Remember your childhood dreams? Imagine achieving them. You dreamed of traveling, now you travel. You dreamed of being an artist, you’ve found success. You have the life you want, and then… it happens. A feeling grows, a desire, a longing. You ignore it at first, but the feeling demands your attention. It won’t go away. In fact, it’s been residing inside you all along, waiting to whisper those magic words: “I want a baby.”
Turkish author Elif Shafak long espoused the motto, “Dreams first, family later… maybe,” and her memoir, Black Milk: On Writing, Motherhood, and the Harem Within traces her fraught journey from writer to mother to mother-writer. Early in her memoir, Shafak asks readers a question once posed to her: “Do you think a woman could manage motherhood and a career at the same time and equally well?” For many years, Shafak’s answer to this question was no. As a successful author and self-proclaimed nomad, Shafak wandered the world, writing and publishing in her beloved Istanbul, in the US and in Europe. But her decision to postpone motherhood and wholeheartedly pursue a career was not without inner turmoil.
“There is a mini harem deep down within my soul,” she writes. “A gang of females who constantly fight for nothing and bicker, looking for an opportunity to trip one another up.” This “harem within” comprises the driving characters in Black Milk, six highly individualized, highly entertaining personalities who co-exist, albeit in rivalry, within Elif Shafak.
In “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman famously wrote, “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself,/ (I am large, I contain multitudes.).” Shafak takes this sentiment to heart. She not only recognizes her “multitudes,” but she names them and identifies their personalities. There’s Little Miss Practical, who leaves nothing to chance, viewing all choices and actions with logic and blunt rationale; Miss Highbrowed Cynic, who embraces the intellectual; Milady Ambitious Chekhovian, the career-driven artist; Dame Dervish, the spiritual Sufi; Blue Belle Bovary, the seductress; and Mama Rice Pudding, the maternal.
With this intriguing approach, Shafak’s memoir is both absurd and entertaining. Throughout the book, she converses with herself via these Thumbelina-sized women who surprise her in airplane bathrooms and start fistfights in parks. Readers might find themselves, like Little Miss Practical, flipping through the pages with an exasperated, “That just doesn’t make sense!” only to be entranced by Dame Dervish’s spiritual pondering or amused by Miss Highbrowed Cynic’s lofty reference to Proust.
Shafak’s creative take on her own personalities exemplified a belief she holds about all women: that we are more than one identity, not simply a mother, lover or career gal. This notion of multiple selves has driven much of Shafak’s writing. In 2003, the literary journal Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism published an interview with Shafak in which she said:
For me, to find room for my “multiple selves” had always been difficult both abroad and in Turkey. The moment I step outside Turkey, I am this “woman from a Muslim country.” Whenever I go back to Turkey I feel connected to none of the established patterns of thought. It is as if there is always some part of me that I have to censure so that I can find a habitat…. Most of our model of thinking is based on dualities. Normal-abnormal, East-West, traditional-modern, feminine-masculine…. As feminist writers, I think we should be aware of these dualities and see how they operate not only outside our communities but also inside us, inside our minds, our lives.
This interview took place while Shafak was a writer-in-residence at Mount Holyoke College and working on her novel The Saint of Incipient Insanities. Shafak dedicates several chapters in Black Milk: On Writing, Motherhood, and the Harem Within to her residency at Mount Holyoke because it is here that she first confronts Mama Rice Pudding — and her desire for a child. Shafak debates accepting the invitation to Mount Holyoke, asking herself with angst, “What am I doing with my life?” But Miss Highbrowed Cynic and Milady Ambitious Chekhovian insist she pursue it. Once in the US, Shafak’s internal struggle continues and the cynic and intellectual lose some influence. Mama Rice Pudding senses her chance to escape, and when she does, Shafak learns that Mama has been held hostage for Shafak’s entire life.
