Miroslav Penkov was born in 1982 in Bulgaria. He arrived in America in 2001 and completed a bachelor’s degree in psychology and an M.F.A. in creative writing at the University of Arkansas. He has won the Eudora Welty Prize in Fiction, and his story “Buying Lenin” was published in The Best American Short Stories 2008, edited by Salman Rushdie. He teaches creative writing at the University of North Texas, where he is a fiction editor for the American Literary Review.
When I was a child, I did not much like to read, because I was lazy and preferred to play soccer outside. I did not like to be read to either, because repetition bored me and because my parents were really good story tellers—for years my mother told me about the adventures of two little hippos (brother and sister) who we’d send around the world and get into all sorts of trouble, while my father told me stories about Bulgarian history: khans, tsars, rebels fighting the Turks.
As a college student in the US, I wrote stories of my own, pseudo-American stories influenced by my teenage love of Stephen King. It became apparent, very quickly, that these stories were unconvincing garbage. Taking a class in Western History, I was amazed to find out that the professor was writing his dissertation on janissaries in the Balkans. He asked me if I could translate a Bulgarian text for him. I was mesmerized, the way I’d been as a child, by our own history. How could I have forgotten it? Why was I not writing stories like these, packed with heroism, betrayal, courage and cowardice, freedom and death?
And so I began this book. I wanted people to listen and be moved by our tales, and to show them that Bulgarians are not all car thieves and prostitutes, though there are plenty of those too. As a boy I’d listened to my father and felt calm and safe, and twenty years later I wanted to feel that same way. Writing about Bulgaria was the only way I knew that would get me back to Bulgaria—not just my family, whom I miss greatly, but also our muddy village roads, our black fields . . .you get the picture.
Here’s a little bit about the history behind the stories. The country was founded in 681 AD, and was a great European power for about six hundred years. Then, like Greece, Serbia, and other countries of the Balkans (the name comes from a Turkish word that means ‘chain of wooded mountains’), it fell under Ottoman rule. Only in 1878 it was finally free to make its own history again. The enlarged Bulgaria envisioned by the treaty that ended this conflict alarmed the Great Powers, who were guided by the ‘divide and conquer’ principle (just look at the term balkanization, used to mean the process of fragmentation or division of a state.) And so they started to chip away at our territories. The Balkan Wars ignited, and Bulgaria seized the first opportunity to get the land back that we’d lost in the wars: we allied with Germany during World War I, lost that war, and lost even more land.
All this fighting and losing was bad for our morale, and many young people fell in love with Communism, which spoke of strange and beautiful ideas like fraternity and equality and power to the workers. An uprising in 1923 was crushed by the Tsarists, and Bulgaria stayed a monarchy until the second major uprising in 1944 when the Communist Party took complete control of the country for 45 years.
So in East of the West we have stories that speak of Bulgaria as it was during the Ottoman years and then as it was during the fights for liberation from the Turks. There are stories of the Balkan Wars, of the chokehold and fall of Communism. There are stories that speak of what became of both Christians and Muslims when regimes changed. Then finally there are stories that show the reader what’s happening now, with so many young people leaving for the West. The final and most modern story here, “Devshirmeh,” leads us onward in time, but also twists and takes us back, and like a snake bites its own tail. Once upon a time the Turks stole Bulgarian boys and turned them into Ottoman soldiers. This is the devshirmeh, the blood tribute. It is an awful, sentimental, tragic part of our folklore, but if we read historical sources carefully, we can find instances when parents offered their children to the Turks – because a Muslim soldier could live a much better life than a Christian peasant. The stories tackle all these upheavals of history individually, and through individuals, but I believe that when read together they complement each other, pieces in a puzzle adding up to reveal a larger picture.
Today, one in eight Bulgarians live abroad, and I have seen countless parents (my own included) encourage their children to leave, to seek their chances away from home, and I’ve seen Bulgarians change their names, abandon their language, take on new beliefs, new ideologies and identities, forget where they came from. Yes, history repeats itself and nothing is new under the sun, but history can be forgotten. With this book, I wanted to remember.
“Makedonija,” a short story, in Five Chapters
Salman Rushdie on “The Leonard Lopate Show” discussing Penkov’s “Buying Lenin” and The Best American Short Stories of 2008 (at the 11:30 mark):
An Interview with Orion Magazine: