The Applicantby Nazlı Koca
A singular debut from “an important and radical new literary voice” (Elif Batuman), The Applicant explores with wit and brevity what it means to be an immigrant, woman, and emerging writer
It’s 2017 and Leyla, a Turkish twenty-something living in Berlin is scrubbing toilets at an Alice in Wonderland-themed hostel after failing her thesis, losing her student visa, and suing her German university in a Kafkaesque attempt to reverse her failure.
Increasingly distant from what used to be at arm’s reach—writerly ambitions, tight knit friendships, a place to call home—Leyla attempts to find solace in the techno beats of Berlin’s nightlife, with little success. Right as the clock winds down on the hold on her visa, Leyla meets a conservative Swedish tourist and—against her political convictions and better judgment—begins to fall in love, or something like it. Will she accept an IKEA life with the Volvo salesman and relinquish her creative dreams, or return to Turkey to her mother and sister, codependent and enmeshed, her father’s ghost still haunting their lives?
While she waits for the German court’s verdict on her future, in the pages of her diary, Leyla begins to parse her unresolved past and untenable present. An indelible character at once precocious and imperiled, Leyla gives voice to the working-class and immigrant struggle to find safety, self-expression, and happiness. The Applicant is an extraordinary dissection of a liminal life between borders and identities, an original and darkly funny debut.
A February Indie Next Pick
A Winter/Spring 2023 Indies Introduce Featured Title
A Most Anticipated Book of Winter 2023 from Bustle, Vulture, and Literary Hub
“Wry and reflective… in the tradition of writers like Ferrante.”—New York Times Book Review
“Irresistibly consumable yet compellingly durable… An introspective meditation on the infinite absurdities that constrain the possibilities of autonomy and creativity in the early twenty-first century.”—Ploughshares
“Told through tense, sardonic journal entries that are as cutting as they are tender, The Applicant sheds light on the grim reality of pursuing the life of an artist.”—Vulture, “30 Books We Can’t Wait to Read This Winter”
“Superb . . . [The Applicant] has a brilliant, and challenging, political awareness.”—Telegraph (UK)
“Leyla is a witty, acutely observant, and deeply sympathetic character who manages to tell the details of her life—both the transcendent epiphanies and the debauched aftermaths—with an honesty that disavows patronizing pity. This is a book about some of the largest issues of our time—ethnic identity, national belonging, the psychological traumas of patriarchy and White supremacy, sexual ownership, feminist reckoning—but it is also, and perhaps primarily, a book about the intimacy between a character and a reader as one agrees to talk and the other agrees to listen. A powerful debut that heralds a voice intent on being heard.”—Kirkus reviews, starred review
“Sometimes you encounter a character in a book who you genuinely want to hang out with. We could be friends in real life, you think. Reader, meet Leyla… a protagonist to root for.”—Literary Hub, Most Anticipated Books of 2023
“Excellently written, this first work presents Leyla as an authentic individual who will not easily be forgotten, and exquisitely explores the frustrations and insights of an inquiring mind sorting out past history, boyfriends and lovers, dreams and reality.”—Library Journal, starred review
“Truly unique… A powerful book that pinpoints exactly where our contradictions lie. It is so powerful, in fact, that it can do all this while still making you laugh.”—Bookpage
“The Applicant is a stunning debut, marking the arrival of an important and radical new literary voice. Nazlı Koca’s narrator, Leyla, a Turkish ex-student desperate to extend her stay in Berlin, ruthlessly interrogates the unspoken compromises, hypocrisies, double standards, and hierarchies that govern life in what can broadly be called the western world. An exhilarating and sometimes alarming tour of a rarely described stratum of migrants, workers, and ex-students. Electric, witty, compulsively readable, humane, and excoriating. A book I won’t forget.”—Elif Batuman, author of The Idiot and Either/Or
“Hilarious and troubling in equal parts, The Applicant is an unforgettable meditation on sex, censorship, displacement, and loss. Nazlı Koca captures the cacophonous rhythms of an emotionally eviscerated life with verve and humor.”—Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, author of Call Me Zebra
“An exuberant debut from Nazlı Koca, who has something to declare about both the boldness and the fear gripping the young navigating the cruel farce of our modern world. A smart mix of fury and wit, altogether timely about the chasms of class and identity, the pull of family and the search for self.”—Manuel Muñoz, author of The Consequences
“The Applicant is an exceptional novel, part kunstroman, part bildungsroman, part newcomer’s guide to the S-Bahn and U-Bahn of art, work, art work, sex work, drugs and immigration. Like Acker, Koca is her own (displaced) Dante, guiding herself and her readers through a lively urban nocturne constellated with literature and alight with that most vital and phenomenal of currents: youth.”—Joyelle McSweeney, author of Toxicon and Arachne
“Nazli Koca has the rare gift of making you laugh and weep within a page. Bold and original, the writing pulses with techno, soap operas, and late-night banter. But like the silence between two beats, its profound wisdom and unbearable tenderness reverberate. Quietly devastating, The Applicant left me with the most wonderful ache.”—Sanaë Lemoine, author of The Margot Affair
“The Applicant is brilliant in its mordant and moving portrait of Leyla, a Turkish immigrant in Berlin who cleans a hostel for pay, parties by night, and yearns for the freedom to write every moment in between. Shining a critically frank light on citizenship, censorship, belonging and loss, Nazlı Koca writes masterfully about a young artist’s sheer will to live and to write despite the monumental cost of living as a migrant in the Western world. I inhaled this novel like its pages were air to breathe.”—Mina Seçkin, author of The Four Humors
Reading group guide for The Applicant by Nazlı Koca
Guide by Gwyneth Henke
1. Turkey and Germany are central to the novel. Each country’s political and social realities shape Leyla’s life, and at times they also seem to function metaphorically. At the end of the novel, Leyla ties her own emotional experiences to Turkey’s political ones, vowing not to “stage another coup against myself” (248). What do you think Turkey and Germany represent to Leyla? What parts of her identity or experiences does she associate with each?
