What is necessary for a writing life? This is the question that Elif Shafak, one of Turkey’s most celebrated authors, wrestles with in her spiritual memoir, Black Milk: On the Conflicting Demands of Writing, Creativity, and Motherhood. All her life, Shafak has identified herself as a writer, which has been a source of great pride and stability to her. Writing is the way that she makes sense of her life and expresses herself. It is part of who she understands herself to be.
Elif Shafak’s companions—and adversaries—in writing and in life are the Choir of Discordant Voices, a “mini harem deep down in [her] soul,” a group of women who each represent a different part of Shafak’s identity. Shafak confesses that, “each member of the Choir of Discordant Voices claims to be the real me and therefore sees the others as rivals” (p. 29). The members of the Choir war with one another and dispense conflicting advice, driving Shafak to distraction.
This mini harem has a field day when Shafak begins wrestling with the question of whether to become a mother. If she has a child, will she have the time and creative energy necessary to write? Will she be able to survive this change in her identity? Through much time, energy, and tussling with the Choir, she comes to a resolution and then must navigate her new role as a mother while suffering through post-partum depression. For eight months after the birth of her child, Shafak cannot write. During this time, she grapples with the different components of herself and her vocation as she comes to a deeper understanding of what she needs to live an authentic life. She weaves her own story together with the stories of other female writers and the choices of their lives as she struggles—literally and figuratively—to understand and write her own story. She takes this unexpected, unwanted detour in her life and comes out with a changed conception of herself as a woman—and as a writer.
The presenting issue of Shafak’s struggle is the question of parenthood, but her Choir of Discordant Voices will be familiar to anyone who has ever made a major life decision, regardless of parental status. The sometimes charming, sometimes heartbreaking, always relatable voices of the women who live within her soul will strike a chord with the disparate voices that each of us carries around inside. How do we make faithful choices amid the cacophony of competing voices around and within us? It is a question we all live with.
Elif Shafak’s Black Milk wonderfully illuminates her struggle to make a choice that is true to her soul. Making an authentic choice that encompasses two seemingly distinct realities, be it motherhood and the writing life or other worthy pursuits, is not an easy process. But it can be a liberating experience that astonishes us as we discover just what we are capable of doing. In Black Milk, Elif Shafak gifts us with a powerful meditation on authenticity, reconciliation with ourselves, and the difficult joy of listening to all the desires of our hearts.
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