The Island of Missing Trees Elif Shafak in conversation with Nandini Nair
As I listened to a YouTube recording of a Jaipur Literature Festival 2022 session between the ever-luminous, gentle yet acutely perceptive Elif Shafak and journalist Nandini Nair, it brought out to me the rupture and agony rocking the world today. In ‘The Island of Missing Trees’, a session named after Shafak’s latest book, the bestselling, award-winning, Booker-shortlisted British-Turkish writer and human rights activist spoke of conflict, borders, memory and responsibility - with nuance, feeling and a certain calmness that reassured me that as long as we have writers and their writing, maybe the world will find a way after all.
She spoke of the Green Line that separates Greek Cyprus from Turkish Cyprus and the arbitrariness of lines that divide regions on ethnic and religious lines; she also mentioned the bicommunal organisation –the Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus (CMP) - that works towards finding those dead during the intercommunal fighting between the Turks and the Greeks during the 1960s and 1974 and excavating bones and desiccated body parts to give the dead a proper burial and restore their dignity. In my mind’s eye, I saw the horrific images freshly flashed on screens across the world from Bucha in Ukraine.
In Shafak’s book are two star-crossed lovers, a Greek Cypriot and a Turkish Cypriot, Kostas and Defne, who find their way through a furtive and forbidden teenage romance as war breaks out and their city is reduced to rubble, just as cities are being decimated in the reality that we inhabit now with the world looking on.
“The past is very much there in the present,” said Shafak and I realised with a jolt how correct that is. She reminded us about the importance of memory – it is not possible to have reconciliation and peace without memory. And “if we don’t remember, we make the same mistakes again.” Prophetic words from an astute chronicler?
At the opening of the session, Nandini Nair had referred to the acknowledgement that Shafak had written for her partner and children in Forty Rules of Love, a line that stayed with me through the recording - she had thanked them for showing her - a nomadic soul - it is possible to settle down in one place and still be free.
It is this duality that Shafak cherishes - being a nomad while being settled – both these co-exist in her. Perhaps that is how she manages to see the story from so many perspectives.
In The Island of Missing Trees, at the tavern where Kostas and Defne meet, growing through a cavity in the roof, is a fig tree. A tree that is sentinel to their happy, surreptitious meetings, a tree that stands witness when war breaks out and the lovers must tear apart and disappear. This tree, Shafak feels, is a pivot, and has a certain vantage view from one side of the border just as another tree would see a different story from the other side.
A crucial component in the book is about the burying of the fig tree. Shafak explained how she came across this mystifying botanical tradition when she was in Michigan in the US and saw Italian American families, immigrants from warmer climes, dig a trench, push their fig tree down after pruning it, and ‘unbury’ it when spring came.
To her, this burying and unburying isn’t just closely connected to Cyprus – where there are still so many stories to uncover - but also to immigrants, who come from “complicated histories”.
As she talked about the sixteen-year-old Ada Kazantzakis from her novel, who has never visited the island where her parents were born, but is desperate for answers and to unravel years of silence, Shafak said the immigrant mindset is marked by three clear strands. The first generation reels from the pain of leaving behind, the 2nd is too busy working to make a name in the land they have learnt to call their own, but it is the 3rd generation or the youngest who ask the sharpest questions on identity and want to find out about the past. It is “the youngest who live with the oldest memories”, just like Ada, who asks too many questions and is agonised by the lack of answers.
As a novelist, Shafak said, she tries to understand the perspectives of each generation. “Sharing is important as untold stories keep us apart and what we repress comes back” – a telling statement that too stayed with me.
“We live in an age when it’s not easy to be young,” felt Shafak. She said that earlier generations, those from her grandmother’s time, retained a belief that “tomorrow will be a better day... what we have lost today is that kind of faith.”
She said this existential anxiety is understandable as we stand now at the brink of losing our only home - with climate change, a still-surging pandemic, and raging inequality. AI looks to shrink jobs in the future, rendering our education of today largely rudderless.
She asked, “How can the faith be restored?” And answered it herself by saying that we needed a moment of change as we stood at these crossroads. She appealed for narratives to change, for us to care more about inequalities and not to move seamlessly to what we knew as the pre-pandemic normal. “We need to listen to young people,” she declared.
She said succinctly that we need literature because it draws attention to the periphery and not always to the centre. Imperial history and nostalgia both need to be questioned. History can no longer be myopic as women and minorities have different stories to tell than those of the aggressors and the privileged. We have to “rehumanise people who have been dehumanised”, and hence more nuanced readings of history are necessary.
On being asked about the politics in her writing, she brought up the increasingly evasive picture of a pluralistic, inclusive democracy – where books can raise questions and their writers won’t be arrested. “If you happen to be a storyteller from a broken democracy such as Turkey or Brazil (the list is getting longer), then you don’t have the luxury of being non-political…,” at least about “core issues such as women’s rights, human rights, LGBTQ rights, the loss of media freedom.”
According to her, wherever there is power imbalance, there is politics. Writers have to ask political questions and leave the answers to the readers. The art of storytelling is our guide but within a novel there is always politics.
Nandini asked about her feminist beliefs which she affirmed, mentioning the two strong female influences in her life – her mother and grandmother. Her grandma’s house, she said was “different’ – distinctly matriarchal where superstition, ritualistic belief and oral history had pride of place. She credited her mother for her love for written culture and her grandmother for her love for oral culture. Oral culture, she said, is the keeper of memories. Superstition, that forms the basis of oral culture, transcends borders – as can be seen in Cyprus itself – where Greek and Turkish, Muslim and Christian, meet at the intersection of age-old superstitious belief. As does food. Food isn’t about ownership – it is about sharing – it is “everyone’s baclava” she exclaimed and said breaking bread together can clear misunderstandings!
As the session came to a close, she spoke of language as “a space, a zone I enter into and inhale…as words live longer than us”.
She confessed writing in English wasn’t easy for her. “Being a Turkish writer is heavy and being a woman writer in Turkey is heavier.” But writing in English gave her the space and freedom she needed, though her connection with English was “cerebral” and with Turkish “emotional”.
As I left the recording on my laptop, I heard her say the language of love is both change and freedom and I prayed for love, freedom and a sea-change to conquer all.