How to Write About Bulgaria.

1. Few people can pinpoint where Bulgaria is on the map. Some people might tell you they can, but you shouldn’t believe them. They’re probably thinking of Bolivia. A positive spin on this general ignorance is that it affords a kind of artistic freedom. One can invent the kind of Bulgaria you see or want to see. You can say anything and chances are high readers will trust you, no questions asked, as long as you write with conviction. You could literally make up something absolutely preposterous, say, an immortal human being that hungers insatiably for the blood of other human beings, fears sunlight and sleeps in a coffin somewhere atop the Balkan Mountains and no one in the West will ever bat an eye.

2. If you write in Bulgarian, the West, or anyone else for that matter, will not read it. German, French, Italian these are all fine languages – you can use them to order a schnitzel, or a baguette, or a bowl of beefaroni – but everyone knows that when it comes to writing, the English language is the best.
If you learn English too young you risk knowing it like a native. Your prose will no longer sound just a bit off in a charming sort of way. You will not be able to brag in front of the flocking readers, publishers and press that you learned English through hard work, late in life.
If you learn English too late in life, you might never reach the fluency you need to spin convincing yarns about immortal blood-sucking coffin-sleepers. Also you risk sounding like a bandsaw when all you want to do is order a bowl of beefaroni.
For maximum efficiency, learn English between your fourteenth and seventieth years.

3. ‘Only in his hometown and in his own house is a prophet without honour.’ Listen to the Gospel and flee. There is one place for you to go – a land across the ocean which honours all prophets otherwise honourless at home. But sadly Canada is way too cold for a comfortable life. You’ll have to settle for second best.
New York is the Hollywood of writers. Even the cabbies there scribble memoirs and carry manuscripts under their bullet-proof vests. So instead, go some place puzzling, exotic, mysterious and unknown. A territory where storytellers with a sense of place and past roam barefooted across light-flooded Walmarts, where even the fresh, green tomato is dipped in batter and deep fried.

4. For the Western reader nothing will say ‘Bulgaria’ with greater clarity than the goat. The goat is a lifestyle. The goat takes many shapes – from the milk in a tin-plated copper, to the bagpipe in the hands of a young lover. The goat brings with itself hills and meadows, cliffs and valleys and pine tops swaying with southern winds. The sound of brass bells. The wounds of sharp horns. Make this a rule – a goat per story. A herd per novel.

5. The West loves Communism. Once upon a time they feared it. Now they laugh at it. Partisans with Schmeissers in dugouts, comrades losing their freedoms in ways comedic and absurd. It’s true – you’re free now and you can laugh at things that made your grandfathers cry. But don’t overdo it. Communism in writing is like salt. Too little leaves you wanting. Too much spoils the dish. But then again, the pen is in your hand. You’ll stick a goat inside a dugout if you please.

6. Let it pour down every page and let its world come forth. The tall trees bent under the weight of purple plums, the rows of golden grapes, the women who pick them in wicker baskets, women from two-lev bills, with tiny watches on their hands. The old distillery at the end of the village, the drunks who sample the parvak, the fog of flies above the heaps of rotting pits. Rakia. Italicize it. Use it on every page. Just don’t drink it – the stuff has ruined more writers than Hemingway has.

7. Respect your readers. Don’t worry if they will understand you. Don’t dumb things down for them. There isn’t all that much you can do for your Bulgaria: you couldn’t be a surgeon, because you lacked the dedication and the skill; you couldn’t be a firefighter because you lacked the courage. It’s words you can offer and nothing more. Make each word count.


Photograph by Rebecca Siegel

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