“In the first minute following her death, Tequila Leila’s consciousness began to ebb, slowly and steadily, like a tide receding from the shore.”

In May of this year, Turkish prosecutors launched an investigation into Elif Shafak’s novels, particularly The Gaze (1999) and Three Daughters of Eve (2016), for charges of obscenity and promoting child abuse. This was ironic considering the increasing instances of violence against women and children in the country which are overlooked. Instead of taking action, the authorities decided to launch a witch-hunt against writers who attempt to address these issues in their fiction.

This isn’t the first time Shafak has been in trouble with the law. In 2006, she was tried, and acquitted, of “insulting Turkishness” when she referred to the slaughter of Armenians during the First World War as a genocide in The Bastard of Istanbul. She remains undaunted though, as proven by the subject matter of her latest Booker Prize 2019 shortlisted novel, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World.

Shafak considered storytelling akin to “swimming against the tide of the the times” in a recent interview. For her, “Fiction is, and has always been, a manifestation of calm resistance.” She liked that “combination of peacefulness and rebelliousness, side by side.” In my own reading experience of her writing over the years, she gives a voice to the marginalized and shines a light on those deemed invisible.

10 Minutes begins with the death of Leila, dubbed Tequila Leila at the brothel where she works, at the hands of unknown assailants. It seems to be another mindless casualty in a string of violent attacks against sex workers in the city. And while her heart might have stopped, her brain keeps working for longer – 10 minutes and 38 seconds to be exact. In these limited moments before her mind shuts down completely, she looks back at the colourful motley life she has led, from a blessed birth to a cruel death.

Divided into two major sections, the first one is from Leila’s perspective counting down till she is fully gone. Each minute after her death heralds the arrival of a sensuous memory from her past. The sense of smell and taste, the recollection of food, becomes a trigger for these flashbacks which are spaced over the entirety of her life, ranging from her childhood in Van to her adolescence and adulthood in Istanbul after she ran away from home. Also introduced are her five friends who become her new family. The story is played out mostly in the city, which becomes a character it itself.

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When Christopher Morley wrote in Where The Blue Begins (1922): “All cities are mad: but the madness is gallant. All cities are beautiful, but the beauty is grim,” he probably did not have Istanbul in mind. Yet, it is a description which fits it perfectly – dangling the hope of fulfillment only to take it away, home to both light and darkness. In Shafak’s writing, it is a city of contradictions, of sharp-edged dreams and despair-ringed hopes. For her, the idea of a single Istanbul is mere illusion. It is a surreal she-city of strange ways that shapes, and in turn is shaped by, its inhabitants continuously.

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