An exclusive interview and reading of new work by the best-selling author, in association with Giorgio Armani
Across both our issues this year, we’ve worked with Giorgio Armani to publish original work from some of the most relevant writers working today. For Autumn / Winter, we present ‘In Flux’, an expansive new essay from the multi-award-winning author and issue 29 cover star Elif Shafak. She analyses sections from her recent novel The Island of Missing Trees, in turn ruminating on memory, our necessity for stories, and the precarious balance of optimism and pessimism in 2021.
To listen to her reading an excerpt, as well as exclusive conversation with guest contributor and politics editor at Gal-Dem, Moya Lothian-McLean, follow the link below or visit our Spotify channel.
Elif Shafak is an award-winning British-Turkish novelist who has published 19 books. She is a bestselling author in many countries and her work has been translated into 55 languages. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and RSL Ondaatje Prize. The Forty Rules of Love was chosen by the BBC among 100 novels that shaped our world. Shafak holds a PhD in political science and she is an honorary fellow at St Anne’s College, Oxford University. She is a Fellow and a Vice President of the Royal Society of Literature. An advocate for women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights and freedom of expression, Shafak contributes to major publications around the world and was awarded the medal of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
To celebrate Port’s 10th anniversary, we have partnered with Giorgio Armani on a two-issue Commentary special. Working with extraordinary contemporary writers to bring you timely original work, we present here, for the second instalment, a new piece of writing from Elif Shafak. The multi-award-winning British-Turkish novelist reflects on themes found in her recent novel, The Island of Missing Trees, and the turbulent times we find ourselves in
It is early morning in London. A handful of people are up and about in the public park. Runners, mostly. No one is making eye contact with anyone else. Nor am I, for that matter. The unspoken codes of urban life that we have all internalised. I wonder why we are so reluctant to make eye contact with strangers – our fellow human beings. Is it because we don’t want to see, or be seen? Perhaps they are inseparable. Like little children with a tendency to close their eyes during a game of hide-and-seek, we seem to hold onto the belief that as long as we don’t see, we probably won’t be seen.
I like to walk, early. There is a freshness to the wind. The lightest rain mists my glasses. If I were walking in Istanbul now I would have been accompanied by street cats. Bossy, dominant, beautifully independent. The real owners of the city. Instead, in London, I’m watched by squirrels. Timid, cautious, wonderfully agile. These are grey squirrels, and unlike the red ones, they can bury the nuts they have found all over the place. Experts say that squirrels resort to two basic methods to store their food. They either hoard all their nuts in one specific location, or they do the exact opposite and scatter them far and wide. While science might offer a different explanation as to the difference between these two types of behaviour, I suspect it has something to do with their personalities, or more precisely, with their levels of optimism and pessimism. My guess is that the optimists keep their bounty stacked up in one corner, trusting it will all be there upon their return. The pessimists, fearing that the world is never safe enough, that events change too fast, choose to stash their food across multiple locations. Which group lives a happier life? I cannot say.
I love waking up just before dawn when the night is at its lightest and the day at its darkest. A threshold moment. An in-between-dom. I like to imagine it as a bamboo suspension bridge dangling between two shores; that’s how it feels, this particular moment.
It is the best time of the day, if you ask me. The best time to contemplate, to read, to write – or perhaps simply to breathe in and breathe out. It is still late in the night, so your dreams have not abandoned you yet. They keep fluttering around your head like moths, and if you close your eyes, you can almost hear the sound their wings make. It is so early in the day that your worries, anxieties, aspirations, and urban life problems have not kicked in yet. There is a stillness to this hour. An existential lightness, almost. A lightness that you know won’t last for long. A fleeting, flighty, weightless thing.
I find the duality between optimism and pessimism endlessly fascinating. In my recent novel, The Island of Missing Trees, there is a fig tree at the heart of the story. Authors learn a lot from their fictional characters and I have learned so much from her (it is a female tree).
