NORTH AFRICA, MIDDLE EAST AND CENTRAL ASIA
This is a bit of a throwback post, as some of it was first posted by me in 2019, and was in fact my fifth ever review on the blog. I’m re-posting with some additional discussion of publication prospects in the West for Turkish authors, as part of my month of Turkish cultural appreciation.
Translator from the Turkish Nicholas Glastonbury, writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books in May 2021, noted that “In various conversations with translators, agents, and colleagues, publishers often articulate that they have informal quotas for writers beyond Europe (e.g., ‘We already have a Turkish author’)”. Elif Shafak of course is “the” Turkish female writer read most widely in the UK and other Western nations, fairly or not.
Shafak is living effectively in exile from her homeland: by writing about controversial topics, such as the Armenian genocide, she came 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.
Since settling in the UK and starting to write novels in English (which are then translated into Turkish for readers from her home country), she has appeared on a number of prestigious UK-based prize lists, including the Booker shortlist, and she has made it onto the recently announced 2021 Costa longlist for best novel for her latest release, The Island of Missing Trees. Her mastery of English is impressive.
I went to see Elif Shafak speak at an event at the British Library in London in mid-2019, and was impressed. A political scientist and champion of minority rights as well as an author, she’s extremely personable 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.
Interestingly, in light of this remark, Glastonbury pointed out in his 2021 article that UK and US publishers often have unstated criteria in mind when considering whether to publish a Turkish novelist: a reason for rejection might often be down to the fact that a manuscript “did not play into the predominant scripts that the World Literary Market has set for Turkish writing: if there’s no ‘East meets West’, no ‘tradition meets modernity'”, then it doesn’t fit the mould.
Shafak’s Booker-shortlisted 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.
There is certainly a “tradition vs modernity” storyline here. The daughter of successful tailor Haroun, Leila rapidly finds that her life is hugely restricted, and largely predetermined by traditional and familial codes. The book traces her path from child to sex worker, and doesn’t shy away from tackling the various prejudices and abuses suffered by both Tequila Leila and other characters in the novel. Indeed, the book is polemical in preaching a worthwhile message of equality and tolerance, and in challenging patriarchal societal norms. Sometimes, to a liberal Western reader, these points can feel a bit claw-hammered in.
Shafak writes in sensuous, evocative prose, even when describing scenes that are far from beautiful:
“The curtains, tattered and faded from the sun, were the colour of sliced watermelon – and those black dots that resembled seeds were, in fact, cigarette burns.”
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. These friends, like Leila, live on the margins of society: Sabotage Sinan is her childhood best friend; Jameelah is a Somali victim of human trafficking; Zaynab122 is a Lebanese Muslim refugee with dwarfism; singer Humeyra has fled marital abuse; while Nostalgia Nalan is a trans woman.
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 this part 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 often something of a love letter to Istanbul, which is beautifully and vividly described, although we’re not getting away from that “East meets West” cliche beloved of UK/US publishers.
“Imperial Istanbul versus plebeian Istanbul; global Istanbul versus parochial Istanbul; cosmopolitan Istanbul versus philistine Istanbul; heretical Istanbul versus pious Istanbul; macho Istanbul versus feminine Istanbul … then there was the Istanbul of those who had left long ago, sailing to faraway ports…”