One of the pivotal projects of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation is the Sozopol Fiction Seminars. Every year at the end of May, writers from Bulgaria and the English speaking parts of the world gather in the historical town of Sozopol on the Black sea coast and immerse themselves in writing workshops and giving readings.
This is where this month's featured writers Ivan Dimitrov and Ivan Landzhev met their American colleagues Paul Vidich and Lee Romer Kaplan back in 2010 and in 2011.
In the spring of 2012, the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation was delighted to provide the opportunity for the writers to reprise their performances in front of new audiences in a new environment, New York City. The Bulgarian Consulate became a stage for the two reunion events.
Literary happenings that juxtapose two language cultures are a rare treat, so we had the idea of letting the writers involved share their personal experiences.
Ivan Dimitrov came to New York for the hotInk festival, where his play The Eyes of Others was among the winners. Asked about Ivan's presence, the festival director Catherine Coray said, "Ivan Dimitrov's play stood out among the more than 400 submissions we received for hotINK at the Lark, for its unity of vision, the wittiness of the dialogue (in Angela Rodel's excellent translation) and the obvious compassion Dimitrov has for his characters – they are vain, needy and lost, but, like Beckett, Dimitrov makes it possible for us to see ourselves in his people so that, even as we are laughing at them, we know just how they feel."
With almost no break for Ivan to recover from the success of the staged reading of his play, the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation hosted an event featuring him and his colleague from the 2010 Sozopol Fiction Seminars, Paul Vidich.
We asked both authors to comment on their experience of reuniting in this new setting.
Ivan Dimitrov admitted that this public appearance was his first reading in English. "It was a little bit scary, but fortunately only for me. The audience was amazing. I felt I had their full attention. They were responsive to the text, which is important for every reading. The discussion was funny. In general, I now feel prepared for my next reading in English."
Paul Vidich described how "The wood-panelled parlour floor of the Bulgarian Consulate was an elegant setting for a New York literary reading, as they usually take place in cramped downtown bars – nice, of course, and fun with all the beer, but not elegant. I was honoured to reprise my paired reading with Ivan, whose noir-ish crime story received well-deserved applause."
Less than two months later we enjoyed Ivan Landzhev's visit to New York. Ivan made pilgrimages to his favourite literary spots in town. Passionate chess player, he joined in a chess match with strangers on Washington square, paired up for a reunion reading with Lee Romer Kaplan, organised by the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, and then took part as a guest writer in Ms Kaplan's course English 333: The Short Story at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.
Both Ivan and Lee were invited to comment on their reunion reading.
I've always enjoyed reading in English, mainly because I've been obsessed with the language ever since I was a little kid. But there's another reason why literary readings in a different language than your own are particularly interesting: the text is pretty much the same, but the audience reacts to different things! It was a great night at the Bulgarian Consulate, and a pleasure to read together with Lee. People paid close attention, they came to listen to poetry and prose and they did so – contrary to popular belief, this doesn't happen that often at readings. And after the reading they were eager to discuss things. I found this flattering.
Lee Romer Kaplan:
What a treat then, to read again with Ivan Landzhev in New York City, at the Bulgarian Consulate, and to have so many of my students in attendance.
Landzhev's deeply intellectual approach to literature is rooted not only in book learning, but in his wry and wise experience of life, a rare blend that excited and inspired the students in attendance. The day after the reading, Ivan visited my advanced literature class at the college, just as Ivan Dimitrov had after his reading. He insisted on hearing the students' writing before sharing his own work, and listened as these fledgling writers, most of them non-native English speakers, from Gambia and Sierra Leone, the Dominican Republic, Pakistan and Haiti, haltingly shared their poetry and prose. Afterwards, he provided incisive feedback, which several students later told me made them feel, for the first time, "like real writers too."
A couple of months earlier, Lee's students had also enjoyed a visit by Ivan Dimitrov to their short story class: "Not only did Ivan allow his story to be analysed by my students in the same way we'd dissected Kafka, Flannery O'Connor and Ralph Ellison over the semester, but he answered every question my students posed with patience and grace. Now, my students often ask after 'the two Ivans."
"Bulgarians are some seriously cool cats," one student said. Another asked, "Are all Bulgarians named 'Ivan'?" Because both Bulgarian guest writers were called Ivan, the class distinguished between them by calling Dimitrov "Rasta Ivan" (because of his waist-length dreadlocks) and Landzhev, "the Bulgarian Cat in the Hat," because he, well, wears a hat (in this case, a rakishly angled fedora).