Elif Shafak’s richly evocative, elegantly crafted novel The Island of Missing Trees transports readers between 1970s Cyprus and 21st–century London in a cross-generational saga of passion, trauma, memory and renewal. Greek Cypriot Kostas and Turkish Cypriot Defne fall in love as teenagers in the divided city of Nicosia in 1974, meeting undercover in the back room of a tavern run by gay lovers Yiorgos and Yusuf, that has an ancient fig tree growing at its centre. In the near-present in north London, Kostas and 16-year-old daughter Ada are mourning Defne’s recent death, and are visited by Defne’s proverb-wielding and comfort food-laden sister Meryem, who has been estranged to them throughout Ada’s life, but was in constant touch with Defne and now wants to connect with her niece.

Both eras are bridged by the narration of a fig tree transplanted to London as a cutting from the tree in the Nicosia tavern that Kostas smuggled in among his luggage and has nurtured ever since. The (quintessentially female) tree has the wisdom of ages in her DNA, and is a magical device to measure human suffering and grief against the span of the natural world, offering insights into physical communication between and among species, the harm inflicted by humans on the natural world and each other, and the very parameters of memory and storytelling: “In real life, unlike in history books, stories come to us not in their entirety but in bits and pieces, broken segments and partial echoes, a full sentence here, a fragment there, a clue hidden in between. In life, unlike in books, we have to weave our stories out of threads as fine as the gossamer veins that run through a butterfly’s wings.” I caught up with Elif on Zoom to discuss the book’s far-reaching themes.

Mark: At the core of the novel is a story about star-crossed lovers who meet as teenagers in Cyprus in 1974 in the midst of civil war. But perhaps the strongest take-home is that the natural world is better equipped than humans to remember and react to life-changing events, understand interconnectedness, and to pass on knowledge to future generations. What can we learn from living in closer harmony with nature?

Elif: I think we can learn so much, and we have to, both because we’re losing so much by not being connected with nature, but also because there’s an urgency to it given our climate crisis, and given the fact that our only home, our only planet is being destroyed, is burning as we speak. So I think we are at a major crossroads, and this is a time for us to reconnect with nature. You can write history in a very different way, in a calmer way, if you can only see it through the ‘eyes’ of trees, or of creatures that have lived longer than us or have been rooted in this planet for a much, much longer time. We tend to think that we are the masters of this earth, that we are the most developed ones. We have a very self-centred way of seeing the world around us, and that has to change.

I certainly came away from this book thinking of trees as sentient beings in a deeper way than ever before.

There are amazing studies that left a big impact on me – of course I’m using this very cautiously – about ‘optimism’ and ‘pessimism’ in plants, for instance. But plants are much more alive than we realise, and they’re not at their core just a passive landscape for us to enjoy but not give much thought to, they are much more than that. And in order to understand this we need more studies, but primarily I think we need to slow down. Because we are consuming everything so fast, and the speed of our consumption is problematic – it’s destroying both our lives and our planet. So just to slow down and pay attention to seemingly small things might open our eyes.

And most people don’t really understand the interconnections that happen beneath the ground, that there are signals between species that warn of danger and adapt to change.

And that’s the mesmerising thing, isn’t it, because they are so interconnected, they do collaborate. Yes, sometimes they compete, but not the way we humans do, right? So again, in that respect too, especially at the time of a pandemic, I think we need to remember how interconnected we are.

Sometimes it takes generations to migrate, and in that regard it’s not the ultimate destination, but just the ability to be on the move, or the necessity of being on the move that matters in that precise moment.”

The book is also about immigration, identity and displacement, and the choices facing those who leave and those who stay – and there’s a beautiful recurring image of the generational migration of butterflies “where what mattered was not the final destination, but to be on the move, searching, changing, becoming.” Which feels like an important lesson that we should all treat life as an unpredictable journey.

Absolutely. Of course it’s easier said than done, however I think we really have so much to learn from every creature around us. The migration of butterflies made me think more carefully about what it means to belong, but also it made me think about intergenerational memory, intergenerational trauma or movement or migration, so it connects very strongly with the main themes in this book. Sometimes it takes generations to migrate, and in that regard it’s not, as you said, the ultimate destination, but just the ability to be on the move, or the necessity of being on the move that matters in that precise moment.

