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30 September 2020

Elif Shafak’s Diary: Cutting my own hair, what bonsai trees tell us about the world, and the dark side of digital

As much as I have missed live festivals, there are things about holding digital events during the Covid crisis that I have found incredibly valuable. 

By Elif Shafak

Early in the week, I have an important Zoom event in less than 15 minutes, but I am in a shop, wearing a face mask, trying urgently to buy a bonsai tree. Why it is so crucial to obtain a miniature plant right now, I have no idea. All I know is that I have become obsessed with the ancient horticultural practice during the long months of lockdown, and now continue to read about trees and shrubs and everything in between.

They are not genetically dwarfed, these fascinating arborescent mysteries. Nor are they a separate species of their own. Any tree can be made into a bonsai, in fact. I have read that the word in Japanese means “planted in a shallow container”. And I find something in this definition that deftly encapsulates what is happening to our shrinking democracies, endangered freedom of speech and restricted public involvement in decision-making. Maybe the bonsai says a lot about the times we are living through.

Telling our stories

The next day, we’re filming for Ted Countdown, a great global initiative to increase awareness about the climate crisis, and support and accelerate good ideas and solutions to shift more rapidly to net-zero greenhouse emissions (basically, turn words into actions). The film-maker and I meet in London – the rest of the team and the curators are in Switzerland, New York and Washington, DC – and together we manage to work in beautiful, respectful harmony. I share in this video a question that has been troubling me as a novelist, a storyteller: “How do we tell the stories of nature and humanity at a time when our planet is burning, our politics is in shambles, and there is no  precedent for what we are about to experience collectively – whether it is social, cultural or ecological?”

Power of the festival

I have missed literary festivals. I’ve missed being on stage with fellow writers; discovering, learning and listening; having nuanced conversations about issues close to our hearts, focusing on books, meeting readers from all backgrounds, and together celebrating empathy, wisdom, diversity, inclusion and pluralism. Literary festivals, I am more and more convinced, are among our last remaining democratic spaces.

As much as I have missed live festivals, there are things about holding digital events during the Covid crisis that I find incredibly valuable. Maybe in a strange way they make us a bit more humble, more appreciative. When we do events from the privacy of our homes – knowing that at any moment a baby or a guest can enter the screen or the dog can start barking or the internet might cut off or the telephone might ring – and still manage to talk and listen to each other, connecting with people from various corners of the world who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend, we understand better both our vulnerability and our resilience as human beings.

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Threats to democracy

So, I carry on doing my events digitally. Midweek, I do an event with Liberty – the important and much-needed advocacy group and organisation that campaigns to challenge injustice and discrimination and protects civil liberties. After powerful words by director Martha Spurrier, Professor Sarah Churchwell and I begin our conversation. Together we analyse the threats to democracy, including what’s going on in Turkey, Brazil, Hungary and Belarus (it is the day the EU reiterates that the presidential elections in Belarus were neither free nor fair), the rise of populist demagogues, and the escalating tension and the demise of the rule of law in the US. Those of us who come from wounded countries, such as Brazil, the Philippines, Hungary, Turkey and Belarus, have been watching the run-up to the US election with a chilling sense of déjà vu.

On 1 October I am in conversation with the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Ken Roth, whose work I deeply respect. From the dark side of digital technologies and surveillance capitalism, to Hong Kong pro-democracy protestors, to the genocide of Uighurs in China, there is a lot we will be covering. I am looking forward to speaking at the Royal Society of Literature’s Banned Books Week, which brings together writers, journalists and activists. Many people tend to think that the days of books being thrust into flames and libraries being razed down are over, but if there is anything our strange times have revealed it is that history does not always move forwards and none of us can take our liberties for granted. We have entered an age in which we all need to become more engaged, involved citizens.

Cutting words

In the morning I cut my hair. This has nothing to do with the pandemic measures. I have always cut my own hair. I realised that when I sometimes, though hardly ever, go to a hairdresser, I put them in unnecessary distress. Once, a hairdresser was so upset at me she kept holding up my badly trimmed hair, asking, “How could you do this? Why did you do this?” I tried to explain to her, as politely as I could, that it was nothing personal, that I didn’t mean to offend her, that I respected her profession, it was just that  I had this weird habit. But she kept saying, “I’ll kill you if you cut your hair again” – which I found a bit disproportionate, given that it was my own hair that I was ruining. Since that traumatic encounter I stopped visiting hairdressers altogether. But I know how much they have suffered from the crisis, so I need to go back someday soon to show my respect and solidarity.

Travelling tree

The bonsai, meanwhile, travels with me. While I read and write, it sits on my desk next to the coffee mug. When I take our dog out to the park, I tuck the bonsai inside a tote bag and thus we walk. In my dreams these days I see uprooted forests, gently floating in the wind, migrating freely over borders and barbed wire fences. 

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This article appears in the 30 Sep 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the Union