Interview: Elif Shafak, author, The Island of Missing Trees
“All around the world, wherever there is, or has ever been, a civil war or an ethnic conflict, come to the trees for clues, because we will be the ones that sit silently in communion with human remains,” remarks the talking fig tree in Elif Shafak’s new novel, The Island of Missing Trees, a deeply moving tale of love, grief, eco-consciousness, migration, exile and regeneration set in Cyprus and London, that alternates between the first-person voice of the tree and the third-person narrative woven around the lives of Greek Cypriot Kostas and Turkish Cypriot Defne Kazantzakis, and their daughter Ada.
The Island of Missing Trees, as enchanting and magical as most of your novels, is a forbidden love story set against the backdrop of a civil war; the love between Greek Cypriot Kostas and Turkish Cypriot Defne rises above the ordinary and acquires a spiritual, transcendental dimension. Was this love story, marked by distance and division, central to the novel when you conceived it? Did it come to you along with its setting — Cyprus, the island, and Nicosia, the only divided capital in the world?
We live in a world that constantly puts us into boxes, categories, tribes, clashing certainties. Can you love someone who is not of your tribe, your religion, your ethnic background? Yes, you can. Love was central to the story from the beginning, but so was war, conflict, trauma, memory, displacement, partition. How can you tell the story of a divided land? It wasn’t easy. Love gave me a door into the story. There are two types of love in this novel, the first one is the love between humans, and then there is the love between humans and trees, the love humans feel for their land, for their roots, their memories, the love immigrants feel for lost homelands.
The novel shows Kostas and Defne to be an unlikely couple not because she is Turkish and he is Greek, but because their personalities are strikingly dissimilar: Defne considers human suffering as paramount and justice as the ultimate aim, but for Kostas — who carves an island for himself inside an island and retreats into silence — human existence has no special priority in the ecological chain. However, they are both the products of a common culture. Do you see their story as one of commonalities and contradictions, of togetherness forged out of conflicting nationalisms and religious identities?
I believe there is something utterly beautiful and moving when people from different backgrounds, races, religions and/or personalities manage to build a loving, caring and compassionate relationship together, despite all the odds. Love can triumph over hatred. Just like solidarity and sisterhood can triumph over polarisation and extremism. But I am also aware that none of this is easy to achieve. And yet we must keep trying. Especially now, more than ever before. Our planet is burning, our only home, this earth, is burning. We have massive global challenges ahead, from climate crisis to pandemics. Neither ultranationalism nor religious fundamentalism are the answer. Any ideology that takes us away from critical thinking and divides humans into boxes and tells them to hate “the Other” is misleading, wrong. We have entered a new era when we need global sisterhood, international solidarity and cooperation, a new kind of egalitarian, inclusive humanism that respects diversity and basic human dignity. We must all work together to save our planet and our common humanity.
The novel is structured around the act of burying and unburying of the fig tree and is rooted in eco-consciousness; it explores our relationship with nature at a time when ecological concerns are at the centre of global discourse. The pandemic has also forced us to reconsider how we engage with nature. Kostas, a botanist, is in constant communion with plants. The novel, which is narrated in parts by the sagacious fig tree that remains a witness to the trials and tumults of Kostas and Defne’s story, reflects on what nature does to death — it transforms “abrupt endings into a thousand new beginnings”, tending even to those who would never be found after the war. How did you settle on the structure and the narrative device that alternates between the authorial third person and the voice of the fig tree and what did the latter allow you to do in the novel?
I have been wanting to write about Cyprus for many years now but I could never dare because I knew it was not an easy story to tell. This is such a beautiful island. And yet, there is a lot of pain — accumulated pain, intergenerational trauma, loss and distrust, and ethnic partition. The wounds are still open, unhealed. I could not find a voice. How do you tell the story of a divided land without falling into the trap of nationalism? Only when I found the voice of the fig tree, only then, I could dare to start writing. A Ficus carica. The idea of the fig tree came to me during the pandemic and the lockdowns. I had been reading about nature and ecology for a while, but it was the pandemic that really encouraged me to walk firmly in this direction. Like many of us, I felt the need, almost the urgency, to reconnect with nature, to rethink about environment and especially, about trees and forests. Also, trees were important to me in a metaphorical sense. As an immigrant myself, I think about roots a lot. What does it mean to be rooted or uprooted or rerooted? Roots are important throughout my writing. I care about issues like belonging, non-belonging, motherland, adopted land, exile.
As I was reading The Island of Missing Trees, the wildfires in Turkey raged on, which made the book’s eco-consciousness and environmental concerns even more immediate and urgent. What has been your assessment of the devastating wildfires? Where do you think Turkey has gone wrong with regard to ecology?
