With much in common – they have both changed countries and cultures, and have careers as both teachers and writers – Canadian Michael Ondaatje and United States-based Bulgarian Miroslav Penkov quickly developed a strong literary friendship, exchanging messages and travelling to Bulgaria together. They discussed a multitude of books but, happily for the young Bulgarian short-story writer, a major focus was his debut novel, which he was writing in English, his second language. At the end of the mentoring year, Penkov was delighted with the whole experience, especially as he had completed his novel – which has now been bought by an American publisher and is scheduled for publication in March 2016.
Miroslav Penkov, 31, is one of very few Bulgarian novelists to write about his home country in English. An Assistant Professor of English in the Creative Writing Program at the University of North Texas, his ambition for his 2014–2015 mentoring year with Michael Ondaatje is to finesse his novel about the desolation of Eastern Thrace.
On two occasions my life has taken an unexpected direction through the grace of others. I was 16, living in Bulgaria, when the great – and now, sadly, late – Bulgarian-Armenian writer Agop Melkonian published my first story in his literary magazine. A month later, he called me to his office. “I want you to write for me,” he said. “One article a month, and I’ll pay you. Take writing seriously,” he said. “I want to teach you professionalism, discipline.” He believed in me when even I didn’t.
In 2003, the American writer Ellen Gilchrist changed my life. I was studying psychology at the University of Arkansas, determined to make it my career. I took one of Ellen’s classes for fun, even though writing in a foreign language seemed impossible. “You should be a writer, not a shrink,” she told me after our first workshop. Ellen helped me hear the music of the words. It was Ellen who convinced me to apply to the Creative Writing Program and who, for four years, gave me courage.
Life and death books
As well as Michael Ondaatje, there are so many writers I like, beginning with the Russian writers like Chekhov, who saw that anyone, no matter how ordinary, is worthy of a story. Dostoevsky’s novels have great power in terms of language and character; these are life and death books. But Tolstoy is the absolute master, never judging, never philosophizing too much.
The writer I truly love is Nikos Kazantzakis. Freedom and Death is my favourite. It’s about Crete’s rebellion against the Ottomans. The book speaks to me on a deep, personal level, it speaks to my blood. It’s a Balkan thing.
Michael Ondaatje is a larger-than-life figure. There are few writers like him. That’s daunting, but he’s known to be incredibly kind, so I wasn’t nervous about meeting him, though I was giddy as a child.
He’d actually read my short-story collection and parts of the novel I’d written, and gave me useful feedback. He asked me to recommend books he could read. I ended up talking a lot more than him, telling him about Bulgarian and Balkan writers. I thought later, that I might have missed my chance to hear from him what I should be reading.
Give a man a fish
My main objective of the mentoring year is finalizing my novel, which I have been working on for four years. It has been bought by an American publisher. What I like about the mentorship is summed up in the saying “Give a man fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach him how to fish and he’ll never be hungry again.” So it’s not just about the novel; it’s about learning about being a writer for the rest of my life.
My novel is, among other things, about the desolation of Eastern Thrace, which borders Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, before, during and after the Balkan Wars. Part of the narrative also centres on a campaign by the Orthodox Church and Communist Party to make Bulgarian Muslims change their names.
I don’t look at my books individually. I perceive them as links in a single chain. I’d like the world to read about Bulgaria, its people, history and folklore. And I’d like the people of Bulgaria to start reading local literature again, something they’ve almost forgotten about over the past two decades of economic crisis. That’s why I write my books in English and in Bulgarian.
A path in the dark
No other Bulgarian writer before me has written stories in English about Bulgaria and published in America. I have no model to emulate. I make my own path in the dark and I’m often scared. But I’m also grateful for this unique opportunity.
I watch soccer, proper football. It teaches me patience. I think there are some similarities between football and publishing. A lot of players are young and gifted, but even if you’re playing for Manchester United, you don’t get to play every week. You work hard and wait your turn.
December 2015 The closing ceremony honouring the mentors and protégés of 2014–2015 capped off a brilliant Rolex Arts Weekend.
December 2015 Brilliant ideas, installations and exciting performances, including two world premieres, marked the Rolex Arts Weekend.