Rohitha Naraharisetty reviews Elif Shafak’s newest book, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World.
It is not often that a sex worker’s experience is legible as anything other than a monetised sum of body parts. What it means to sell sex. What it says about the person selling it. The images and words that these narratives conjure are paternalistic at best, and violently misogynistic at worst. The most well intentioned of artists, academics and commentators explore the idea of sex work as sex and not as labour. Few attempt to locate it within intersecting structures of gender, capitalism and the forms of wage labour they produce.
Eli Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World is anything but. Its protagonist, ‘Tequila’Leila is a sex worker, but her story is not about the nature of sex work and has sparse references to the details of the trade. She exists in the liminal space between defiance and shame. The book definitively avoids the narrative of the sex worker as viewed through the lens of morbid fascination with marginality, held in place through the moral economy of shame that both advocates and detractors of sex work inadvertently participate in. It is at once humanising, tender, angry, violent, full of despair and full of hope.
The work comes as a deeply urgent intervention into the discourse on the sex worker as an exploited figure lacking in agency or dignity. We learn in the very beginning that Leila is dying in a dumpster in a desolate spot in Istanbul. Her brain remains active for ten minutes and thirty eight seconds, with each minute unearthing a memory that is triggered by associations with smells, sounds, and tastes. What follows is a deeply empathetic and humane unravelling of her existence and its definitive events as defined by Leila herself.
It seldom indulges in gratuitous or voyeuristic depictions of her work, and instead constructs her world with fragments of her entire life and everything it entails. The novel follows Leila from her childhood in Van, to her journey to Istanbul where she lives in precarity and amid chaos. Istanbul is described as a messy, violent, heady city on the cusp of democracy, flitting uneasily between its modernity project on the one hand and on the other, its ruthless evisceration of those who do not fit state sanctioned notions of the ideal citizen. In this vast jumble of incongruities, Leila finds her family and is at home here, having been acquainted with violence far before she arrived in the dangerous world of Istanbul.
Violence is located as dispersed and is not individualized; much of it takes place around Leila by way of NATO interventions, student revolts, brutal state repression, and other consequences of geopolitical machinations. In the midst of chaotic events taking place around her, Leila is arguably insulated until she becomes involved with someone acquainted with it intimately. The world rushes onward, and Istanbul especially is spatially and figuratively searching for itself in the global landscape, being poised as it is between continents and ideologies. The most defining and shattering kind of violence Leila has been subjected to, therefore, is not anything she has encountered in her profession as a sex worker. This is significant, as debates on sex work as a profession often take place among people who are far removed from the lived experiences that are needed to have such conversations, and almost always echo the language of moral panic and pity.
Molly Smith and Juno Mac, both of whom are sex workers themselves, discuss the various articulations of these debates in Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights. They argue that what anti-prostitution and pro-decriminalisation advocates get wrong is that sex work, like any kind of waged work, cannot be neatly contained in categories of ‘good’ or ‘bad’. They ask whether sex is good or bad, and whether work is good or bad, and contextualise the discourse within these framings to make a point about how dignity and the question of rights gets lost in the noise. They point towards how the language of empowerment and exploitation serves specific projects that are meant to either defend sex work or decry it.
The plurality of experiences within sex work that they describe are captured in Shafak’s novel, through the characters of Leila, Jameela, ‘Nostalgia’ Nalan, and ‘Hollywood’ Humeira. These are characters with vastly differing experiences preceding and defining their entry into sex work: ranging from trafficking, domestic violence, social ostracisation, and sexual abuse. The most marginalised people are the ones occupying the trade, and the novel does justice to Smith’s and Mac’s plea that the conditions leading to marginality require introspection and overhauling, rather than demonising or celebrating the trade. Sex work, they argue, must be defined and seen as work, and sex workers seen as more than just their bodies as working apparatuses.
They ask that the very idea of work be deconstructed, and point out that much like every form of work, sex work can neither be good or bad, or it can be either good or bad, for the person performing this labour. This is exactly what the novel does, in serving as a damning condemnation of the norms and structures responsible for marginalising people in the first place and leaving its characters to judge their experiences of their work for themselves. It reorients the moralistic gaze on sex work onto society itself, and infuses its characters with humanity and agency, making them more than their professions and telling us the story of their lives and complexities as a whole. These are people who do not need rescuing; instead, our rightful engagement with them should be to listen to the stories they have to tell.