The room on the 5th floor of AllBright had an intimate feeling. Potted plants hung from the skylights in the ceiling and a small crowd of around two dozen chairs were pushed close together to fit the eager guests of the all-female club into the space. The close-knit atmosphere of the room was perfect for the Trouble Club’s conversation with Elif Shafak on her book, The Island of Missing Trees, a story which deals heavily with the subject of interpersonal communication, intergenerational trauma, mental health, and about the decision to stay silent about the past - or how to open up and share.
The Island of Missing Trees is the story of Cyprus, told not just through the history of the island itself, but of Cypriots who have been forced to emigrate to London. In her talk, Shafak commented on the importance of this framework for her story. Cyprus, she acknowledged, has an extremely contentious and divided history as a nation that was colonized by the British and still experiences a strong, nationalistic divide between the Turkish and the Greeks. In 1974, when a large portion of the book is set, ethnic tensions erupt into acts of political terrorism and violence. Shafak said that writing this book now was important to her, at a time when nationalistic right-wing populism has been on the rise for years. She chose to write the book across several generations and countries so that she could escape what she sees as the constraining nature of nationality, ethnicity, and other political categories people force themselves into. It is a difficult subject to tackle, and Shafak’s politics have been met with some resistance. She described how in her native Turkey, where anti-Turkish sentiment has been declared illegal by their constitution, her books were put on trial and that the plaintiff was not just her, but the fictional characters who expressed anti-Turkish sentiments.
Shafak has felt the pain of being boxed in by national identity. She explained that there’s pressure on female authors from certain countries to be its mouthpiece, and are expected to only talk about those experiences. Every time publishers hear that she, a Turkish woman, wants to publish a book, she says that they always want to put a mosque on the cover.
Political boundaries are not the only ones Shafak aims to transcend, which is part of the reason for the unusual narrative structure she employed in Island of Missing Trees. Part of the novel is narrated by a fig tree, brought from Cyprus to England by the family at the centre of the story. Shafak said that she had wanted to write about Cyprus for a while, but it wasn’t until she found the tree that she was able to find a narrative voice that could empathize with both sides of the political divide, and not be limited by the timeframe of a human life. She mentioned that she chose to have one of the novel’s protagonists be a botanist, so that she could recognize one of the other damages wrought by war: the destruction of ecosystems. Indeed, the novel’s title. The Island of Missing Trees refers to the environmental damage inflicted on Cyprus; the voices of the tree and the botanist are voices that are especially sensitive to these casualties.
Shafak ended her talk with a Q&A, and the audience eagerly engaged. One couldn’t help but notice a recurring theme: many of the audience members commented on how familiar the story felt, as they themselves had come from immigrant families. She readily acknowledged this, talking about the impact immigration has on mental health. She explained that she used the book to express patterns she’s seen in immigrant families, such as how older generations don’t have the tools to talk about their trauma; expressing emotion is often seen as weak. First generation immigrants choose not to talk about the past, trying instead to look towards the future, which often leaves their children feeling lost and untethered as they want to know more about their history. This was a dynamic which Shafak explored in the book’s characters, a Cypriot born in London and her father, who lived through the troubles in Cyprus in the 1970s. The Island of Missing Trees also explores the difficulty of choosing to leave one’s homeland, as opposed to staying and seeing out violence and danger. Leaving, commented Shafak, may keep one safe but often means that the people who leave can never truly move on, and are held back by attachment to the land they left. This contrasts to those who stay, who put themselves at risk, but are able to more easily move past the trouble that they have lived through. Shafak stressed that she wanted to draw attention to trauma and mental health among immigrants, especially as it is such a stigmatized subject.
Shafak’s ability to effortlessly connect with her audience on such a sensitive topic likely stems from care and warmth with which she treats the characters of her novel. Aside from her anti-authoritarian and globalist sentiments, it is notable that she eschews a strong political stance in favor of a more humanist examination of life under certain political conditions, which consequently allows for her work to resonate with her audience, the empathy she displays for her characters transcending the boundaries of the specific situations about which she writes.
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Edited by Maisie Allen, Literature Editor