My tree, a Ficus carica, is an immigrant. Born in Cyprus, Nicosia – to this day, the only divided capital in Europe where a partition line separates Greek-Cypriots from Turkish-Cypriots, Christians from Muslims – she migrated to the UK. And that is one of the many, many fascinating things about trees. If you take a cutting from a fig tree, wrap it gently, put it in your suitcase, and immediately plant it once you have migrated to another land, provided that the weather is clement enough in this new place, it will grow and even thrive. It will be both the same tree and a totally different one.
The Ficus carica in my book is a rather pessimistic tree. She can’t help it. She doesn’t hide how she envies the optimism of others, especially butterflies:
“Of the past we left behind I remember everything. Coastlines etched in the sandy terrain like creases in a palm waiting to be read, the chorus of cicadas against the rising heat, bees buzzing over lavender fields, butterflies stretching their wings at the first promise of light… many may try, but no one does optimism better than butterflies.
People assume it’s a matter of personality, the difference between optimists and pessimists. But I believe it all comes down to an inability to forget. The greater your powers of retention, the slimmer your chances at optimism. And I’m not claiming that butterflies have no recollection of things. They have, surely. A moth can recall what it learned as a caterpillar. But me and my kind, we are afflicted with everlasting memory – and by that, I don’t mean years or decades. I mean centuries.
It is a curse, an enduring memory. When elderly Cypriot women wish ill upon someone, they don’t ask for anything blatantly bad to befall them. They don’t pray for lightning bolts, unforeseen accidents or sudden reversals of fortune. They say:
May you never be able to forget. May you go to your grave still remembering.
It is in my genes, this melancholy I can never quite shake off. Carved with an invisible knife into my arborescent skin.”
So yes, I too believe there is a strong connection between our levels of pessimism and optimism and our penchant for remembering and forgetting. The grey squirrels that I see on my morning walk in the park, therefore, might very well be divided along the same lines. The ones who scatter their food all across the place, not trusting anyone or anything, might be those with the strongest memory, and those who prefer to hide all their nuts in one nook, hoping it will be all right and the winter not too harsh, could be the ones that are inclined towards persistent amnesia.
I come from a country with a long, rich and complex history. That doesn’t mean, however, that we have a strong memory. Just the opposite, really. Turkey is a society of collective amnesia. Forgetting is the easiest thing to do. It is what you are expected to do. As such, we never learn from the past and we never come to grips with it.
History, the way it is taught at schools and repeated in the family and elsewhere, has always been his-story. The dominant historical narrative is, in general, devoid of human beings and the very few individuals that are mentioned are those in positions of power and authority. But where are the stories of women, the stories of minorities? They are never included in official historiography.
In my books, to the best of my ability and knowledge, I want to give more voice to the voiceless. I want to bring the periphery to the centre, make the invisible a little bit more visible, the unheard a bit more heard. As much as I love and treasure stories, as a storyteller, I am also interested in silences, and how they come about.
We human beings think in stories. We connect and communicate with each other in stories. And what we remember, we remember in stories. There are studies that show when we listen to a talk, let’s say at an academic conference or a public event, if most or all of the speech was based on numbers, rational analyses, statistics and facts, by the next day we will have forgotten quite an important chunk of it. But if the same presentation is conveyed through emotions and stories and personal tales, we will remember a much bigger part of the talk even weeks later. Maya Angelou, the American poet, memoirist and civil rights activist, describes this dynamic beautifully: ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’
If it is true that stories bring us together it is also true that untold stories keep us apart. Words can hurt and break as much as they can heal and unite. Words can erect the highest walls inside and around our brains. They can also build the strongest bridges between cultures, communities, continents.
Giving voice to our stories, both joyful and painful, whilst at the same time listening carefully to other people’s accounts, both joyful and painful, is a deeply transformative and quietly humbling experience. The moment we stop hearing, or the moment we stop reading diverse opinions, is also the moment we stop learning. That is how we seal our hearts.
