Harper's Bazaar (UK)
WORDS OF WISDOM
As her latest novel is published, Elif Shafak discusses female strength, what home means to her, and the power of storytelling to change minds and hearts
The writer Elif Shafak discusses the value of nuanced storytelling, the nostalgia of home and being a world citizen
As Elif Shafak and I wander through Holland Park’s gates early on a hot summer morning, the author compliments my cotton tiered dress that is billowing in the breeze. It’s lovely and airy, I say – it feels rather like wearing a yurt. In Shafak’s 2017 TED talk, she pointed out that the word ‘yurt’ in Turkish means ‘motherland’, as well as a tent used by nomadic tribes. ‘I like that combination,’ the elegant, ethereal writer says now. Those sea-green eyes hold a steady gaze; she is simply dressed, dark hair loosely tied back, with weighty silver rings clinking together on her fingers and thumbs. Her melodic voice is still softly accented after more than 10 years of living in London. ‘Your homeland doesn’t need to be a geographical place – it can travel with you.’
This moment is something of a microcosm of Shafak’s way of thinking and communicating. Within a few minutes, she has highlighted what words can teach us, expressed a profound sociopolitical point and, with a charming lightness of touch and vivid metaphor, made me think differently about an everyday object.
Her work has been translated into 55 languages; her 12th novel, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World, published in 2019, was Booker-shortlisted; the aforementioned TED talk has been watched more than six million times and she is currently a fellow at St Anne’s College, Oxford, and a vice-president of the Royal Society of Literature. Her luminous fiction, eloquent public speaking and fearless criticism of Turkey’s politics have won her a large, and growing, following. Because she often, sensitively, explores issues – child abuse, sexual harassment, war crimes – that Turkey would prefer to bury, the author has been forced to exile herself from her homeland, for fear of arrest after several of her books were investigated by the authorities for ‘crimes of obscenity’, and she was prosecuted on charges of ‘insulting Turkishness’.
However, all is momentarily serene when we meet in this corner of Shafak’s neighbourhood in west London. We walk together past tidal waves of blue and white bearded irises in the Kyoto Gardens, and greet an imperious peacock before sitting down to chat under an old silver birch. This feels apt, since her new novel, The Island of Missing Trees, about a Christian Greek boy and a Muslim Turkish girl who fall in forbidden love in 1974’s war-torn Cyprus, is co-narrated by a fig-tree. The chapters flash forward and back between the couple’s early days as star-crossed lovers, the early 2000s when they meet again, and to their daughter Ada’s troubled adolescence in contemporary London, as she struggles to work out her identity between cultures, amid the residual repercussions of the civil war. Throughout the book, the wise, wry arboreal figure bears witness and provides perspective on what is unravelling on both a political and personal level.
‘I wasn’t confident on how to approach this novel, until I found the fig-tree,’ Shafak says. ‘It gave me a voice to tell a story that hasn’t, in reality, ended: Cyprus’ wounds still haven’t scabbed over.’ As well as communicating with a knowledgeable hawthorn, this venerable shrub receives a variety of kind, occasionally annoying, visitors: a mothering mosquito, a gossipy bee, a painted-lady butterfly, a mouse who has just discovered Ovid and a newlywed queen ant with her ‘entourage of loyal courtiers’. All feed the tree poignant slivers of information about what on Earth the humans are up to.
Shafak’s novels are often laced with magical realism, and it’s well known that alongside her muscular understanding of the world at large (she has a PhD in political science) runs an appreciation of mysticism. Soon after she was born in France, Shafak’s parents split up; her mother brought her back to Ankara, to a conservative society where divorced women in her situation were expected to marry again, quickly. But Shafak’s grandmother intervened, insisting her daughter finish her studies, so Shafak’s girlhood was spent in her grandmother’s home, an island of female strength in a patriarchal city, and a sanctuary of spiritualism amid civil clashes outside. ‘My grandmother would be reading coffee cups, melting lead to ward off the evil eye, teaching me oral history and folk tales,’ she says, her voice full of affection. ‘I would never belittle that wisdom. There are people who have degrees and are extremely ignorant, and there are people like my grandmother who have no qualifications but are very sage. I remember sitting at the window, in this house full of magic, domestic joy and sharing, looking out at the political violence and bombs exploding in the street… I think somewhere in my work I am always trying to bridge the two.’
Her grandmother also wasn’t afraid of making fun of the orthodoxy from time to time, and showed Shafak the importance of laughter from an early age. ‘I love and respect humour,’ she says now. ‘It’s not a coincidence that in all the countries where democracy has been bruised, humour has disappeared from the public space. In life, and literature, it gives a serious issue oxygen.’
