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Black Milk: …Creativity, and Motherhood, by Elif Shafak.

June 18, 2013

Black Milk: On the Conflicting Demands of Writing, Creativity, and Motherhood, by Elif Shafak.  Penguin Books (2012), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 288 pages.  First published 2007.


A gentle, often humorous memoir by a Turkish woman finding it difficult to continue as a writer when she becomes a mother.

I had high expectations for this book.  I heard praise for Elif Shafak as a fine writer and had listened to an interview with her on BBC that left me eager to read something by her.  Litlov was including her in her women’s writers focus.  Most of all, I cared about her topic and the story I thought she would tell about her own bout with post-partum depression.  At another level, I think that the topic of combining motherhood with other forms of creativity is a critical issue for women.  It’s hard enough for women to balance the need for employment with raising children; taking on writing, painting or other creative demands raise even deeper questions for women.

But Black Milk disappointed me.  I enjoyed it and agree with most of what she said, but book lacked the depth and literary quality I’d hoped for.  It wasn’t Adrienne Rich’s classic description of the conflicts of new motherhood in Of Woman Born.  Shafak almost seemed to be skirting the surface of her own experience.  The writing is never lyrical or poetic, or even expressive of pain.  Most of the book was about what happened before Shafak’s daughter was born. The baby makes almost no appearance in Black Milk, and there is little about the author’s actual experience of her depression.  The main theme involves anecdotes about how and why Shafak believed that she had to choose between becoming a mother and being a writer.  Included here are also numerous short accounts of how 15 or 20 other women writers dealt with being mothers.  These were interesting; especially when Shafak introduced me to Turkish women writers I didn’t know.  At times, however, just when I thought she was about to delve into a more meaningful story about her own experience, she switched to yet another bit about some other woman’s choice.

The major structure that Shafak used for Black Milk revolves around the Chorus of Discordant Voices, six inner figures each expressing a part of her identity.  Each is depicted as a miniature woman, about six inches high, and each demanding obedience to a different set of values.  Practicality, Fame, Spirituality and Intelligent Cynicism had long battled each other within her.  The appearance of two more figures, Maternity and Sexuality, leads Shafak into marriage and then into motherhood.  At first I thought these figures were a meaningful way of understanding our inner conflicts. Then I realized that by defining each of these internal forces as opposites, Shafak had crystallized and sharpened their ability to cause her pain.  I was reminded of a poetry reading by Audre Lorde which she opened by naming the parts of who she was: black, lesbian, warrior, poet, mother.  Unlike Shafak’s, Lorde’s inner personas overlapped and re-enforced each other.  At the end of her book, Shafak claims her inner voices realize that they are One and stop fighting, but she gives no clue of how this new harmony is achieved.  For me, the use of these “Thumbelina’s” with their exaggerated demands is another way in which Sharaf distances herself from her feelings and writing.

Yet over all, Shafak has written a good book, especially for those who have not considered the issues of motherhood and creativity before.  She has read widely and combines the ideas of many other writers.  I like her assertion that women can legitimately choose styles of mothering.  Her book ends on a positive note about the possibility of writing as a woman and a mother, even though she realizes that she cannot be perfect in either role.  She must stop trying to be a superwoman.  As we all must.  Even if her depression and writing block seem to end rather glibly when her husband returns and they hire a nanny, she introduces important issues in her book.  In the end, she takes the idea from Helene Cixous of writing from a female body, symbolically overflowing with both milk and ink.  The title, Black Ink, builds on this image to describe a period when Shafak felt that her own milk was muddy and useless.  Quoting from Ursula le Guin, Shafak admits the enormous energy demanded for a woman to be responsible for children and to be a writer.  With le Guin, she proclaims that “the hand that rocks the cradle writes the book.”

I recommend Black Milk to readers interested in women’s writing and creativity and the possibility of combining them with motherhood.  Just don’t expect the book to be depth from this book.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. June 18, 2013 12:06 pm

    Fascinating to read your review – I’m posting about this tomorrow and have been preparing the conversation I had with Dark Puss today. Essentially, I felt exactly the same as you – that the part concerning her postpartum depression was altogether too glib, and that she distanced herself from her feelings and made them altogether too neat and tidy. Whereas Dark Puss loved it almost unreservedly. I do hope you’ll drop by tomorrow – I’d love to know your reaction to our thoughts about this one.

    • June 19, 2013 10:42 am

      Thanks. Do you suppose the fact we are mothers and know what she leaves out makes a difference?

      • June 22, 2013 8:34 am

        Yes, I do. Having been through the experience the one thing no mother can fail to learn is that it is emotionally intense – and that is a vast understatement! You don’t have to have postpartum depression to be thrown a loop by a baby, either. The normal experience, I think, is to have raging hormones, the irrational responses of the sleep deprived and sheer terror from the weight of responsibility. I imagine that having more children makes the experience easier, but given I only had the one, I’ve only had that first, crazed, faintly disbelieving experience.

  2. June 19, 2013 12:52 am

    Thanks for the review, Marilyn. It is a little disappointing that the book was superficial as this is a topic that I’m interested in. An Australian writer, Rachel Power, has written on motherhood and art in ‘The Divided Heart’, a series of interviews with artists, writers and actors and how motherhood affected their practice. It’s available on Amazon in case you’re interested in reading more on the subject.

    • June 19, 2013 10:46 am

      Thanks this is topic that I care about deeply. My own experience as a mother and a daughter led me to write my dissertation of changing perceptions of motherhood around 1900.

      • June 19, 2013 10:50 am

        Is Rachel Power wildcolonialgirl? I have read some of her interviews on her blog. Glad to know a book is out there.

      • June 20, 2013 8:11 pm

        That’s really interesting, Marilyn! Did you get your research published anywhere? I’d love to read it. Kirsten Krauth is the writer at Wild Colonial Girl, Rachel Power’s blog is, where she writes on the same topic.

  3. June 19, 2013 10:47 am

    Litlov and Dark Puss are discussing this book on her blog.

  4. June 23, 2013 8:00 am

    litlov, absolutely. I agree that men willing to be sensitive can and should read and enjoy “women’s books.” How we respond, however, results from our experiences some of which are sex-specific, like motherhood.

  5. June 23, 2013 8:07 am

    Jessica. Thanks for the information. I never published anything from my dissertation. it is only available on microfilm from Dissertation Abstracts. Actually it was more limited than motherhood as dissertations need to be. I looked at mother-daughter relationship as expressed in autobiographies. For 19th cen women, mother-daughter bonds were close with mothers helping their daughters into more expansive roles. By the 1920s, daughters were rebelling against their mothers and seeing them as overly restrictive. Lots was going on to explain the change, but one thing was clear. Freud was wrong to claim antagonism between m/d was universal.

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