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  • Elif Shafak, author of the acclaimed The Bastard of Istanbul and The Forty Rules of Love, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for her 2019 novel 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in This Strange World. The Turkish-British writer joins us to talk about her latest novel, The Island of Missing Trees, a story of forbidden love set in Cyprus and Britain, and tells me why more men should read fiction.

Elif Shafak

On the second episode of the World Economic Forum Book Club Podcast, we're joined by Turkish-British author Elif Shafak.

Elif was first featured in the Book Club in 2018, with her book Three Daughters of Eve. She joins us to discuss her latest novel, The Island of Missing Trees: a tender love story focused on two people from very different worlds who fall in love. She also takes questions posed by some of our 200,000 Book Club members.

I first asked Elif about one of the biggest ideas in her book: intergenerational trauma and inherited pain.

Elif Shafak: This book taught me a lot, especially writing about the character Ada - the name in Turkish means silence. She is the daughter of a Greek Cypriot father and a Turkish Cypriot mother. Born and bred in the UK, she's very British. But at the same time, she is very much aware of the absences or the silences within the family. The things that she is not being informed about.

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak.
The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak.

I think many people feel the presence of those silences, even if they might not have the knowledge of the past. To be honest, I'm very interested in these generational differences. I think the first generation, especially in families that come from complex backgrounds, are the ones who have experienced perhaps the biggest hardships, the traumas, but they don't necessarily have a language or an outlet. They don't know how to talk about these things.

The second generation, especially if there has been a displacement, they are busy reorienting themselves, building a new life, finding their feet, adopting and therefore they're not interested in the past at all. They don't want to go back or look back. And it's usually the third or fourth generations, which means the youngest in the families, who are asking the strongest questions about identity, their ancestors' journeys, where they came from. So young people who are keen to grasp these old memories, and that to me is very interesting, and it's the pattern that I observe all across the world.

And it's not easy to be young in a world such as ours. I think this is a time of anxiety. There's a lot of existential angst. Also, we're living in a world that doesn't allow us to be multiple, that doesn't allow us to celebrate our own pluralism. All of that adds to the existential angst that we're carrying, especially if you happen to come from a more complicated background. So I think sometimes I feel like there's a screen building up inside many people all around the world today.

Beatrice: I very much feel this. My father is Italian and my mother is British and French, and I was raised in Hong Kong, so I can completely relate to feeling like an outsider. This sense of displacement for many second generation immigrants around the world is becoming an ever-growing subject, which I guess leads me to my next question. Do you feel a social responsibility when writing your books? Do you feel there are certain topics you really want to bring up?

Elif: I think as writers coming from wounded countries or wounded democracies, I should say, we don't have the luxury of being apolitical. We don't have the luxury of saying, you know, I don't want to talk about what's happening outside the window. I only want to talk about my own stories, my own imagination. When so much is happening outside the window, you need to speak out and speak out.

Also, I am a feminist and one of the many wonderful things that I have learned from past generations of feminist movements is that politics is not only about what the prime minister might have said or what political parties have done today, it's more than that. It's much more subtle and complex and diffused than that.

So wherever there is power, there's politics. The personal is also political. You might be writing about sexuality or gender violence or things like marriage and heartbreak. That too can be quite political actually. There is politics in fiction. And I think we need to understand that. And we are in an age in which all of us need to be more engaged, more involved citizens. But when I say politics, I'm not talking about partisan politics. I'm not even referring to party politics, just about core issues like rule of law, freedom of speech, separation of powers, women's rights, LGBTQ+ rights, minority rights. There are these core issues that I think we all need to speak up about. In that regard, I don't think authors can be silenced.

Beatrice: Many people turn to current affairs or news to help them understand the world around them. But do you think fiction can do that job too?

Elif: Absolutely. And I believe more male readers should be reading fiction. Sometimes when readers, usually it's male readers, say: 'I'm sorry, I don't read fiction because so much is happening in the world, I want to understand so I follow finance and technology and the latest developments, maybe in neuroscience or politics, in the refugee crisis - what's going on? I need to understand - and therefore, I don't have time for fiction. My wife reads fiction, my girlfriend reads fiction'. And when I hear that, I really feel sad.

