Black Milk: On Writing, Motherhood, and the Harem Within – Review

Book: Black Milk: On Motherhood and Writing
Author: Elif Shafak
Year: 2007
Bookhad Rating: ❤❤❤❤♡

Black MilkIn a remarkably poignant memoir about her travails, Elif Shafak sketches her journey from being a spinster to a mother. The blurb describes the book about Elif’s battle with post-partum depression and yet spans the challenges of being a woman in a man’s world. Although part-autobiographical, Black Milk must be considered a work of literature. It is sated with stories of notable women, it is sewn together by the escapades of Elif’s little selves who she calls Thumbelinas, and it is packed with a narrative that is a ride to self-discovery.

Of course, I can say that this book would largely cater to a female audience, but hey, let’s not define stereotypes, shall we? However, I would highly recommend all women to read it. Simply because the spine of the story is something all women can relate to. Black Milk starts with Elif telling her mother that she got married in a different country without telling anyone, and at the end of the chapter discovering that she is going to be a mother. In classic Elif style, the book jumps across timelines and parallel narratives. She tells two stories in one book – her own and that of a host of other women writers of history.

The narrative goes back to the time when Elif was a single woman with matrimony as not only a distant dream but also an unwanted burden. Like all women even she felt pressurised by society to marry a man in order to be accepted. However, the fearless woman and free-thinker that she was made her resist all pressure. She describes a scene where aboard a steamboat she wrote The Manifesto of a Single Woman and I couldn’t help chuckling. That manifesto should be secretly distributed among women if the men are to be taken over, I believe. The manifesto says, among others:

How is it that, even though marriage needs a woman and a man, and being unmarried is a condition that applies to both sexes equally, the term spinster has different—and more negative—connotations than bachelor?

Women who have been “left on the shelf” should have their dignity returned and be applauded for daring to live without a man to watch over them.

Change and changeability are life’s alphabet. The vow to stay together “till death do us part” is a fantasy that runs against the essence of life. Besides, we don’t die only once. It is worth remembering that human beings die many deaths before dying physically.

See where she’s going with this? After being single for a while, Elif’s little selves start quarreling with each other. These Thumbelinas are tiny women which embody her characteristics furiously. While her practical side is called Little Miss Practical, her Sufi side is called Dame Dervish, and her sexy side is called Blue Belle Bovary. It makes plain sense to have the Thumbelinas narrate her personal story. Don’t we all have our own facets that surface from time to time? Yes, we do. Women are multi-crusted people – they have feminine, motherly, wanton, responsible, scared, practical, impractical sides that make up their being. And that is why Elif’s conversation with each of her Thumbelinas are both engaging and insightful. At some times she is thick friends with Miss Highbrow Cynic but when she wants to trust her gut she rushes to Dame Dervish.

When Elif is battling with herself, life strikes her and she meets the love of her life in a bar. Elif is still studying at a university in the United States when her personal life gets serious. She marries her husband as she knows that she is in love with him. And then, yes, she gets pregnant. The aspect of depression is not discussed at length but her reasons to be depressed are. Elif keeps asking herself the question a fellow author asked her when she visited her house, “Do you think a woman could manage motherhood and a career at the same time and equally well?” This question plagues Elif up until her pregnancy and even after delivery. And that is why post-partum depression.

On one hand, Elif discusses her fears and conflicts between her Thumbelinas and on the other, she tells us a basket full of stories about how women writers across the ages have tackled this question. Black Milk is a crash course on the lives of distinguished women writers such as Anais Nin, Zelda Fitzgerald, Alice Walker, Loiusa May Alcott, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Enid Blyton among others. About Sylvia Plath post her pregnancy, Elif writes:

In the repetitive rhythm of daily habits, she felt both elated by and frustrated with her motherly duties. Her husband, in the meantime, continued frequenting literary events they used to attend together. He carried on with his life as it had been, writing his poetry, making new contacts, fortifying his fame. Perhaps fatherhood was not as great a rupture in a man’s life as motherhood was in a woman’s. Or perhaps, she suspected, it was just their own unique situation.

And after her marriage with Ted Huges fell apart Sylvia took her life in her own hands.

Often she started the day at four in the morning—the one or two hours that she had to herself before the children woke up were the most precious time of the day. The poems she wrote during those months are perhaps her brightest—such as “Medusa,” “Daddy” or “Lady Lazarus,” where she shocked her readers by saying, “Dying / Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well.” At the kitchen table, in the bathroom or in bed under the covers, she wrote wherever and whenever she could, scribbling furiously in her extra-careful hand, at an incredible speed—as if she were racing against God, against the men she loved and loved no more, against her numerous shortcomings, each of which she despised.

What about men? What about the men who lived with these women who pursued writing? And what about men, in general, all over the world? Do they expect women to be Goddesses and handle everything in life gracefully? This is not a feministic book, but I think subtly it asks a very important question – why don’t men support women the way their women do? And what if a woman cannot be that perfect idol of crystal, will you take her off your trophy shelf and let her fall to the floor? Will you?

Fortunately, this book does not herald a revolution, but it makes being a woman seem like what it really is – a Herculean task. The good news is, this world is filled with so many of them. So many Hercules. And you called it a man’s world? Oh the irony!

Black Milk, in my opinion, is necessary reading for all women. But it is compulsory reading for those women who want to be writers or already are writers. Like all stories, one must make sacrifices but one must also fervently hope that, above all, you can muster the courage to go after what you want in life. After all…

Take a step forward, move on, fall down, stand up, go back to walking, trip over and fall down on my face again, pull myself up, keep walking . . .


My musing after reading Black Milk can be found here: Day 5: Flight

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