Novelist Elif Shafak: ‘I’ve always believed in inherited pain’

The award-winning Turkish-British writer, whose new book explores love and politics in Cyprus and London, talks about generational trauma, food in exile and how heavy metal helps her write

If trees could talk, what might they tell us? “Well,” says the Turkish-British writer Elif Shafak, smiling at me over a cup of mint tea, her long hair a little damp from the rain. “They live a lot longer than us. So they see a lot more than we do. Perhaps they can help us to have a calmer, wiser angle on things.” In unison, we turn our heads towards the window. We’re both slightly anxious, I think, Shafak because she arrived for our meeting a tiny bit late, and me because this cafe in Holland Park is so noisy and crowded (we can’t sit outside because yet another violent summer squall has just blown in). A sycamore or horse chestnut-induced sense of perspective could be just what the pair of us need.

Shafak, who is sometimes described as Turkey’s most famous female writer, has a reputation for outspokenness. A fierce advocate for equality and freedom of speech, her views have brought her into conflict with the increasingly repressive government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In person, however, you get no immediate sense of this. Gentle and warm, her voice is never emphatic; she smiles with her (green) eyes as well as her mouth. And while her new novel, The Island of Missing Trees – her first since the Booker-shortlisted 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World – is certainly political, its themes to do with violence and loss, it’s also a passionate love story, one of whose most important characters just happens to be – yes – a gentle and sagacious tree.

Grown from a cutting that was smuggled from Cyprus to London by its owner, Kostas, after he and his forbidden love, Defne, left the island in search of a new beginning, it has seen it all, this little fig. It grew originally in the taverna where Kostas, a Greek Cypriot, and Defne, a Turkish Cypriot, used to meet as teenagers – a restaurant that was reduced to rubble when it was bombed in 1974 – and thanks to this, it knows everything that they’ve been through: the pain of separation, the melancholy of exile. But it also represents a physical link between past and present for their teenage daughter, Ada, who was born in London, and who, when the book begins, understands nothing of her parents’ secrets and shared trauma.

“I’ve always believed in inherited pain,” says Shafak. “It’s not scientific, perhaps, but things we cannot talk about easily within families do pass from one generation to the next, unspoken. In immigrant families, the older generation often wants to protect the younger from past sorrow, so they choose not to say much, and the second generation is too busy adapting, being part of the host country, to investigate. So it’s left to the third generation to dig into memory. I’ve met many third-generation immigrants who have older memories even than their parents. Their mothers and fathers tell them: ‘This is your home, forget about all that.’ But for them, identity matters.”

Can a person be homesick for a place they’ve never been, or knew only briefly? She believes that they can: “You carry a place in your soul, even through the stories you were not told. You can sense the void. The past matters, because it shapes us, whether we know it or not.” This kind of longing, she believes, is often triggered by food, which is one reason why her novel is full of enticing descriptions of Cypriot dishes (as you read, you may find yourself longing for a slice of sticky baclava, the “correct” recipe for which is almost as hotly contested as that of hummus). “Religions clash, but superstitions travel well across borders,” she says. “And it’s the same with food.” In the kitchen, the lives of a Greek family and a Turkish one may be very similar.

Ada’s aunt, Meryem, visiting her in London, turns every meal into a banquet, even breakfast: this is her way of controlling the world. “I was raised by women like her,” says Shafak. “For my grandmother, food was more than food. It was about bringing people together. You can solve problems around the table. You can achieve peace. Yes, there are things Meryem doesn’t know how to talk about. In some ways, she is outmoded. But she associates food with love, and to me that’s very real.”

Shafak and her mother in Ankara, Turkey.
Shafak and her mother in Ankara, Turkey. Photograph: Courtesy of Elif Shafak

She had long wanted to write about Cyprus and its troubles. “In Europe, we still have a divided capital [Nicosia, where a militarised border has since 1974 separated the Republic of Cyprus and Northern Cyprus, the latter a country recognised only by Turkey]. It’s so near geographically, and it’s part of the history of this country, too [Britain was the colonial power in Cyprus]. Yet we know so little about it, even though so many people travel there.” The question was: how to approach such contentious territory? “I just didn’t dare. It’s a wound that is still open… until, that is, I found the tree. Only then did I feel comfortable enough. She – my tree is very female – gave me a chance to look beyond tribalisms, nationalisms and other clashing certainties. She also gave me the chance to think about roots, both in a metaphorical sense, and a literal one.”

