In the weeks before the release of Elif Shafak’s new novel, The Island of Missing Trees, dozens of destructive wildfires swept through the author’s native Turkey. It was the latest in a series of catastrophic events across the world linked to climate change, and another sign that we have to start taking better care of our planet.
It feels slightly ironic to be speaking about her book, at the centre of which is a fig tree and a story about the power and resilience of nature, in the aftermath of those wildfires. They have clearly devastated Shafak, who is speaking to me from her London home. (The 49-year-old author was born in France, grew up in Turkey, and moved to England more than a decade ago.) The pandemic, she says, accelerated her “need to reconnect with the earth”.
“We have to radically reassess our connection with Earth, with our environment, and understand the urgency, the emergency,” Shafak tells me. “In many ways, actually, I think nature's screaming. We just insist on not hearing it until it comes to an inevitable point, but it shouldn't be like that. We have to reconnect.”
Nature isn’t screaming in The Island of Missing Trees, but it is speaking truths that need to be heard. In the book, a fig tree grows in the middle of a tavern in 1974 in Cyprus, where teenagers Defne, a Turkish Muslim, and Kostas, a Greek Christian, meet to carry out a love affair. Decades later, an offshoot of that fig tree can be found in London, where Kostas and his teenage daughter Ada are mourning Defne’s death, and learning to come to terms with the family’s secrets. The book is a sweeping love story, a meditation on loss and an examination of nature’s ability to heal.
Nicosia, in Cyprus where the book is set, is the world’s only divided capital. A militarised border has operated there since 1974, which separates the Republic of Cyprus from Northern Cyprus; the latter is a country only Turkey recognises. It’s a place Shafak says she has wanted to write about for “a long time, yet I could never dare,” she says.
To be daring, though, has become something of a calling card for Shafak and her work. Her move to London followed charges being brought against her in Turkey of “insulting Turkishness” in her novel The Bastard of Istanbul (for which she was later cleared). Before The Island of Missing Trees, her Booker Prize-shortlisted 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World was an unflinching and moving look at violence against women through the character of sex worker Tequila Leila.
Yet, writing about Cyprus still made the author nervous. There are “unhealed wounds” in Nicosia, she tells me, where the turbulent past is “very much alive within the present moment. Ethnic conflict, divisions, partition – how do you approach such a subject?” Shafak poses. “I couldn't find an angle until I found the fig tree.”
Almost half of The Island of Missing Trees is written from the point of view of that Ficus carica, which became a way for Shafak to offer a “calmer, wiser” point of view. “A tree is a memory keeper,” she writes in the novel. “Tangled beneath our roots, hidden inside our trunks, are the sinews of history, the rains of wars nobody came to win, the bones of the missing.” Trees, she writes, “will be the ones that sit silently in communion with human remains.”
In holding on to a community’s memories, the fig tree helped Shafak to explore inherited trauma, the idea that the collective trauma experienced by a group of people can affect subsequent generations.
“I've always believed in inherited pain and trauma,” she says. “I've observed many immigrant families or families in exile, but also found this coming from complex backgrounds, maybe divided lands… there's a complexity in the family ancestry and there are fractures, there's pain and accumulated melancholy that cannot be easily put into words, but it's still there.
“There are silences, there are absences, and those absences matter as well. I've seen how those absences can shape people. Even when you don't quite know the exact story of your grandparents, the things they cannot talk about have an impact on us.”
There are silences in Ada’s family, too – and she doesn’t realise the impact they have on her until her maternal aunt Meryem comes to visit. It is the first time the British teenager – who has never been to her ancestral home of Cyprus – has ever met anyone from her mum’s family. Defne, the reader finds out, never told Ada what happened in Nicosia in the hopes of protecting her, but this absence bereaves them both.
“We need some degree of forgetting in order to heal, but that healing cannot start unless we remember first,” says Shafak. “So memory matters. Memory is a responsibility. Not in order to get stuck in the animosities, the hostilities of the past, but to learn from them, to understand where you're coming from and hopefully build a better future with that awareness, that consciousness, and hopefully the wisdom that comes with it in the long run.
Much as Ada’s ignorance of her family’s displacement causes her pain, the adult Defne works for the Committee on Missing Persons, which is attempting to track down the bodies of those who died or were killed in the 1974 conflict in Cyprus. Through them, the novel tells the story of the defeated. “The history that we know has been written by winners,” says Shafak. “But what about the stories of those who are regarded as defeated? What about their stories?
“There are people who are born in one city, one country, and then shortly afterwards, they moved elsewhere,” she says. In Turkish, Shafak explains, “Ada” means island – she is named after Cyprus, and yet she has never been there. “There's the void and grief within the family that comes with the loss of her mother, but also another void connected to identity, not quite knowing where she belongs.”
Where we belong and how we identify are key discussions of the zeitgeist, in which we’re urged to identify ourselves as one thing or another. It’s a problem, says Shafak, that “we live in a world that never encourages multiple belongings.
“To me, it's a big problem when politicians keep saying, ‘If you're a citizen of the world, you're a citizen of nowhere. If you have multiple belongings, then you're not one of us.’ That is such a wrong, wrong rhetoric.
“You can have local, strong local emotional attachments, love the country where you come from or the culture you come from, at the same time, carry the memories of your ancestors maybe from another land, from another culture, at the same time; be attached to the continents, the entire planet, be a citizen of humankind. So why not concentric circles of belongings?” Shafak asks. “Why the insistence on singular identities, which is not helping anyone actually, and creating further division in society?”
Those are difficult questions, but Shafak says it’s a writer’s job to ask them, “then always leave the answers to the reader”, something she does deftly in The Island of Missing Trees.
“I hope this is a book, even though it deals with difficult subjects, heavy subjects, I hope it's also about renewal. It's also about empathy, about love,” she says. There are things to connect us, she says, which are “much stronger” than what divides us. “I hope it's a book that has love and strength and resilience and renewal and especially ecological thinking and eco-consciousness in it.”
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Image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin