Introduction to Bulgarian Literature by T.M. De Vos
When I received my invitation to the 2015 Sozopol Fiction Seminars (SFS), I was in Kansas City for work and could barely recall what a coast looked like, much less imagine the inky waters and etched cliffs of Sozopol. It is impossible not to love its winding, cobbled streets and wafts of rosewater from its main square, and—farther afield—the Thracian ruins of Kabile, still being excavated amid fields of wildflowers. What struck me even more than the beauty so elemental to the Bulgarian land- and cityscape were the generosity with which the writers at SFS approached one another's work. Here was the kind of community I had been seeking when I began to pursue writing seriously: intellectual gravity, but also deep joy and a hint of playfulness.
Whereas the literary community at home had felt like a locked gate, the community at SFS was more of a porous membrane. Elizabeth Kostova, founder of the eponymous foundation and the SFS, and Claire Messud spoke with the English fellows about our work as something that was worth doing, even important. This current of generosity infused the entire seminar, reinforcing the reality that writing is hard work, that it requires tremendous empathy, and that there is honor in doing it well. Nor is it a solipsistic pursuit: our purpose in coming together as writers in Bulgarian and English was to catalyze real cultural exchange—and to share experiences that helped us to bond as individuals. I also learned through observation, as my Bulgarian friends collaborated, translated each other's work, and—genuinely, deeply—read one another.
It was a revelatory experience to see writers approach one another with such care and respect. At home, my experience with writers had been that they were uncomfortable with each other: there were too many of us and too few resources. The SFS operate outside of this survivalist model by offering emerging writers the opportunity to develop ideas that may not yet be fully formed, but that are worth encouraging. In an age so focused on the finished product, the message that it is worth one's time to sit with an idea and follow it through, in all of its iterations, is near-revolutionary.
This folio is a single note of thanks in what I hope will be a lifelong dialogue with my Bulgarian (and Bulgarophile) friends, all of whom are gifted, accomplished, and—most importantly—profoundly warm and kind. I am grateful also to Steven Wingate for his scholarship in Bulgarian literature and history, which I am only beginning to study, and for his generosity in writing a splendid introduction on such short notice; and to Milena Deleva, Director of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, for her publicity and support of this folio. Not least of all, I would like to thank Elizabeth Kostova for her guidance and encouragement of this project, and of my own writing.
T.M. De Vos
Bulgaria Folio Editor
Introduction to Bulgarian Literature by Steve Wingate
The pages before you represent a cross-section of contemporary poetry and prose from Bulgaria, a nation nestled between Turkey and Greece that is drawing much more attention in the literary world than we would normally expect of a language with only about seven million speakers worldwide. In the past decade or so, fictionists such as Georgi Gospodinov and Milen Ruskov have won international prizes, and Bulgarian expats such as Kapka Kassabova in the UK and Miroslav Penkov—whose debut novel Stork Mountain is due out this spring in the US from Farrar, Strauss and Giroux—have published substantially.
Thus Bulgarian literature, which few in the West knew existed at the turn of the millennium, is suddenly among us. The simple—too simple—explanation is that Bulgarian writers, having been repressed by the shadow of Russian Communism until its fall in 1989–90, began to flower after that collapse. While this makes sense, it does not explain Bulgaria’s recent emergence on a world stage where it has not previously had a place. The reason this particular folio is before you, and the reason that Bulgarian literature is around you more generally, involves the fortuitous combination of a country renewing its identity through literature and a group of people intensely committed to making sure that this literature gets known across the world.
Bulgarian literary history is more complex than a post-Communist flowering would suggest, though it is certainly shaped by the push and pull of outside powers. Bulgarians proudly point out that their country gave rise to the Cyrillic alphabet, and that the god-man Orpheus (also claimed by the Greeks) was actually a Bulgarian from the Rhodope mountains in what was then Thrace. More recently, Bulgarian cultural history has shown a pattern of being washed away and rediscovered. Most significantly, the Ottoman Empire occupied the nation from the late 1300s until independence in 1878, severely challenging any enduring sense of Bulgarian identity. This period dwarfs the mere four decades (1944–1990) when Bulgaria was a Communist satellite of the Soviet Union, and those long centuries under Ottoman rule are still on the nation’s collective mind.
