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

Overview


An acclaimed Turkish novelist's personal account of balancing a writer's life with a mother's life.

After the birth of her first child in 2006, Turkish writer Elif Shafek suffered from postpartum depression that triggered a profound personal crisis. Infused with guilt, anxiety, and bewilderment about whether she could ever be a good mother, Shafak stopped writing and lost her faith in words altogether. In this elegantly written memoir, she retraces her journey from ...

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Black Milk: On the Conflicting Demands of Writing, Creativity, and Motherhood

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Overview


An acclaimed Turkish novelist's personal account of balancing a writer's life with a mother's life.

After the birth of her first child in 2006, Turkish writer Elif Shafek suffered from postpartum depression that triggered a profound personal crisis. Infused with guilt, anxiety, and bewilderment about whether she could ever be a good mother, Shafak stopped writing and lost her faith in words altogether. In this elegantly written memoir, she retraces her journey from free-spirited, nomadic artist to dedicated by emotionally wrought mother. Identifying a constantly bickering harem of women who live inside of her, each with her own characteristics-the cynical intellectual, the goal-oriented go-getter, the practical-rational, the spiritual, the maternal, and the lustful-she craves harmony, or at least a unifying identity. As she intersperses her own experience with the lives of prominent authors such as Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Alice Walker, Ayn Rand, and Zelda Fitzgerald, Shafak looks for a solution to the inherent conflict between artistic creation and responsible parenting.

With searing emotional honesty and an incisive examination of cultural mores within patriarchal societies, Shafak has rendered an important work about literature, motherhood, and spiritual well-being.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Feeling conflicted about embarking on motherhood, Turkish novelist Shafak (The Forty Rules of Love) chronicles the cruel, crazy trajectory that took her from feminist single novelist to married nursing mother of two. An accomplished writer by her mid-30s, Shafak faced the eternal dilemma of most enlightened women: can she pursue her cherished work, be true to herself, and also be a selfless caregiver to children? An interview with a legendary Turkish novelist, Adalet Agaoglu, challenged Shafak to face her irresolution, resulting in a virtual civil war amid the discordant voices in her own conscience—the pint-sized Thumbelinas, she calls them, her own "mini harem"—which each try to dictate literally what she ought to do: e.g., Little Miss Practical organizes the hiring of her nanny, secretary, and assistant; Dame Dervish attends to her spiritual self; Miss Ambitious Chekhovian tells her to forget about babies, write better novels, and develop her skill; while Miss Highbrowed Cynic warns her that, having children or not, she will always regret the path she didn't take. Shafak gets the modern woman's despair, and especially enlightening are her renderings of the lives of (mostly English-language) women writers she admires: Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, George Eliot, Zelda Fitzgerald. Shafak's stint as a resident at Mount Holyoke College and elsewhere has transformed her into a truly Western feminist voice within a region of engrained patriarchy: she is clear-eyed, savvy, unrepentant. (May)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670022649
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 4/28/2011
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 8.36 (w) x 5.82 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak is the most widely read female writer in Turkey. Her books include the novels The Bastard of Istanbul and The Forty Rules of Love and the memoir Black Milk. She lives in London and Istanbul.
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 30, 2011

    A spellbinding memoir on the competing demands of motherhood and the writing life

    When I saw Elif Shafak's new memoir Black Milk on display at my neighborhood B&N, I purchased it without any forethought, so entranced I was by her work. I had read another novel by Shafak, The Forty Rules of Love, exploring Sufism and the life of the mystic poet Rumi, who lived in central Anatolia in the thirteenth century. Being Turkish, of course, I am drawn to Shafak's novels and characters. But to enjoy her new memoir, you don't have to be Turkish, or have an interest in Turkey or Turkish politics. You don't even have to be a writer or mother. Ultimately though, women who are writer-mothers will feel especially pulled into the memoir's main theme: the tug of war between the all encompassing writing life and motherhood. Shafak writes of this struggle with the mind of a literary writer but in a style all her own-an utterly refreshing down-to-earth candor. Her story begins with a life altering conversation over a cup of tea. Shafak is invited to the home of a famous Turkish novelist. The woman, who is now in her eighties, confronts her with the choice of motherhood and the writing life after revealing that she herself had forsaken children for the pursuit of writing. Shafak begins to dwell on the subject, and it is at this conjunction that her harem of finger-women make their debut: the six thumbelinas that live inside of her head. Each is a different facet of Shafak, ranging from the ambitious professional to the pure motherly figure. For instance Little Miss Practical remarks, "Women can be good mothers and good career women. And they can be happy. It's simple. The key is time management." Miss Ambitious Chekhovian counters: "[The writing life] It's a lifestyle. It's a lifetime passion. An artist needs to be ambitious and passionate. You don't work nine to five. You breathe your art twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week." Inevitably, the novelist is selfish (everything comes second to writing), and the mother selfless. It's an immense conflict that Shafak shows though the confrontational conversations of her finger-women. For the most part the bickering and power struggle between them is engaging and believable. Giving the book five stars, which I believe it deserves, I must make a disclaimer that there are parts that fall short: the thumbelinas sometimes drone on, the bios on famous writer-mothers fail to tie in with the writer herself. I would have enjoyed Shafak sharing with the reader how these writers shaped her as a writer and thinker. Also, the narrative sometimes reads like a journal, a hodgepodge of subjects mixed together, its continuity lost as we switch from topic to topic. And most importantly, one of the most compelling issues she faces, her postpartum depression, is only discussed at the end of the book (during this time she loses her ambition and cannot write for eight months). Still, Shafak has reached a breakthough in addressing a topic that hasn't been addressed enough: the challenges of balancing the all encompassing writer's life and the all encompassing mother's life. How can they both co-exist? Shafak's writing exudes her own lyrical style, lush and vivid, spiritual and otherworldly; her inspiration from Sufism is evident. She is witty and entertaining. Her ideas are bold, inspirational, brilliant, and universal. Any woman can take her golden nuggets of wisdom, but writer-mothers can especially take great comfort from her musings and conclusions.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 12, 2011

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 3, 2011

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