One of Ada’s abiding memories of her mother is a story she told of migrating butterflies mistaken by British soldiers for an approaching cloud of poison gas. The transition from cold fear to joyous relief and wonder is really uplifting. Where did you first hear that story?

I’ve come across that story in a couple of places, and also in historical accounts, but visually it stayed with me because it’s so powerful. Such young soldiers, and they’ve lost all hope. And also the extreme fatigue, the horrors of war that we mustn’t ever, ever forget. Sometimes people use the word ‘war’ so lightly – we must never, never do that. So for me visually it was such a powerful scene I just had to include it. Of course the transition from fear to hope is gorgeous, it’s beautiful, but at the same time I think it’s a chapter that says so much about the horrors of war, tribalism and violence.

Like your last novel Ten Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World, this is an exhilarating mix of science and sensuality, personal reminiscence, cultural identity and the full sweep of a human life set against the timeless natural world. Do you consider the two books to be companion novels in any way?

I really appreciate that question because of course at first glance the two stories are so different, but there are underground tunnels that connect these books like the roots of a tree. There are certain themes that are very close to my heart. At the same time, as a writer I don’t like to repeat myself, I love to discover new worlds in every book. However, maybe because I have a more interdisciplinary background – I’ve stayed in academia for long years, I love reading both fiction and non-fiction, I love learning from multiple disciplines, I’m very interested in neuroscience, natural sciences, but of course my heart beats in fiction – several disciplines seep into my work all the time, and maybe that’s visible in this book.

At what point did you begin to experiment with the fig tree as a narrator, and what lay behind that choice?

That is a crucial question for me, because to be honest I’ve wanted to write the story of Cyprus for a very long time, it was always at the back of my mind, but the wounds are so raw, they’re not healed yet, and it’s a very difficult and emotionally charged, emotionally heavy story to write. So how to approach it was the main question until I found the fig tree. And I think it was the lockdown and the pandemic that kind of pushed me in that direction and helped me to reconnect with earth, with trees. The moment I found the voice of the fig tree, then I could dare to write this story.

This is actually the second book I’ve read this year which has a tree as a narrator: Véronique Tadjo’s baobab in her Ebola novel In the Company of Men is every bit as wise as your fig tree.

Wonderful, I must definitely read it.

Defne’s experience informs her that “If we want our child to have a good future we have to cut her off from our past”whereas Kostas is optimistic that curiosity will lead Ada on the right path. I guess this is one of the critical differences in the make-up of those who stay behind and those who leave.

Absolutely. And of course it’s not easy to stay behind. I’m an immigrant myself, and I have no doubt that when you are a latecomer, outsider, immigrant, exile, whatever you want to call it, there’s a certain melancholy to it, there are fractures in your life that you can’t heal, but at the same time I have a lot of respect for people that have stayed behind and have to deal with the wounds every day. So there’s that distinction, but also I think there’s a distinction between optimism and pessimism. I would say Defne is more of a pessimist by nature, she doesn’t necessarily hope that tomorrow is going to be better. But most crucially I think many families, immigrant or not, want to spare the next generation from the sorrows of the past, so they choose not to talk about the past even while the second generation is busy adapting. But it is the third generation, the young ones, who are really curious about identity, including their ancestors’ stories, and they are the ones who are digging into family histories and family memory. So you can come across young people with really old memories. That has always amazed me as a writer.

When you are a latecomer, outsider, immigrant, exile, there are fractures in your life that you can’t heal… I have a lot of respect for people that have stayed behind and have to deal with the wounds every day.”

A second, tragic love story is interwoven through the book, between Yusuf and Yiorgos, who are doubly vilified and victimised for homosexual love across the divide. Why was it important for you to include their story?