The way we compartmentalise knowledge is quite problematic and it doesn't help us. It doesn't do us any good. Inside fiction, there is everything. Inside a novel, there is politics, there's technology, there's psychology, philosophy, there's neuroscience, and there's so much more. But perhaps most importantly, there's emotional intelligence and there's empathy. And I don't know a single person in this world who doesn't need emotional intelligence.

You might be very good at what you're doing, but if you don't nurture your emotional intelligence, you will run into lots of problems when it comes to expressing your own emotions or making connections with the people around you - you know, healthy relationships. Also, I don't know a single person in this world who doesn't need empathy, whether we are dentists, working in the world of technology, students, teachers, artists: we all need emotional intelligence. We all need empathy.

So fiction particularly opens up a different part of our brain, and it helps us to put ourselves in the shoes of another person for a few hours, for a few days. That is a very good humbling exercise for the human mind and the human soul. It's good because it gives us a cognitive flexibility that we might not otherwise get. So all I'm trying to say is: I think it's healthier to read across the board. Let's read fiction and non-fiction, but let's not read always from within our comfort zone, the same type of books again and again, rather than, I think, multidisciplinary reading, eclectic reading lists, that cover both fiction and non-fiction, that is when we learn the best.

Beatrice: Feminism is something that is so important to you. You've spoken recently about the role it could play in helping us overcome polarizations of all kinds and help foster co-operation. But how can respect for women's rights help bring about this better world?

Elif: We need to recognize the importance, the gravity of the issue because sometimes people think: 'You need to worry about women's rights, maybe in Afghanistan, need to worry about women's rights in some countries far away, but not necessarily across the Western world or Western capitals'. That dualistic way of seeing the world is so problematic.

In the last years, we have seen more and more how fragile our democracies are. In fact, democracies are a very delicate eco-system of checks and balances. It's not a medal that once you earn, you can put it up on the wall and take it for granted. We have to nurture it. We have to worry about its future. And I think the ballot box in itself is not enough to sustain a democracy.

We need democratic institutions, norms, human rights and women's rights in order to sustain a democracy. The opposite is also true, I think when a democracy is lost, when countries start to slide backwards, the first things that will be taken away are women's rights and minority rights. So as women, we have to become more passionate defenders of pluralistic democracy, where there is more equality, more inclusion, where people from all walks of life can feel like their voices are being heard. At a time like this, I believe we need a global sisterhood.

We need more international connectivity. But also the kind of feminism that I long for is one that opens up conversations rather than retreat us into tribes. I'm longing for a more intersectional feminism, that is also aware of those glass walls that separate us or the gaps that separate us when it comes to race, racial inequality, ethnic, digitalization, regional differences, and class differences - another big issue that we never talk about. So being aware of intersectional inequalities.

At the same time, the kind of feminism that goes hand-in-hand with LGBTQ rights and at the same time invites and connects with men's grievances and stories, especially the reason why I say this is because I come from a very patriarchal country, which is taught to me. But of course, under patriarchy, it's not easy to be a woman. Not at all. But it's not easy to be a young man, either, you know, especially if you don't conform to given descriptions of masculinity. As a young man, your life can be quite difficult. So we need to collaborate. We need to work together. It's not a zero-sum game. We need to understand that a system that is based on the oppression of one group of people at the expense of others' privilege won't make anyone happy in the long run. I don't like these dualistic formulations, but I want a women's movement that opens up and brings people on board and that appreciates diversity. And I think it is a crucial moment for us to believe in this and to push this forward.

DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 22JAN16 - Elif Shafak, Author, Turkey speaks during the session 'Violent Extremism: From Global Threat to Local Solution' at the Annual Meeting 2016 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 22, 2016.  WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM/swiss-image.ch/Photo Valeriano Di Domenico
Elif Shafak at the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting 2016 in Davos, Switzerland.
Image: swiss-image.ch

Bea: These are such massive issues, democratic erosion is one side of it, but the environmental crisis is also a huge challenge. And for so many, it can be very overwhelming. How do we keep focus and how can people motivate themselves to do what needs to be done?

