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