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'The Island Of Missing Trees' is Elif Shafak's latest novel


The well-traveled novelist Elif Shafak once made a discovery about a well-traveled tree. She was living in the United States when she learned about the fig.

ELIF SHAFAK: When I was in Michigan, Ann Arbor, the winters were so cold, and I remember meeting Italian American families who would bury their fig trees if the winters were particularly harsh.

INSKEEP: Burial turns out to be a widespread practice. It's even been reported on NPR. People who take fig trees out of the Mediterranean work to preserve them in colder climates.

SHAFAK: And basically, what they do is they prune the branches, and then this vertical tree is gently pushed into the ground. You dig a trench in the ground, and once the tree is lying there horizontally, you cover it with organic materials, straw, like, to keep it warm. And come next spring, when the weather's warmer, you unbury the tree.

INSKEEP: Now, you can imagine a novelist would take an interest in this ritual of burial and unburial, of disappearance and rebirth. And it became part of her newest novel, "The Island Of Missing Trees." The story reflects on a divided nation on a divided island in the Mediterranean, Cyprus, where Greece and Turkey went to war in the 1970s. The main characters are a family who fled the violence to live in the U.K. Elif Shafak says it's a book she struggled to write.

SHAFAK: How do you tell the story of a divided land without yourself falling into the trap of tribalism or without yourself falling into the trap of nationalism? As a storyteller, I could never find an angle, an opening, until I found the fig tree. So this might sound weird, but I feel grateful to the fig tree because it gave me a completely different perspective, and only then I was able to sit down and start writing the novel.

INSKEEP: I want people to know that the narrator of this story, to the extent that there is one, is a fig tree, which speaks in the first person. Is this how you came to that, then? You wanted a neutral observer of it all?

SHAFAK: I wanted an observer that lives longer than human beings, you know? Trees have this, you know, longevity. They were here before us, and they will most probably be here long after we humans have disappeared - but also to think more closely about issues like, what does it mean to be rooted, uprooted and rerooted? So if you're telling the story of immigrants, people have experienced displacement, either within the island or outside. Then to think this through roots and uprootedness was an important not only metaphor but an important emotional attachment for me.

INSKEEP: One of your main characters spends his life learning about trees. He's a botanist and also, in a simpler way, just a gardener with a fig tree in his backyard. He is from Cyprus, I should tell people. He is Greek and Christian. So on one side of this divide, he fell in love with a woman who's on the other side. She is Turkish and Muslim. He spends a little bit of his time burying and digging up trees. She has devoted her life to digging up bodies. What is her story?

SHAFAK: Yeah, they are - they're very different not because they come from, you know, "opposite tribes," quote-unquote. They're different because their personalities are different. Kostas is such a gentle soul, and he cares so passionately about the suffering of animals and plants and, of course, the suffering of humans, as well. For her, though, human suffering or the injustices, you know, taking care of the wounds is essential. There is a bicommunal organization in Cyprus, and Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots are working together in this organization. And basically, they're digging the ground all across the island in order to find the bones of people who have gone missing during the troubles, during the time of ethnic violence. And the reason why they're doing this - they want to give the dead a proper burial, you know, a sense of dignity, and the families a sense of closure, a possibility for healing.

INSKEEP: Well, let's end this conversation at the beginning of the book with your youngest character. What happens at the beginning when she's in school, and what is - what are you telling me with that scene?

SHAFAK: Her name is Ada, or Ada in Turkish, which means island. She comes from, you know, a complex family background in the sense that her father is Greek Cypriot. Her mother is Turkish Cypriot. She was born and bred in the U.K. And her family has not told her much about the past because they wanted her not to be affected, you know, by the sorrows of the past. But that doesn't mean she's not curious. She senses the silences. She senses the absences. I think it's - we're living in an age in which it's not easy to be young, not easy at all. Also, it's an age that doesn't allow us to celebrate multiplicity, you know? We can't bring our own pluralism out. And many people understandably feel entrapped, almost. It's an age of uncertainty, angst, like, this existential anxiety, and it feels like there's a scream building up inside so many of us. So many people feel voiceless. So there's a moment at the beginning of the novel when Ada, in the middle of the classroom - she screams. She almost unleashes this scream that had been building up inside her.

INSKEEP: What do you mean when you say we can't express our pluralism?

SHAFAK: It's an age, I think, in which we are constantly pushed into boxes and labels. You know, when I look at myself, just to give you an example, of course, I'm an Istanbulite. I'm Turkish. And I carry Istanbul with me. I think it's very visible in my writing, my love for the city. However, I also feel attached to the Balkans. You know, put me next to a Greek author, Bosnian author, Bulgarian author - I have so much in common with them. Equally, I have elements in my soul from the Middle East. Again, put me next to a Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian author. I have so much in common with them. Equally, I call myself European, you know? - the values that I share. Over the years, I have become a Londoner, a British citizen. And despite what politicians have been telling us in the U.K. because of this Brexit saga that we're going through, I want to call myself a citizen of the world. But they are telling us that if you're a citizen of the world, it means you're a citizen of nowhere. And I reject that. So can we not think of identity not as a static, singular thread, but can we think of identity as multiple belongings, more fluid, like, concentric circles, local, regional, international and global? That's the thing that is never encouraged in this age.

INSKEEP: The latest novel by Elif Shafak is "The Island Of Missing Trees." It's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

SHAFAK: It's been such a pleasure. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.