Elif: One thing we need to be very much aware of is the danger of apathy, a dangerous numbness. We can talk about lots of different emotions that we're all struggling with. Sometimes we feel angry, frustrated, anxious. And it's quite normal. It's very human because there's so much uncertainty right now. And this is the first time in a long, long time when it feels like we're not sure whether tomorrow will be better than yesterday. At a time like this, we struggle with anxiety.

But if there's one emotion that really scares me, it is the lack of all emotions. Numbness. The moment we become almost frozen inside, the moment we stop caring. Apathy is so dangerous because it gives us this notion, this feeling of helplessness with a climate crisis that is so huge. What can I do as an individual? You know: 'I'm just a human being, just the person. I feel bad for the refugee crisis. I feel bad for lots of things. But what can I do?'

That kind of helplessness of millions and millions and millions of people creates a climate of apathy which is the most dangerous thing. We need to understand that there's a lot we can do together if we connect, if we raise our voices, connecting with nature, understanding that we need to reorder our values and priorities. And this is a crucial moment. It's the time of reckoning. The pandemic has shown us: what do we want in life? Do we want constantly more money, more profits, more greed, more hate? Or is that, actually, the immaterial things in life that we realise that matter so much, like love, like family, life, friendship, sisterhood? Just sitting under a tree reading a book, things that you can't turn into numbers.

It is a crucial moment for us to realize, we are not the centre of this Earth. We're not the owners of this planet. We're just part of the ecosystem. And when we are destroying the ecosystem, we're destroying life. I think it's a time for humility, but it's also a time to reorder our values and priorities. And for that, we need to connect with nature.

Beatrice: The pandemic is also such an impactful event for many people, and I think some people had the impression that as a writer, you were probably very happy sitting indoors and getting your work done. Were you happy lockdown and writing during the pandemic? Is that an accurate picture?

Elif: Not at all. My experience is quite the opposite. We're all human beings. We are not disconnected from the world we're living in. And when people are dying in the thousands and when there is so much suffering, of course, that affects you.

As a writer you ask yourself: 'What am I doing? Is this the right thing? Does it really matter if I find the perfect synonym?' You go through lots of existential turbulence like everyone else and you feel the need to reconnect. I wrote a little manifesto called How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division that was, in a way, my answer to all the negative emotions that I was dealing with, from anxiety, frustration and confusion. But it helps.

I think we should be able to talk about these things. We need to understand that a little bit of pessimism is actually not a bad thing. I have a positive view on pessimism. But of course, too much criticism cools us down, so we need a bit of optimism as well. So where do we find this? That manifesto talks about both the need for pessimism and the need for optimism at a moment like this.

Bea: So are you hopeful about our future?

Elif: I think it's very difficult to be completely hopeful or too optimistic, and maybe it's not necessary to be too optimistic all the time. There was extreme optimism in early 2000s, late 1990s, and it also brought a sense of complacency because people thought, thanks to the proliferation of digital technologies, we were going to see democracy everywhere. That if you spread information, people would become informed citizens and as informed citizens they would always make the right choices. There was this extreme confidence and optimism, particularly about technology.

Fast forward, I think we've entered the age of pessimism. So I think that none of them are healthy. But rather than that, I would rather be a little bit more pessimistic in my analysis because that's the kind of time we're living in.

But we also need hope, and for hope we need to connect. When I hear your story, when someone else hears my story or the stories that we imagine, they're all contributing. If you take arts and culture and literature away, I think people become more and more polarized. And already we live in a world in which empathy levels are very low. Imagine those going even lower. That's kind of world would be a much harder, darker place to live in.

I'd make a distinction between 'information', 'knowledge' and 'wisdom'. I think we're living in a world in which we are bombarded by information. There is too much information, but very little knowledge and even less wisdom. And I think we need to change this ratio. Let's deal with less information because the truth is we don't process it. It doesn't stay with us. We don't absorb it. We just scroll up and down.

Let's spend more time building up our knowledge, and hopefully wisdom. For knowledge, we need books. We need to slow down. We need to nurture our inner garden. We need to become better listeners. And hopefully for wisdom, we need to bring the mind and the heart together. For that, we need empathy and emotional intelligence. It is an important time to change our focus and our priorities. And for that, I think books are incredibly important.

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