This has always been a big part of my own journey as a bisexual writer, as an LGBTQ+ ally, but also because I come from a very patriarchal society, a homophobic society, where I know these layers of discrimination run very deep. And even among people who seem to be a little bit more ‘modern’ – I’m again using these words cautiously – a little bit more ‘liberal’, even there you can run into misogyny, homophobia, sexism. They are very deeply rooted in the culture where I come from. So these have always been important issues for me, and I see in life layers of discrimination that may not be visible at first glance but I want to make them visible, I want to bring the periphery to the centre, and as best I can I want to give more voice to people who have been left voiceless.

I should point out that there’s plenty of humour in this book too. Are all of Aunt Meryem’s proverbs and superstitions real, or are some of them made up?

All the proverbs in this book are real. We just have these incredibly surreal, funny, irrational but at the same time wise proverbs. Most of them are found in oral culture, in what we regard in Turkey as ‘women’s’ culture, and I’ve always been connected with that world. I’ve never belittled it, perhaps because I was raised by a grandmother who was a bit like Meryem, I was raised by women who were like Meryem, full of contradictions, women who thought that by offering food you can solve problems, women who are full of superstitions, full of these interesting proverbs. I know these women so well, so it came to me naturally to write about people like Meryem.

Do you have any favourite proverbs?

I can’t really choose, because it depends on the moment, but the interesting thing about proverbs is they refer to nature a lot, so there’s this connection with nature, animals, trees, but also the wisdom of centuries, you may say. They express them in a seemingly very simple way, without any wordy, floral style. I really like that. I pay a lot of attention to oral culture, and as much as I can I want to bridge written culture with oral culture.

Defne’s work for the Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus during her long separation from Kostas is part of a worldwide programme of exhumations and reparations. One of her colleagues talks about a picture of Marta Ugarte in Chile, whose body was among the disappeared who were fished out of the sea, ‘her eyes… open, looking straight into your soul.” Is that based on a real case?

Absolutely, that is real, and I wanted to honour her. Of course, she is one of the many victims of dictatorship, but at the same time a very important symbol in my eyes of the horrors of authoritarianism, what people can do to other humans, and I wanted to honour her name. I wanted to remind people, because memory is important. When we forget these people and their stories, in a way we are also punishing them. When we honour their stories, I think there’s something very rebellious in that, just swimming against the collective amnesia that’s been imposed on us. And we should never ever forget the darkest chapters of human history, so that we can achieve proper democracy. Not in order to be vindictive, not in order to be stuck in the past, but we learn so that hopefully the same things never ever happen again. In places like Chile, Argentina, also in Spain because of the Civil War, across the Middle East, in Turkey and beyond, there are all these untold stories, victims of authoritarian regimes or civil wars, and I think memory is important. That is why the exhumations are incredibly moving. This is not political work, these people just want to give dignity to the dead, but also give the families a chance for closure, to be able to bury their loved ones. I think there’s something universally important and moving in all that work. I have a lot of respect for the Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots working for the Commission on Missing Persons, they’re doing an amazingly important job.

There are exactly 2,002 recognised as missing. That sounds like a low number.

Yes, but that’s the list that they could agree on. Imagine, there are many more, but it’s difficult to come up with a common list on which both sides agree when they have different memories and there are still contentious areas. However, the fact that they could come together is very important. Also the fact there are many women volunteers working for peace and reconciliation, and many young people, men and women, from both sides, Christian and Muslim, Turkish and Greek, working together to unbury the bones and the pains of this very dark chapter in their history.

The industrial-scale hunting of songbirds, ostensibly for a traditional Cypriot dish, is a real eye-opener. Can you remind me of the numbers of native and migrating birds that are killed each year, and what steps government bodies are taking to stop the trade?

It’s just mind-blowing. The lives of millions of birds are threatened. Songbirds are being hunted indiscriminately, and the whole thing is incredibly brutal. It’s happening in a European territory and many people know about it but it’s not getting any better, just the opposite, worse. In the past you might say, well traditionally in some local cuisines songbirds are considered a delicacy, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about a massive industry, I’m talking about mafia gangs that are making profit out of this, and it’s so brutal. They choose some birds and they just throw away the other birds because it’s not profitable for them, and the birds all suffer a very painful death. So that’s why I wanted to write about all that in detail. And of course for someone like Kostas, it matters a lot. Some people might say, well why do you care about songbirds when human beings are suffering? But from Kostas’ point of view they’re inseparable, the suffering of human beings and the suffering of songbirds or animals are all part of the same destruction.

