ELIF SHAFAK FIRST CAME to my attention through her 2010 TED Talk, “The Politics of Fiction.” I was teaching a graduate fiction workshop at Louisiana State University, and identity politics had begun creeping into our discussions. Students were anxious about cultural appropriation; they wanted to write beyond identity but were nervous about how to do it well. In my search for essays on the subject, I came across Shafak’s insightful, poignant talk: the thrust of it best captured by an assertion she makes toward the end, that “identity politics divides us; fiction connects.” My students responded well to Shafak’s message; who better to preach on the dangers of over-politicizing fiction than a woman who had been put on trial in Turkey for the contents of one of her novels?
I, too, was moved by Shafak’s argument that writers must be seen as “creative individuals,” not as “representatives of their respective cultures.” “The language of fiction is not the language of daily politics,” she protests, laughing in frustration over a critic who is disappointed by the multiculturalism of her book The Saint of Incipient Insanities, since it doesn’t feature a single Turkish woman.
Her latest and 11th novel, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize. In the Prize’s press release announcing the shortlist, jury member Liz Calder praised the novel for “bringing Istanbul’s underworld to life.”
The book tells the story of “Tequila Leila,” a sex worker who has been brutally assaulted and left for dead in a trash bin in Istanbul. The title comes from the notion that the human mind continues to operate for a few minutes after physical death, and Shafak uses this conceit to unspool Leila’s life story through a series of flashbacks evoked by smells or tastes: the taste of salt recalls her own birth, the contrasting tastes of lemon and sugar remind Leila of her childhood in the provincial city of Van, and so on. Interspersed with these memories are brief vignettes dedicated to each of Leila’s five friends.
On first gloss, it’s easy to see why a literary prize jury would be drawn to this novel, as it is a structurally daring narrative built around a compelling conceit. Additionally, in keeping true to her desire to write beyond identity, Shafak inhabits the perspectives of a Turkish prostitute, a Lebanese dwarf, a transwoman named Nalan, a Somalian woman born to an interfaith couple, an Anatolian villager, and a German-Turkish communist artist, among others. The problem is that the novel is epic in scope but lacks the proper framework to deliver on its many promises. Into a mere 306 pages, Shafak crams so many voices and stories that the narrative buckles under the weight.
Take, for instance, her treatment of Leila’s friends, Sinan, Nalan, Jameelah, Zaynab, and Humeyra. Their stories are inserted as chapters between Leila’s flashbacks and are each around four pages long, snippets that are consequently full of rapid summary, a temporal compression that both overwhelms and frustrates. In Humeyra’s section, we see her as an abused spouse who flees her marriage for Istabul. Shafak writes:
In the city, she learned fast — how to walk in stilettos, how to iron her hair straight, how to apply make-up that looked dazzling under the neon lights. She changed her childhood name to Humeyra, got herself a fake ID. That she had a rich voice and knew hundreds of Anatolian songs by heart helped her to find a job in a nightclub. The first time on stage she shook like a leaf, but thankfully her voice held.
Humeyra may be a quick study, but we as readers cannot be rushed into caring for fictional characters. Rather, we must be eased in to acquaintance, witnessing on the page the habits and reflections of the character, experiencing their world as they do so that we might understand their emotional responses to other characters and scenarios. In moments like these, I longed for Shafak to pause and let the reader linger with Humeyra, so that we might feel some of the shock that must surely have accompanied her dramatic transformation from aggrieved village wife into “Hollywood Humeyra.”
These portraits burst with hastily sketched but riveting moments. On the same page as the above, we learn that Humeyra chooses to dye her hair, get a nose job, and wear color contacts because she’s frightened that her husband will find her and kill her. Then Shafak offers this: “Women accused of indecency weren’t always killed, she knew; sometimes they were just persuaded to kill themselves. The number of forced suicides […] had escalated to such a degree that there were articles about it in the foreign press.”
Instead of moving beyond the news-item quality of this fact by allowing Humeyra to have a proper emotional or intellectual response to it, though, Shafak is off and running, on to the next flashback, the next character, leaving Humeyra lifeless, an intimacy and authenticity sacrificed on the altar of scope.
