Featured Writers #86 New Bulgarian Writing

Dayavolski Most (“Devil’s Bridge”), Ardino, Bulgaria 


Bulgaria, whose history stretches at least as far back as the ancient Thracian culture of twelfth century B.C., is a beautiful country. In the north and south, mountain chains run the length of the country from west to east. Between those ranges lie the gently rolling hills of the fertile Thracian plain. The eastern edge of that plain is Bulgaria’s coastline: the Black Sea. The beaches there were once known as the Red Riviera, where vacationers from the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc countries of Europe would cluster in the summer.  

Yet the natural beauty of the Bulgarian countryside became a curse during those years of Soviet dominance. Though Bulgaria drew tourists from throughout the Soviet world, it also shared a border with Greece and Turkey, and many of those visitors arrived with a secret agenda—to flee the Communist system and escape to the West. To prevent this, the borders of Bulgaria were closely guarded. East Germany even published tourist maps of Bulgaria that altered the country’s southern border facing Turkey, placing it a few miles north of its true demarcation, so that possible defectors would be easier to catch.

This lockdown also extended to Bulgaria’s citizens, so that traveling from their own country was nearly impossible. Kapka Kassabova writes, in her nonfiction masterpiece, Border, “As it slowly dawned on you why the border was there (so that people like you couldn’t leave), you developed a permanent border-like feeling inside you.”

With the overthrow of Communist rule in 1989, the country’s exterior borders were opened up, and then the far more complex task began of opening up the secret interior borders of ordinary Bulgarians. The country’s writers more than rose to that challenge, and in so doing created one of the most vibrant of contemporary European literatures. It’s a literature that, interestingly enough, travels well and can’t be contained by Bulgaria’s actual borders, because what reader, anywhere, isn’t in the throes of exploring and testing his or her own inner dividing lines? As Teodora Dimova observes in her essay on the craft of writing, “The Tragic Act,” “writing is penetrating into yourself, reaching some kind of second heart and remaining beside it in silence.” 

Dimova’s essay quoted above has also given Ninth Letter the title of this, our second anthology of contemporary Bulgarian writing:  “Some Kind of Second Heart.” The writers featured here are gathered from the 2018 Sozopol Literary Seminars, an annual event sponsored by the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, which has been steadfast through the years in supporting the publication of English translations of Bulgarian writing. Each year of the Sozopol seminars, established and up-and-coming Bulgarian authors mingle with an international cast of visiting writers, for a heady five-day gathering on the shore of the Black Sea.

Our anthology begins with Teodora Dimova—one of Bulgaria’s best-known writers whose work has been translated into numerous languages in Europe and elsewhere—and her (already noted) craft essay “The Tragic Act.” In this essay Dimova describes the transformative act of writing a novel: “you cease being you and you do not know whether, in the end, you will be able to be you again. Most often, at the end, you are already someone else.” The words of this essay echo when one then reads the next entry in this anthology, a short excerpt from Dimova’s novel Mothers, where the words of a mother and daughter’s dialogue are presented as blending into each other, serving as an illustration of how they appear to be not two separate souls but deeply, invisibly linked.

The writer Georgi Tenev is represented here with two short and evocative novel excerpts. The first, from his Bulgarian Roses, is set in the enthralling claustrophobia of a private library with no windows—only bookshelves cover the walls. A young boy finds solace here, until the day he discovers one of the books has been inexplicably altered . . . The second excerpt, from Atlantic Express, places us in a train speeding through an unsettling future world, where KFC has merged with Volvo, Europe is “closed off from Asia,” and the bones of African immigrants are used as a unit of exchange.

Internationally acclaimed short story writer and novelist Zdravka Evitova is represented here with two brief and powerful stories set in rural Bulgaria—one, “Radka,” is filled with earthy humor, while the other, “The Wolf,” bristles with unsettling menace.

Petar Krumov, the author of an award-winning debut novel, Hearse, Two Rhinoceros, is also a noted young filmmaker, and we couldn't resist offering to our readers his short film, Shame, which opens a stark and moving window into the lives of working class Bulgarians, seen through the eyes of a vulnerable, troubled adolescent boy.

Albena Todorova’s poems are filled with imagining other possible personal futures, or ways of being, as in the poem “I Would Have Been a Great Husband.” Here Todorova imagines almost gleefully the various rituals of male prerogative, until she turns to the interior of that maleness: 

I would still be unable to say I love you;
I would still be helpless when I see you crying;
I would still be missing you when missing home.

Emerging writer Rumen Pavlov’s short story, “A Short Interpretation of Human Subjects,” has a dream-like quality that centers around the mystery behind a deep sea diver that is never quite revealed, a narrative tactic that encourages readers to ponder their own interpretations.

Finally, we come to an excerpt from Vladimir Poleganov’s science fiction novel, The Other Dream, which offers a vision of an elusive second planet that seems as much a dream as a possible reality. The narrator struggles to decipher this intriguing, disquieting confusion: “I still struggle to mark my visits on a calendar, because I am unable to pinpoint when they occur or where I am while they’re happening. Is it my consciousness that splits, or does my body replicate itself to be in two places at the same time?” 

As you might glean from the above summaries, Bulgarian literature is as varied as it is strong; it is a literature whose strengths are able to cross the inner borders of readers everywhere. Take your time as you make your way through these selections, as the writing from a country that you may know little about appears to know a great deal about you.

—Philip Graham



Philip Graham, writer and Editor-at-Large for Ninth Letter, was the keynote speaker for the 2018 Sozopol Literary Seminars.




Teodora Dimova




Georgi Tenev




Zdravka Evtimova




Petar Krumov Albena Todorova

six poems



Rumen Pavlov Vladimir Poleganov



Contributors’ Notes


Many thanks to Elizabeth Kostova, Milena Deleva and Simona Ilieva of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation.



Town of Sozopol, Bulgaria



  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.