Iowa City author Garth Greenwell hopes to break the ice for queer writers working in Bulgaria

Garth Greenwell reading

Prairie Lights — Thursday, Jan. 21 at 7 p.m.

Garth Greenwell
Illustration by Devyn Park
Garth Greenwell’s debut novel, What Belongs to You, begins when an American high school teacher meets a young prostitute named Mitko in the bathroom basement of Bulgaria’s National Palace of Culture. The book that unspools their relationship is already poised to be one of the best of the year. It takes us through Sofia, Kentucky and a complex web of memory that makes us consider the ways all of our relationships are shaped by need and longing, both emotional and material. That longing is woven into our narrator’s very fiber and the complex country that surrounds him and the charismatic, complicated Mitko.

Greenwell’s work has appeared in The Paris Review, A Public Space and elsewhere. He is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and lives in Iowa City. Greenwell will read at Prairie Lights on Jan. 21, kicking off a national book tour.

Little Village: What Belongs to You is a book about a place where many of its readers will not have been. It doesn’t claim to be history or reportage, but there still must be a concern about getting a place right, whether that means right to you or some objective “right,” or politically correct.

Garth Greenwell: The place is the most important part of the book. It was really important to me to try to get that right. The great thing about writing a novel is that there isn’t any claim to some kind of objective correctness or “right.” Instead, I wanted to be true to the experience of the place I had as a foreigner, as a foreigner who was really invested in the place, as a foreigner who learned the language, as a foreigner who was involved in minority rights and LGBT activism … I’ve never been super interested in tourist literature, but I am interested in literature of strangers invested in a place. I wanted to get that perspective right. Before Bulgaria I had never written fiction — it was something about the place.

You’d previously earned an MFA in poetry.

I started writing prose — in some way that I don’t understand — as a response to the place. The book came from this weird experience I kept having in Bulgaria of being in a place that was very foreign. I had never been to Eastern Europe, I barely spoke the language when I first arrived. And all of the social mores were new and strange to me. I was making all sorts of mistakes, I could barely communicate.

But then there were these moments of extraordinary familiarity about the place. I found myself thinking about Kentucky, where I grew up, and my childhood, in a way that really I never had. Part of that was that I needed to be that far away from it in order to be able to think about it. But then the other part is that there are these ways in which, to me, Bulgaria and Kentucky were really similar places. Part of that’s the geography, they have mountains of similar size, and the forests have similar trees, and a population that has very quickly gone from almost entirely rural to entirely urban.

Most profoundly, the experience of being gay in Bulgaria in 2009-2013 and the experience of teaching adolescents in Bulgaria and so talking to gay adolescents in Bulgaria, just kept throwing me back again and again to the early ’90s in Kentucky when I was coming into awareness of myself as a gay person.

The book begins in a real place, in these bathrooms beneath the National Palace of Culture, which are a very famous gay cruising spot. I found that place by accident. I had the weirdest experience of going from this above-ground, where I could barely communicate, to this below-ground where I was totally fluent. All of the codes were the same.

Those communities felt very similar to the parks and bathrooms that I would cruise when I was 14, 15, 16. The conversations that I would have with people I met there, men in their 30s and 40s, they imagined the same horizon of possibility for their lives as men I met in Kentucky in the early ’90s — married men and closeted men and men who were terrified of being found out. So I think I really created the book with this sense of foreignness and familiarity.

Will your book be translated into Bulgarian?

It will be. It’s a hard book to publish in Bulgaria. There is no other book like this [there], and that was something I became really aware of as a high school teacher, because for all these similarities between growing up gay in Kentucky in the ’90s and growing up gay in Bulgaria now, there was a huge difference, which was that when I was 15 or 16, I found Giovanni’s Room. I found Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story. Even though everything in the world around me told stories about people like me that stripped my life of dignity, those books gave me a different image and those books saved my life.

In Bulgaria there’s nothing like that. The only representations of gay people in Bulgarian literature are horrifying. There are two openly gay Bulgarian writers that I know of. Those are the only books I can give my students about gay life in Bulgaria.

This book will be the first really explicit book about gay lives in Bulgaria, in Bulgarian, a literary book that tries to imbue these lives with the dignity that is imbued by the literary imagination. The fate of books in Bulgaria is very similar to the fate of books in America, which is that almost none of them get any attention whatsoever. If this book gets noticed it will get noticed as a scandal because it’s about a teacher at the most famous school in the country and his relationship with a male prostitute. I want to be there when the book comes out. I want to be part of that conversation.

In English there’s nothing scandalous about this book, it’s going to be judged on its merits as literature. In Bulgaria, my big suspicion is that if it’s noticed at all it will not be noticed as literature, it’ll be noticed as something scandalous. And I really welcome that because… my biggest hope is that — it’s hard to say this without sounding grandiose, I don’t intend to — but if in some way it made it easier for queer Bulgarian writers to write their own stories, that would be the best possible fate for my book in the world.

Especially if it does so by those queer writers saying, wait, this isn’t what it’s like to be gay in Bulgaria at all, or this is such a limited view of what it is to be gay in Bulgaria — which it is! It absolutely is, and I hope the book never tries to claim anything else. But I became aware, as I was working on the book, of those facts: that this is a book about a very vulnerable group of people and it’s a book that is speaking into a literary vacuum. There aren’t other literary representation of these lives.

You’ve talked about your editor helping you understand that Mitko’s character needed to be more than a target for the narrator’s thoughts and feelings.

The book is really interested in sex work and the extent to which the dynamics of sex work limit and form or deform relationships between human beings who, regardless of their position, retain at all times their entire humanity. That really is a challenge. It did seem really important that the reader have clear enough access to Mitko that there could be some ground they could stand on that was not just the narrator telling the story of what happened … that they are aware that there is other human presence that is having a different experience.

I’m most interested in the book in those moments where this sort of human interaction that’s occurring overflows those limits, or it seems to or has the potential to, and where this human encounter between these two people is not exhausted by the structure of sex work. Sex workers and johns are all human beings, fully, in all parts of the encounter, and I wanted to do my best to try to counter, to capture that humanness and not any abstract ideas about sex work, but [rather] these two people who find themselves in this situation and how they interact.

What made you decide to launch the book here?

I wanted to launch it among friends and Prairie Lights has really been my spiritual home in Iowa City. I think it’s one of the world’s great bookstores and I love the people there. It felt important to launch the book in this place where I’ve been living, among a group of writers that I’ve really admired.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity, and was originally published in Little Village issue 191. Lucy Morris thinks she can read a bit of Bulgarian.

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