Elif Shafak

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World

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10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World Summary

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Turkish activist and writer Elif Shafak gained notoriety in 2006 after she was accused of “insulting Turkishness” in her bestselling novel The Bastard of Istanbul – making Shafak a wanted criminal and forcing her to leave her home country. The insult? Shafak referred to Turkey’s massacre of Armenians in 1915 as genocide. Since then, Shafak has gone on to champion Turkey’s marginalized in her novels and as an essayist and public speaker, who wears her feminist and anti-authoritarianism openly. Only weeks after the publication of Shafak’s eleventh novel, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World  (2019), and perhaps not incidentally, Shafak’s Turkish publisher was raided by Turkish police, and many of her writings were taken away for inspection. The book relates the recollections of Iranian sex worker “Tequila Leila,” in the immediate aftermath of her brutal murder. Killed and tossed in a dumpster, Leila’s heart stops, but her mind continues on for 10 minutes and 38 seconds. The first section of the novel comprises her dying memories; the second traces the impact of her death on a group of characters introduced in the first section.

Lying in a waste bin, forty-something Turkish prostitute Leila knows that she is dead. She can feel that her heart has stopped beating and that her lungs no longer move air into and out of her body. She knows, too, that when the authorities find her crumpled form, they will be able to identify it immediately – she was a known local figure, and her profession was not a secret. As she lies in the bin, her brain experiences a last paroxysm of activity: episodes from her past coming flooding back to her expiring consciousness on the back of startlingly vivid sense memories. She experiences a dilation of time in this state, with memories that span long periods of her life taking up only moments of “real world” time. Each of the early chapters of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World covers about a minute of Leila’s dying, each recounting either a specific incident or sketching a portrait of someone important to her life.

During these early chapters, we learn about Leila’s upbringing. Her life was hard from its earliest beginnings: she was born to her father’s second wife, but raised by the first. Her father was a fanatically religious man with a sworn opposition to anything he considered Western; as he gets older and even more zealous he increasingly restricts the women of the family by enforcing a life of pious severity. Worst of all, Leila begins to be sexually abused by her uncle when she is only six years old. He chooses her, of all the girls of the family, he tells her, because she “was not selfish like the others.” It is ten years before Leila comes forward about the abuse – her family’s horrific response is to betroth her to her abuser uncle’s son.

To escape this situation, Leila – who has, despite her upbringing, grown into a strong-willed and sometimes-brash young woman – runs off to Istanbul. Naive to the ways of such a big and complex city, Leila ends up being sold into prostitution at one of the government-sanctioned brothels of 1960s Turkey. Shafak’s description of the city defies Western romanticization: “Istanbul was a dream that existed solely in the minds of hashish eaters. In truth, there was no Istanbul. There were multiple Istanbuls – struggling, competing, clashing, each perceiving that, in the end, only one could survive.”

After Leila’s death and deposition into a numbered, but otherwise unmarked, grave in a cemetery used for the bodies of social cast-offs, the novel pivots to follow the misadventures of “the Five.” These are Nalan, Sinan, Humeyra, Jameelah, and Zaynab122, a group of Leila’s closest friends – all of them misfits or pariahs of some kind – who together conspire to retrieve her body from its ignominious resting place to give her a proper burial. At this point, the novel also markedly changes its tone, as the five’s plotline is comedic, even farcical as they encounter several obstacles in their quest for Leila’s body.

The book has been criticized for the incongruity between its first and second sections and how these lead to the unexpected final section of the book. Critics have claimed that “the five” are poorly drawn characters that exist as mere tokens of genuinely oppressed minorities; that Shafak, in her enthusiasm to give voice to the marginalized, forgot to give them individual, authentic, human voices. The first section of the novel has received wide praise, however, as has the ingenuity of the story’s premise and its attempts – if not necessarily successfully – to highlight the plight of some of Turkey’s most vulnerable communities.