Her botanical reading, as her bibliography reveals, was extensive (Richard Mabey, Merlin Sheldrake, an academic article about the notion of “optimism” and “pessimism” in plants). In the novel, Kostas at one point buries his fig, the better to protect it from the British winter. “I’d heard that they could be buried,” says Shafak. “When I lived in Ann Arbor in Michigan, where it can be quite cold, I heard of Italian and Portuguese families doing this. I found out that it really works. You hide it safely beneath the ground for two months, and then, when the spring comes, you unbury it, and it’s a kind of miracle, because it’s alive.” Later, this unburying is mirrored by other, grimmer exhumations: those carried out by the Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus, a bicommunal organisation that continues to try to find and identify the bodies of the civil war’s disappeared.

Is she hopeful for the future of Cyprus? For all the pain in her book, Kostas’s enduring fig tree suggests that she might be. “I want to feel optimistic,” she says, softly. “The Committee on Missing Persons is so valuable. Many of those involved with it are women, and these young volunteers give me hope. But, of course, politicians are a different matter. That’s more complicated.” Right on cue, the two small children at the table next to us begin screaming like banshees.

* * *

Shafak spent the lockdown in London. Was it helpful to be able to visit Cyprus in her imagination? She shakes her head. “At the beginning of the pandemic, I read some tweets in which publishers said: this [isolation] isn’t very different for authors; they already work from home, they’re solitary anyway.” That wasn’t my experience at all. A writer isn’t immune to what’s happening in the world. People are dying. Even if you sit down at your desk, you start questioning yourself. Is this really what I should be doing? Does the perfect simile really matter? It’s existential. I was struggling with a lot of anxiety and uncertainty, and I want to honour those negative emotions. I don’t like pretending that I don’t have them.”

But still, she is no stranger to separation. She moved to London with her husband, a journalist, and two children more than a decade ago, after her novel The Bastard of Istanbul sparked a chain of events that led to a trial for “insulting Turkishness” (she was eventually acquitted, though other books of hers have since been examined by Turkish prosecutors on the grounds of “crimes of obscenity”). It’s now six years since she has felt able to visit Turkey. “I think about such things as belonging and home a lot,” she says. “But when you’re physically away from a place, it doesn’t mean you’re mentally disconnected. Sometimes, in your soul, you become even more attached emotionally. There is melancholy in being an exile – though I say this cautiously, because I’m also aware of the fact that the UK is my home, and I have a strong sense of belonging here, too.” She sighs. “This is what some politicians don’t understand, especially with this Brexit saga. You can have multiple attachments.”

A protestor in front of a poster of Shafak during a demonstration outside the court during September’s 2006 trial.
A protester in front of a poster of Shafak during a demonstration outside the court during September’s 2006 trial. Photograph: Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images

Was London the obvious place to come? “Yes, it really was. I love this country. It’s so diverse, and I don’t take that for granted, because I come from a country that has never appreciated diversity. But I’ve also seen it change. Imagine it. I became a British citizen, and a few months later, Britain left the EU. I used to think British people were so calm when they talked about politics, but that calmness has gone. Brexit broke a strained system. There are many things that worry me, and one is that the language of politics is full of martial metaphors now. This talk of judges being the enemy of the people. It makes me freeze. These are dangerous signs. I’ve met some arrogant politicians. ‘Surely you’re not comparing the UK to Turkey,’ they say. No, I’m not saying that. But what has happened elsewhere can always happen here.”

