The backstory: ‘Breaking Milk’

Dawn Garisch writes about the origins of her novel 'Breaking Milk' (Karavan Press), shortlisted for the 2021 Sunday Times CNA Literary Awards.

27 June 2021 - 00:00 By Dawn Garisch

Set on a farm in the Eastern Cape, and taking place over one day, Breaking Milk by Dawn Garisch (Karavan Press), is a finely wrought meditation on motherhood, not only in personal and human terms, but also with regard to ourselves as destructive children of the Earth.

Garisch on the genesis of ‘Breaking Milk’

In this novel, I explore aspects of separation and connection. Several mothers I know are estranged from their adult children, and many of us are disconnected from nature, intuition and creativity. I track the nuanced task of knowing when to intervene and when to withhold action in the lives of our own or other women's children.

However, there are situations where we need to cut - initiation, divorce, surgery. Breaking Milk uses the metaphor of milk and cheese-making to ground these preoccupations during one day in the life of Kate, a geneticist who became a farmer when ethics in her lab were compromised. I job-shadowed a friend to learn about this ancient craft that employs patience and invisible micro-organisms to preserve milk.

I am interested in the idea "you can be right, or you can have relationships"; also how our intelligence has had some disastrous consequences for the natural world on which we depend.

Embedded in these concerns is the role of women in society - what it takes to say no, and how a woman finds her feet after divorce. The books that have informed my inquiry are Disgrace by JM Coetzee, and Accident: A Day's News by Christa Wolf.

Edited extract

Kate wakes earlier than usual; it is still dark. There was rain in the night, pitting against the window pane. Also a terrible dream; the residue lies heavily in her belly, yet she can't locate what evoked this. How easily a dream's edge slips away.

The rain roused her round two. She lay still for a long while, tied to the loop of anxious thought about the knife-edge today's surgery will bring, dividing life into the time before and the time after, not knowing which way things will fall.

She imagined Jess also sleepless in the dark, the two of them so far apart. Her daughter would be sitting beside the hospital cot, wrenched endlessly awake, holding a wretched vigil over her sons.

Everybody needs another to watch over them with interest and concern, she thought. A guardian, a witness, a comforter. There is much to be said for a benevolent eye.

The cut of Jess's words on the phone last week when she gave her mother the operation date: Don't come. Two severing words pushing her away, like the palm of a hand in her face. Don't come. All possible reasons for this have filed past Kate, convicting her of her deficiencies.

Kate's mind switches to another son, Luzoko, in pain, waiting for healing. Tonight was his first wet one out in the wild, thankfully not too cold. Those young men have only a blanket each and a makeshift shelter.

Luzoko's mother also struggles to sleep in her home near the mountain, arriving at work tired-eyed. Nosisi says she is proud of her son, but she also suffers.

So many women down the ages, Kate reflects, have lain awake in the earth's great shadow, insomniac over their progeny, their sons and daughters intent on escaping their mothers' intractable worry.

The dream! Kate remembers now, as vividly as a movie: Jessica, as a young girl, drowning in the dam ...

The dream is a tangle of panic in her belly. Reason lifts her like a lifejacket: It is superstitious to consider dreams prophetic.

A pointless torment. Jessica could swim by the age of three. Kate brought her daughter to the farm during the holidays and taught her to swim in the dam. She wanted Jess to know where milk comes from, how to dig for earthworms in the cow turd mud, and to know what the night sky looks like, unobscured by the glow of city lights.

Her severed daughter, an unsaved child.

Children should never die, she thinks, as she lies listening for any movement from the room above. That is to say, children should never die before their parents. Storm and Sky. Such hopeful, hopeless, useless names! Joined names, names that need each other to survive.

There is a stillness, all around, abnormally so. Kate has never heard such silence. As though all creatures, even the elements, are waiting. Holding their breath.

As though the world has exhaled for the last time.

She must get up and face her shame: Her daughter does not want her. There is recoil at her centre; she cannot live with this disgrace. Kate knows that she must go over. This is the circumstance that permits her to cross the distance her daughter has put between them three years back.

If Kate had managed to stay married, perhaps none of this would have happened, she worries. After her parents' divorce, Jess had started and then dropped out of two courses. During that turbulent time, Kate had entered the bathroom one morning and was shocked to see a bird in flight tattooed between her daughter's lovely breasts. Soon afterwards, Jess left for London, began working in bars and fell pregnant during a brief affair. Gave birth to twins, and if that wasn't hard enough, they were conjoined at the head. Bad luck, one might call it, or else a chain of poor decisions leading to this disaster.

Why don't you understand, her mother wants to impress upon her, that your life choices thus far leave you very vulnerable. You have nothing, nothing but the dole to fall back on. Gone are the days when a husband or a god would save you.

Surely, Kate worries, there comes a time for a mother to intervene, to insist: Let me in! Let me help you. No matter what the outcome of the surgery today, much will need to be done. She must test whether Jess's intransigence is stronger than her mother's will.