Nazlı Koca is a writer and poet from the Mediterranean coast of Turkey who holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Notre Dame. She is the recipient of grants from the Nanovic Institute, Soham Dance Space, and United States Artists. Her work has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Bookforum, Second Factory, The Chicago Review of Books, and books without covers, among other outlets. The Applicant is her first novel.
Emerson Perper of Curious Iguana in Frederick, Maryland, served on the panel that selected Koca’s debut for Indies Introduce. Perper said of the experience, “Reading The Applicant is like reading the journal of your most interesting friend. Leyla is thoughtful, angry, and funny. She navigates the debasing double standards of German anti-immigrant policy and prejudice. She works at an Alice-in-Wonderland-themed hostel and takes home a measly wage and little trinkets tourists leave behind. She alternately avoids and entertains her Turkish family’s phone calls. She takes up with a very stable Swede. Undergirding all of this are reflections on the gaping maw of capitalism, her complicated grief over her father’s death, and her stifled artistic pursuits.”
Here, Koca and Perper discuss The Applicant.
Emerson Perper: Why did you choose to write an epistolary novel? Why did the diary form appeal to you?
Nazlı Koca: A couple of months before I started working as a cleaner, a friend started reading Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. He was a slow reader, so he carried it around for weeks, and read his favorite passages out loud whenever he came over.
The day I started my cleaning job, I wrote the first couple of lines of The Applicant in my diary. When I read what I wrote, it felt like I was reading the diary of a fictional character. A vagabond, like Bolaño and his characters. And it made all the exhaustion and humiliation I felt go away. My diary gave me a reason to pay attention to life at a time when I had more reasons to dissociate than to be present in it.
I’ve always been a fan of epistolary fiction, and The Applicant did start off as a short memoir piece based on my own diary. But I decided to stick with the epistolary form in the novel it was turning into in Spring 2020, when I was alone in lock down. The idea that mundane details of a troublesome life could become a story worth sharing was something I needed to hold on to. And it saved both me and Leyla.
EP: The Applicant covers a wide range of themes — capitalism, art, family, immigration, and more. Do you consider your book in conversation with other works, historical or contemporary? If so, which ones?
NK: Some of the works I saluted within the novel are of course Plath’s “The Applicant,” Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, and Panahi’s This is not a Film. I’m also a big fan of Elena Ferrante, Sayaka Murata, and Kathy Acker’s writing. I think what The Applicant shares with all these artist’s work is how close they get to self-destruction as if to ask their respective oppressors, “Is that the best you’ve got?”
EP: One of the first lines I underlined in The Applicant was Leyla’s observation that in a capitalist state, “a poor immigrant who wants to create art is irrelevant.” How have your own experiences living and working in different countries impacted your relationship with making art?
NK: The best part of being a migrant writer is the birds-eye view you get to different countries. Kind of like the angels in the Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire. I’ve had so many moments that I wished I could blend in with the people of whatever city I was in — which has been changing every other year for a while now — or feel more accepted and appreciated as an emerging writer on a temporary visa barely making minimum wage in most of her jobs. But whenever I sat at my desk to write, I felt lucky for every moment I’ve felt unseen, unwanted, or underestimated. People act as their truest selves when they think you’re invisible. They give you the best materials to explore in your art.
EP: Partway through The Applicant, Leyla develops a relationship with an unlikely paramour. Could you talk a little bit about the inclusion of a romantic storyline in this novel?
NK: Leyla calls the Swede her antithesis. He forces her to rethink what love is, can be, and could do. And Leyla shows him a way of life he could never imagine stepping into. I wanted to see what such an encounter could take Leyla and the Swede. Would they betray the morals they’ve lived by, like the media and society always makes us think? Or could they co-exist in peace as themselves?
I also wanted to see how romance could exist in a novel without taking over. I’ve never let romance get in the way of my writerly ambitions, but most of my favorite literary characters had either been consumed by or deprived of romantic storylines. I needed Leyla to show me another path, one that could merge and separate with romance without steering you off a cliff in the end.
EP: What IRL artist/writer/creator do you think Leyla would enjoy being in conversation or collaboration with?
NK: I think she’d love to interview artists, writers, and creators who are in prison for their art. I could see Leyla writing letters to political artists all around the world, ask them how they did it? Why? If they regret it. Would they do it all over again if they knew they’d end up where they are?
The Applicant by Nazlı Koca (Grove Press, 9780802160546, Hardcover Fiction, $26) On Sale: 2/14/2023.
Find out more about the author at www.nazlikoca.com.
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