Two masterful novelists and Turkish-born feminists, Ayşegül Savaş and Elif Shafak, joined The Center for Fiction for a conversation on their recent novels—two works of deep vulnerability and mesmerizing style. In Savaş’s White on White, a student moves to the city to research Gothic nudes and rents an apartment from a painter, Agnes, whose stories are frenetic; her art scattered and unfinished, white paint on a white canvas. What emerges is the menacing sense that every life is always at the edge of disaster, no matter its seeming stability. In Shafak’s The Island of Missing Trees, two teenagers, a Greek Cypriot and a Turkish Cypriot, meet at a taverna and grow in their forbidden love for each other. There, a fig tree stretches through a cavity in the roof, and this tree bears witness when war breaks out, when the capital is reduced to ashes and rubble, and when the teenagers vanish. Writer and editor Adam Dalva moderated.
White on White
By Ayşegül Savaş
Published by Penguin Random House
A student moves to the city to research Gothic nudes. She rents an apartment from a painter, Agnes, who lives in another town with her husband. One day, Agnes arrives in the city and settles into the upstairs studio.
In their meetings on the stairs, in the studio, at the corner café, the kitchen at dawn, Agnes tells stories of her youth, her family, her marriage, and ideas for her art – which is always just about to be created. As the months pass, it becomes clear that Agnes might not have a place to return to. The student is increasingly aware of Agnes’s disintegration. Her stories are frenetic; her art scattered and unfinished, white paint on a white canvas.
What emerges is the menacing sense that every life is always at the edge of disaster, no matter its seeming stability. Alongside the research into human figures, the student is learning, from a cool distance, about the narrow divide between happiness and resentment, creativity and madness, contentment and chaos.
White on White is a sharp exploration of empathy and cruelty, and the stunning discovery of what it means to be truly vulnerable, and laid bare.
The Island of Missing Trees
By Elif Shafak
Published by Macmillan
Two teenagers, a Greek Cypriot and a Turkish Cypriot, meet at a taverna on the island they both call home. In the taverna, hidden beneath garlands of garlic, chili peppers and creeping honeysuckle, Kostas and Defne grow in their forbidden love for each other. A fig tree stretches through a cavity in the roof, and this tree bears witness to their hushed, happy meetings and eventually, to their silent, surreptitious departures. The tree is there when war breaks out, when the capital is reduced to ashes and rubble, and when the teenagers vanish. Decades later, Kostas returns. He is a botanist looking for native species, but really, he’s searching for lost love.
Years later a Ficus carica grows in the back garden of a house in London where Ada Kazantzakis lives. This tree is her only connection to an island she has never visited—her only connection to her family’s troubled history and her complex identity as she seeks to untangle years of secrets to find her place in the world.
A moving, beautifully written, and delicately constructed story of love, division, transcendence, history, and eco-consciousness, The Island of Missing Trees is Elif Shafak’s best work yet..
Elif Shafak is an award-winning British-Turkish novelist. She writes in both Turkish and English, and has published 19 books, 12 of which are novels. Her work has been translated into 55 languages. Her latest novel 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and RSL Ondaatje Prize; and chosen Blackwell’s Book of the Year. Her previous novel, The Forty Rules of Love was chosen by BBC among 100 Novels that Shaped Our World. Shafak holds a PhD in political science and she has taught at various universities in Turkey, the US and the UK, including St Anne’s College, Oxford University, where she is an honorary fellow.
Shafak is a Fellow and a Vice President of the Royal Society of Literature. She is a member of Weforum Global Agenda Council on Creative Economy and a founding member of ECFR (European Council on Foreign Relations). An advocate for women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights and freedom of speech, Shafak is an inspiring public speaker and twice TED Global speaker. Shafak contributes to major publications around the world and she was awarded the medal of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In 2017 she was chosen by Politico as one of the twelve people “who will give you a much needed lift of the heart.” Shafak has judged numerous literary prizes, most recently, the PEN Nabokov Prize and chaired the Wellcome Prize.
Photo Credit: Zeynel Abidin
Adam Dalva’s writing has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, the Paris Review, and the Guardian. His graphic novel, Olivia Twist, was published by Dark Horse in 2019. Adam serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and is the Books Editor for Words Without Borders. He teaches Creative Writing at Rutgers University.
Photo Credit: Beowulf Sheehan