Elif Shafak: 'Istanbul is a city of dreams... but it also has scars and wounds'

At a session in Frankfurt, the author spoke about the powerful themes that inspired her book

WB1ACT Edinburgh, UK. 22 August. 2019. Turkish-British novelist, Elif Shafak attends a photo call at Edinburgh International Book Festival. Pako Mera/Alamy Live News

The main protagonist in Elif Shafak's new novel dies in the end, and no, this is not a spoiler. Perhaps she dies at the beginning. That all depends on how you view the scienceit's inconclusive, but some studies suggest the brain can function for up to 10 minutes after the heart stops beating.

Because my mum was a divorcee and dropped out of university, people wanted to immediately arrange a marriage for her. But it was my less educated grandmother who intervened and said, 'no, my daughter should go back to university'

Shafak's 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World begins with its main character Leila, murdered on the outskirts of Istanbul. She has been dumped in a rubbish bin, and with her cognitive abilities fading, she reflects on the various decisions that have ultimately led to her demise.  

Released in May and shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction, the novel tells a stirring tragedy in reverse. Leila then takes up the narrative voice, which is both conversational and mournful. Shafak's trademark affecting touch is all over the early chapters, especially in a series of touching snapshots of Leila growing up in a household with her father, Haroon, a well-to-do tailor with two wives.

Curious from the onset, Lelia recalls feeling chafed, even as a child, growing up in a rural community dominated by a traditional code restricting women to a domestic life. After a particularly harrowing incident at a beachside picnic at the age of 6, Leila's innocence is shattered and that sets her life on a trajectory leading her to the gritty streets of Istanbul, where she is duped and eventually sold to a brothel.

A story of two families

While the novel is full of Shafak's exquisite poetic prose and penetrating character studies, she says the concept presented its own sets of writing challenges. "It gave me a lot of questions," she told an audience at the recent Frankfurt International Book Fair. "What does happen to the human mind in that limited amount of time after we are gone? Do the dead remember? And if they do, do they remember good as well as the bad memories?"

Shafak settles for both. Leila's doomed experience in Istanbul is tempered by her "water family", an affecting cast of five friends (including a dwarf, a failed singer and a wayfaring Somali woman) who become her family in Istanbul. This other family is more than a mere plot device, Shafak says. It is something that applies to our daily lives if we pay attention. "We all have two types of family in life. We have our blood families – they are the families we grow up with. Now, if our blood families are loving and kind, and tender, we should count our blessings because that is wonderful," she says. "Then there are our water families, who are composed of our friends. We find these friends, and they find us. There can't be dozens, there can only be five or six maximum. These are the people who will be the witnesses of our journeys, our sorrows and vulnerabilities. When we fall down, they will pick us up."

Shafak adds that the more a society is polarised, the more your water families become a lifeline. “When the public space has become more and more intolerant, and where it is difficult to be different in the public eye, it could be your political views or the colour of your skin – life becomes difficult,” she says.

"Among such people, who feel like outcasts, the water families have become even more important. The solidarity, the sisterhood, the support that is on the periphery of society, I think has become more important."

A call for sisterhood

While Shafak is referring to Turkish society, she says her work also serves as a clarion call for all women to find strength in each other. This is, in fact, a major theme ­Shafak has explored during her two-decade career. From the three generations of women in 2006's The Bastard of Istanbul, to the mother-wife relationship in 2016's Three Daughters of Eve, nearly all of her novels feature a strong cast of women sharing a deep bond. It is something inspired by Shafak's relationship with the women in her life. Born in Strasbourg, France, to a young mother and diplomat father, Shafak arrived in the Turkish capital, Ankara, in the wake of their separation, before eventually moving to Istanbul in her early twenties.

She credits being raised by two strong women, her mother, and grandmother, for allowing her to grow up far removed from patriarchal expectations. "Because my mum was a divorcee and dropped out of university, people wanted to immediately arrange a marriage for her," Shafak recalls. "But it was my less educated grandmother who intervened and who said, 'No, my daughter should go back to university. She should have a career, she should have a diploma, she should have choices in life. In the meantime, I'm going to raise my granddaughter.' What left an impact on me was the solidarity between these two women."

Longing for Istanbul

Ultimately, it is Istanbul itself that continues to inspire Shafak and her characters. Even as Leila fades away in its unforgiving underbelly, her pain and disappointment do not overshadow her affection for the city. This is a conflict mirrored in Shafak’s own life.

With Shafak presently under investigation by the Turkish government for her depiction of sexual violence in two of her books (The aforementioned Three Daughters of Eve and 1999's The Gaze), the London resident has not returned to Istanbul for more than three years from fear of arrest.

“Writing this book was more emotional than others because I thought about Istanbul all the time,” she says. “I miss the city and I realised that I always think about it through the small things, like the taste of street food and the smell of coffee.”

More than anything, it is the resilience coursing through Shafak’s work and characters that is her ultimate tribute to Istanbul. “It is a city of dreams and is capable of making promises to so many of us,” she says. “But then again, it is also has its own scars and wounds.”