An Interview with Elif Shafak by Nataliya Deleva
On a scorching August morning, while visiting my grandparents’ village in Bulgaria, I speak over Zoom to Booker-shortlisted British-Turkish writer Elif Shafak about her forthcoming novel The Island of Missing Trees (Viking). Our conversation spans across form and linguistic choice, and the topics of displacement, memory and generational trauma. The room where I sit overlooks an old fig tree and I inevitably mention my plans to take a sapling from it and plant it in my garden back in London.
ND: Elif, thank you so much for writing such an important book and for the opportunity to discuss it with you. It resonates with me on so many levels and I’m excited to talk to you just a day before the UK release. In The Island of Missing Trees, the resemblance between the life of the fig tree and a person living in exile is striking. When reading the stories told from the Fig Tree perspective (one of the narrators in the book), I often wasn’t sure if you were writing about the tree or a person, and I can only assume this was very much purposeful. You write: “Because that is what migration and relocation do to us: when you leave your home for unknown shores, you don’t simply carry on as before; a part of you dies inside so that another part can start all over again.” Why was it important for you to create these parallel narratives which often would break their straight line, meander and intersect with one another?
ES: I do think about migrations, movements, displacements a lot because it's very personal for me. I think a lot about belonging and not belonging, exile, living in between. I've felt, for some reason or another, always like the other. I felt on the periphery of the culture where I grew up in. It’s partly because I was raised in a matriarchal house in a very conservative, very patriarchal society in Turkey. I felt like I didn't fit in. At the same time, I loved, I felt connected, I felt attached. But there was a bit of a gap, a cognitive distance, which I could never completely overcome. It's a very lonely position for an artist. And when you move to Europe, to the Western world, in my case, that feeling of gap doesn't disappear: you continue to feel connected emotionally, but there's something fractured. There's something you've left behind. There's a certain melancholy to the life of an immigrant, to the life of an exile that will always be there. Stories help us to realise that we're not alone. That many people for different reasons have felt a similar sense of loneliness or displacement but at the same time tried to reroute themselves, because that’s the human spirit, the human resilience. I love to write about the experiences of not only immigrants, but anyone who, for whatever reason, feels like the other. Anyone who feels like they don't quite belong. Anyone who has been pushed to the margins. Anyone who feels lonely. I want to understand them and to give voice to their stories.
ND: The themes of migration, displacement and resilience surface clearly in your book. But the novel also offers an interesting comparison between human suffering and plants suffering. You present a deeply relatable facts about the way plants (as well as animals) react to the humanly created events or the way we affect nature, the way they bear pain and retain it within their structure. I enjoyed the way you depict this through the narrative: Kostas and Dafne bring a sapling from Nicosia and plant it in their new London home, where the tree starts a new life but also carries the former existence engraved deeply into its structure. The same way we, emigrants, expats, people living in exile, carry our former lives and past traumas, passing it on to generations to come. This inherited trauma, the memory of the painful past is all encoded in us, humans, as well as in nature. How does one break this process? In fact, would you like your novel to carry the meaning of healing for the readers, or, rather, of remembering?
ES: Such a beautiful question. I think they go hand in hand. Without understanding and facing the past and without remembering, there's no way we can build a better future or a fairer future. I see memory as a responsibility, not in a way to keep you stuck in the past. But to learn from the past, to recognise and respect the stories, and then learn from the mistakes and try to build something better and more peaceful. Without the knowledge of the past, I don't think healing is possible. I come from a country that has a very rich history, which doesn't mean that in Turkey we have strong memory. I think we are a society with a collective amnesia. So as a writer, I think I've always been interested in how memory is important, especially for minorities, immigrants, people whose stories have been silenced and forgotten.
ND: I was fascinated by all the facts and stories of plants in the book, and the way they ‘behave’ in nature. You write with such love and care, as if every word about plants is imbued with the very meaning of life. We learn about the vision trees have, about their sense and ability to protect their trunks from predators, about how they adapt to change, and how they communicate with one another and can indicate incoming danger through released stress signals. What can we learn from the trees?
ES: We can learn so much from trees, and we have to. It’s such a shame that we pretend that trees are just passive, as if they just exist in the background. They are not at all. I think we are so inextricably connected. By destroying trees, we're also destroying life on Earth. We must reconnect with trees; they are much more alive than we tend to think they are. It's very interesting that there's still so much we don't know about them. There has been amazing scientific research, especially in the last decades, but still, we're nowhere near of understanding their most sentient being than we recognise.
We’re at a crossroad with the pandemic, with the climate crisis. We have to reconnect with the ecosystems, with Earth; we need ecological thinking and eco consciousness, and we don't have time left. I see it as a historic moment. Either we're going to completely fail or learn quickly from this moment.
ND: Tell us about the role of research in your writing process.
ES: I love reading, I love researching, and I love learning. I spent many years in academia. I think this shaped me. Normally, I'm a very disorganised person but academia gave me that sense of discipline, and it made me understand the value of curiosity even more. What I like most in academia is interdisciplinary studies. I love reading about cultural history, social history, but also fields I know nothing about, like neuroscience biology. I'm a political scientist by training and I love political philosophy. But I also love cookbooks. What I like is eclectic reading, interdisciplinary, both from east and west. And I believe that's the kind of reading that teaches us the most, because we're always challenged. I don't want to stay in a comfort zone and always read the same type of books. I want to have more eclectic, curious reading lists.
