Thursday, March 7, 2013

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

Black Milk: On Writing, Motherhood, and the Harem Within
Black Milk: On Writing, Motherhood, and the Harem Within by Elif Shafak

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Black Milk by Elif Shafak differs from most mothering memoirs. This prolific Turkish author relates her experiences and thoughts through two main mediums in this book: through discussion and analysis of female authors who tackled the "motherhood question," and through internal conversations with her "harem within," the 4-6 internal identities that Shafak calls her "Thumbelinas" that represent different parts of her being.

Most mothering memoirs are fairly linear: pregnancy, birth, baby, toddler... maybe some discussion of struggles and thoughts, or on raising a child. Changes. Realizations. Shafak takes a different approach. The first 2/3rds of the book are pre-baby (most pre-husband), when she lives in different parts of the world, is writing, and thinking about the possibility of motherhood for herself. She tackles the question I feel most mothers have (at one point or another): "Can I be a mother and be [ ]?" Shafak's Thumbelinas argue amongst themselves as she travels, writes, falls in love - can Shafak be Shafak (writer, thinker, reader) and be a (good) mother?

Shafak discusses many of the great female authors from all over the world, looking at both their writing and their lives to analyze how they dealt with the possibility of motherhood and all of the roles that accompany it. Shafak looks at dozens, from Sylvia Plath, the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, Jane Austin, Zelda Fitzgerald, to Toshika Tamura and Sevgi Soyask. (I've earmarked about forty more books I want to read just from reading through Black Milk!).

Very little of the book is actually about her own experiences of motherhood, more about her thought process getting there. It isn't even clear if her pregnancy was intentional (although you get the feeling it might not have been), just that it happens (at page 177, so about 2/3rds of the way through the book). She doesn't write much on the actual experience of pregnancy, and nothing on birth, but plunges into the first six months after her the birth of daughter, when she experienced postpartum depression.

As mentioned earlier, Black Milk is very different from most mothering memoirs. It's very intellectual (in all of the right ways) and is a very thorough discussion on some of the questions I've been asking as a new mom. It seems impossible at times to balance the demands of a child, a household, and the individual. We make sacrifices, no matter what we choose. Shafak's discussion on identity and decision highlight the many and varied tensions that women and mothers (especially those women and mothers that write) must face.

Four stars for this book as, although it was beautifully and thoughtfully written, I feel the final third felt forced or rushed? Her discussion on postpartum depression didn't seem as well penned as the rest of the memoir.

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