The fate of the fruit bat makes Kostas weep too. Their population is dying off due to deforestation and climate change, on top of historic culling by fruit farmers. What are the fruit bat’s prospects in Cyprus?

I have come across interesting articles, not only in Cyprus but in different parts of the world, and I use my imagination to connect the dots about how heat waves affect fruit bats. As the planet is warming up – and imagine now we are about to miss the ‘optimistic’ scenario, which was already bad enough, and we’re heading to one of the worst scenarios, in terms of +3 degrees in temperature – how is that going to affect the creatures around us? So for me the chapter on fruit bats was emotionally very moving. I didn’t know how the heat affected them, how it almost boils their brains and that’s how they die. And we need to know these things, we can’t be ignorant, because the climate crisis that we’re talking about is human-induced, we are creating this crisis, and we humans are killing these fruit bats. When we talk about bats, we talk about how awful they are, how they give us illnesses, but I wanted to change that narrative and show what we are doing to them. And also fruit bats are incredibly important for trees, for pollination, for the ecosystems, but we never think of it that way. Every animal plays an important role – just carrying away the seeds of a tree, insects do that, fruit bats do that – so when we look at an animal we also have to see the role it plays within an entire ecosystem.

We need to work harder for peace, coexistence, appreciation of diversity – these are the values that we have lost. And for that, change has to come from society itself, not top-down from populist nationalists.”

You mention the opulent resort of Varosha outside Famagusta, which was evacuated and occupied by Turkish troops after they landed on Cyprus in 1974, and has been a ghost town since they departed. Now there are plans to reopen it. What do you make of that?

I feel so sad, because this is understandably a very emotional issue for many Greek Cypriot families. They had to leave, and they left everything behind, and a solution can be found only if the islanders come together from both sides with good intentions. I do not believe that nationalist politicians can bring about any solutions. So the fact that Turkish politicians are going to the island and giving political speeches, I find very heartbreaking and negative. This is not how you solve issues. It’s the islanders who need to come together, especially the young, from both sides, but what I can tell you is that nationalism is not the answer at all.

Are you optimistic that that younger generation can lead the way to a unified Cyprus? Is that even a goal?

You know, I always feel more optimistic when I look at the young people from both sides, but when I look at the politics and politicians, I feel more pessimistic. So I wish I could tell you yes, I’m full of optimism, but that’s really difficult because nationalism isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. Religious fundamentalism, authoritarianism, this kind of crude populism, unfortunately are here to stay for a long time. We need to be aware of this, and we need to work harder for peace, coexistence, appreciation of diversity – these are the values that we have lost – and a proper democracy. And for that, change has to come from civil society, from young people, from society itself, not top-down from populist nationalists.

You write in the acknowledgements about leaving Istanbul ‘for the last time’. How long is it now since you were in Turkey, and what would it take for you to go back?

It’s been more than six years. I moved to the UK about twelve years ago, but I used to commute back and forth, and then I started to commute less over the years and more and more London and the UK became my home. Of course I’m really attached to Istanbul emotionally, I think it’s very visible in my writing that I carry the city with me, but at the same time I do know that Turkey is a very difficult country for writers, for intellectuals or poets or academics, anyone who deals with words, because there’s no freedom of speech. So anything you say or write about, whether it’s about politics or sexuality, might easily offend the authorities, and for a writer that’s an impossible environment to breathe in. So I miss my motherland, but I can’t see myself writing novels in Turkey anytime soon.

Towards the end of the book, the fig tree notes: “Throughout my long life, I have observed, again and again, this psychological pendulum that drives human nature. Every few decades they sway into a zone of unbridled optimism and insist on seeing everything through a rosy filter, only to be challenged and shaken by events and catapulted back into their habitual apathy and listless indifference.” And a little later she quotes Ovid’s maxim: “Some day this pain will be useful to you.” In the light of those thoughts, how do you suppose we will adjust to the challenges raised by Covid over the last 18 months?