Bulgaria experienced a cultural emergence upon its 19th-century independence that sheds light on its literary rise today. Albena Hranova and Alexander Kiossev argue in the essay “Folklore as a Means to Demonstrate a Nation’s Existence: The Bulgarian Case” that “Folklore, or, more precisely, the construction of folklore,” played a role in the Bulgarian National Revival of that time. Interest in folk literature and poetry shaped nationwide conversations about Bulgarian identity; Hranova and Kiossev note that the “The common slogan underlying these discourses was that ‘Europe should become aware of the existence of the Bulgarians.’” Even a century and a half ago, during its birth as a modern nation, Bulgaria’s interest in self-definition is aligned with increasing the outside awareness of its literary arts.
It is during this phase that the Bulgarian cultural and literary identity began to birth itself. Novelist Ivan Vazov, poet Pencho Slaveykov, and satirist Aleyko Konstantinov were among the more influential writers of that age. But no sooner had Bulgaria emerged from the Ottoman shadow and invented its own literary identity than the Russians overtook the country in 1944 and instituted the constricting aesthetic practice of Soviet Realism. We can thus see the current state of Bulgarian literature as another national rebirth along the lines of that which occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries after the Ottoman occupation. In the long view, the present moment in Bulgarian history is a similar period of national self-definition, and this time we can see literature taking folklore’s place as the prime mover in demonstrating and exporting the country’s identity to the rest of the world.
Nation-forming narratives, worldwide and throughout history, tend toward the heroic, celebrating military and cultural heroes from Aeneas to George Washington. They also tend to celebrate folk traditions, as is the case with so much literature from the 19th century when Europe’s nations were beginning to find their current shape. But this is not the case in contemporary Bulgarian literature, as the country’s physical borders and language have been quite stable. Instead it is the question of identity—what it means to be Bulgarian and the place of Bulgarians in the world—that has taken the attention of Bulgaria’s writers. This knowledge that the nation has not simply shrugged off its history but must carry it into an uncertain future seeps through the nation’s literature. Miroslav Penkov could title subtitle his first book East of the West (2011) as A County in Stories because Bulgaria was, for so much of its occupied past in the last seven centuries, a set of stories of itself that will not go away with a flick of history’s paintbrush.
What we are seeing today in Bulgarian literature, then, is a response to history. But the reason we’re seeing it in the West right now is because of a model international effort to not merely to make Europe “aware of the existence of the Bulgarians,” but to make the broader English-speaking world aware as well. It would be difficult to discuss the rise of international interest in Bulgarian literature without noting the efforts of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation,founded by American novelist Elizabeth Kostova in 2007 to help foster creative writing opportunities in Bulgaria. Among its goals has been developing literary relationships between Bulgarian writers and English-speaking ones from around the world, and I will unabashedly claim—as someone who has come to know and love Bulgarian literature through its programs—that it has been enormously successful in meeting that goal.
The Bulgarian literary resurgence obviously preceded the EKF, so we can’t give that organization all the credit. But it also would also be simplistic to say that the EKF has been merely a mouthpiece, because it has gotten its hands dirty both in Bulgaria and abroad to work with cultural institutions on the nuts-and-bolts level. Rather than simply waiting for something to happen overseas that would bring attention to Bulgarian literature, the EKF and its partners have put resources—not simply money but human connection—into creating opportunities for Bulgarian writers to connect with each other and disseminate their collective work to the world. These efforts have included prizes and residencies for translators, conferences like the Sozopol Fiction Seminars and CapitaLiterature, and a partnership with Open Letter Books, America’s leading publisher of translated literature to distribute prize-winning Bulgarian novels in English.
The EKF represents a model that more countries should follow. Its focus has been not simply on trying to “sell” Bulgarian literature in the marketplace, but on supporting Bulgarian writers and building a community of translators—including Angela Rodel, who was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 2014 and shortlisted for the 2016 PEN Translation Prize for her translation of Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow. This dual focus gives the EKF’s efforts a grassroots feel, and, as history has proven time and again, grassroots efforts to support people doing what they love tend to outperform and outlast efforts merely to exploit or sell.
The contemporary flowering of Bulgarian literature and its penetration into the English-speaking community is a worthy phenomenon to observe and participate in. But Bulgarian nonetheless remains a small language and, outside of those already aware of its literature, there is a significant gap in collective knowledge. (Both the Encyclopedia Britanica and Wikipedia, for instance, end their entries on Bulgarian literary history with a period called “after 1944” and make no mention of the contemporary writers that the world is reading now.) This will only change when more projects like this folio reach the eyes of readers, at which point critics will need to acknowledge that the literary output of Bulgaria matters not only on that nation’s soil, but on the larger stage of the world.
With any luck, you will find this an engaging folio and count yourself among those in the know. And with a bit more luck, we will see more concerted, long-term efforts to develop and disseminate other robust and exciting international literatures springing up around the world on the model that Bulgaria has set.