Review and Giveaway: Black Milk by Elif Shafak

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

Author: Elif Shafak

Genre/Pages: Memoir/288

Publisher: Viking

Release Date: April 28, 2011

Rating: 4 bookmarks

Source: Publisher

Nat’s One-Sentence Synopsis:  A nomadic authoress contemplates motherhood and the impact it will have on her life and career in this poignant memoir that examines her experience with pregnancy, postpartum depression, and finding a balance.

Born in 1971 in France, Elif Shafak spent much of her life globe trotting, living out of suitcases and never staying in one place for longer than 18 months.  She has the distinction of being Turkey’s most prolific female writer, with 12 books and various articles (and awards) to her credit.  Until age 35, she described herself as a writer first, nomad second, cosmopolite, lover of Sufism, pacifist, vegetarian, and woman.  But then came motherhood.

The moment a child is born, the mother is also born.  She never existed before.  The woman existed, but the mother, never.  A mother is something absolutely new.  ~Rajneesh

In 2006, Shafak gave birth to her first child, a daughter, but a pall was cast over what should have been the happiest days and months of Shafak’s life.  Postpartum descended like a veil and Shafak was locked in “…a dark tunnel that seemed to have no end…”.  Her daughter’s birth heralded depression, panic, seclusion, crying jags, and the inability to write.  Her efforts to find effective treatment were fruitless* and it took her months to navigate the storm and find her way to a shaky balance.

While detailing her struggles to unify the “harem” of miniature selves–she describes them as Thumbelinas–inside herself, Shafak also examines female authors (and wives of famous authors) through the ages and their decisions to have or not have children.  I found her personification of her inner-selves as ‘finger-sized women’ with names and distinct personalities (Little Miss Practical and Miss Highbrow Cynic to name a couple) clever but a tad irksome because I couldn’t always keep them straight.

Shafak’s prose is beautiful and I loved reading about Istanbul because my dad spent 7 very happy years of his childhood in nearby Besiktas.  We visited Istanbul on a family vacation in 1993 and it is as gorgeous and exotic as described.  The city is filled with history and colorful characters.

Shafak’s harem acted as effective vehicles during her internal conflict about motherhood.  Miss Highbrow Cynic ‘lives’ in New York, wears hippie dresses, and does raja yoga.  When asked her opinion about motherhood, she had this to say:

The grass is always greener on the other side…if you have a baby, you will always be envious of women who don’t have children and focus fully on their careers.  If you choose to focus on your career, however, you will always envy women who have kids.  Whichever path you choose, your mind will be obsessed with the option you have discarded.  Envy lies at the root of our existential angst.

I’ve deduced that despite the most studious efforts–reading every book, taking classes, reading mommy blogs, talking to friends and family–nothing can truly prepare a person for parenthood more than just jumping into it.

One night, a group of moths gathered…watching a burning candle.  Puzzled by the nature of the light, they sent one of their members to go and check on it.  The scouting mouth circled the candle several times and came back with a description: The light was bright.  A second moth went to examine it.  He, too, came back with an observation: The light was hot.  Finally, a third moth volunteered to go.  When he approached the candle he didn’t stop like his friends had done, but flew straight into the flame.  He was consumed there and then, and only he understood the nature of the light.

Most of my cousins, friends, and even my little sister have thrown caution to the wind and flown straight into the flame.  While I admire their courage at taking such a leap of faith, remaining childless by choice comes with its own set of unspoken risks and consequences.  Just as mothers can’t undo motherhood if the adjustment is difficult, those who are childless by choice can’t become mothers once the window of opportunity closes; either choice is an audacious one.

Black Milk takes a close look at expectation, ambition, and desire while telling a powerful story.  I recommend this memoir and feel it has much to offer to a wide audience.  Additionally, book clubs will find much to discuss, especially with the ‘famous authors as mothers’ subplot.

If you’d like to win a copy of Black Milk, simply leave a comment below.  This giveaway is also open to international and PO Box friends and closes Monday, June 13, 2011 at 10pm EST.

*Shafak was prescribed various medications but didn’t take them because they would have affected her milk and she wanted to breast-feed.


  1. I just heard about this book on someone else’s blog recently and it sounds fascinating. I love what you said about how the choice to have or not have children is audacious. I’m also childless by choice.

    Count me in for the giveaway please (and thank you)!

  2. This sounds very thought provoking, especially for women. I have the book, so don’t enter me.

  3. sounds like an awesome book. The subject of motherhood is near and dear to me, I totally get the postpardum thing, and my BFF is childless by choice, so the whole ball of wax is right up my ally. Not to mention, I;ve always longed to travel to Turkey!!

  4. I would love to enter this giveaway. My sister told me about this book and I am very interested, as someone who took the leap into the flame and felt…well, honestly felt that there could be ways that our society could give support to women becoming mothers for the first time.
    Have you ever heard of or read, _A_better_woman_ by Susan Johnson? This is also a memoir about becoming a mother and troubles in the transition.

  5. This sounds really good. I love the quotes you shared, and I can relate to her experience as I had PPD after my son was born. I do think it is one of those things that have to be lived to fully understand, but it isn’t a choice to make lightly. There are really some days where I long for a childless life but that isn’t the path I chose. It is a long and difficult path that transforms your life more than anything else I have ever tried. Good review. Please enter me in the giveaway … thanks!!!

  6. I love Shafak’s writing, and would love a chance to win this book! Have you seen the video of her TED talk? She talks about circles, and it’s quite fascinating. The woman definitely knows how to tell a story!

  7. As a new mom I’d love to win this one!

  8. I would love to read this book — my generation in particular struggled with the motherhood/career question.

  9. Nat, one of the other Mom Central grant recipients focuses on some of these same issues: mental health, PPD and suicide, on her blog Ellie Adorn (Motherhood Unadorned). It’s a subject that thankfully is getting more attention these days. Whether you choose to have children, have difficulty conceiving or remain childless by choice, juggling roles as a female is never easy.

  10. This book sounds just up my alley. I can’t wait to read it!

  11. Wow, this book sounds absolutely fantastic. I will definitely check it out. I loved the quotes that you shared. Thanks for such an insightful wonderful review.

  12. Congrats, you’re my winner. Drop me an email with your mailing address! 🙂

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