NORTH AFRICA, MIDDLE EAST AND CENTRAL ASIA

I went to see Elif Shafak speak at an event at the British Library recently, and was impressed. A political scientist and champion of minority rights as well as an author, she’s charismatic, beautiful and spoke intelligently of the need for engagement between cultures in order to challenge and break down populist stereotypes and prejudices. She also spoke thought-provokingly about our expectations of literature from other places: for example, our preconceptions mean that we might not expect, say, an Afghan woman to write a work of sci-fi.

Shafak is living in the UK, effectively in exile from her homeland of Turkey, where she remains the country’s most popular female novelist. However, by writing about controversial topics, such as the Armenian genocide, she has come into conflict with the authorities, which also apparently see her engagement in her fiction with topics such as the abuse of children as tantamount to their promotion.

Shafak previously wrote in Turkish, but several years ago began writing in English, which is obviously not her first language. Her mastery of her adopted tongue is impressive.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World, published in 2019 by Viking, follows the life of a murdered prostitute, Tequila Leila, through a series of vignettes. These are experienced in time-bending flashback as her mind is shutting down in the 10 minutes and 38 seconds after her killing.

I don’t like to give too much away in terms of storyline, but the book doesn’t shy away from tackling the various prejudices and abuses suffered by both Tequila Leila and other characters in the novel, and is polemical in preaching a worthwhile message of equality and tolerance. Sometimes, to a liberal Western reader, these points can feel a bit claw-hammered in.

The book is also a celebration of friendship, as despite her hardships, Tequila Leila has been surrounded in her life by a diverse circle of supportive companions.

Amid the often difficult subject matter is also humour, and even slapstick. This is particularly the case during the latter part of the novel, when her friends determine to ensure that Tequila Leila receives an appropriate burial. Although I enjoyed the book overall, I could imagine it might work best as a film. I’m also not wholly convinced that the concept of the book, based on the neurological processes surrounding death, entirely works.

10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World is above all a love letter to Istanbul, which is beautifully and sensuously described. The novel has, somewhat surprisingly in my opinion, been shortlisted for the 2019 Booker prize.

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