Ayşegül Savaş on Imitation and Identity
In “Canvas” the narrator, a graduate student, is renting an apartment from an older woman, an artist named Agnes. The artist has arranged to use her studio there whenever she visits the city, yet while the two women sometimes share the same space, they barely know each other. What does that type of relationship—one of both intimacy and distance—offer a writer?
In many ways, such a relationship resembles writing and reading fiction: observing characters at a distance as well as from close up, trying to glimpse at something essential in their routines and actions.
In “Canvas,” this double perspective—of remoteness and intimacy—is amplified in both directions. This allows Agnes to present herself to the narrator in a way that might not have been possible with a complete stranger or a very close friend. I think that the story she tells arises from this unusual setup.
We initially think that this is going to be the narrator’s story, but once she and Agnes start talking, it becomes clear that this is Agnes’s. Did you know from the outset that “Canvas” would make this shift?
I knew from the start that the narrator would simply be listening to Agnes’s story without playing a role in it. What I didn’t know was how the narrator’s presence in the apartment, and her role as an observer, might complement the story of Agnes and her cousin. That emerged after I settled on the narrator’s research topic—the representation of the soul in Gothic nude sculptures. Telling a story with honesty is also a way of being naked, like the sculptures lined up for the Day of Judgment.
I also wanted the narrator to play a silent part in Agnes’s loneliness and guilt, simply by listening to her story. She becomes a witness.
W. G. Sebald is a writer who often used conversation in this way, where the narrator becomes a listener. Were you thinking about his work at all when you were writing this?
Sebald’s work has had a tremendous influence on my writing. A few years ago, I attempted a novel that strung together many stories through a passive narrator who “absorbed” others’ narratives. That novel primarily took place in city streets and among other challenges, I couldn’t believably make the characters tell long stories in public spaces! Sebald does this seamlessly, expanding conversations, merging locations and speakers, and patching them together with layers of history.
The interior setting was a more organic way for me to try this style again. The intimacy of the studio, bordering on claustrophobia, facilitates the strange story that Agnes shares with the narrator.
Over the course of an evening, Agnes tells the narrator about her cousin, someone to whom she was very close in childhood and whose life she wanted to emulate. At one point she says, “We form ourselves through our doubles. We make ghostly twins to carry the weight of our desires.” When you first started imagining the trajectories of Agnes and her cousin, did you know how their lives would converge and diverge?
I had ghost stories in mind while writing “Canvas”—ghosts as suppressed sources of grief or resentment. I knew from the start that the cousin would haunt Agnes’s life in some way and that Agnes’s interactions with her would be roundabout. I didn’t want the cousin to become too real but remain a projection of Agnes’s desires and her guilt. Even when the two meet years later, Agnes only describes the cousin’s striking appearance but not her interiority. I also wondered how this projection or “ghost” might reëmerge in Agnes’s life after so many years. It happens with Agnes’s separation from her husband; their lives intersect in moments of difficulty.
Agnes takes on the mantle of her cousin’s identity when her cousin’s apparently charmed life changes quite radically. Is this, as she believes, monstrous in some form?
I think that we all form our identities by imitation to some extent—by mimicking the gestures, mannerisms, or personas of people we admire. Of course, it’s easier to do this when the person we’re imitating is not there to see us. Agnes considers this a form of theft, especially since her cousin’s life is struck by tragedy and what remains of her charismatic self is Agnes’s imitation of it. I actually find Agnes’s repulsion to be a sign of her humanity and compassion.
But there are other instances when the characters withhold their sympathy or support. The narrator subtly avoids Agnes around the apartment even though she probably realizes that Agnes is very lonely. Similarly, Agnes says that her avoidance of her cousin was not overt but that she still wanted to keep herself clean of the ungainly suffering. And then there is Agnes’s very slight avoidance of her own parents—her distance toward them after her marriage. All these instances of coldness, or lack of engagement, are very understated and without direct consequence, but it’s nevertheless carried out despite knowledge of another’s vulnerabilities. This, perhaps, is monstrous.
You recently published your first novel, “Walking on the Ceiling.” This traces another relationship, one between a young Turkish woman, Nunu, and an older British writer, M, who met when they were both living in Paris. Nunu tells M stories, entrusts him with her observations, and she comes to resent him for that. Is that kind of regret common, do you think? Do people have a desire to be heard and then a desire to regain ownership of the stories they’ve just given away?
At the beginning of their friendship, Nunu tells M idyllic stories about her family, but as the relationship deepens, she feels guilty about manipulating the truth and concealing the troubling aspects of her past. She begins to resent M’s attention and his enthusiasm, because it reminds her of her deception.
Another reason for her resentment is that her stories solidify particular aspects of her memories while disregarding others. While Nunu creates one version of her mother in the stories, she also leaves behind other versions; she can’t manage to offer a truthful picture. It’s paradoxical—we tell stories in order to preserve and yet we lose so much in the telling.