‘Literature is the antidote to numbness, apathy’: Elif Shafak

Global crises like climate change or pandemics cannot be solved with the fuel of nationalism, says Turkish-British writer Elif Shafak

Published - September 11, 2021 04:00 pm IST

Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak hardly needs any introduction. Her beautifully designed books can be found everywhere, from airports to libraries. She is out now with her twelfth novel, The Island of Missing Trees, which tackles issues like colonialism, trauma, migration with as much sympathy as it reserves for the lives of trees. In this email interview, Shafak talks about love and empathy as conquering forces. Excerpts:

The word ‘love’ appears right in the first sentence of The Island of Missing Trees . You have examined love’s various aspects — personal, sexual, social, philosophical — in nearly all your novels. To ask using the words of the song, What is this thing called love that so interests you?

Love is the biggest mystery. It is how we connect as human beings, how we learn, how we become better. I need to make a distinction right away: I am not referring to possessiveness or selfishness. That has nothing to do with love, which needs freedom to breathe, equality to thrive, openness to flow. As a storyteller, I am interested in the personal, political, sexual, philosophical, social and historical aspects of love. It is a pity that we have only one word to describe an emotion so complex. The ancient Greeks had six different words, even that wasn’t enough. I believe we need new words, a new narrative, to talk about love.

In this novel, Kostas Kazantzakis is an evolutionary ecologist and botanist. What are your thoughts on 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 centre of the universe, the owners of the planet. That’s nonsense. Trees have lived longer than us. They have seen much more than us. They are more sentient than we recognise. One day we humans will disappear but trees will continue to exist. The climate crisis is the most urgent existential threat to humanity. It is happening in front of our eyes and getting worse every moment.

Yet we continue to behave as if it is someone else’s problem. We try to distance ourselves from the climate emergency either spatially (it is happening elsewhere) or temporarily (it will happen in the future). Both these attitudes are delusional. We need to wake up. We need to connect across borders. We have massive global challenges ahead: whether it is climate emergency or another pandemic or cyber terrorism, these are all global challenges and they cannot be solved with the fuel of nationalism or tribalism or isolationism.

You have handled serious social/political issues in your novels, from gender discrimination, sexual harassment, child abuse to the Armenian genocide. You have come under fire from conservative factions for speaking out against social/ political evils but that hasn’t daunted 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 am inside a novel. In daily life we are rarely allowed to be multiple, plural, even though we all contain multitudes. In the age of division and populism, mainstream narratives do not celebrate multiplicity. Just the opposite, 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 the shoes of another person. It gives us a sense of humility to understand the reality of other people. Empathy is a muscle, the more you use it the better you become at it. I believe the novel, with its diverse voices and plurality of ideas, is one of our last remaining democratic spaces.

You say in The Island of Missing Trees : “Cartography is another name for stories told by winners. For stories told by those who have lost, there isn’t one.” Does the novelist tell the stories of those who have lost?

I think novelists are not only interested in stories, but also in silences. I am always drawn to silences — the things we cannot talk about easily in our societies. I am drawn to the periphery rather than the centre. There is a part of me that wants to give more voice to the voiceless, make the invisible more visible, bring the periphery to the centre. I think at the heart of literature there is a deliberate resistance to de-humanisation — the belief that through stories we can rehumanise those who have been dehumanised. Literature is the antidote to numbness, apathy. When humans are turned into sheer numbers or abstract categories, it is easier to generalise ‘them’ as opposed to ‘us’ and it is easier not to feel anything. It is precisely this wall of numbness that the art of storytelling aims to bring down. Only when I know someone’s story I can understand that the Other is actually my brother, the Other is my sister, I am the Other.

You describe Turkey, particularly Istanbul, in loving detail 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 Istanbul was a she-city. The soul of the city is female. Even though today when you walk around, especially after dark, it is clear that urban spaces belong to men, streets belong to men, public squares belong to men, teahouses belong to men and so on. Everything is patriarchal. Misogyny is everywhere. But I want to remind women that this city is ours too, and it has always been associated with female symbols throughout social and cultural history, going all the way back to the Ottoman and Byzantine empires. Ottoman poets saw Istanbul as female. In Byzantine times it was identified with goddesses. I want to remind people of all those old literary traditions, and perceive the female energy within the city, and equally, I want women to reclaim the public space.


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