The wildfires are utterly heartbreaking. It is devastating. Entire villages, forests, natural habitats have been destroyed. There is a photograph that is imprinted on my mind. It is incredibly sad. The photo of an elderly Turkish woman in Manavgat who has advanced Alzheimer’s. She does not know and understand that she lost everything to the wildfires, her village, her home, her trees. Her family cannot explain or tell her. And there is this innocent woman sleeping on the street, suddenly a refugee in her own land. Climate crisis is happening in front of our eyes, every day, every moment. This is not something that will take place at some vague point in the future. As the recent UN report made it very clear, human-caused climate emergency is unequivocal, widespread and accelerating. That said, in the case of Turkey, there was an additional element that made things worse: the government’s incompetence. Lack of proper infrastructure and coordination to fight the fires. Turkish government spends so much money on building palaces for themselves but no money to invest in protecting forests, no planes to put out the fires. But when you say this out loud they will automatically call you a ‘traitor’. There is no freedom of speech. Zero. Intellectuals, journalists, writers are prosecuted. Even people who have tweeted using the hashtag Turkey needs help have been sued. It is mind-blowing, but this is what happens when democracy is completely lost and civil society is shattered.
You have written of Istanbul as a ‘She-city’ likening it to an old woman with a young heart, eternally hungry for new stories and new loves. The fig tree is also referred to as female and is equally invested in the act of storytelling; it’s also a memory keeper, a reservoir of stories since it’s a constant in the life of humans and the animal kingdom: “Tangled beneath our roots, hidden inside our trunks, are the sinews of history, the ruins of wars nobody came to win, the bones of the missing.” Do you see it mirroring your own voice and preoccupations?
Such a beautiful question! As a writer my own voice and preoccupations will, from time to time, seep into the book. However, the truth is, for me, writing fiction is not necessarily autobiographical. I have always believed there is something irrational, transcendental, almost mystical, about the art of storytelling. In novels, you journey into other people’s lives and into their minds and hearts, you go beyond the limits of the “self”, even if for a few hours, days. I am interested in those unexpected human connections. I believe you can, both, be attached to your own cultural roots, and feel connected to all humanity at the same time. I do not believe in singular, static identity. I think, as human beings, we all have multiple belongings, or like Walt Whitman used to say, we all contain multitudes.
The novel also deals with the shadows that the past casts on us as well as the possibility of renewal and regeneration. It shows how silences shroud family secrets and trauma runs across generations. Ada, the 16-year-old daughter, who lives in London with her father Kostas, is oblivious to the ordeal her parents went through in the past, how the war tore them apart. What makes you write about people and their difficult struggles of living with the past and, at times, their attempts to survive without one?
Families are composed of stories — and silences, too. I have always believed in the existence of inherited pain. We do not only inherit our noses or cheeks or hair colour from our parents or great-grandparents. We also inherit sorrow and melancholy, even if we might not know their stories in full, even then, we are shaped by silences. Especially within immigrant families, exiled families, or families that come from divided lands, complex histories, there are many such silences. The first generation are the ones who have experienced the biggest hardships and obstacles, but they don’t exactly have a language to talk about their pain. The second generation does not usually want to dig into the past because they are busy adopting, belonging, finding their feet. They would rather focus on this present moment or the future. But then there is the third or fourth generation, the youngest in the families who today are asking the most important questions about the trajectory of their ancestors, questions about identity. They want to know. So, interestingly, you can come across young people who carry the stories of their grandparents, young people with old memories.
There is always a heartbreaking sorrow that runs as an undercurrent in the lives of most of your characters. The fig tree has this melancholy in its genes that it can never quite shake off. Similarly, Ada carries within her a sadness that is not quite her own but part of her DNA, passed down to her by her parents. What draws you to grief and melancholy?
I come from a land of pessimism. The Balkans, Anatolia, the Levant… we are not very optimistic people in general, you know. There is a lot of sorrow in our history, there is melancholy or duende. So the stories that I write reflect the culture where I come from. However, I have always believed there is also a strong element of humour in my writing. I really love and respect humour, especially the compassionate kind. Not the kind of humour that looks down upon people, not like that, but the kind that understands both the weakness and resilience, the complexity and simplicity of being human. So I guess in a nutshell what I am really drawn to is the dance of humour and sorrow, the dialectical relationship between melancholy and hope, between pessimism and optimism.
Attuned to the landscape of the island and the patterns of life of the islanders, the novel is rich in imagery and atmospherics. How did you craft this particular element in the novel? Did you visit Cyprus while working on the novel or did you draw on your memory of the island?
