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At JLF 2022, Elif Shafak on memory, belonging, and politics

Author Elif Shafak spoke about her latest novel The Island of Missing Trees, and how she thinks writers ought to be political

Elif Shafak, in a screenshot from a video on her YouTube Channel 
Elif Shafak, in a screenshot from a video on her YouTube Channel 

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Elif Shafak speaks like she writes — uttering the most beautiful and insightful sentences with utmost ease. Her session yesterday, on the opening day of the online edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival 2022, was testament to this.

Shafak was in conversation with culture journalist Nandini Nair of Open Magazine in a session titled ‘The Island of Missing Trees’, named after Shafak’s latest novel.

Also Read: Session with Nobel Laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah opens JLF 2022

Set in Cyprus in 1974, the book is about two young Cypriots who meet, fall in love, are separated by war before being reunited. The story takes place in the presence of a fig tree, a symbol of home, and a clipping of the tree travels with them to London, where they move to begin a new life. Set against violence and against the uprooting of lives, the story is one of belonging, of identity, and of permanence.

The conversation touched upon these themes and the author’s motivations to write on topics that might be political and polarizing. At the beginning of the session, Shafak talked of always being an outsider looking in. She said it was this feeling that made questions of belonging, and indeed of multiple belongings, important for her.

The cover of Elif Shafak's latest book
The cover of Elif Shafak's latest book

Cyprus is not an easy setting, being a land divided along religious and community lines (Christians vs Muslims, Greek Cypriots vs Turkish Cypriots). This allowed her to explore many of the questions that occupy her.

The wounds are still ripe, and “the past is very much alive,” said Shafak, making it a challenge to write this book. Yet, it is important to hold on to these memories: “We cannot repair what we don’t remember”. Shafak knows this by living in Turkey, a country with a long and rich history. Yet, it hasn’t translated to strong memories, leading to what Shafak calls the “collective amnesia” in the country. She doesn’t say this as judgement; in fact, she identifies that for countries like Turkey, which have seen so much violence and trauma, it has almost been a survival strategy to start afresh — tabula rasa, blank slate. Yet, without acknowledging the past, without telling its stories, and learning from it, people of these countries lose out on a certain emotional maturity and growth.

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There is further politics at play. Even if stories are remembered, who gets to share them? She noted that throughout history, it is the victor who gets to tell their version– but stories are not just the domain of winners. Literature, art, and oral cultures give the space to hold on to these stories and memories, said Shafak. She hopes that her work is able to bridge these gaps and tell stories of people who have been displaced by war and violence, people who are grappling with issues of identity, belonging, and language today.

Shafak grew up in her maternal grandmother’s home. She noted that her two greatest role models were her mother and her grandmother. In spite of living in deeply patriarchal surroundings, the house itself valued education and independence, she remarked. It formed the foundation of her life. Pluralism remains important for her — she wants to be able to write, question, critique, and dissent without the fear of punishment. 

Living in Turkey, Shafak has never been able to stay non-political. But, she clarifies, being political doesn’t mean being limited to party politics. “Wherever there is a power imbalance, there is politics,” she says. And writers have to be political, they have to ask political questions in their work, she said, adding that after that, they ought to “leave the answer to the readers.”

Shreemayee Das writes on entertainment, education, and relationships. She is based in Mumbai, and posts as @weepli on Instagram and Twitter.

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