Wednesday 19 June 2019

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World: Vital new writing from powerful personal voices


10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World

Elif Shafak

Viking €17


On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

Ocean Vuong

Jonathan Cape €15

Elif Shafak is again being investigated by the Turkish government for her writing
Elif Shafak is again being investigated by the Turkish government for her writing

Paul Perry

Elif Shafak is a fearless writer and activist. A public figure by way of her Global TED Talks, and New Statesman column, she is the British-Turkish bestselling author of 11 previous novels.

In 2006, she was charged with "insulting Turkishness" based on what one of the characters in her novel The Bastard of Istanbul said.

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Her latest work remains critical of the modern Turkish state. As recently as last week, it was reported she is under investigation by the Turkish government for her latest novel 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World.

This is the story of Tequila Leila, a prostitute in Istanbul who has been killed and dumped. But the "dead do not die instantly" and they can "continue to reflect on things", which is exactly what Leila does in a fluid narrative which interweaves her personal story with that of the Turkish nation.

Shafak's humanitarian concern is apparent throughout, her empathy keen. The tone of the novel is of the grand narrative, and Shafak manages to filter a good deal of Turkish history through the lens of a woman who was sold into prostitution after running away from a life and marriage which had been arranged for her.

Leila's life and times mean we hear about Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution, Turkish troops in Korea, and the arrival of the American Sixth Fleet in the Bosphorus, as well as a whole host of other events in Turkish history.

Leila's five colourful friends - Sabotage Sinan, Nostalgia Nalan, Jameelah, Zaynab122, and Hollywood Humerya - are her loyal confidantes throughout this posthumous tale, and one of the many treats of such a novel is the rich detail of Turkish life which Shafak evokes with the yearning of an exile, even if the Istanbul Leila describes is not the one "the ministry of tourism would have wanted foreigners to see". Expect olive groves and city sewage.

The final dedication of the novel to the author's grandmother is poignant. After she finishes the writing of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World, Shafak does not manage to return to Turkey for her grandmother's funeral.

"Friends and colleagues were being arrested on the most baseless charges," she writes. And yet her protagonist, she imagines, has somewhere become good friends with her grandmother, "sister-outsiders... who continue to sing songs of freedom under the moonlight."

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World is an elegy and a celebration, another vital piece of fiction from one of the most important European writers today.

Ocean Vuong also has a compelling story to tell.

Already lauded for his debut collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds, his debut novel On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous has about it a similar fluidity in narrative time to Shafak's novel.

Written as a letter to his illiterate mother, this is a moving account of war, migration, violence and the most extraordinary tenderness and forgiveness.

Vuong, who was born on a rice farm in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, moves with his mother and grandmother to the United States when he is two years of age. There he grows up in the tenements of Hartford, Connecticut.

One heartbreaking vignette follows another in this beguiling book, which reads as much like a memoir as it does a novel.

Ocean endures abusive outbursts from his mother, who works at a nail salon. As a child she hits him and locks him in the basement among other things.

He never blames her, but talks of PTSD and forgiveness, and is shielded, in some cases quite literally, by his grandmother Lan.

Ocean, his mother, and grandmother represent the impact the legacy of the Vietnam war has had on three generations.

Nicknamed Little Dog, Vuong's epistolary allows for a reflective, non-linear approach to storytelling, an approach which addresses the struggles of poverty in memorable fashion.

The narrator's own emerging homosexuality is explored in some of the most unforgettable scenes while he works at a tobacco farm with a redneck named Trevor. It is an ill-fated love-story, and within these mesmerising pages are 'the rules of colour', code-switching, Roland Barthes's Mourning Diary, Tiger Woods's father, the Vietnam vet Earl Dennison Woods, and many more passages of transformative lyric grace and beauty.

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is a 'queer' novel in many ways, as much by the way it undermines the dominant narrative of the American novel, and counters it by creating a post-conflict narrative of mixed identities.

Again and again, language is placed at the centre of the story. Its acquisition and deployment, and the many silences which it can contain, are ever-present. In that sense, it's possible to read Vuong's novel as a decolonising text, creating space for new voices, even when those voices, like his mother, may never read his book.

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