cover image Black Milk: On Writing, Motherhood, and the Harem Within

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

Elif Shafak, trans. from the Turkish by Hande Zapsu. Viking, $25.95 (270p) ISBN 978-0-670-02264-9

Feeling conflicted about embarking on motherhood, Turkish novelist Shafak (The Forty Rules of Love) chronicles the cruel, crazy trajectory that took her from feminist single novelist to married nursing mother of two. An accomplished writer by her mid-30s, Shafak faced the eternal dilemma of most enlightened women: can she pursue her cherished work, be true to herself, and also be a selfless caregiver to children? An interview with a legendary Turkish novelist, Adalet Agaoglu, challenged Shafak to face her irresolution, resulting in a virtual civil war amid the discordant voices in her own conscience%E2%80%94the pint-sized Thumbelinas, she calls them, her own "mini harem"%E2%80%94which each try to dictate literally what she ought to do: e.g., Little Miss Practical organizes the hiring of her nanny, secretary, and assistant; Dame Dervish attends to her spiritual self; Miss Ambitious Chekhovian tells her to forget about babies, write better novels, and develop her skill; while Miss Highbrowed Cynic warns her that, having children or not, she will always regret the path she didn't take. Shafak gets the modern woman's despair, and especially enlightening are her renderings of the lives of (mostly English-language) women writers she admires: Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, George Eliot, Zelda Fitzgerald. Shafak's stint as a resident at Mount Holyoke College and elsewhere has transformed her into a truly Western feminist voice within a region of engrained patriarchy: she is clear-eyed, savvy, unrepentant. (May)