Again, I really think we’re at a major crossroads. People ask, with good intentions, when are we going to go back to the way things were before? When are we going back to the normal? I don’t think we’re going back. We cannot go back, we can only build hopefully a better world, a fairer world, but for that we need to be aware of inequalities – whether it’s racial inequality, gender inequality, regional inequality, digital inequality. If in the UK so many children have almost no access to a computer, let alone online education, if children are going to bed hungry, how can that not be our main priority? But let’s also look from a broader angle. At a time of pandemic, when we need international solidarity the most, what we are witnessing is vaccine nationalism. All this tribalism, nationalism, isolationism really worries me. So we can either go in the direction of more nationalism, more populism, more tribalism, which would ruin our planet and our civilisations, or we can learn to rethink what our primary values are. Is it more profits, more greed, or do we want to create a better life, a fairer world that also appreciates the ecosystem and connects with nature? And in order to achieve that, we need to change our lifestyles. So it’s a big moment of reckoning, rethinking, and I really think we’re at a big crossroads as humanity, all across the world.

The Island of Missing Trees is visually and emotionally arresting right from the start. Has there been any TV or film interest as yet? And aside from the fig tree narrator, what might be the challenges in adapting it?

What a great question. Very few people have read it so far, but your question is important to me because I always think visually, and many of the chapters come to me as images first. Like in one of my earlier novels, The Bastard of Istanbul, the moment when a young woman is walking in the rain in Istanbul with a broken heel, it was just that image flashing in my mind and I had to chase her story. In this book as well, so many moments came to me visually first. I love cinema, and I would love to see this as a movie one day if it happens, but primarily for me as a storyteller, what I do when I’m writing is I follow the rhythm of words. So that’s a bit of a challenge, isn’t it, you want the rhythm, the cadence, the depth of words to be reflected.

The Forty Rules of Love has been optioned by Netflix. How far along is that?

They’re working on it. Of course with the pandemic things have slowed down a little bit, but I’m excited about that entire proposal and I hope it will be realised, because it’s a story that I find important, moving – and universally resonant, I hope. The reason I say this is because I have readers from very different parts of the world, from Pakistan, India, South America, across the Middle East, but also Canada, Scandinavia, who at first glance might not seem to have much in common, reading that particular book and telling me how much it’s resonated with them. Because there’s maybe something more spiritual and universal there, without any labels. I would love to share that story with a wider audience, so if it happens that would make me happy.

What are you writing next?

When I finish a novel I don’t immediately start another one. I have a pendulum, and when the book is finished it swings to the other end and then I like to just read and listen. I think writers need to be good listeners and good readers, and I like to read across the board, fiction and non-fiction, just wait for a while to hear what the universe is telling me, and then the pendulum goes back and I start writing again. So right now I’m only listening and reading.

Then I should perhaps ask what are you reading?

I just finished More Than I Love My Life by David Grossman. Before that I finished Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies, and I’m reading a book about artificial meats, lab-produced meats. My reading is very, very eclectic. I love reading political philosophy, for instance, but I also love reading cookbooks, so I also have a cookbook on Greek cuisine, Mediterranean cuisine next to me.

In that case I can definitely recommend Yasmeen Khan’s Ripe Figs, which contains lots of wonderful recipes and stories from across the Eastern Mediterranean that strike a chord with your book.

You know, I saw it and I ordered it, it hasn’t arrived yet, but definitely it’s on my mind, I’m very curious about that book, so thank you for sharing.

 

Elif Shafak is an award-winning British-Turkish novelist whose work has been translated into 54 languages. Her previous novel 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize and RSL Ondaatje Prize, longlisted for the Dublin Literary Award and chosen as Blackwell’s Book of the Year. Her other novels include The Forty Rules of Love (2009), The Bastard of Istanbul (2010), The Architect’s Apprentice (2013) and Three Daughters of Eve (2016). The Island of Missing Trees is published by Viking/Penguin in hardback, eBook and audio download.
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Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer, and a founding editor of Bookanista.
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