Another issue is structural: the book’s chapters are labeled as minutes counting upward to the titular limit. Each “minute” opens with a sensory memory that then expands into one of the signal moments of Leila’s life: her birth, her marriage, her departure from Van to Istanbul, building to the night of her murder. When a book’s structure is working well, it serves its function seamlessly, the walls within which the characters, world, and prose can flourish. But the structure here never frees itself from the tight grip of its author. Because of the self-consciousness of these machinations, I was never able to lose myself in what John Gardner calls “the vivid and continuous dream” of fiction.
Once we arrive at 10 minutes, 38 seconds, Leila’s brain joins her body in death, and the book pivots into a more traditional narrative, a comic escapade following Leila’s friends as they try to rescue her from the Cemetery of the Companionless, which houses the bodies of people unclaimed by family, many of them pariahs like Leila — the migrants, sex workers, trans people, and other outsiders.
Here, the book’s breakneck pace slows somewhat, and we see Leila’s friends grieving, joking, talking together. At last they become more dimensional, and though the humor and dialogue are sometimes hammy (“What do you mean, you might have dropped it? It’s a pickaxe, not a hanky!”), the plot Scooby-Doo-ish, the friends’ nicknames gratingly cutesy (would anyone in actual speech call someone “Nostalgia Nalan” or “Sabotage Sinan”?), the world is vividly drawn, the story given room to expand beyond summary.
Despite Shafak’s wish not to be pigeonholed as a Turkish writer, in reading 10 Minutes, you sense that she is burdened by her Turkishness — or at least, that she feels a strong desire to communicate to her audience certain cultural truths, as well as the maddening glory of Istanbul. The book italicizes non-English words and includes a glossary, that old-fashioned bridge between East and West that most contemporary writers eschew.
Ironically, Shafak is at her best when she writes about Istanbul, a place of converging cultures that grudgingly accepts all comers, including Leila and her ragtag group of friends: “Istanbul was a liquid city. Nothing was permanent here. Nothing felt settled[.] […] It still had not solidified, this motherland of theirs. When she closed her eyes, Nalan could hear the water roiling under their feet. Shifting, whirling, searching. Still in flux.”
Shafak is popular in Turkey and across the Middle East — her website lists her as Turkey’s most widely read female author — and she’s a prominent voice for women’s and LGBTQ rights globally. She’s a magnetic public speaker, a natural storyteller who emanates warmth and wisdom, and that compassion infuses this novel. It’s interesting to note, then, that the book’s shortcomings emerge from too much telling, an overreliance on narration. Reading 10 Minutes, you can easily imagine Shafak as court poet to the sultans of Topkapı, captivating an audience with her thrilling tales.
But what works as oration can lose depth and texture when translated to the page; here the quality of characters’ thoughts and reflections don’t always sustain readerly interest in the plot. There’s a certain looseness with language in Shafak’s books, something that might also be attributed to the primacy of storytelling in her work. She regularly employs clichés like “shook like a leaf” and “heavy like lead,” perhaps because singular and precise language matters less than sharing a propulsive yarn. She’s an extremely prolific writer; at times reading her books, it feels as if something in the art has been sacrificed in order to keep up with her impressive imagination.
The last few pages, narrated from Leila’s final resting place, are astonishingly beautiful, and give the reader a taste of what the rest of the book might have felt like if Shafak had given herself the time to luxuriate in any of the book’s extraordinary moments. The early pages about Leila’s childhood in Van contain enough complexity and richness to fill an entire book. And when Leila’s husband, the unfortunately nicknamed D/Ali, asserts that “[t]he way the cemeteries were organized and the dead were treated […] was the most striking difference between civilizations,” you wish he’d been allotted triple the meager page space that Shafak metes out for him. These sections carry the kind of psychological intimacy and meditative beauty that is the true language of fiction. Without that intimacy, a novel’s characters are doomed to be the “representative foreigners” that Shafak strives to write against.
Keija Parssinen is the author of The Ruins of Us. A graduate of Princeton and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Truman Capote fellow, she is an assistant professor of English at Kenyon College.