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The Writer Woman (Thoughts on ‘Black Milk’ by Elif Shafak)

by Roszeen Afsar


In my previous piece, ‘The Unwritten Woman’, I highlighted the need for women of different backgrounds to write about their experiences,  here I want to focus on women writing as a profession.

The idea for these two blog pieces really came into my mind when I picked up a book called ‘Black Milk; On Motherhood and Writing’ by Elif Shafak, a favourite author of mine. Wanting to know about the female voice in literature, I was immediately interested in reading this and it did not disappoint me. Shafak discusses her struggles in choosing between her career and motherhood, believing that there has to be a choice between the two until she finally accepts what she wishes – to have both. She talks about her experiences in facing and overcoming post-partum depression and what this time in her life meant for her. In the end, I felt in Shafak’s writing a warmth towards the notion of motherhood, perhaps an understanding that it is in some ways part of the essence of the female and important to her own femininity.

Image courtesy of Roszeen Afsar

Image courtesy of Roszeen Afsar

In between these struggles, Shafak writes about other female writers having to grapple with this dilemma too; embodying the all-encompassing role of motherhood whilst also holding onto an all-encompassing profession. As opposed to those women I talked about in my previous article who couldn’t imagine writing about themselves or engaging in any kind of creative activity, this books brings up the lives of women who chose to sacrifice their conventional roles in order to pursue their creative passions. Shafak shows through biographical examples that when female writers have made the decision to become career authors, they have often felt the need to sacrifice the possibility of becoming mothers completely.

At the same time, however, Shafak does look at the other side of the spectrum. She brings up the idea of a woman who denounces her creativity and expression to a life of marriage and motherhood. An example she gives is the wife of famous writer Leo Tolstoy, Sophia Andreevna Bers, who Shafak imagines could have had aspirations of writing as she was a diarist and helped Tolstoy with his manuscripts. However, Sophia does not get the chance to pursue a course of life similar to her husband’s because from a young age she enters into their marriage and becomes pregnant – in fact she has thirteen children in total. Because of the consistency of the pregnancies and the short time between each, Shafak describes Sophia as a ‘moon woman’; her stomach like the phases of the moon. The phrase ‘moon woman’ I think is one that will stick with me for the rest of my life; when I read it I thought immediately of my mother-in-law who has (incredibly) given birth to ten children. She is a moon woman – most of her life spent in pregnancy, breastfeeding and raising those children.

What makes this book more thought-provoking is that Shafak does not pass any judgement on the choices of the women she talks about, but shows how in the past the nature of the writing profession was such that women felt forced to follow one extreme or another. I believe these polarised perspectives on a woman’s role are still present in other forms. Amongst some aspects of feminism there is an argument that the identity of a woman is as an individual personality and the role of motherhood is in contradiction to this. Motherhood is thus presented as a burden to female liberty as opposed to how it is seen from an Islamic perspective; a defining aspect to the nature of a woman. Islamically, whether or not a woman gives birth, the mothering qualities of mercy and gentleness are understood to be part of the female soul. I have found a refreshing quote from Bosnian politician and writer, Alija Izetbegovic, which sums up this latter sentiment perfectly;

‘One of the arguments of the feminist movement is that a woman has been expressing herself as a mother and that it is now time for her to express herself as a personality. In their argumentation, mother and personality are opposed terms. I would like someone to explain this to me. I have always thought that there is nothing more personal or richer in personality than a mother, that a mother is a superb personality.’

Because many female writers of the past believed that they had to cut off their personal lives in order to continue their writing, the female voice in the written world seems to miss out on the potential of the raw female experience from the eyes of many women. This is because those writers never choose to write about it or have very little experience of it themselves, having chosen a different life. Elif Shafak talks about how she suppressed her femininity in order to be taken seriously in the writing world. She gives an example of becoming aware of this suppression when stood next to a pregnant woman who glowed with the femininity she says felt the lack of.

