Last summer I had the great pleasure of attending the Sozopol Fiction Seminar, an annual program sponsored by the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation that brings together five writers working in English and five working in Bulgarian, as well as editors, publishers, and translators from all over the world, to foster an international dialogue on writing.
I was invited to offer my perspective on Poets & Writers as well as the wider world of literary magazines, and for six days I got to know some extremely talented writers from Bulgaria, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States while learning about the literary culture of Bulgaria – first in the capital city of Sofia and then in Sozopol, an ancient town on the Black Sea. Truly remarkable.
Yet, often the most valuable moments at these kinds of events are unplanned, unscripted. I asked eleven authors to share their moments of truth at writers retreats, so I’ll share mine.
It came during one of the brief stops that punctuated a very fast drive through the Bulgarian countryside as contributing editor Jeremiah Chamberlin, Tin House managing editor Cheston Knapp, and I hurtled toward the Turkish border. Our intrepid guide was the larger-than-life Anthony Georgieff, editor of the Bulgarian magazine Vagabond.
There we were, speeding down and around the curves of way-too-narrow roads, the landscape interrupted by Soviet-era relics (concrete housing complexes, disintegrating army barracks), all blurring beyond our windows, Jimi Hendrix blasting through the speakers. It was an experience almost too strange to be believed. How did I end up here? We slid to a stop on a gravel road and Georgieff turned off the car, the engine ticking in time to crickets in the sudden quiet. There, atop the shell of a concrete embankment, stood two goats. I slowly approached, the animals eyeing me warily. We stared at one another. Five seconds passed, ten. One of them bleated, burped, and began to chew his cud, looking past me. Then they slowly ambled away. Until that moment, I had been seeing Bulgaria through a tourist’s eyes, my own importance coloring the view. It took the indifference of a goat, of all things, to jostle me out of my familiar perspective. Only afterward did I truly see my surroundings. This writer’s eyes, so often trained inward, had been opened.
New York City
Over the years of living with Vagabond and its sister publications at various times, like HighFlights and now the marvellous Hidden Treasures of Bulgaria book, my life as an expat Bulgarian and English-language writer has taken unexpected turns that were determined by the stories and discoveries on your pages. They were all exciting turns.
Those like me – who live outside Bulgaria but are engaged with it – yearn for exactly what you continue to offer against the odds of economic struggle, limited media freedom, and other more insidious forms of discouragement. We may not be many (there's only about 2 million Bulgarians living abroad), but we exist and we need you. To me at least what Vagabond offers is a lifeline as well as a source of immense cultural wealth.
The reasons for this are many and various, but here are some. Dispassionate investigative journalism. Incisive political commentary. A cosmopolitan outlook on all things Balkan. Gripping travel and history narratives. Independence and equanimity of thought. Humour. These are increasingly rare things in any print media these days, in any language, but especially hard in Bulgaria of the last few years for reasons that are known to your readers. Your work has transformed the virtual landscape of Bulgarian media culture. It has certainly transformed my life. I thank you for both.