With her maternal side released, Shafak wonders how and why Mama had been suppressed for so long. Shafak’s previous writings, as well as her interview in Meridians, reveal her belief that people assume different roles to suit their immediate company: people act one way in public and one way at home; one way with friends and one way with family. But if society shapes our “selves,” Shafak now wonders, is there such thing as natural inclination? “How much of my womanhood is biological,” she asks, and “how much of it is socially learned?” This question is central to Black Milk: On Writing, Motherhood, and the Harem Within. To help answer it, she examines the lives of famous women writers before her.
Shafak considers Simone de Beauvoir, Zelda Fitzgerald, Yuko Tsushima, Sevgi Soysal, and many others. She examines the life choices these writers made, and compares them with her own journey of self-exploration. Sophia Tolstoy or Sylvia Plath — Shafak wants to avoid their fate. She looks at Pearl S. Buck, an adoption advocate whose tireless work to help children did not seem to hinder her Nobel Prize-winning writing career. And in recounting the lives of Louisa May Alcott and George Eliot — polar opposites in voice, yet equals in unconventional lifestyles — Shafak suggests, “Every reader brings his or her own gaze to the text, and ends up reading the story differently.” Ultimately, Shafak decides that “every case is different” and each has its own obstacles. So it would be with Shafak too. After years of living independently and carving out a successful writing career, she falls in love, gets married, and soon finds herself pregnant. An exuberant Mama Rice Pudding boasts to her former Thumbelina-sized suppressors, “I am the state!”
A new chapter has begun for Shafak, and she chronicles her pregnancy on a near-weekly basis. As the delivery date nears, Shafak continues to hold conversations with her harem; she is still not at peace with her decision to become a mother. Dame Dervish, the Sufi, gains temporary control and advises Shafak to simply surrender. During the delivery, Shafak does just that: “All of the breathing exercises, prenatal yoga, black caviar, broccoli salads and even Little Women lose their significance as I surrender.”
Indeed, Shafak surrenders her whole life during the first few months of motherhood. She writes, “My self-confidence has become a scoop of ice cream melting fast under the duress of motherhood.” Her description of post-partum depression is sometimes painful, yet likely familiar to many women:
I know there are thousands of people out there who try hard to have children… and yet still cannot reach their goal. I know how appreciative I should be, and I am, but my embarrassment for not being happy enough, thankful enough or good enough is so profound, I cannot even talk to God anymore.
Early motherhood, post-partum depression — and perhaps Dame Dervish and Mama Rice Pudding — rob Shafak of her will to write and thereby drive Shafak deeper into depression and isolation. She silences the rest of her inner selves. Infants defy logic; Little Miss Practical is of no help. Milady Ambitious Chekhovian suggests a new book tour and Miss Highbrow Cynic longs to read. Shafak acknowledges some desire to both read and write, but has neither the energy nor the confidence. Meanwhile, Blue Belle Bovary urges Shafak to get out of her old nightgown, advice Shafak completely ignores: “I want to cling more firmly to my oily hair, my pallid skin, my tattered clothes,” Shafak writes. “In a world that feels increasingly foreign, only this nightgown is familiar and comforting.”
As her post-partum depression worsens, Shafak gives it a name and identity: Lord Poton, a djinni who imprisons the rest of her harem and heightens Shafak’s fear that she will never write again. “First, I convinced myself that I had forgotten how to write. Then I started suspecting that writing had forgotten me.” While reflective and original, Lord Poton is less convincing than the harem ladies. His appearance seems too brief and his disappearance (within several chapters) too quick. One morning, Lord Poton says, “There is something different about you…. A sparkle in your eyes,” and from here, Shafak finds her way out of depression and begins to write again.
If one can abide Lord Poton, Black Milk: On Writing, Motherhood, and the Harem Within is an enjoyable read. Women who have taken the road less traveled will respond to Shafak’s fierce “I can do it on my own” attitude. Writers, male and female, who have struggled with the decision to start a family will appreciate Shafak’s journey and the life histories of famous writers who have struggled with the same decision. Shafak offers no blanket advice, but concludes that you should be yourself — as the situation dictates. Happiness will come when you know which self to be in which situation. Black Milk: On Writing, Motherhood, and the Harem Within is a refreshing take on that elusive goal, “finding yourself.” Shafak might rather espouse “finding yourselves.”