THE SHAPES WE TWIST INTO

THE SHAPES WE TWIST INTO

Wed, 08/05/2020 - 10:14

A text from the The Alone Together series, an initiative of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation

I've been to Bulgaria twice, separated by a gap of three years, though it feels like I've actually been to two different Bulgarias. This difference is on my mind as I think of how my home country, America, has changed in about the same timeframe. I feel like I've lived in two different Americas lately, and think back to Bulgaria looking for words to pinpoint this sensation.

I visited my first Bulgaria as a fellow of the 2009 Sozopol Fiction Seminar, and I instantly loved the country and the wonderfully open people in its literary community. Bulgaria had just joined the European Union in 2007, and people exuded a sense of confident hope when they talked about the future. This confirmed my enthusiasm for the place, which spilled over to my family back in America when I Skyped with them. (Somewhere there's a video of my sons, then four and two, running circles in our living room while the eldest shouts “We're going to Bulgaria!”) When I came home I immediately started plotting ways to get back.

I visited my second Bulgaria as a guest of the 2012 Sozopol seminar and found the mood more sombre. The same people I'd met three years earlier didn't talk about their country the same way. The national future didn't sound as rosy, and people's individual futures seemed less rosy too. I learned that the government in place back in May 2009 was ousted two months later, and by my 2012 visit its replacement was on shaky ground—I remember hearing about problems with utilities and oil. The grumblings I heard would turn to protests and this government, too, would eventually collapse in early 2013.

Some of the difference I felt between 2009 and 2012 stems from my own impressions, of course. But I can't shake one fact: vastly more Bulgarians I met talked about wanting to leave their home country in 2012 than in 2009, and they talked about it more stridently. I think back to this phenomenon when I compare America today to America before the November 2016 presidential election. Fantasizing about leaving the country has been a pastime of the literary/cultural community for much longer than I've been part of it. But under the previous administration those fantasies didn't feel as urgent. We had awful skeletons in our closet, but we were starting to face them with hope. America felt on the up-and-up.

Then came the 2016 election and its massive cultural swing from center-left to hard right. Escape hatch fantasies in the community of writers, artists, and musicians I know and love became urgent and loud. As America's national and personal futures grew less rosy, we looked to other countries for freedom and hope. (My personal favorites: Portugal and Norway.) Covid-19 has severely damaged my fantasies of escape, but I still find myself envying friends who live in countries that aren't tearing themselves apart aggressively like America is. Sometimes when it gets really awful, I excoriate myself for never learning a foreign language well enough to gain employment in it – which means my family and I are stuck here no matter how far down the sinkhole of its own darkness America wants to dive.

How far down we go is anybody's guess because America isn't used to such rapid swings in national identity, and American psyches aren't either. The last time we experienced such disaffection and self-questioning was during the run of political assassinations in the 1960s, and our current fracture feels potentially more violent. But Bulgaria is more used to national disaffection, since it has survived Ottoman rule, Communism, a rickety transition to European-style capitalism, and multiple quick regime changes.

So I look out my writing room window asking what lessons Bulgaria has for America, because it has to know something to survive almost fifteen hundred years. Doesn't it? But I fear the only lesson America can learn right now is the same one our species keeps learning regardless of nation or era: The powerful will always take more power, and those they take it will from suffer. That story never changes, whether it unfolds in Sofia or New York or Sozopol or South Dakota. All that differs are the details of place, the specificity of loss, and the shapes that people twist themselves into to keep their sense of being intact.

This is the flower of the human species –what stubbornly remains when hope for the future gets stripped away by other people's need for control. This is what Bulgaria knows. America, protected from its darkness by its willful self-delusions for so long, is no longer able to maintain our facade, and we're learning hard truths the hard way.

The Alone Together series presents literary work by Sozopol Seminars' faculty and fellows written in the confines of our authors' homes during the coronavirus outbreak in an attempt to connect each other and to carry on the magic and spirit of the Seminars, which for the first time in thirteen memorable years has had to be canceled. The Elizabeth Kostova Foundation asked writers from five different continents to look through the windows of their studies, literally and metaphorically, and share their literary imagination. The project was launched in March 2020 and culminated in the end of May 2020.

EK_Logo.jpg THE ELIZABETH KOS­TOVA FOUNDATION and VAGABOND, Bulgaria's English Monthly, cooperate in order to enrich the English language with translations of contemporary Bulgarian writers. Every year we give you the chance to read the work of a dozen young and sometimes not-so-young Bulgarian writers that the EKF considers original, refreshing and valuable. Some of them have been translated in English for the first time. The EKF has decided to make the selection of authors' work and to ensure they get first-class English translation, and we at VAGABOND are only too happy to get them published in a quality magazine. Enjoy our fiction pages.

Issue 166 Elizabeth Kostova Foundation
0 comments

Add new comment

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
5 + 12 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.

Discover More

ALONE TOGETHER
We're in the time of COVID-19, and I'm in the southernmost country in the world, save for New Zealand and Antarctica.
BEING HAPPY
The White Gentleman decided that the weather was too beautiful this morning to waste the day in everyday nonsense. Therefore, he put on his happy hat and flung the door open with a flourish.
SAN SALVADOR
If somebody's heart stops due to a trauma, such as a car accident or a fall, CPR cannot save them. I know this, but I don't know if it is the same with cycling.
THE BOY, BORN FROM AN APPLE
Once upon a time, a husband and a wife lived in a town. They were very rich, but had no children. They were very sad about this.
THE CAULDRON
Most of the houses in the village were uninhabitable. The residents of the rest of them were old people and Gypsies. On the whole, peace and love didn't exactly reign, but there was tolerance and an absence of extensive problems.
OXHEART
In the empty apartment, he took a shower and looked for a piece of paper and a pen. He found an orange BIC, yellowed graph paper and sat down to write. He hadn't written for years. Clinical Picture of Nostalgia:
BETWEEN THE FLOORS
I used to live on the last floor, but now I reside on the landing between the last and the next-to-last floor. I don't remember how long it's been. It must be a while, though, since people seem really used to me by now and pretend I don't even exist.
A SUBLIME PORT
I start forgetting things. Sometimes I remember that I'm forgetting but sometimes I don't so I keep a list. I note the consequences because I think that may provide an incentive for me to remember in the future.
HEARSE, TWO RHINOCEROS, An excerpt from a novel
I was there early, so I went up to the second floor restroom. I seized the moment of seclusion, and scraped my own cave painting on the wall. It depicted a group of hunters who had surrounded a rhinoceros.
LEAVING TOYOHARAS
KARIYA'S PHONE STOPS WORKING SOMEWHERE IN THE air above Hokkaido.
IT STILL BENDS ON THE ELBOW*
It may seem like nothing to you but you have to understand there was this life I was heading for like for a heavy-ass truck on the highway – fast, loose – and it was like all of a sudden I was getting a preview of it.