In the previous article I wrote of my despair at the women around me choosing not to make a note of their own life experiences. I did this because we have a lot to lose by not knowing about them. They are comfortable as women, as much as the pregnant woman in Shafak’s book, and for this reason it would be profound to read about what makes them so. I can try to create something, for example, from the perspective of a woman during her time of labour, but I cannot know what she experiences in that time or how she feels when she holds her child in her arms unless it is something I too have been through, and even then it will be solely from my perspective not the perspective of another woman.

When I really think about it, in terms of literature I have only ever read about a woman having a child as a plot device connecting to something else in the story. I am sure that there will be examples on the contrary, but my main point is that a great deal of spiritual and creative ground is being lost. There is a huge potential for the communication of stories about the female experience – not just about giving birth, but about the woman in ways rarely seen.

I witnessed such a creative potential first, funnily enough, within the diary of Anais Nin. Anyone who has read Nin’s novels will no doubt believe that she should never be associated with motherhood, however her diaries are very different from her fiction. The particular passage which comes to mind was one she wrote after giving birth to a stillborn baby. This was emotional to read, as you can imagine, especially as it was the result of what she describes as an extremely painful labour and her lack of will to give birth. It is true that Nin refused to have children after this, however she was a woman who fostered her maternal instinct into her personality and expression. Nin wrote unashamedly with her femininity – she was never shy to write as a woman. She openly suggested that her books were her children, that her writing was her creation and that her ways of communicating and being around others were solely from her maternal instincts. An example of this is in the same passage regarding the birth;

‘A dead creation, my first dead creation…The failure of my motherhood, or at least the embodiment of it, all my hopes of real, human, simple, direct motherhood lying dead, and the only one left to me, Lawrence’s symbolic motherhood, bringing more hope into the world…Perhaps I was designed for other forms of creation.’ 

Though she believes her literal motherhood to be destroyed, Nin still writes with a voice from an experience no man could imagine. This is a kind of voice rarely heard in literature, even today.

As a final thought I must add that I do not believe a woman’s only expression is in her literal ability to give birth. But the symbolic motherhood is a profound metaphor of the female in all her innate qualities, and as a bringer of life – be it through words or worlds. If we look into ourselves, we can find these words and worlds waiting to open their eyes.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.


The Unwritten Woman

by Roszeen Afsar


‘Few writers have had a direct vision into woman. Few women had vision into themselves!’ – Anais Nin (quote attributed to D. H. Lawrence in Nin’s Diary, Volume 1)

I love reading and writing, it has been my passion since a very young age. After much reflection over the past few years I have started taking it seriously. My dream is to have a book published, a novel of my own making. But I’ve thought endlessly about why this dream makes me abnormal, why loving to read and write is a strange activity in my cultural community, why women of my family do not include creativity in their day-to-day lives. To this day these questions puzzle me. It is true that we have plenty of female writers in the world, some even from Pakistan, but the vast majority of the women I associate with my cultural background and community would not think of engaging in such a thing. Because of this I would like to give some time and space here to think about these women, to think about the importance of reading and writing and the need for self-expression.


The Women in My Life

My nani (my mum’s mum) was a woman with a presence. You could describe her as a mountain in that sense because of her strength of being. I believe deeply that had she been able to read and write – and also had she been desiring of recording the details of her life – it would have been an amazing story to read. It would be a story filled with the thoughts of a tested wife, a devoted mother and a dutiful worshipper. It would be structured by her memories of the tribe, the disputes of marriage, the hardships of poverty, and the hidden and wonderful workings of Allah. And when was the last time you read such a story?

Image courtesy of Roszeen Afsar

Image courtesy of Roszeen Afsar

It has been over a year since nani amma passed away. As many will understand, when a person of such an age and presence – indeed the matriarch of the family – is gone from this world, the gulf left behind is huge. I didn’t know my nani to any great extent, but when I heard the news I felt that something greater had gone than just a person. Firstly I felt that my mother’s guide had left the world and for this I was truly distraught, but then when I thought more deeply I felt that a part of our culture and language had also died. In fact this is what I’ve always believed of our elders; that when they leave this world some of the world leaves with them. However, with my nani’s death I began to think about the death of each woman who was never taught to write, or whose life never allowed her to even think about expressing herself. It revealed to me our resulting ignorance of the world such a woman once lived in because she was never given the ability to paint it for us.

This is very much the case with the women of my cultural community; Pakistani and British Pakistani women. In my desire to know of their experiences I have often felt a strong urge to ask them about their lives and then write out what they tell me in order to bring their voices into the world. But this is not possible because I believe that such an endeavour can only really be done by the individual themselves – once they have opened up the faculty to write what is within them. For this a woman must first and foremost believe in the possibility of such an action and recognise it as important, something which our historical cultures have never focused on. Female literature is non-existent in history – I have found this to be the case in both eastern and western cultures.

Instead historical civilisations possessed strong oral traditions. This is still the case in some parts of the world, my memories of Pakistan confirms this. I have many childhood memories of sitting at night before a burning coal brazier, surrounded by family and listening to one of them retelling stories they heard as children. These tales were told so breathtakingly that I believed each one to be true and felt it was happening just as I was hearing it. It was usually a woman, one of my mother’s sisters, who was our storyteller. Those nights around the fire, I realised later, were the times they allowed themselves to break from their daily chores, to sit down and lose themselves in fairy-tales – an activity which would be frivolous at any other time of day.

The Necessity of Writing

I believe the highest freedom is the ability to express what one is.

It is very important to understand that writing involves an awareness of the self. When you write something you come face-to-face with your thoughts in concrete form, you see the language you speak before you, the way you perceive things now taking form on the page, you realise that this is the way you think, what you believe, what you remember, this is what you know and what you have been exposed to in your life. If you understand all of this then you can also understand that impoverished areas of the world come hand-in-hand with low literacy rates. After the physical needs of the poor are met, their mental requirements take precedence, although this latter criteria is often forgotten or ignored. An individual’s lack of liberty and autonomy always includes the fact that they don’t have the means to express themselves.

I believe the highest freedom is the ability to express what one is. I have often felt grateful for the freedom to be able to sit down and write how I’m feeling (especially when I’m upset) because it means that I myself have given words to my ailment instead of letting another create their own analysis of me. As such, female literacy is a high focus amongst charities in poor communities, because (as those charities highlight) an educated woman has a higher self-awareness and thus the ability to progress, to be able to care for her dependents and manage her family life. On a basic level this is great, but in addition to these developments we mustn’t forget that when a woman learns how to read and write she is also given the power to engage with written knowledge and has the ability to express herself without barriers.

Learning how to read and write, therefore, is not in itself the liberating force. True freedom and power comes from being able to engage with knowledge and being able to put forth ideas. Despite such a potential in literature and language, I have found that the females of my community do not aspire towards such possibilities. Many Asian women are too busy in their married life, in their family roles and their day-to-day practicalities to even conceive the notion of sitting down and writing, or engaging in some form of self-expression or creativity. Entering into fields such as those of language, literature or art is unheard of to them. My mother, in contrast to my nani amma, can read and write, but the idea of writing her own experience is foreign to her. It is a luxury in her opinion, saved for a woman who has time to think about the world.

It seems that the female writer is all too often portrayed to be of a different order; a single woman, no children, financially comfortable, someone with the time and freedom to pursue a leisurely activity. And I believe that this is very sad. I understand the struggles of the women around me, their financial constraints, the hardships of raising children and managing a household, the responsibilities and lack of choices. However, I also believe that reading and writing are things which everyone should and can engage in.

When I was younger I used to see my mother reading novels she found in the Urdu section of our local library. I think sometimes that over the years she has probably forgotten about this since it’s not something she ever mentions, but I remember it. She used to do this because of how overwhelmed she felt in England, surrounded by a different language and culture. It helped her stay grounded and gave her something to do during the day. But as the years have gone by she has buried herself into a routine – absolutely and selflessly immersed into the roles of housewife, wife and mother. My mother is an incredible woman who does not give herself any time, who does not take anything for herself. Just like with my nani amma, no one could ever do justice to describing the world my mother sees. But I am grateful that I can sit with her and ask her about her life.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.