How to give a fig

Turkish-born writer and political scientist Elif Shafak says our language and our tech need democratising, and reveals why in her new book she even gives voice to a tree 

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On the day we speak about Elif Shafak’s new novel about Cyprus, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes a controversial visit to the island, calling for a two-state solution for the divided country. Most of the international community sees this as a provocative move, undermining efforts to reunify the island. Shafak is equally unimpressed.

“I have very little desire to talk about what Turkish politicians are doing because it’s such a big mess and they are driven either by ultranationalism or authoritarianism,” says the Turkish-born writer and academic, who has lived in London since 2013.

“It really breaks my heart. The island we are talking about is such a beautiful island and my heart longs to see a peaceful solution to this division and only the islanders themselves can achieve that. I don’t see a solution in Turkish politicians going there.”

“Cyprus is a place that I love but I could never dare write about it because the wounds are open, not healed.”

Turkey initially went there in 1974 – in numbers. Its invasion of Cyprus was prompted by a coup d’état that had sought to unite the island with Greece after a decade of communal violence between Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots. Tens of thousands of Greek-Cypriots were violently displaced south, Turkish-Cypriots to the north, and the island partitioned along the Green Line, which remains to this day. Only Turkey recognises the Turkish-Cypriots’ 1983 declaration of independence.

Shafak’s new novel begins during this period, when teenagers Kostas, a Greek-Cypriot, and Defne, a Turkish-Cypriot, can only conduct their forbidden love affair in a quiet corner of a lively taverna, protected by its benign pair of owners. Growing through a hole in the roof, surrounded by garlands of garlic and chilli peppers, is a fig tree.

Separated by the coup and invasion, the two meet again on the island decades later, when they visit the taverna and take a cutting from the tree, which they smuggle to London. The tree grows into the only symbol their future daughter Ada has of her heritage – and is the novel’s narrator.

Shafak wrote The Island of Missing Trees during lockdown in London but had wanted to write about Cyprus for some time.

“I think a lot about memory, about family stories, family silences – the things we cannot talk about easily in our families. Is it possible to heal together?” says Shafak, whose previous novel, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

“These are all things that are close to my heart and Cyprus is a place that I love, both the north and the south, but to be honest I could never dare because it’s a difficult story to tell and the wounds are open, not healed. Only when I was able to find the voice of the tree during this lockdown did I dare to write this story.”

It came, she says, when the pandemic emphasised to her the importance of small moments like sitting under a tree to read – “the luxury of that, the beauty of that” – and triggered a need to reconnect with nature.

Sharp but troubled, teenage Ada tries to understand why her parents talk little about their life on the island, their love and the traumas that follow. She is initially wary when an aunt she has never met visits, armed with colourful clothes she didn’t dare wear on the island and a stock of hoary proverbs that Ada – and Big Issue North – question are real. “They are,” insists Shafak, laughing. But Ada’s wariness turns into an inquisitiveness that Shafak – who was born in Strasbourg, France but raised in Turkey’s capital by her mother and grandmother after her parents split – has witnessed often.

“I do believe that inherited pain exists and I have met many people – many immigrants but also non-immigrants, people from all different backgrounds – who almost sense this void in their family’s story, and those stories and silences shake us. The past is important and memory’s our responsibility – not to get stuck in the past but to learn from the past and hopefully never make the same mistakes again.

“But I’ve met lots of immigrants’ families where with all the best intentions the first generation doesn’t want to talk about the past in order to spare the young ones from the pain and complexities of divided lands and fractured histories. The second generation is just busy, to be honest, adapting and finding their own feet, so they don’t really want to go in there. It’s the third generation, the youngest in the families, that starts digging into family stories and to them identity matters a lot. So I reconnect young people with very, very old memories.”

As a child Shafak went on to live in Spain, Jordan and Germany with her diplomat mother, before returning to Ankara to study. With a degree in international relations and a PhD in political science, she has taught in Boston, Michigan and Arizona. Shafak’s 12 novels, written in either English or Turkish, have been translated into 55 languages, winning plaudits and awards.

One of them though nearly won her three years in jail, when she was prosecuted, though acquitted, for “insulting Turkishness” by being one of the first novelists in the country to address the Armenian massacre, in The Bastard of Istanbul.

In 2019, with Shafak now in London, her Turkish publisher got a visit from officials of the government of President Erdogan, now a more authoritarian figure than when she first didn’t insult her country. In a crackdown following the failed coup attempt of 2016, they were rounding up books to be taken to the prosecutor’s office for investigation. It was part of a move, she believes, to place writers and academics in the ranks of the corrupt elite, against which Erdogan liked to believe he was leading the noble people.

She acknowledges the trend for authoritarian populists such as Erdogan, Narendra Modi in India, Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro and the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban to emerge from the ballot box rather than seizing power. Is this a weakness in modern democracies?

“This is such an important question. As you rightly point out, these people are elected and you might claim that some of them are popular. Erdogan, for example, has been in power for 18 years. Imagine, there are young people in Turkey who have never seen another leader.

“And when they came to power they came with promises of reform – liberal reforms. They weren’t authoritarian at the start. Orban wasn’t as authoritarian at the beginning. The longer they stay in power, I think, the more they feel confident to reclaim and monopolise power, and that’s very dangerous.

“Countries like Turkey show us that in order to sustain democracy the ballot box is not enough. Of course elections are very important and I respect them, but all I’m saying is in addition to elections you need checks and balances. No tech company, no political party, no individual should have absolute power. That is not a healthy thing – power really corrupts.

“As human beings we need checks and balances. We need the rule of law, free media, independent academia, women’s rights, minority rights. With all those components and the ballot box a democracy can survive. Otherwise it’s just majoritarianism. And once it’s majoritarianism in a very crude form, from there into authoritarianism is a very swift fall backwards.”

