Words by Paige Braithwaite, Staff Writer
TW: Sexual assault and abuse
‘10 minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World’(2019), by British-Turkish author Elif Shafak is an absorbing and poignant novel which delves into the troubles of family and the importance of friendship, alongside a look into the world of sex work in Istanbul. The novel begins with a sex worker by the name of Tequila Leila who is found murdered and left in a rubbish bin on the outskirts of Istanbul. In her final moments, – “a fighter till the end” – Leila reflects on her life and takes the reader chapter by chapter through all the moments which led to her final one.
Shafak’s writing is evocative in style, conjuring vivid colours, smells, sights, and atmospheres that make you feel as if you are on the streets of Istanbul yourself. The reader becomes immersed in all that Istanbul has to offer, from the mix of the people in the city, to food, culture, and political strife. Shafak shows how there are “multiple Istanbuls – struggling, competing, clashing…” so that “in the end, only one could survive”.
Leila’s first memory is of being born in the province of Van and from the moment she enters the world, she faces brutality and violence. Leila’s life starts on a complicated trajectory which will only continue, for her father, who has two wives, forces Leila’s mother (his second wife) to give Leila to his first wife and conceal the identity of Leila’s biological mother. The path Leila continues on is not an easy one, with further abuse and loss in her life after she moves to Istanbul and moves into a brothel. But alongside the sufferings in her life, Leila forges five key friendships that the reader is told about throughout the story and these relationships remain the most important part of Leila’s life.
A large part of the narrative revolves around Leila’s experience as a sex worker in the brothels of Istanbul. The reader learns about her experience here as a sex worker, as well as the other aspects of Leila’s life, giving humanity to people so often vilified and dehumanised.
Shafak – not one to shy away from hard-hitting and important topics – touches on themes of sexual abuse and violence in this book. The power of her writing in this novel and others, becomes even plainer when considering the Turkish government’s investigations of Shafak in 2019 due to her explorations of child abuse and sexual violence in her writing. Of course, to many, this is considered as a serious threat to free speech and Shafak herself has spoken numerous times on cultural censorship and the need for art to be a means of resistance.
After Leila’s death, due to her life as a sex worker, the authorities deem it only appropriate for her to be buried in the “Cemetery of the Companionless”, despite – ironically – the protestations of her closest friends. Following this, the five friends go against the odds to retrieve Leila’s body and give it the send-off she deserves. Leila’s five friends are all outcasts and find solace, companionship, and family in each other. They act as Leila’s anchor as her soul becomes gradually untethered to the world.
Despite the tragic place where this story begins, Shafak crafts a heart-warming and life-affirming tale. An unflinching look at a broken social system inflicted by the patriarchy, where both women’s bodies and minds are left traumatised, Shafak does not shy away from brutal violence and grief in her novel. This is a story about the power of friendship and the legacy of holding space in people’s hearts, even when others attempt to erase you.