Elif Shafak is vexing officials in Turkey again.
A brilliant writer fluent in both English and Turkish, Shafak is a difficult problem for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s repressive government. Her novels are phenomenally popular at home and abroad, and in her columns for the Guardian newspaper she speaks to a Western audience with more authority than any Turkish minister could possibly command.
She should be a source of national pride - and she is for the readers of Turkey - but her courageous advocacy for the rights of women, children and LGBTQ people raises the ire of anti-intellectual nationalists. In 2006, her second novel, “The Bastard of Istanbul,” was longlisted for Britain’s Orange Prize, but it also got her accused of “insulting Turkishness.” That case was eventually dismissed, but earlier this year, Turkish prosecutors launched an investigation of her novels going back 20 years. Among her alleged crimes: obscene depictions of sexual abuse.
For Shafak, now living in London, that’s a bitter irony. “This is a country in which we have an escalating number of cases of sexual violence against both women and children,” she told a reporter in May. “Turkish courts are not taking action, the laws have not been changed. So in a country where they need to take urgent action to deal with sexual violence, instead they’re prosecuting writers.”
Rather than cowering, Shafak is striking back in the most effective way she can. Her new novel, “10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World,” is a deeply humane story about the cruel effects of Turkey’s intolerant sexual attitudes. Better yet, it’s shortlisted for the Booker Prize, which, one hopes, will bring even more pressure on the Turkish government to stop harassing this immensely talented artist.
The opening of “10 Minutes” is grim. It’s 1990, and our heroine, Leila, is a prostitute stuffed in a dumpster on the outskirts of Istanbul: “She now realized with a sinking feeling that her heart had just stopped beating,” Shafak writes, “and her breathing had abruptly ceased, and whichever way she looked at her situation there was no denying that she was dead.”
That weirdly macabre introduction reminds me of Richard Flanagan’s first novel, “Death of a River Guide,” published 25 years ago. His story transpires in the time it takes a man trapped underwater to drown. Shafak has done Flanagan one better. Much of her story takes place during the 10 minutes and 38 seconds after Leila’s death, during that mysterious period when, as Emily Dickinson put it, “Your breath has time to straighten, / Your brain to bubble cool.” In those liminal moments, alternately lucid and surreal, Leila recalls her life, from her birth all the way to the tragic step that left her body in a dumpster.
Shafak is sympathetic to Leila’s point of view, but not constrained by it. She describes the unhappy, polygamous home where Leila’s future mother is expected to be docile and fertile. In 1947, Van - 1,000 miles from Istanbul - is a city still infused with ancient superstitions and prejudices. These people’s ignorance of the human body would be comical if it weren’t so damaging. (The town pharmacist must deal with one misguided wife who couldn’t get her husband to use condoms, so she swallowed them herself ...) Leila comes of age in a culture incapable of recognizing a young woman’s potential and, more damning, unwilling to hear her accusations of sexual abuse. Her father’s efforts to rein in Leila’s undisciplined behavior only leads to more intolerable treatment until she finally flees to the capital with nothing.
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These early sections of the novel are a heartbreaking portrayal of the way misogynist social and religious attitudes conspire to crush a girl’s spirit. Shafak demonstrates with piercing insight how young Muslim women in Turkey are caught between religious ideals of purity and male fantasies of debasement. Running away from home to avoid further abuse, Leila inevitably falls into the very dangers her father imagined he was saving her from. The result is a scathing critique of a culture that pretends to protect the honor of women but casts them off with fierce enthusiasm.
That bleak plotline, though, is repeatedly interrupted by short anecdotes of kindness, countervailing moments of friendship between Leila and other outcasts. A trans woman, a shy boy, a prostitute from Africa: Shafak introduces these reviled people and others until they constitute Leila’s “water family,” as opposed to the “blood family” that rejected her. This community of radical loyalty exists outside the officially pious culture of Turkey in the penumbra of its sexual hypocrisy.
With Leila’s fate sealed on the opening page, “10 Minutes” would seem to offer little suspense, but Shafak is a master of captivating moments that provide a sprawling and intimate vision of Istanbul, “a city of scars.” Although we know from the start that Leila is dead, the novel brings us back to her demise only after we’re fully invested in her difficult life, hoping against hope that her fate might somehow be recast. And, in a way, it is.
What’s most surprising, though, is the novel’s bright humor, even, at times, its zaniness: (BEGIN ITAL)Weekend at Byzantine Bernie’s!(END ITAL) That could seem jarringly inappropriate from anybody else, but Shafak writes with a kind of tenderness that embraces the divine comedy of these poor souls. Ultimately, “10 Minutes” isn’t really about death, but the persistence of love. Without ever losing her grip on the tragedy of Leila’s experience - and the experiences of so many Turkish women like her - Shafak celebrates her brave, compassionate life.
In that way, this is a novel determined to pay attention to the most alienated, those people discarded in Istanbul’s Cemetery of the Companionless. Leila’s ragtag friends, scorned and mocked by polite society, can’t possibly triumph over the forces of religious and political corruption, but they - and Shafak - manage to create something truly subversive: a community of devotion beyond the reach of state or mosque.