ND: Food in the novel takes a very important place. The narrative is sprinkled generously with descriptions of traditional Turkish and Greek dishes, adding sweetness and a hearty taste to it. Our mouths water by the sound of baklava and kadaif, Baba Ghanoush, stuffed bell peppers, chicken souvlaki, minced meat and rice wrapped in vine leaves. In food, it seems, Greek and Turkish culture mix, amalgamate and live in peace. The menu in The Happy Fig Tree tavern is one of those examples where the two cultures and kitchens co-inhibit the space and “coexist in rare harmony”, similarly to its owners, a Greek and a Turk. Ada, the child of Kostas and Dafne, is the very direct results of these two cultures, and the one living in inner conflict which she untangles by hearing about her family’s history and deeply buried secrets. It seems so obvious that, to accept someone who might look different to you, you need to listen to them, understand their viewpoint. The topic of acceptance is very deer to me, as I explore it in my first novel Four Minutes. It takes four minutes to look someone in the eyes to accept them, and yet we rarely give others the chance. The segregation is forced in all these instances, the same way the relationship between Kostas and Dafne is forbidden by their communities. What should we change, as a society, in order to be able to see, understand and accept our differences?
ES: Of course, there's so much that we need to dismantle there's so much that we need to do. I really think stories can make a difference. Because when we know someone's story, it's more difficult to make generalisations about each other. We need to know plural stories, diverse stories. When you know someone's story, you realise that the other is my sister, the other is my brother, I am also the other. Then duality starts to melt.
I think that as human beings, we remember mostly through stories, through emotions. And yet at the same time, we belittle emotions, we see emotions as a sign of weakness. I want to challenge that. I want to talk about emotions as well. I want to understand why we are so biased against each other, where do our stereotypes come from. I think we, artists, have that in common: this belief in literature, in art, that when we reach out, beyond our tribes, we can connect, as humankind. And we have to, but unfortunately the world we're living in doesn't encourage that at all.
ND: The superficial geographical borders and the politically forced segregation reminded me of Kapka Kassabova’s book Border. I spoke to her briefly after a book event in London where she offered an interesting perspective: often people on the border accept their differences, live in peace and harmony because they know each other well, they are neighbours and friends. It’s the media and political institutions that segregate, the ‘centre’ which is in fact too removed from the margins of society. It’s the language in media that forces the separation. Would you agree?
ES: I do, definitely. I also agree with the point that it's language that creates these layers of discrimination, inequality, alienation. Words matter. Stories matter. I recently started a YouTube channel, where I talk about words. This is, in a way, my starting points, because I wanted to take seemingly small words, in each video. I focus on one word, but then I want to unpack, to look at its history, its morphology, how we use the word. I really think words matter, they can perpetuate layers of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and sometimes we're not even aware of it, but we have to be, and I really think the darkest chapters in human history started with words. It didn't start with civil wars, genocides, concentration camps; all of that came later. So, how we talk about the other, how we talk about people who seem to be different to us, is incredibly important. What’s our choice of words, how do we use our words? Language matters.
ND: I found the form of the novel as intriguing as the plot itself. It follows a tree structure with its roots buried in the past, a trunk and branches. How important is form for your writing process? Do you start with it in mind, or do you shape it around the narrative?
ES: I struggle to answer because, and I don't know if you would agree with me, so much of what we do while we're writing is irrational, isn't it. Sometimes you write without quite knowing what you're doing, and there's no way you can know until you finish the book. But let me take a step back. I think there are two different ways of writing a novel: one is a bit more like engineering in which the writer wants to control the text and wants to know what's going to happen six chapters later. I know some tremendous books that have been written in this way. But that's not my path. I like to write by intuition. I like to be as of a little bit drunk when I'm writing, not to know what comes next. The form comes with the story and every story brings their own form and their own structure. As a writer, I think I need to respect that, and I need to follow it. You're not necessarily in charge of the entire text. Sometimes characters take over, and they lead the way.
ND: In your novel, you provide instructions about how to bury and how to unbury a fig tree. Do you have some advice about how people should care for a fig tree?
ES: I think we need to, first of all, realise that trees are alive, that they have lived longer than us. Trees are wiser than us; they have witnessed many things about humankind, and we need to learn from them. To keep reading, to get to care about their wellbeing, to care about the wellbeing of our planet, the nature – there's so much more each and every one of us has to do, both individually and collectively. The problem is, we don't have much time. Our planet is burning, there are wildfires going on fire in so many parts of the world. As we're speaking, the southern coast of Turkey is burning. There was this video with screams of animals lost in the wildfires which I can't take off my mind, because we’re destroying the lives and habitats. Our perception of the world is very human centric. We think we're the owners of the universe, we the Supreme creatures. We need more humility, we need to understand that we are nothing unless we're part of an ecosystem. I've been wanting to be open to learn to connect. And also, to think about roots being uprooted and rerouted. We also need to learn from people who are connected to nature, whether it’s biologists, or farmers, peasants, especially the elder generation. We need to keep the oral culture.
ELIF SHAFAK is an award-winning British-Turkish novelist whose work has been translated into 54 languages. The author of 19 books, 12 of which are novels, she is a bestselling author in many countries around the world. Shafak's latest novel 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and RSL Ondaatje Prize; longlisted for the Dublin Literary Award; and chosen as Blackwell's Book of the Year. Her previous novel, The Forty Rules of Love was chosen by the BBC as one of 100 Novels That Shaped Our World. In 2021, Shafak's The Architect's Apprentice was chosen for the Duchess of Cornwall's inaugural book club, The Reading Room. www.elifshafak.com.
NATALIYA DELEVA'S debut novel Four Minutes was originally published in Bulgaria (Janet 45, 2017), where the book was awarded Best Debut Novel and was shortlisted for Novel of the Year (2018). It has since been translated into German (eta Verlag, 2018), English (Open Letter Books, 2021) and Polish (Wydawnictwo EZOP, 2021). Nataliya’s second novel Arrival, written in English, is forthcoming in the UK from The Indigo Press in 2022. www.nataliyadeleva.com