Writer Miroslav Penkov put out his first book this summer, East of the West: A Country in Stories, a collection of eight short stories set in his native Bulgaria. The culmination of several years of work, the book is a fine delivery on the promise Penkov has shown in his young career.
At 26, he saw a story of his included in the Best American Short Stories (thanks to editors Salman Rushdie and Heidi Pitlor) and won the Eudora Welty Prize in fiction. Now three years later, the title story from his new collection has been selected for the 2012 PEN/O. Henry Prize for short stories.
For the last two years, Penkov has made his home in Denton, where he teaches creative writing at the University of North Texas. He came from Bulgaria to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to study psychology as an undergraduate, and he stayed on there for his MFA. Southern college towns didn't exactly accord to his imagination of the US, Penkov says, but over time he fell in love with the pace of life and the friendliness. And it helps that he's a big fan of Southern literature.
Penkov caught up with us by phone from his hometown, Sofia, Bulgaria, where he has been visiting for the last few weeks, and talked to us about switching modes (and languages), playing with history and the writing process.
You've lived in the US now for 10 years and this summer just seen the release of your first book. How is it being home right now? It's fine. It's been 10 years, so you're right. I came to the states in 2001, but as a student. It's a little bit different than as an immigrant. For 10 years, I've basically been spending my summers in Bulgaria, and my winter breaks. So, I would go to the U.S., I would study for a semester and come home, stay here the whole summer and go back.
I never really lost any connections in Bulgaria with people, with the place. Up until now, when the book came out and reviewers are calling me an immigrant, I never really thought of myself as an immigrant. Which I imagine is the correct word. But nowadays it's very different from how it used to be when people left and never looked back.
It strikes me that you're something of a translator, twice over. First, you're writing about home in this book, in another language. That can present the challenge of authenticity, particularly in creating dialogue. And then you've actually been translating the stories into Bulgarian. What has that experience been like? You're really caught in a strange situation where you want to render a specific voice or a specific sound of one language into another language and you have to invent for yourself a way to carry over not only words that have no meaning in English, and then, worst-case scenario you end up italicizing them, but the whole mold of speech.
When it comes to dialogue, to do that in English, I was looking at Hemingway stories; for example, where you read a story and you have someone who speaks, obviously, English but you get the sense that the person is speaking Italian or Spanish, and he manages to do that somehow. I was trying to do that in English. But now that I'm translating them into Bulgarian -- I still have one story to finish, by the way -- it's really torturous, it's been really difficult.
Perhaps difficult is not exactly the word: It's been painful and very slow.
It probably takes me about an hour and a half to do a couple of pages. I'm pretty tired of the stories by now. I mean, I really like them but I've been rewriting and working on them for years.
But it's very challenging to do them in Bulgarian now because obviously I can't take too much liberty or it will no longer be a translation. I don't want to rewrite them. But at the same time I cannot render them with the same simplicity or even the elegance of the prose that I was striving for in English. That just doesn't work in Bulgarian.
I need to make them more colorful, I need to ground them deeper into local dialect. Reinventing those voices has been the most challenging and just torturous part.
The English-speaking, capitalist West is a bit of a curiosity for many of your characters. In "The Letter," the well-to-do Bulgarians, who aren't originally from the small town in which the story is set, are referred to uniformly by the villagers as "the British." In other stories, the English language is described by characters alternately as "devoid of history and meaning, completely free" and as "a rabid dog that can turn one's brains into crabapple mash." When I was writing these -- these are essentially my own ideas ... I started studying English when I was 14, and it took me about a year of really intense English courses to start understanding. Up until that point, this is exactly what English was for me. It was a language devoid of meaning and all the words sounded like a single word. So that's me, writing myself into the story.
The idea of the West is something that I just know from my parents, when I was little and Bulgaria wasn't in very good shape economically. This was after the fall of communism in the early '90s.
My parents really -- I don't know how seriously they were thinking about this, because I do believe they always knew that it was impossible for us to go anywhere -- but they had these fantasies that they're gonna go West, to the West. It didn't matter if it was Spain, Germany, it was one whole thing. That was your salvation: the West.
