Elif Shafak had been wanting to write about Cyprus, the partial setting of her latest book The Island of Missing Trees, for a long time, she told an audience at last week's Cambridge Literary Festival.
The British-Turkish writer had never dared approach the sensitive topic, until now.
“It’s a very emotional story. The wounds are still open and there has been a lot of hurt and pain accumulated. How do you talk about a story that has so many layers, that has so much complexity, without falling into the trap of nationalism and tribalism?” asked the writer of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, for which she was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2019.
Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkey occupied the northern part of the island in response to a coup orchestrated by an Athens-backed junta seeking to annex the island to Greece.
Partially narrated by a fig tree, Shafak’s novel is set against the backdrop of the conflict, which led to the death, displacement and disappearance of thousands of Greek and Turkish Cypriots, in the still-divided island.
Set in Nicosia and London over four decades, the story looks at "intergenerational memory and trauma".
“Identity, belonging, immigration, displacement, being uprooted and re-rooted, are all themes that are vital in this book, but it’s also the story of a fig tree and ecological consciousness,” she said at the festival.
Personifying a fig tree – one of the novel’s narrators – helped Shafak to navigate the contentious and emotionally charged subject matter, she said.
"I’d been reading about ecology for some time but, like many of us, it was the pandemic that nudged me in that direction. I felt the need to reconnect with Earth and the things around us that we take for granted."
Shafak, who lives in London, and has written 19 fiction and non-fiction books, was triggered to write the The Island of Missing Trees by her own memories of cold winters in Michigan in the US, where she used to live.
“I used to see immigrant families there that would bury their fig trees throughout the winter if it was very cold and then unbury them the next spring when it was safe,” she said.
The story is primarily a tale of forbidden love between Kostas and Defne, a Greek Christian and a Turkish Muslim, who meet in a tavern called the Happy Fig. When the couple’s feelings for one another are endangered by the warring politics of the era, they immigrate to England, taking a small cutting of a fig tree with them.
The sapling later becomes the only knowledge the couple's daughter, Ada, will ever have of a home she has never visited, as she seeks to untangle years of secrets and silence and find her place in the world.
Planting the living relic in their adopted homeland represents the importance of "roots in the metaphorical sense", said Shafak, but she said it also asks whether a tree planted elsewhere remains the same.
"When you move to another country you have to accept that a part of you is going to die to allow for renewal."
Shafak hasn’t been able to return to her native Turkey for six years for fear of arrest after Turkish prosecutors launched various investigations into her novels for "insulting Turkishness" and "crimes of obscenity".
“I do miss Istanbul," she said, "but even though I am not there, it is always with me.”