Global crises like climate change or pandemics cannot be solved with the fuel of nationalism, says Turkish-British writer Elif Shafak
Elif Shafak hardly needs any introduction. His beautifully designed books can be found everywhere, from airports to libraries. She is now coming out with her twelfth novel, The island of lost trees, which tackles issues such as colonialism, trauma, migration with as much sympathy as it reserves for the life of trees. In this email interview, Shafak talks about love and empathy as conquering forces. Excerpts:
The word “love” appears in the first sentence of The island of missing trees. You have examined the various aspects of love – personal, sexual, social, philosophical – in almost all of your novels. To ask using the lyrics of the song, what is this thing called love that interests you so much?
Love is the greatest mystery. It’s how we connect as human beings, how we learn, how we become better. I have to make a distinction right away: I’m not talking about possessiveness or selfishness. It has nothing to do with love, which needs freedom to breathe, equality to flourish, openness to flow. As a storyteller, I am interested in the personal, political, sexual, philosophical, social and historical aspects of love. It’s a shame that we only have one word to describe such a complex emotion. The ancient Greeks had six different words, even that was not enough. I think we need new words, a new story, to talk about love.
In this novel, Kostas Kazantzakis is an evolutionary ecologist and botanist. What do you think of the climate crisis?
Kostas is not only a scientist, someone who has dedicated his life to plants, he is also a compassionate and gentle soul who
understands how we cannot exist if we continue to destroy our ecosystems. We have become so arrogant, we think we are the center of the universe, the owners of the planet. It’s absurd. Trees have lived longer than us. They have seen more than us. They are more sensitive than you think. One day we humans will disappear, but the trees will continue to exist. The climate crisis is the most urgent existential threat to humanity. It is happening before our eyes and is getting worse every moment.
Yet we continue to behave like it’s someone else’s problem. We are trying to move away from the climate emergency either spatially (it is happening elsewhere) or temporarily (it will happen in the future). These two attitudes are illusory. We have to wake up. We need to connect across borders. We have huge global challenges ahead: whether it is a climate emergency or another pandemic or cyberterrorism, these are all global challenges and they cannot be solved with the fuel of nationalism, tribalism or isolationism.
You have dealt with serious social / political issues in your novels, from sex discrimination, sexual harassment, child abuse to the Armenian genocide. You’ve been criticized by conservative factions for speaking out on social / political evils, but that hasn’t intimidated you. What keeps you going?
I love the art of storytelling. This is how I breathe. This is how I connect with the world around me, with my fellow human beings, with my own heart. I feel free when I’m in a novel. In everyday life, we are rarely allowed to be multiple, plural, even if we all contain multitudes. In the age of division and populism, mainstream narratives do not celebrate multiplicity. Rather, they divide us into boxes and expect us to stay there once and for all. But through stories we become intellectual nomads, learn to put ourselves in another person’s shoes. It gives us a sense of humility to understand the reality of others. Empathy is a muscle, the more you use it the better you master it. I believe that the novel, with its diverse voices and its plurality of ideas, is one of our last democratic spaces.
You say in The island of missing trees: “Mapping is another name for the stories told by the winners. For the stories told by those who lost, there are none. Does the novelist tell the stories of those who have lost?
I think novelists are not only interested in stories, but also silences. I’m always drawn to silences – things we can’t easily talk about in our societies. I am drawn to the periphery rather than the center. There is a part of me that wants to give more voice to the voiceless, to make the invisible more visible, to bring the periphery back to the center. I think at the heart of literature there is a deliberate resistance to dehumanization – the belief that through stories we can rehumanize those who have been dehumanized. Literature is the antidote to numbness, to apathy. When humans are transformed into pure numbers or abstract categories, it is easier to generalize “them” as opposed to “us” and it is easier to feel nothing. It is precisely this wall of numbness that the art of storytelling aims to break down. It is only when I know someone’s story that I can understand that the Other is in fact my brother, the Other is my sister, I am the Other.
You describe Turkey, especially Istanbul, with love in your novels. In your last novel, 10 minutes 38 seconds in this strange world, you call Istanbul a “she-city”. Why?
I have always believed that Istanbul was a city of women. The soul of the city is feminine. Even if today, when we walk, especially after dark, it is clear that urban spaces belong to men, streets belong to men, public places belong to men, tearooms belong to men. , etc. Everything is patriarchal. Misogyny is everywhere. But I want to remind women that this city is also ours and that it has always been associated with feminine symbols throughout social and cultural history, dating back to the Ottoman and Byzantine empires. Ottoman poets considered Istanbul to be a woman. In Byzantine times, he was identified with the goddesses. I want to remind people of all those old literary traditions, and to perceive the feminine energy within the city, and also, I want women to reclaim public space.