Then I also did an inversion of the idea that many Americans have, of Eastern Europe, for example. To me, the whole concept of "Eastern Europe" means nothing. Bulgaria and Serbia are as different as they can be, and then you add Greece or Romania, so I was just poking fun at the idea of the outside, the otherness, as a uniform entity.
History plays a big role in the lives of your characters, even if the younger set appears more ambivalent about this burden. For example, a story like "Devshirmeh." This is an idea that I really like -- something that is really an oxymoron -- the idea of the personal truth, that something holds true only in respect to one person: your understanding of history.
I really believe that when a country is so old, that history is entirely yours to do whatever you want with it. I don't know if this makes any sense, but in the story "Devshirmeh," the father is able to allegorically insert his own life with very specific details and parallels into a story of something that presumably happened hundreds of years ago. That connection to me is very interesting, between what has been and what now is.
And you can see there is a strong tradition in Southern writing, especially when you look at Faulkner or Katherine Ann Porter, for example, writers who believe that your only way of understanding the present will be through making sense of the past -- and only then are you able to know yourself and who you are, by knowing your ancestors.
I really like that idea, but I also believe that there isn't really such a thing as an absolutely "true" historical occurrence once you pass a certain time limit, or even the time limit doesn't matter, that you're free to spin whatever tale. That's also very dangerous. That happens, where a group of people take some occurrence in history and twist it or take it out of context and use it for their own purposes. It's not just a beautiful poetic notion, but it can also be a very dangerous thing to do.
You manage to have fun with history and your characters' relationship to it. Here, what we often associate with Eastern European literature is either an outright depressing take on history or a caustic wit, very dark -- Well, you have to have it to survive. The other thing, the absurdity. As a matter of fact, I was trying very conscientiously not to make my stories too absurd. Because the system is such that it lends itself to absurdity very easily, it's almost a cliché; the immediate mold of making sense of the craziness of communism is when you put it in the prism of absurdity. But you do that only because I am now free. I don't believe that if I was still writing within the restraints of communism -- maybe I'm wrong, I'm just imagining things -- I would be capable of poking fun with such ease and light heart.
I think now I can do it because I'm free, because I have the distance of space, geographically I'm far away, but also the distance of time. That freedom allows you to laugh at it. But if you think about it very honestly, it is not really funny. It might be absurd, but it's actually soul-crushingly depressing; if you try to rebel, because so few people do, you get crushed. You find your own way to go with the flow and that's who you are. And you go with the flow, you adjust, you adapt.
There are plenty of people, especially old people now, who look kindly upon their life back in the day and now they have the added 20 to 30 years, now everything's nostalgic and sentimental. But they don't look at it as oppression necessarily because while it was happening they managed to adapt. The absurdity is the first and easiest mold to deal with; some of the things that happened are absolutely idiotic, so you either have to cry with bitter tears or just laugh at it.
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The first story is one of the more serious ones in the first half of the collection and the next several are not absurd, exactly, but certainly more comedic. You introduce little elements of magical realism. You have playfully unreliable narrators, but it's never distracting. What genres or modes do you find yourself most comfortable with, or do you like the freedom to switch? I like the freedom to switch between things, and it was important to me to take advantage of that freedom so that I can create. I mean, I was writing single stories but I was always thinking of them as working together in a collection, and I wanted the collection to be varied. I would sometimes talk to friends and they would say, "So, what's a good Bulgarian book to read?" And there are several, but you can't find them. There are a lot of good Bulgarian books to read and some of them have been translated, but they're all out of print in the U.S. So, I would have no answer.
It might sound presumptuous -- it certainly does -- but what if I tried to write such a book? What if I tried to write a book that gives you a sense of Bulgaria? And my original idea was to start in the present and move back in time to really glorious historical times.
I really wanted to write about the history that interests me, which, to me, the most interesting are the days of the tsars and before that the khans. I really like those stories. That was my idea, but as I started working I realized that such a book would be just really big. It would be impossible, really impossible. So I figured I would limit myself to the 20th century with a little bit of Ottoman history before that, which is exactly what happened, and then I abandoned the idea of going back in time chronologically.