Notes on Craft | Nataliya Deleva | Granta

Notes on Craft

Nataliya Deleva

I wrote my first novel Four Minutes in my mother tongue, Bulgarian, and this wasn’t a choice I questioned at the time. The events and the characters which I depicted in the book belonged to my birth country, and so the language I used had to be the tool most capable of reflecting that country’s cultural nuances.

Without deliberation initially, a couple of years later I attempted to write my second novel Arrival in Bulgarian too. The book follows the story of a woman who tries to rebuild her life abroad after suffering domestic violence from her alcoholic father back home. At first, the clash between her foreign identity and that of the society she had joined is too evident. The words slip away, her accent is too prominent. To integrate, to blend in, she needs to free herself of her past, to peel off some of the cultural layers adhered to her, and language is one of them. As the story advanced, my language also started to occupy a new territory, unfamiliar to me before. The flashbacks which referred to the narrator’s childhood in Bulgaria came easily, but I struggled with the rest of the chapters portraying her experience as an immigrant and her perceptions of cultural identity, motherhood and choice – concepts which I started to engage after moving to London myself.

‘My relationship with Italian takes place in exile’, writes Jhumpa Lahiri in her book In Other Words. What fascinated me most about the book was the fact that she wrote it in Italian, a language she didn’t inherit from her parents but had to learn herself.

I was very intrigued by this dynamic between language and setting that emerged while writing Arrival. It quickly became evident that, just like for Lahiri, for me too language belonged to a specific place, and the choice to write in one of them is reliant on the terrain that the story inhabits. Along with the protagonist’s migration between countries, a new form of linguistic migration emerged for me as a writer.

But I didn’t want to write Arrival from a place of exile or outcast. At first, I was shy, insecure perhaps; the intersection between the two languages felt almost impossible to cross, like a human skin that defines and separates. Then I started flirting with my adoptive language, gained bravery to experiment and remove personal expectations about the approach I could take. Until finally, I succumbed to and embraced the way my linguistic make-up affected the topics and places I chose to write about.  The challenge offered an opportunity to be curious, to cross personal borders and self-limitations, to leave behind structures in my writing which no longer served me.

I don’t think it would have been possible if I hadn’t experienced this new culture, or rather, if I hadn’t invited it to sculpt my understanding of the people and places around me. There is something unfettering about this act – you become sensitive to the new environment in a way you couldn’t before.


Photograph © Stanislav Nepochatov


Nataliya Deleva

Nataliya Deleva was born in Bulgaria and now lives in London. Her debut novel, Four Minutes, was originally published in Bulgaria (Janet 45, 2017), where the book was awarded Best Debut Novel and was shortlisted for Novel of the Year (2018). It has since been translated into German (eta Verlag, 2018), English (Open Letter Books, 2021) and Polish (Wydawnictwo EZOP, 2021). Her second novel, Arrival was published by The Indigo Press in February 2022. Nataliya’s short fiction, reviews and essays have appeared in Words Without Borders, the Fence, Asymptote, Empty Mirror, Granta Bulgaria, and the anthology Stories from the 90s (ICU Publishing, 2019) among others.

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