2. Leyla often worries that she’s assuming the roles of “immigrant” or “cleaner” inauthentically; she’s not, she insists, a “cleaner-cleaner” (30). At the same time, she also doesn’t want to be seen as separate from these identities: encountering a group of Turkish cleaners, she writes, “I didn’t want them to think that I was . . . a European with money who doesn’t see them” (34). How does this tension—between a sense of belonging and of being an imposter—play out in the novel?
3. While reading Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, Leyla remarks, “It’s comforting to read novels narrated from the future selves of their characters. Even in the most desperate acts of a story, we know that the narrator will survive in the end and make it far enough to write a novel” (117). The Applicant does the opposite; Leyla records each diary entry for her readers with no idea of what will follow. How does this shape our experience of the book? Did you ever feel anxious about what would happen to Leyla?
4. As the character Leyla starts to turn her diary entries into a book, she admits that she has omitted things that she included in her original diary. This gives the impression of two Applicants; one censored, the other not. Which one are we reading? How does the development of the book within The Applicant change your understanding of Koca’s role as author versus Leyla’s as protagonist?
5. Leyla is addicted to Turkish soap operas and spends much of the novel either watching television or talking about needing to stop watching television. What do you think television offers her? Do you, like Leyla, ever compare your own life to television shows
6. Leyla’s friend Eve is a popular Instagram influencer who advertises a glamorous life in London while actually living with her parents in Poland. How does this sense of illusion and fabrication, especially across countries, compare to Leyla’s experience of Berlin, and the distorted picture of her German life she conveys to her mother and sister back in Turkey?
7. Many entries begin with Leyla recalling a dream she’d had the night before (9, 41, 50, 70, 126, 154, 177, 212, 223, 234). Choose one dream and analyze how it expresses or complicates a broader theme of the book.
8. The Applicant is full of people, from Leyla’s closest friends to strangers met and forgotten at clubs. Everyone is mentioned by name—except for the Swede, one of the people who comes to matter most to Leyla. Why do you think that is? What does it say about her relationship with him?
9. Leyla says of Mona, “I could only stand myself when I was with her” (159). What does their friendship represent to Leyla? How does it change once they start engaging in sex work together? What do you think Leyla sees in Mona—both in their shared life in Berlin, and in Mona’s experiences in the US after disappearing from Leyla’s life?
10. Leyla often talks about there being “multiple Leylas” which she fears she’ll destroy by choosing different paths (20, 212, 231). Do you ever feel like there are multiple versions of yourself competing with one another? If so, how do you know which is “real”?
11. Leyla starts writing her diary in a notebook she finds under the couch in her apartment. “Maybe this is me now: whatever I find on the floor,” she writes. “Whatever I can have. Nothing I want” (7). Many of the subsequent entries begin with lists of “treasures” she finds while cleaning the hostel. Why do you think Leyla keeps track of the things she finds? Is there anywhere else you see the theme of “found things” recurring?
12. Discuss Leyla’s relationship with her mother. How does she view her mother? How does that portrait change over the course of the novel? What is she most afraid of happening to their relationship?
13. Leyla describes herself as being in a kind of love affair with Berlin. Imagine Berlin as a character in the book. How would you describe them? What are the major “milestones” of Leyla’s relationship with them? Is the relationship a healthy one?
14. One of the reasons Leyla struggles to claim the identity of the “immigrant” is because she’s an artist, a pursuit which at times feels self-indulgent compared to more “practical” occupations. Are there certain expectations you think Leyla feels beholden to as an immigrant? According to Leyla, what makes the idea of an immigrant artist politically dangerous or suspect?
15. Leyla reveals two central secrets over the course of the novel, about Mona and about her father. Before she admits to them, did you sense that Leyla was hiding something? Why or why not? How do these secrets, and Leyla’s shame around them, shape the rest of the novel?
16. Leyla struggles to understand her relationship with the Swede, worrying that she’s using him for his money, his citizenship, his stability, or his social status as a white Swede. She even compares him to her mother, who also makes her feel safe but with whom she has nothing in common intellectually. How did you view her relationship with the Swede? Do you think their relationship will last? Why do you think Leyla is drawn to him?
17. The ending of the book is ambiguous; Koca gives no closure for Leyla’s relationship or her immigration status. Instead, Leyla resolves that whatever happens, “I will take my story with me, all of it” (248). What do you think this means to Leyla? What will that look like? Why do you think Koca didn’t make Leyla’s outcome clear?
18. The Applicant begins with a letter addressed “To whom it may concern.” Reread it having finished the novel. How do you view it now? Who do you think it is written for?