Black Milk- reading women from other cultures


Eli Shafak’s book, Black Milk, “on the conflicting demands of writing, creativity and motherhood” was suggested to me by my dear French friend Monique, a social worker by profession, a writer and linguist by passion. She read it in Romanian. (I just read it in English…) I confess I have only recently discovered Eli Shafak, a leading Turkish author, (now based in London) because I am, I realise, typically monocultural, reading mainly English and American writers. I don’t spend enough time reading from other cultures. Monique is an example to me and I think Shafak would approve. Shafak insists that writers must transcend East – West boundaries, indeed any boundaries, and her work allows for both feminism and tradition, the local and the global, Sufism and rationalism. I just listened to her recent TED talk, where she eloquently explained her philosophy:
“From populist demagogues, we will learn the indispensability of democracy,” she said. “From isolationists, we will learn the need for global solidarity. And from tribalists, we will learn the beauty of cosmopolitanism.” She said she enjoyed the fact that the Turkish word for motherland also means nomadic tent.
In “Black Milk” Shafak (she chose her own name – adopting her mother’s maiden name, “shafak” meaning “dawn” ) tries to understand her own experience of postponing marriage and motherhood in favour of writing, her pregnancy and post natal depression, all the internal conflict involved. She explores the different experiences of women writers from many different cultures, concerning marriage and children; the ones who absolutely rejected the idea of children in favour of their commitment to their own creative work; Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, Simone de Beauvoir, or the contemporary Mexican-American writer, Sandra Cisneros, who says for her writing is her child and observes, “ I think writers are always split between living their life and watching themselves live it.”
There are the few who successfully combined motherhood and writing- Ursula Le Guin, JK Rowling; I would add Helen Dunmore, so sadly recently deceased who wrote poetry, novels and children’s books and had a family of children and grandchildren. Or those who raised their children and wrote in the small hours like Toni Morrison.
There are those who left their children; Doris Lessing (who left two children from a first marriage and took her son to England when she left Rhodesia in 1949) or Muriel Spark who became completely estranged from her son. Most sad were the ones who could not cope with the demands of both (or indeed life itself) like Sylvia Plath. Shafak also considers those women with unrealised talents (most of course unknown to us) like Sonia Tolstoy, who brought up 8 children (some say 14) wrote her own diaries and supported her husband’s work. She rewrote the manuscript of War and Peace seven times.

Shafak cites Louisa May Alcott and her character Jo, in Little Women, the rebel who inspired so many of us. Alcott had originally planned that Jo would not marry but would remain independent and earn her own living, but when a sequel was demanded her publishers insisted on a different outcome. Professor Bhaer is introduced- and Jo accepts marriage and domestic life instead of writing, a decision Alcott herself would never have made. And now I wonder how much that reversal for Jo must have affected us passionate readers of those books? How much did we absorb Jo’s capitulation? And if we had known that was not the writer’s intention?
Shafak listens to the children of writers – the ones who followed in their mother’s footsteps and wrote memoirs about them with respect -like Susan Sontag’s son, David Rieff. Or on the other hand the son of Rebecca West, who wrote a bitter memoir about his mother, or Alice Walker’s daughter, Rebecca, who in her own memoirs has criticised her mother for neglecting her in favour of work and activism, and suggests that feminism has betrayed many women into childlessness. (Still she became a writer herself…) Even Toni Morrison’s sons have said they did not particularly enjoy growing up with a mother who wrote for a living, to which Morrison has responded candidly, “ Who does, I wouldn’t. Writers are not there.”

As I read “Black Milk” what struck me very strongly was Shafak’s appreciation of women writers, feminist writers, from other cultures. Shafak cites the Japanese writers, Yuko Tsushima and Toshiko Tamura, who discuss the term bosei – meaning a natural motherly instinct, or the Turkish writer Sevgi Soysal, all stars in their own cultures, of whom to my shame I have never heard.
I recall my visit to the literary festival in St Malo several years ago when I spent some time perusing the stalls of French publishers. There were a lot of publishers, large, medium and many small. There were a lot of books. What struck me then – mortified me – was that there were so many of which I had never heard. Lots in French of course. A handful had been translated into English. But what affected me most was how many translations there were into French from other languages. A whole spectrum of world literature with which I was not acquainted. And it made me realise how restricted we were by our language, our English, the lingua franca of the world in that ironic phrase. How impoverished we are by this lack of access to the literature of other cultures. Fortunately I have my French friend Monique to guide me.

Elif Shafak Black Milk 2007