I read across the board, both fiction and non fiction. Fiction is where my heart beats, of course, but I love interdisciplinary studies. I read anything and everything that speaks to me, from political philosophy to botanical sciences to cookbooks and graphic novels. Unlike “information”, “knowledge” takes time to accumulate; it is much slower, interdisciplinary. It requires an inner garden to grow. I have visited Cyprus many times in the past, not during the pandemic. I have met beautiful people from this beautiful island, and I listened to them with respect. What I like best is to bridge the written culture with the oral culture. So there is a lot of research behind this novel, but there is also a genuine interest in oral cultures, superstitions, myths, legends, the things that are not necessarily found in books.
In what ways has your peripatetic life and your diverse identities as an activist, a migrant, a nomad, a cosmopolite, an agnostic, a heterodox mystic and a humanist — a “wandering, independent, carefree spirit” as you wrote in Black Milk — shaped your writing?
James Baldwin was fond of using a word to describe himself, a word that stayed with me: commuter. He commuted between continents, cultures, cities. But he was also aware of how painful or lonely this could be. When I look at my journeys, I have learned so much from multiple cultures. When you travel, you not only learn from differences, you also get a chance to take another look at where you are coming from, perhaps you attain a new cognitive flexibility. I think in this life we learn most from diversity, from people who are “different” than us at first glance, we don’t learn much from sameness. But you don’t have to physically be travelling all the time. Books also help us travel. Stories take us everywhere, across centuries and geographies. Through journeys we learn. We need to be “intellectual nomads” and refuse to settle down in any address, any fixed abode, once and for all.
You have been a traveller between Turkish and English languages. What kind of relationship do you share with language? And then there is a distinct vocabulary of silence manifest in most of your novels. Where does silence figure in your writing and what is your relationship with it? Do you consciously work on it?
Turkish is mother tongue. English for me is an acquired language. I did not grow up in a bilingual house. I started learning English at the age of 10 when I was in Spain. At the time, Spanish was my second language. But English never abandoned me. It gave me a sense of mobility, another zone of freedom. I feel attached to each language in a different way. My connection with Turkish is very emotional, and I am an emotional person, so writing in English, which is more cerebral, gives a different balance, a cognitive distance that I need. If my writing has melancholy, sadness, I find these things easier to express in Turkish, however. But humour, and especially irony, are much easier in English.
As a writer and an activist, you have been eminently brave and outspoken, telling gritty and unflinching stories. At some point in this novel, Defne says: “There are moments in life when everyone has to become a warrior of some kind. If you are a poet, you fight with your words; if you are an artist, you fight with your paintings... But you can’t say, “Sorry, I’m a poet, I’ll pass.” Ali Smith recently reiterated how all novels are political even if they do not intend to be so. Do you see the need to speak up against the injustice and oppression of the world or against the curtailments of rights, individual liberty and freedom in countries around the world, especially Turkey, as central to your enterprise as a writer? In a world falling apart all around, where do you derive your inspiration and courage from?
I appreciate your words, but I am not a brave person. I am just a curious person. I love the art of storytelling. I believe literature can rehumanise people who have been systematically dehumanised, pushed to the margins, silenced, forgotten. I am drawn to the periphery rather than the centre. I don’t think a writer’s job is to give answers, to dictate or teach or preach. I find a lot of that off-putting. I believe a writer’s job is to ask questions, including difficult questions. The novel is one of our last remaining democratic spaces. In my novels, I want to create open spaces where questions can be raised, a plurality of opinions and voices can be heard, and then you must always leave the answers to the reader. Because every reader will come up with their own answers. I know couples who read the same book and they don’t read it in the same way. Good friends who read the same novel, but each in their own way. Why? Because each reader’s reading is unique like their fingerprints. That said, as a writer, if you happen to come from a wounded democracy, like Turkey or Brazil or Egypt and so on, you do not have the luxury of being apolitical. Also I am a feminist. I believe the personal is also political. You can write about gender and sexuality, that too, is political.
You write in the note to the reader in The Island of Missing Trees how you drew on historical facts and events for several strands in the novel, including the mysterious deaths of British babies and the illegal hunting of songbirds. You write that while you honour local folklore and oral traditions in the novel, it remains a work of fiction — “a mixture of wonder, dreams, love, sorrow and imagination”. Could one use this to describe most of your writing?
A blend of mind and heart, knowledge and intuition, ruins and remnants, past and present, mysticism and politics, written culture and oral culture, East and West, melancholy and humour… I think I like this hybridity. Because I come from Istanbul you see, and I carry the city with me, and Istanbul herself is exactly like that.
Nawaid Anjum is a Delhi-based freelance feature writer, translator and poet.