Zala Nisar

PESHAWAR: “Perhaps every writer is a pickpocket of some sort, stealing inspirations from real life.” — Black Milk, Elif Shafak.

Black Milk, an intimate memoir of Elif Shafak encircles the subjects of postpartum depression, mental health, working women, motherhood, and writing. In this memoir, Shafak shares her experiences as a mother and the struggles she went through when depression dawned upon her after her first child was born.

The book opens with a cathartic exchange of dialogue over a cup of tea when the author is invited to the house of a notable Turkish novelist. The woman, who is nearly eighty, presents Shafak with the preference of a writing career over motherhood .

From that very moment, Elif started rethinking her career as writer. She started questioning her life choices. All the questions arising in her mind had a snowball effect on her and that is how she was diagnosed with mental distress.

Shafak started hearing different voices at the back of her head when she became depressed which sucked all her will to compose fiction. She found herself helpless because she was unable to jot down words when she became pregnant.

“Now, however, I felt as if illiterate. Words that had been my lifelong companions abandoned me and dissolved into soggy letters, like noodles in alphabet soup. But what really made it worse was that I could not write anymore.”

Additionally, it is intriguing to read about depression from a writer’s point of view, Shafak collectively named her voices as “Thumbelinas”, each one which has an unusual name. Each is a different characteristic of Shafak, varying from ambitious professional to the holy motherly figure.

Black Milk delivers the readers an insight into the lives of different writers from Tolstoy to Zelda Fitzgerald and many more. Not only are the writers’ finished works discussed in this book but also the dreadful hardships they went through in their profession. Throughout the book, Shafak interwinds her personal life with the lives of distinguished authors such as Sylvia Plath, Jane Austen, Alice Walker and Dorothy Parker.

She constantly writes about the fact that she’s stuck in the loophole of being a mother, a writer, and grandly a married woman. She battles within herself whether to carry on with her life as a professional woman, a mother, a homemaker, or all of them.

Interestingly, the position of men as writers and as fathers has also been questioned by the author.

“If Shakespeare had a sister who was a very talented writer or if Fuzuli had a sister who happened to a poet as gifted as he was, what would have happened to those women? Would they write books or would they raise children? I guess what I am wondering is, could they have done both?”

Shafak does not shy away from addressing the casual sexism taking place in literary circles. She smartly connects the sexism in writers community to motherhood to expose the fact that women have to deal with a lot of pressures in order achieve their dreams and at the same time be accepted by their peers.

There’s a cliché impression, ‘more the suffering, the better the art’ but after reading the horrific tragedies of different authors in this memoir, I would like to disagree with the notion. The author does a tremendous job in making the readers empathize with well-known writers. It seems as if the author is trying to instill the notion that artists should not have to go through heart-wrenching occurrences to create a masterpiece.

The author does a good job in conveying the message that how mental anguish takes a double toll on new mothers as compared to single women. The book makes a great point across on how prolonged sadness physically affects people to the point where they desperately want to hide from themselves. Confronting oneself is not an easy task for a scarred person.

“There should be a law forbidding people who are going through a depression to come anywhere near a mirror. Mirrors are the worst objects you can have around when your self-esteem has hit rock bottom and there are dark clouds hovering above your soul.”

Different issues discussed in this memoir have been addressed with such rawness that the reader can’t help but be in an awe of the metaphors used in the book for describing the author’s depressive episodes;

“If I must resort to marriage as a metaphor, I can claim that literature is my husband and books are my children. The only way for me to get married is either to divorce literature or to take a second husband.”

While at times, the descriptions in the book might seem cynical and dark portrayal of motherhood, however, the book doesn’t end with this tone. Rather than tarnishing motherhood one-sidedly, Shafak writes honestly about the obstacles as well as beauty and happiness of becoming a mother.

Black Milk does not offer sugar-coated advice, but determines that one should be themselves and never shy away from seeking help when in need. Contentment will come when one knows which self to be in which circumstance.

“But remember one thing: Where there is difficulty there follows ease.”

 

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