Boris Johnson’s government has sought to limit the power of judicial review of its policies, stifle the right to dissent and, notably in the words of Priti Patel, stoked up racism. Its latest move is to overhaul the Official Secrets Act to counter perceived threats to the state, potentially equating investigative journalism with spying and threatening press freedom. Shafak, whose husband is a journalist, says these are “worrisome” signs.

“When I first moved to this country I used to think British people were so calm when they talked about politics. It really struck me. Some people might call it a veneer but I don’t mind that – there was a civilised aspect to conversations, debates, a certain politeness and tranquility. But all of that disappeared to a large extent because of Brexit.

“Brexit was such a contentious and divisive issue. It really broke into pieces an already strained system. Fast forward to today and our political language is full of martial metaphors. Suddenly opponents became enemies. Judges became enemies of the people. That is a very dangerous rhetoric that we hear in authoritarian countries. We need to be very careful about that. To use these words, it’s not innocent. We need to stick to democratic norms, institutions and democratise our language. We can disagree on many issues but we cannot lose sight of the fact that we all need democracy at the end of the day.”

The fig tree’s ability in her novel to reawaken after being buried to protect it from the London winter can be seen as a metaphor for political revival and hope. Shafak believes that without hope “we will lose our minds” but it can come from talking to our fellow human beings, learning about their struggles and resilience. Gramsci had it about right, she thinks, with his “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”.

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Although she’s dismayed by politicians’ attempts to resolve what colonial Britain called “the Cyprus question”, she draws hope from the work portrayed in her novel of the Committee for Missing Persons, which brings together “Greeks and Turks, Christians and Muslims, Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots working together on the ground, in laboratories, digging to find bones, not in order to revive animosities but to give their dead together a decent burial and dignity, and the families a chance for some closure”.

A healthy opposition to authoritarian populism entails understanding that the Trumps and Bolsonaros of this world aim to divide societies into us versus them so they can thrive on the tension and hostility created. “We have to be wiser.” She stresses the need to understand other people’s stories, to acknowledge the complexity and fluidity of our identities, to resist being pushed into harmful dualities and to recognise, as did the poet Walt Whitman, that we contain multitudes. She is, after all, someone who listens to various sub-genres of heavy metal to produce “calmer fiction”, a political scientist who writes about sentient fig trees.

“Also I think we have forgotten to say we are all citizens of humankind. I might have a very strong local attachment, a huge love for the country where I come from or the culture of my ancestors – that’s very human – but at the same time be attached to the world or have international solidarity. These can go hand in hand. You don’t have to make an either-or choice. But in order to accept that we have to go back to this idea of multiple belongings rather than singular identities.”

In 2017 Theresa May famously condemned citizens of anywhere as citizens of nowhere. Shafak, like many, was left indignant.

“To be a citizen of the world in my book is the opposite – you can care about people miles and continents away, you can care about their sorrows, their stories, but most importantly you can care that we’re all interconnected. And in an age of pandemic how can we deny that? What happens in one part of the world affects the lives and livelihoods of people continents away.

“Our planet is burning, we have an urgent climate crisis, so wherever you look our problems are global and you cannot solve those with the forces of nationalism or tribalism. It’s empty rhetoric and it just breaks my heart to hear it.”

In her short non-fiction book of last year, How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division, Shafak takes aim at the polarisation of political debate on social media. And although she accepts that racism and sexism existed before social media, she says it amplified them. In the “dark tunnels of the internet”, somebody constantly watching the same thing can be radicalised, she believes.

“Tech companies have too much power. They’re not even aware of their own power. They can’t just say they’re only a platform and everyone can say just what they want. We need a conversation about this and also how do we democratise our digital spaces so there’s no discrimination, bullying and misogyny… Technology runs so fast and the legal changes are so slow there is a widening gap.”

This is evident in the UK, where the writer Laura Bates* has identified a collection of dark tunnels she calls the “manosphere”, a collection of men’s rights activists, incels, pick-up artists and the like whose sexism and misogyny filters down into casual, normalised harassment of schoolgirls by schoolboys, as identified by the Women and Equalities Select Committee. Shafak says tackling this toxic masculinity is not a zero-sum game.

“To defend women’s rights does not mean to deny men’s rights. In a society of inequalities nobody’s happy. I come from a very patriarchal country where I’ve seen how unhappy women are, how oppressed we are and silenced in so many ways. But all I’m trying to say is that in a patriarchal culture men are unhappy as well, especially young men. If you don’t conform to the prescription of masculinity it’s going to be difficult, so we are in this together.”

Even including that minority of women who are supporting far-right parties across Europe in greater numbers?

“Why would women vote for Erdogan, why would women vote for Trump? In France there are many young women voting for Marine Le Pen. It’s quite depressing. Just being a woman doesn’t make you automatically progressive, being young doesn’t automatically make you progressive.

“But once again we need to look at the root causes. I see populism as a fake answer to some very real problems, whether it’s regional discrepancies and inequalities that we’ve talked of, digital inequalities, racial inequalities, gender inequalities. This is a time when unfortunately with the pandemic inequalities are going to become even deeper. There are genuine grievances – what is fake is the belief that populism is going to solve them. What is fake is that these populist demagogues are representing the people.

“It’s just replacing one elite with another elite. We shouldn’t take that path. We have to focus on the problems. We have to focus on the fractures in our society. Again, the pandemic did not create those fractures but it exposed them, made them more visible, and this
is a crossroads for all of us. We need to have genuine conversations about inequality.”

The Island of Missing Trees is published by Viking (hardback £14.99, also available as ebook and audiobook)

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