'Black Milk': Turkish writer examines postpartum depression

'This book is really a poem, a project and a comedy'


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The book promoters must have had a fit marketing this memoir.

"After the birth of her first child in 2006, internationally best-selling Turkish writer Elif Shafak suffered from a postpartum depression that triggered a profound personal crisis," reads the cover.

"Profound." "Crisis." "Suffered." Oy. Here it comes, yet another self-absorbed round of gut-spilling about crisis and transcendency and saving one's soul.

Surprisingly, however, this personal story has little self-absorption. Ms. Shafak deflects attention from herself onto numerous other women writers, in addition to crafting characters out of her own inner voices.


"BLACK MILK: ON WRITING, MOTHERHOOD, AND THE HAREM WITHIN"
By Elif Shafak; translated by Hande Zapsu.
Viking ($25.95).

This book is really a poem, a project and a comedy.

Ms. Shafak spotlights a host of women writers, including Sylvia Plath, Ayn Rand, Simone de Beauvoir, Zelda Fitzgerald and Jane Austen, not to mention passing references to Anais Nin and Courtney Love. She examines how each one (mostly unsuccessfully) combined motherhood with talent and ambition.

But in an ongoing story woven among these biographies, the author creates characters to represent the various aspects of her personality. This "harem within" does not get along, and Ms. Shafak gives entertaining accounts of how her ambition and intellectual cynicism held her spirituality hostage, and how, for a time, her maternal side repressed every other part of her.

She also dwells on why women are underrepresented in world literature, imagining how the life of a 16th-century Muslim girl who writes poetry would likely have unfolded.

And Ms. Shafak's depiction of depression is not easily forgotten. First she describes how the Turkish language expresses depression differently than English does. Then she gives depression a personality. He is Lord Poton.

He stuffs away all the characters of her "harem within" and tells her, "From now on there will be no one around to yammer at you. You will hear only my voice. Isn't that great?" Perhaps a better description of depression has not been written.

The memoir has some weaknesses. The quiz at the end to tell whether one is suffering from postpartum depression is unlikely to make any new mother feel reassured. The tone is too chummy and cheerful. And her advice for the afflicted ("Call your doctor immediately and get help") is at odds with how Ms. Shafak says she handled her depression.

She claims to have taken the three medications her doctor gave her and fed them to her houseplants, opting to get through the depression herself rather than pass along the medication to her baby via breast milk.

Nevertheless, these weaker moments are few. Ms. Shafak reels off beautiful descriptions of all things large and small. Her translator Hande Zapsu is a great help to her here.

"Airports are too sterile, clean and controlled when compared with train stations, where the heart of the underprivileged still pulsates," she writes.

In another place, she says, "Continuity and stability are Russian and Chinese to me. While I know they are great languages with rich histories, I don't speak them." The rhythm, the assonance, and then the surprise ending are a delight to read.

This book may sound as though it would be ridiculous, but the reader may find the beauty of its metaphors, examinations and language hard to forget.


Laura Schneiderman: lschneiderman@post-gazette.com .


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