Black Milk

By Rachel NewcombSeptember 23, 2011

Black Milk by Elif Shafak

“IN TURKISH,” WRITES ELIF SHAFAK, “one says ‘I am at depression’ instead of ‘I am depressed’ … as if depression were less a state of mind than a specific area, a dark corridor with only a weak lightbulb to illuminate the place.” Shafak, whose critically acclaimed novels include The Bastard of Istanbul and The Forty Rules of Love, tackles post-partum depression in her memoir Black Milk: On Writing, Motherhood, and the Harem Within. An introspective departure from her fiction, Black Milk takes on the challenges women writers face in reconciling independence with motherhood. 

The title draws on the suggestive concept of the harem, which in the Western imagination usually conjures visions of stereotypically pliant, cloistered beauties, or of women ravished by their captors in romance novels. But the distorted harems of Orientalist fantasy bear little resemblance to the reality, the harem that refers mainly to the women’s quarters of the extended family. Shafak adds a new and unusual twist to the idea, with the “harem within,” in this case, referring to the multiple and dissonant voices in her own head, sending the author contradictory messages about her identity as both a woman and an artist. 

Referring to these discordant voices as the “finger women” or the “Thumbelinas,” these members of Shafak’s internal harem represent her conflicting feelings about issues such as spirituality, sexuality, intellectualism, and, most significantly, maternity. The finger women are Shafak’s fragmented selves forever clashing with one another: Dame Dervish speaks in Sufi parables and urges her to take life in stride while Ambitious Chekhovian insists that motherhood is utterly incompatible with her writing career.

The finger women have come to dwell within Shafak in the absence of a real harem, the community of female family members who would traditionally be present at the most crucial junctures of a woman’s life. Shafak contrasts her experience with her grandmother’s more traditional one, where women placed fewer expectations upon themselves, and where other women offered sympathetic, communal help. Her post partum depression arises, she suggests, out of isolation. Turkish tradition has held that women should never be left alone in the forty days after giving birth; women of the past recognized, Shafak writes, that “throughout her life, a woman goes through several major stages, and the transition from one to the next might not be easy.” Left alone with the incompatible voices of the finger women, seemingly bereft of female community, Shafak struggles to determine how motherhood will affect her identity and alter her life. 

Shafak pairs her internal dialogues with short essays on her own peripatetic existence and on the marriage and family choices (or compromises) that other women writers have made, including Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir, and lesser known figures like Sevgi Soysal, a Turkish writer prominent in the 1970s. Soysal “was the writer of women dangling on the threshold — between sanity and insanity, society and the individual, setting the table and walking away,” and her fictional characters were also pulled between the contradictory demands of serving others and seeking self-realization. Most of Shafak’s muses fail to accomplish both career success and blissful motherhood, offering cautionary lessons from history while also suggesting that women artists have never truly managed to have it all. 

As the book progresses from details of the writer’s singlehood to marriage, childbirth, and postpartum depression, the writing becomes more eloquent. Depression robs Shafak of the solace of writing, and literature becomes “a distant and forbidden land with bulky guards protecting its boundaries.” Here, the chaos of the internal voices is silenced by a malevolent djinni, significantly gendered as male. This creative rhetorical device of bringing the djinni into possession of Shafak’s thoughts, eliminating the cacophony of the finger women, allows Shafak to seamlessly weave cultural myths (such as the traditional Turkish belief that postpartum women are particularly vulnerable to attacks from djinni) with the more recent Western cultural understanding of postpartum depression.

Successful literary role models continue to elude her, and the example of Alice Walker, whose daughter accused her of “forgetting her own child while trying to save the children of others,” mirrors Shafak’s fears that she will commit the same mistakes. This is the main tension of the book, and of Shafak’s life. Is writing, she asks, fundamentally incompatible with motherhood? 

“While the novelist is an introvert,” Shafak writes, “ — at least for the duration of writing her novel, a mother is, by definition, an extrovert”:

The novelist builds a tiny room in the depths of her mind and locks the door so that no one can get in. There she hides her secrets and ambitions from all prying eyes. As for the mother, all her doors and windows must be wide open morning and night, summer and winter. Her children can enter through whichever entrance they choose, and roam around as they please. She has no secret corner.


As her depression begins to ebb away with time, Shafak manages to banish the djinni, whom she confesses to having invited into her life. Addressing them, she writes: “I couldn’t bear the plurality inside of me. Motherhood required oneness, steadiness, and completeness, while I was split into six voices, if not more. I cracked under the pressure. That’s when I called you.” 

Shafak’s construction of this unusual memoir — partly anecdotal, partly mythical — is initially frustrating; at times the reader wishes for more of Shafak and less of the finger women. But she mines her internal struggles for a fresh take on the personal and cultural expectations of motherhood and offers a unique and frequently moving perspective on the challenges of living with the two “dominant teachings” to which women are subjected: motherhood as a divine calling and the possibility of being a superwoman. “As different as these two views seem to be, they have one thing in common: they both focus solely on what they want to see, disregarding the complexity and intensity of motherhood,” Shafak writes. With the growing revelation that Shafak is one of the finger women (or the ones doing the finger-pointing) herself, Black Milk increasingly makes sense, especially to those who grapple with the disparate and often fragmented voices of our own inner harems.

LARB Contributor

Rachel Newcomb is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Rollins College and the author of Women of Fes: Ambiguities of Urban Life in Morocco.


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