Elif Shafak, the Turkish-British author who has written twelve novels, was this year’s Golding Speaker at the first large event of Marlborough LitFest 2021 on Friday Oct 1. Speaking online to a large audience in Marlborough Town Hall as well as an audience watching online at home, she talked about her latest novel, ‘The Island of Missing Trees’, what it means to be a novelist in such an uncertain world and her interest in the forgotten voices of history – the silences, the stories that have not been told and not included in the official version of a country’s history. “I want to bring the periphery to the centre and give a voice to those who have been marginalised.”
This theme of unburying the past and those voices who have not been heard runs through ‘The Island of Missing Trees’. Set in a divided Cyprus, the novel’s main characters are on opposite sides. He is Greek Christian; she is Turkish Muslim. And like most of her novels, the plot is based in two countries – the UK and Cyprus.
“Not many people in the UK are aware of the complexity of Cyprus and its divide. There are so many untold stories…I’m attracted to forgotten voices whose stories have not been written down… The partition line cuts across Cyprus so there is forbidden love between the two main characters. The characters settle in the UK but carry their bruises and scars with them. The question is then how much do they tell their daughter of their history. Silences also shape us. We feel their absences.”
Having lived all over the world Shafak is aware of multiple belongings and explores this in her novels. “Identity isn’t a singular concept,”she says. “I’m a citizen of the world and have a sense of belonging to multiple places. There’s also a melancholy attached to being an immigrant – a sense of longing and loss comes with you. However, I want to celebrate multiplicity in ourselves and in our societies and I’m interested in things that can travel across borders such as faith, food and superstitions.”
“We are,” says Shafak, “living through liquid times and we need to be engaged as citizens in order to keep our democracies alive. Democracy is a fragile, delicate eco system and we need to care for it and nourish it. History can go backwards.”
Writing, she believes, is a way of staying sane in an age of division. “If I didn’t write I would go mad. Literature has to become analysis during an event not after it. Literature is not only about telling your story but the ability to go beyond the self that you’ve been given at birth. I need to face what I don’t know, my own ignorance and remedy it through reading, research and listening – what people are telling me and how they are telling it. Then, with more knowledge it is possible to move forward.”
Shafak challenges us all, through her novels, to move forward and to reassess our priorities and sense of identity and belonging.