A Mother’s Attempt to Flee Turkey—and Her Marriage

Intrigue and conflict mount steadily in Elliot Ackerman’s new novel, set in a period of turmoil in Istanbul
Intrigue and conflict mount steadily in National Book Award finalist Elliot Ackerman’s new novel, Red Dress in Black and White. The story is set in a period of turmoil in Istanbul, Turkey.
Elliot Ackerman set his latest novel in the time of the 2013 Gezi Park protests, which he says were “the closest thing Turkish society had to an Arab Spring moment.” Photo: Huger Foote
May 26, 2020

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In the latest novel by Elliot Ackerman, A03, F03, his main characters Peter and Catherine sit at a restaurant in the Istanbul Modern Museum, paging through a book of Peter’s photographs. The photos are arranged in contrasting pairs—a woman in a hijab buying groceries and a female executive; a bar owner smoking a waterpipe and a Muslim prayer leader climbing the tower of a mosque.

“And that’s the strategy of tension?” asks Catherine, referring to the Cold War-era political theory that informs Peter’s photos. “The way two people suspend each other in place,” Peter confirms. But he doesn’t tell her the rest: “The question implied in each portrait was that the viewer also had a pairing, that they too existed in tension with another person, and in that tension resided their own fate.”

That tension is the driving force throughout Red Dress in Black and White. The story takes place over the course of a single day as Catherine tries to leave her husband, a Turkish developer named Murat, and flee to the United States with her young son and fellow American expatriate and lover, Peter. An American diplomat, Kristin, and a gallery curator, Deniz, play crucial roles in the plot, which unfolds in an Istanbul recently rocked by the 2013 Gezi Park anti-government protests.

The story in Ackerman’s latest novel takes place over the course of a single day, as an American expatriate tries to leave her Turkish husband.“I’ve always been interested in the intersection between the political and the personal,” said Ackerman, a former Marine officer and National Book Award finalist whose previous titles include the novels Waiting for Eden and Dark at the Crossing. “It’s really a story about the ways that not only people but also societies frequently hold themselves together with hidden constructs, and the way we’re all bound up in one another.”

The story flashes back to show us Catherine’s longing for the love lacking in her marriage, which leads her into Peter’s arms; Peter’s desire to make a name for himself as a photographer, which he hopes Catherine can help him realize; and Murat’s determination to expand his real estate empire and cement his place in Turkish society, prompting him to strike a secret deal with Kristin. “I was interested in the way people use slightly veiled threats to fix someone else in place and get people to act the way they want,” Ackerman said. “To various degrees, every character is doing that to someone else in his or her life.”

In many ways, the book reflects Ackerman’s own experiences. He and his former wife separated when their children were young, and he said his characters are all different versions of himself—they represent views and feelings he has grappled with at one time or another. He also used to live in Istanbul and revisited those memories to create a vibrant setting for the book. Turquoise LED lights sparkle on the First Bosphorus Bridge; visitors to the American embassy wear Mickey Mouse T-shirts and Brooks Brothers khaki suits, hoping to connect with the officials; and the smells of fresh acma and simit (Turkish breads) and chestnuts fill the street.

The details of the protests are equally vivid. We hear the jangling of the protestors’ masks and goggles as they walk and the hiss of police officers’ rubber bullets. We see the chicken wire on the windshields of the police’s armored buses, the “lazy, rhythmic arcs” of police water cannons, and the spirals of tear gas wafting from sputtering canisters on the ground.

The story and the setting came to him together, Ackerman said. “The Gezi Park protests were the closest thing Turkish society had to an Arab Spring moment, a time when people were really challenging the social orders as they existed inside Turkey,” he said. “The upheaval between Catherine, Peter, and Murat felt very similar to the political upheavals I was seeing in Turkish society and more broadly across the world in 2015 and ’16 and ’17. It felt like a metaphor for what we were living through.”

As Gezi Park explodes, so do the lives of Catherine, Peter, and Murat on the fateful day portrayed in Red Dress in Black and White. In the struggles of these characters, Ackerman hopes readers will find what all his characters obtain by the end: recognition. 

“There’s a sense of resolution—that everyone has wound up in their place at least for the immediate moment, and everyone to a degree recognizes how they ended up there,” he said. “They understand the architecture that was put in place.”

And with understanding, Ackerman added, often comes acceptance. “Sometimes we go through huge upheaval to try to achieve greater perfection, and sometimes we resign ourselves to living with an imperfect situation. If you can’t build something better, you’re not going to tear it down,” he said. This isn’t right or wrong, he added. It’s just reality, both on an individual and a global level. “We can point to any number of societies around the world where things are far from perfect, but we all muddle on because what else are we going to do?” he said. “It doesn’t mean there’s no value there. It’s just imperfect.”

Is this the final message of the novel—that sometimes we just have to live with imperfection? “Nothing will change too much,” says Deniz, the gallery curator, in the last scene, which again takes place at the Istanbul Modern Museum. “Will it?” Kristin, the American diplomat, answers: “No. Nothing will change at all.”

But Ackerman pointed to a detail that he said many American readers but few Turkish ones will miss: the timestamp of that last scene, which takes place in early July 2016. “It’s the night before the coup,” he said, referring to an attempt by a faction of the Turkish Armed Forces to take over parts of the government. “We never know what’s right around the corner.”

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