Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A journey into the soul of Turkey's most famous female writer

Black Milk: On Writing, Motherhood, and the Harem Within
by Elif Shafak

Memoir has become one of my favorite genres in recent years.  For me, reading the real stories from the life of a living person can be just as interesting and ensnaring (if not more) than the made-up plot and characters from a fiction novel.  In fact, these two genres - Memoir and the Novel - are not actually that far apart in some respects.  Novelists are often inspired by or based on real life people and experiences, and in the memoir truth can be stretched when authors take liberties with story details and dialogue - not to mention the distortional element of the human memory that often creates images that are far from the true past experience. 

Elif Shafak's memoir, Black Milk, is a perfect example where the line between memoir and fiction are blurred.  I am not by any means casting doubt on the reality of the experiences Elif shares in her memoir, but her harem of Thumbelinas or "The Choir of Discordant Voices", as Elif calls them in the memoir, do add an imaginary element to Elif's story that creates quite a unique read.

Elif in Black Milk:
"There is a mini harem deep down in my soul.  A gang of females who constantly quarrel and bicker, looking for an opportunity to trip one another up.  They are teeny-tiny creatures, each no taller than Thumbelina….They make my life miserable and yet I don't know how to live without them…Each has declared a different corner of my soul her residence."

I'll be honest - at first I was unsure about these tiny characters that Elif employed to discuss her innermost thoughts and conflicts.  These Thumbelinas are highly exaggerated elements of Elif's personality, each one separate and individual so that when they come together for critical decisions in Elif's life,  they fight and argue, pulling Elif in six different directions.  Once I became comfortable with these characters in the memoir, I began to really appreciate this method of storytelling and I began to see how this idea plays out in my own inner world at times….

While Elif's memoir is slated as a book about post-partum depression and the struggle that Elif encountered when she became pregnant and gave birth for the first time. It is true that this period of Elif's life is a large part of the novel, yet for me this was not the lasting image that remained with me after I finished the book.  Perhaps it is my age and my own experience, but I can connect with Elif's journey as a woman who wants to remain true to herself and true to her intellectual desires, she sometimes dips too far into seclusion and rejection of her material self, but then she rises back to the balance of brain and body - of human love and love of ideas.  Many women, single or married with children, would be able to connect to this journey and I'm glad Elif shared it.  She is an inspiration to me to keep writing, keep pursuing my goals, and to not worry about - and even try to control - the voices inside my head that tell me to do twenty different things at once. 

For another review of Black Milk see:
An article on the Ms. Magazine Blog:

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