ELIF SHAFAK at Border Kitchen in The Hague

Talking about 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World where ‘we need fiction now more than ever’.

Elif Shafak is one of Turkey’s most successful and persecuted novelists. Living now in exile in the UK, Shafak spoke with us last night at a BorderKitchen event about writing in exile, living through a pandemic and the endless flexibility of fiction. 

Elif Shafak has published eleven novels, the most recent of which, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The Turkish writer is also an advocate for women’s rights and those of minorities like LGBT, refugees and Turkey’s Kurdish community. An accomplished academic and a TED Global speaker, she nevertheless feels most at home in the world of fiction. ‘Inside fiction there is everything’ she tells us. Now, as the world continues to grapple with the fall out of a still poorly understood pandemic, Shafak believes that this is the time for reassessment, a time to re-examine everything. ‘Right now we need empathy and cognitive flexibility – the kind of flexibility that comes from fiction’. Fiction, she argues, promotes emotional intelligence and as she points out, ‘I don’t know a single person who doesn’t need emotional intelligence and stories’.

10 Minutes and 38 Seconds opens with the death of the protagonist, Tequila Leila, whose body has been dumped in a bin on the outskirts of Istanbul. Based on the real life story of a transsexual sex worker, the idea for the book came partly from Shafak’s own interest in neuroscience. Specifically, she learnt that the brain can continue to function for a number of minutes after the heart stops beating. This got her thinking about what might pass through someone’s mind in this life after death. Thus she explains that her story ‘begins with an end’. The structure of the narrative is non-linear because ‘the human memory does not function linearly either’, she smiles. Sadly, the same can be said of history. The writer takes her own country as a clear example of this.

‘Istanbul shows us that history does not always go forward’ – Shafak

The novel is set in 1970’s Istanbul, and as Shafak points out, ‘what Istanbul shows us, is that history does not always go forward’. When this happens, we women need to be alarmed, she warns, because our rights and those of minorities are always the first to go. Respect for diversity is shattered and people like Leila, who are different, suffer. We need, she insists, to question these abstract, almost tribal notions of honour, that always come at the expense of the happiness and safety of women and girls. Shafak herself has been charged by the Turkish government for crimes against Turkey after the publication of her previous novel, Bastard of Istanbul and now for crimes of obscenity for her exploration of sexual violence and abuse in 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds. But the writer is unrepentant, she insists that it is when you start asking yourself, ‘seemingly small questions about human beings that one realises there are hundreds of histories’. In order to maintain one’s humanity, it is important that we continue to ask these questions of ourselves, no matter the censorship.

Elif Shafak’s own love affair with Istanbul spans decades. Arriving there in the 1970’s as a young writer from the far more traditional city of Ankara, she became part of what was a rich bohemian community that included Armenians, Greeks, Jews, a large transsexual community and others. ‘Istanbul is a magician’s trick gone wrong’, a place literally ‘teeming with stories’ but the paradox of Istanbul is that ‘it has a rich history but a poor memory’ she admits. Nowhere perhaps is this made more painfully clear than the Cemetery of the Companions. A large, sprawling no man’s land  that lies on the outskirts of the city and is the graveyard for those who have no one. Describing it as ‘a special, forsaken place’, Shafak explains that there are no tombstones, names or flowers here. Just rows upon rows of numbers that have been scribbled on wooden posts. With the rain, the numbers are often washed off and so nothing is left of these anonymous dead. Those who are buried there have often been rejected by their families. They are AIDs sufferers, sex workers, abandoned babies, suicides and refugees. As a writer, her instinct was to tackle at least one of these numbers, she explains. To write their story and re-humanize them. Tequila Leila is this person.

‘I feel really at home in the novel’ – Shafak

But Turkey’s most widely read female writer insists that her characters are not victims. On the contrary, they are people of great courage and strength. Although they may lack blood ties or relations, they have what she terms, ‘water families’ – friends who support one another. In this sense the book is a celebration of friendship. Indeed Shafak describes the characters that she writes about as her friends. ‘I love fiction’ she tells us, ‘I really feel at home in a novel’. When she’s writing fiction, she admits that she doesn’t think too much about the real world. Rather, she stays in that imaginary zone for as long as possible, because ‘that’s what gives us freedom’. Born in France, native of Turkey and now living in London, Elif Shafak writes in both English and Turkish. She describes herself as ‘someone who believes in multiple belongings’. Perhaps this explains the compassion and depth of the stories she weaves and the characters that populate them.     Souwie Buis    7th May 2020