When she thinks about Turkey’s young people, she senses the possibility of change. But when she looks at President Erdoğan and his regime, she sees only a country going backwards. “When he came to power, he and his party were posing as liberal reformists. They were pro-EU. They talked about recognising the pain of the Armenians and of reconciliation with the Kurds. Then, at first gradually, and later with bewildering speed, they became more authoritarian. We have elections, but that doesn’t mean Turkey is a democracy. If you have the rule of law and a separation of powers, a diverse media and independent academia, then you have a democracy. But if those components are broken, then you don’t. It’s an ecosystem.” Erdoğan has now been in power for 18 years. An entire generation has never known any other leader.

Shafak was born in Strasbourg, in 1971; her father was studying for a PhD in philosophy in the city. But when her parents separated, she returned to Ankara with her mother, where she was brought up between the ages of five and 10 largely by her grandmother. “Divorce was unusual at the time,” she tells me. “But what was more unusual was that my grandmother, who was not educated herself, intervened so that my mother could return to university and have a career [she was later a diplomat]. Usually, young women divorcees were immediately married off to someone older because they were seen as in danger and needing someone to protect them.” Shafak had come from a world inhabited by leftist students, smoking their Gauloises in black polo necks; even to a little girl, the conservative atmosphere in Ankara was a shock. Was her grandmother religious? “She wasn’t strict. My two grandmothers were the same age and class and sect, but their interpretation of religion was very different. My paternal grandmother’s was based on fear and shame, on haram and the unblinking celestial gaze, while my maternal grandmother’s was based on love.”

Her mother never remarried, but her father and his new French wife went on to have two sons, whom Shafak did not meet until she was in her 20s. “He was very disconnected from me. I didn’t see him much. I have no photos of us together. There was an issue of anger … it took me a while to cope with that. Maybe what I found hardest was that he had been a bad, negligent person towards me, but a good father to his sons, and a good professor to his students. That was difficult, coming to terms with the idea that someone can be very good in parts of their life, and a failure in others. For a long time, I felt like the other child: the forgotten one.”

Shafak’s grandmother and great grandmother.
Shafak’s grandmother and great grandmother. Photograph: Courtesy of Elif Shafak

Was it this – the need to be seen – that drove her to be a writer? By any standards, she has had a remarkable career: the recipient of numerous awards, her bestselling books translated into dozens of languages, her Ted talks watched by millions. (She doesn’t disguise her ambition, telling me that she struggles to believe writers who insist they don’t care about awards.) “No, I started writing fiction when I was very young, not because I wanted to be an author, but because I thought life was really boring. I needed books in order to stay sane. To me, story land was much more colourful and enticing than the real world. The desire to be a writer only came in my 20s.”

What about her decision to use a different language? (The Saint of Incipient Insanities, which came out in 2004, was the first novel she wrote in English.) “I was constantly writing little pieces in English, but I kept them to myself. I had my voice in Turkish. But then there came a moment – I’d moved to America to be a professor – when I just took the plunge. It gave me such a sense of freedom. I still find it easier to express melancholy and longing in Turkish, but humour is definitely easier in English. We don’t have a word for irony in Turkish.”

It has stopped raining now, and the cafe is closing, so we go out into the fresh air. We’re heading in different directions, but she’s determined to walk me to the park gate. I notice what a good listener she is, her body angled towards mine confidingly. She is a very serious person. It’s not only that she regards it as her political duty to talk of such things as equality and diversity; she seems to relish doing so. But there’s a larky, student-ish side to her, too. Is it true that she loves heavy metal, I ask. Her gentleness seems a bit at odds with headbanging. “Oh, yes,” she says. “I’ve always loved it.” She lists several bands, none of which I’ve heard of. “I like all the sub-genres: industrial, viking…” While she’s working, she listens to the same song over and over, using headphones so her children don’t complain. Crikey. Can she concentrate? “Yes! That’s when I write best. I don’t like silence. It makes me nervous.” Somewhere in the distance, I hear the obliging roar of a motorbike.

  • The Island of Missing Trees is published by Penguin (£14.99) on 5 August. To support the Guardian and the Observer preorder your copy at Delivery charges may apply


Rachel Cooke

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