A debut memoir is a rarity. A debut collection of memoirs is even rarer. Courtney Zoffness’ debut book Spilt Milk, however, is a collection of memoirs that brilliantly establishes its writer’s literary prowess. The prose is starkly original, refreshingly honest and witty. The thematic concerns, although, are even more consuming. From grappling with the struggles of parenthood, to the struggles of being an individual in our current socio-political landscape, the book explores with an unabashed vulnerability, the anxieties of our age. As the author reflects on her life through the ten essays — from her childhood anxiety disorder manifesting in her firstborn, to enduring brazen sexual advances by a student in her class, amongst other challenges — her self-examination enlightens the reader of the difficult questions that imbue our existence in the world today.
We spoke with the author to know more about her and the book.
I’ve loved writing and language since I was young, and have tried my hand at various genres. In junior high and high school, I wrote a lot of (very bad) poetry. Eventually I migrated to fiction, which I studied in graduate school. I’m as surprised as anyone that my debut is a memoir, but I think it utilizes craft techniques we associate with fiction, and attends to language in a way one might associate with poetry.
I credit authors like the Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison with showing me how one can tell a propulsive story in beautiful prose.
My biggest inspiration was motherhood. Childbirth and parenthood are such intense experiences and I found myself having experiences or quandaries that I wanted to understand better. Writing this book helped me find some clarity. The central theme is inheritance: what we acquire from generations past and what we pass on to our children. I was interested in exploring this concept not only in terms of biology, but also what we inherit and pass on culturally and spiritually.
I hope readers will spend time meditating on some of the hard questions the book poses about parenthood and womanhood and religion and social justice.
Each section began with chasing the answer to a question. For example, how did a childhood friend choose to become a gestational surrogate for a couple she didn’t know, and why was that not a choice I would make? Or, how do I responsibly parent and educate my young white son who is obsessed with dressing and acting like a police officer?
Curiously, it wasn’t a challenge to be transparent about my own issues or struggles. I’m not especially shy or private in my regular life, so I’m not that way on the page. The challenges were mostly in the writing craft. I had a lot I wanted to say and often it took trial and error to figure out how to layer together several ideas in way that wasn’t confusing or overwhelming to a reader.
The Pandemic and Beyond
We have been coping (with the pandemic) as best we can! I won’t pretend it’s been easy, especially since my partner and I work full-time — from home — and have two young kids. I don’t even know what ‘normal’ is anymore, so it’s hard to speculate about a ‘new normal!’ I will say: I’m looking forward to lots of hugs.
I’m back to working on fiction. I’m not sure yet what shape the project will take, but it’s been fun to invent characters and scenarios, and to play on the page.
Text Nidhi Verma