Once Shafak’s mother had graduated, she became a diplomat and they moved from country to country for the next several years. Shafak’s imagination was the only meaningful suitcase she could take with her, and it was her constant companion: she wrote stories, played with made-up friends, would apologise to the furniture for bumping into it. ‘In my head, in what I call “storyland”, I could breathe, I could be myself,’ she remembers. ‘I could be multiple. It still feels the same today.’ It’s this collision of opposites that she loves in heavy-metal music – she is a big fan, listening to the same track 70 or 80 times on loop when writing. If this seems at odds with her gentle demeanour, it shouldn’t – typecast Shafak at your peril. ‘So many emotions are packed inside the music. It’s why, particularly with gothic bands, there’s darkness, and so much light: it contains the yin and the yang,’ she says with a smile that implies she’s been making this argument for years to varying degrees of success.
Shafak is a persuasive and passionate advocate for plurality and rejecting cut-and-dried labels, because they define a person as part of a group, so they become part of an ‘us’, leading inevitably to a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’. ‘In a world of echo chambers, in which people are at their most comfortable, we are increasingly reluctant to actively tune in to an opposing perspective,’ she says. ‘This is why novels are so precious, because they are one of our last remaining spaces where we feel free, and are inclined, to step into the shoes of a completely different person for a couple of hours.’
We hear a lot about ‘the power of storytelling’ today, and it is increasingly co-opted for marketing, but Shafak’s fiction actually does change minds: she receives letters from very conservative readers saying the character they most identified with was bisexual, or gender fluid. She herself reads prolifically and widely to broaden her knowledge continually: ‘I have no time for differentiating between so-called “highbrow” and “lowbrow”. I read Rumi, crime thrillers, Virginia Woolf, cookbooks, neuroscience… they are all valuable.’
She laments the influence that identity politics has in some areas of publishing, and how if you happen to be, say, a nonWestern female writer as she is, you’re expected to stay in that lane, creating insightful, poignant stories relating to your experience. ‘Writing is transcendental, I like to step out of myself and become someone else, tell stories we might not otherwise hear,’ she says. Where is the line when it comes to cultural appropriation, I wonder. ‘This is nuanced: I don’t see it in binary terms. In my view, minority voices haven’t been heard enough, so we have to support people from disempowered backgrounds; at the same time, never close the door on the possibility that a white writer can write stories that take place in Black communities, and vice versa,’ she says. ‘If you feel it in your heart, and you take it seriously, you can write about anything and everything. I can write about a Norwegian professor – you could write about a Latin American revolutionary.’
By believing in ambiguity, in embracing what she calls ‘the dance between faith and doubt’, Shafak stands for the right to change one’s mind. When she came out as bisexual in 2017, she acknowledged that in spite of her life’s work speaking up for the LGBTQ+ communities, she had hitherto feared the stigma and ridicule she might receive by making it personal. ‘I wish I had had the courage to do it before – but I don’t put any pressure on people who are not ready to come out,’ she reflects. Indeed, in the event, she received an immediate and brutal backlash online, originating mostly from Turkey, that lasted months – but it was a storm she was ready to weather. After all, the Turkish government has repeatedly tried to effectively ‘cancel’ her through various ways and means. She and her fictional characters (who had referred to the Armenian massacre as genocide, and so were put on trial too) were eventually acquitted, but nonetheless Shafak upped sticks to London with her husband, the journalist Eyup Can and two children, to be both safe and creatively free. ‘There is a sense of loss and longing that comes from exile. You think you’ve left it behind, then suddenly you hear a song from Istanbul and feel tearful,’ she says philosophically. ‘At the same time, I do see myself as a citizen of the world. So London is my home, as a writer and as a woman.’
As we leave the park, a young woman runs over, smiles and, almost nervously, tells Shafak that her best friend loves her work and has read every book; would Shafak possibly jot down a note of encouragement for her on this creased postcard she had just scrabbled for in her rucksack? The author stops, accepts, and they talk for a few minutes. When we head off, she is visibly moved. ‘I can’t quite put into words what conversations like that mean to me,’ she says quietly, looking up. ‘I suppose something in that exchange is the essence of why I write, and will always.’ ‘The Island of Missing Trees’ by Elif Shafak (£14.99, Viking) is out now.
‘Novels are so precious because
they are one of our last remaining
spaces where we feel free to step into the shoes of a different person’