Garth Greenwell has been living in Sofia for only two years now, but during that time he has immersed himself in local life more fully than the average expat. A dedicated English teacher at the American College of Sofia, he is learning meticulously from his own Bulgarian language teacher and keeps in contact with some of the country’s most promising young writers.
The latest proof of Greenwell’s genuine interest in Bulgaria's reality is called Mitko – an award-winning novella about the romantic relationship between two men, who meet in the bathrooms of the National Palace of Culture and travel emotionally between desire and intimidation all the way to a hotel room in the Black Sea city of Varna.
Although Miami University Press officially published Mitkojust recently on June 1 2011, the book’s critiques have been overwhelmingly positive so far. Writers from all over the United States called it "a haunting and compelling mediation on erotic obsession, loneliness, and power" (Stephen McCauley) and a "lyrical and sophisticated exploration of tormented desire and romantic obsession" (David Francis). Author Honor Moore even compares Greenwell’s Sofia to Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin and the Saigon of Marguerite Duras.
Indeed, the novella’s involvement with place is one of its most poignant features. Greenwell’s goal was for "Bulgaria to become as much a character as the two protagonists". The plot unfolds in several Bulgarian cities, so it follows that many of its aspects are specific to the landscape and its history. However, Greenwell sees some universal aspects to his fictional story as well. Its central themes include love, desire, identity, how difficult it is to know someone and how the accident of history – in particular where one was born, determines one’s life.
The result of growing up in places as different as the US and Bulgaria, the contrast in the cultural backgrounds of the main characters is probably among the most powerful forces that at times bring together the narrator and Mitko and at times pulls them apart. In real life, Greenwell himself believes that the numerous differences between his home country and the country where he resides impact his everyday decisions. They become a crucial factor also when it comes to the possible translation of Mitko into Bulgarian.
Greenwell thinks that his first book might be valuable to the Bulgarian literary scene, because "it talks about experiences that are not well represented in Bulgarian literature". He refers to Nikolai Atanassov and Nikolai Boykov as among the very few authors who have written on LGBT topics. Due to the lack of truthful gay representation from their own culture, Greenwell’s students grow up with caricatures and stereotypes that one can’t live by. In this sense, the American welcomes a translation of his novella, which attempts to represent "gay lives with dignity".
On the other hand, he experiences some reservations. He is a little worried that "if the subject matter of the book is seen as its primary source of interest, then this might be a barrier to appreciating the book’s other concerns." Nonetheless, he remains optimistic because he has met so many sophisticated Bulgarian readers so far.
Greenwell’s former students and friends from Sofia’s literary circles are among the avid admirers of his fiction. Although he admits to still struggle with his Bulgarian language fluency and to spend lots of time teaching, he has appreciated the work of of writers such as Alexander Shpatov, Dimiter Kenarov, Georgi Gospodinov and Teodora Dimova. Greenwell also applauds active organisations like the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation for sponsoring relationships between these contemporary Bulgarian authors and their English-speaking colleagues.
Greenwell might be modest about his knowledge of the Bulgarian language, but his students cannot help but notice his increasing fluency expressed in personal messages and casual conversations. His progress has been so outstanding that while last year he was struggling with Valeri Petrov’s poems, today he desires to finish reading all of Yordan Yovkov’s short stories. Bulgarian literature is "a huge continent" he has "barely stepped foot on", but its tradition deserves to be known to more people abroad, Greenwell reasons.
Like many Bulgarian psychological fiction masters, the American writer is most interested in "literature as a record of a consciousness and a sensibility". Although the plot of Mitkocould appear to many readers to be non-fiction, especially if they know Garth personally, he asserts that the events have not necessarily happened to him and the book is autobiographical "only in the sense that it is a record of how I think and of things that obsess me".
As for his writing process, Greenwell agrees with Thomas Mann that "a writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people". Nonetheless, writing is his way of being and thinking and an opportunity "to live more vividly and even, in some sense, to live twice". The full-time job as a high school teacher occupies most of his time, but he still finds time to write every day, around the same time.
This writing routine seems to have been working well for him, given the several literary awards that Greenwell has received. His poems and essays have appeared in prestigious publications such as Harvard Review, Yale Review, Boston Review and Poetry International. Thus, he views himself primarily as a writer, whereas teaching only enables his life as a writer.
Before joining the English faculty at the American College of Sofia, Greenwell taught British and American literature and advised the Gay-Straight Alliance at Greenhills School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He has also taught at university level, while completing his masters degrees at Harvard University and Washington University in St. Louis. Part of his engagements at all of these institutions included the "exciting" task of visiting literature classes to discuss his works. Would he repeat the same activity with Mitko and how would he teach his debut book?
To begin, he says, Mitko is different from his other pieces because it is appropriate for older students. Even if teaching happens at the university level, he doesn’t think he can "dissect" it in the way he approaches other literary works with his students. "I want to preserve a willful blindness when approaching the writing process" he says. "Trying to analyse it in the usual manner is like asking a pianist to break down his fingers’ movement – it takes away the magic of playing the piano".
In other words, do not expect Greenwell to teach you how to interpret his fiction, but do expect him to talk openly about his observations of the LGBT scene in the country. The situation of gay people here reminds him in many ways of his own growing up in Kentucky, in the American South. In addition to several social manifestations of intolerance towards homosexuals, the older gay people he knew in his childhood seemed to feel the same way of shame as some of the gay people he meets in Bulgaria.
At this point, for him Bulgaria is not where it should be and certainly not in line with the European Union treatment of gay people. "This is painfully evident when your prime minister makes offensive statements that even the most conservative politicians in the USA and Western Europe would never dare to say," Greenwell says.
Recent positive portrayal of gay couples in the media has given LGBT issues more visibility and brought back Greenwell’s optimism. Events like the Sofia Pride Week testify that Bulgaria is moving in the right direction.
Today, Greenwell is preparing for the end of the school year, working on a second novella, and planning essays on teaching and other prose projects. There is no surprise here – Sofia’s teaching LGBT writer is doing what he is best at.