered dimensions of postcolonial trauma in literature of Africa and the Arab world. 

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