Ours is the Age of Anxiety. An existential angst, like a mist that rises from the ground and gets denser and denser, pervading our societies and daily lives. It is the age of pessimism, you might also say. East and West, we are overwhelmed with too many negative emotions, day in and day out: Anger, worry, frustration, fear, bewilderment, confusion, and an underlying sense of helplessness in the face of unprecedented changes and uncertainties. It is as if the ground beneath our feet does not feel as solid anymore.
Until not that long ago, many people assumed that Western societies were stable and safe. It was non-Western societies that were regarded as turbulent, chaotic, unsettled, liquid-like. It was in those parts of the world, miles and continents away, that one had to worry about the future of liberal democracy, the state of women’s rights, the state of minority rights. That was the standard assumption. But today, for the most part, this dualistic way of seeing the world has been shattered to pieces. Now we understand, far more clearly than ever before, that there is no such thing as “solid lands versus liquid lands”. In truth, we are all going through liquid times, as the late philosopher and sociologist Zygmunt Bauman used to say.
History, in our imagination that is, is a clearly drawn progressive line that extends from a bygone past that is completely left behind into a yet-to-be-discovered, pristine future, in which everything will be different and somehow more fair and just. But this is true only in so far as it is a figment of our imagination. In reality, time does not proceed in a linear way. Nor does the arc of history bend towards justice. Countries do not always move forward. Generations can repeat the very mistakes that their great-grandparents had already made. Maybe it won’t be exactly the same mistake, but it could be quite similar, eerily familiar.
History can go backwards. It can even draw circles within circles.
In Storyland, where I love to spend my days, time is measured in a very different way – the clocks and calendars here are closer to the patterns and rhythms of nature. That is why, in my novel, the fig tree explains:
“Human-time is linear, a neat continuum from a past that is supposed to be over and done with towards a future deemed to be untouched, untarnished. Every day has to be a brand-new day, filled with fresh events, every love utterly different from the previous one. The human species’ appetite for novelty is insatiable and I’m not sure it does them much good.
Arboreal-time is cyclical, recurrent, perennial; the past and the future breathe within this moment, and the present does not necessarily flow in one direction; instead it draws circles within circles, like the rings you find when you cut us down.
Arboreal-time is equivalent to story-time – and, like a story, a tree does not grow in perfectly straight lines, flawless curves or exact right angles, but bends and twists and bifurcates into fantastical shapes, throwing out branches of wonder and arcs of invention.
They are incompatible, human-time and tree-time.”
We have a lot to learn from trees. Both from their mesmerising, sentient presence, and from their heart-breaking, sad absence. Despite the emergence of fascinating research and literature, especially in the last few decades, there is still so much we do not know about trees and how they constantly communicate both above and under the earth through their interconnected root systems.
We are not the owners of this planet. One day we will all disappear, but trees will still be around. They were here before us and they will probably live longer than us.
When I return from the park, I log onto the internet. A photo appears on my screen when I visit a news site. The picture is of an elderly Greek woman. Her complexion is pale, her beautiful face locked in a sorrowful expression; her hand rests lightly on her chest and behind her a wildfire continues to blaze, destroying everything in its path. The photo was taken this summer during the wildfires that consumed entire villages, forests and habitats in Turkey and Greece. Someone on social media has photoshopped this moving photograph and made it look like a painting. Strangely, stunningly, it resembles Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Everything screams in this frame – the landscape, the sky, the ground. It feels like there is a scream building up inside so many of us.
Undoubtedly, it is difficult to be optimistic in an age such as ours. And perhaps a dose of pessimism is needed to help us remain aware, present in the moment. But if and when we do not connect and look each other in the eye, when we retreat into our own atomised, isolated cocoons of existence, a type of apathy and numbness descends and the world becomes a much more divided, difficult place to navigate. Eventually, whether optimists or pessimists, we each need to become more engaged citizens, involved in civic life, speaking up for the values and principles we believe in, sharing our voices, but equally, willing to listen to the silences and the silenced.