Where the Maenads Danced: Miroslav Penkov on “Stork Mountain”

Stork Mountain side by sideIt is hard to believe Miroslav Penkov is younger than I am, born in 1982, when the experience of reading him is akin to reading the authors of Western classics. I have the simultaneous feeling of being deeply immersed in the pleasures of the work and also enjoying that I am learning quite a lot — this combination almost never happens for me with contemporary authors. But not only is he somewhat new to this; he is also somewhat new to English. It is something to realize Bulgarian-born Penkov has only been in America fifteen years — he moved here from Sofia to study in Arkansas, of all places (he is now a professor in Texas). His first book was a collection of stories, East of the West (2012), and many of the stories can be found in A Public Space, Granta, One Story, Orion, The Sunday Times, The Best American Short Stories 2008, The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012, The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2013. Since then he’s also won many awards and honors, from the BBC International Short Story Award 2012 and The Southern Review‘s Eudora Welty Prize to a fellowship with the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.

His eagerly awaited debut novel, Stork Mountain, came out this past spring from FSG. It has been called everything from “the Great Bulgarian Novel” by Steven G. Kellman in the Dallas Morning News to “a Bulgarian Don Quixote” by Rabih Alameddine. It is a gorgeous, ambitious, sprawling, multi-dimensional baroque tale of going back to one’s ancestral home — in this case a Bulgarian-American man looking for his grandfather, who has gone missing. The political and the mystical, the historical and the spiritual, all intertwine in unexpected ways, as coming-of-age meets love story in this stunning debut. Penkov writes his books in both English and Bulgarian — he reluctantly has become the Bulgarian translator of his own work, as he prefers to compose in English. Coming-of-age tropes, hyphenated identities, the quest to find one’s homeland, ancient myths and ancestral rituals are all preoccupations of both my own novels, so it made sense that I would love Stork Mountain, and I had the great pleasure of emailing with Penkov over the course of many months this past spring. — Porochista Khakpour

The Barnes & Noble Review: Can you talk about where this idea for Stork Mountain began?

Miroslav Penkov: I wrote Stork Mountain half a world away from Bulgaria, in the plains of Texas, where I live now. The land is flat here, the sky is enormous, and the only mountains you see are those imagined in the shapes of storm clouds gathering on the horizon. Maybe that’s why there is so much Bulgaria in this book: places and people for which my heart felt a painful longing. Maybe writing these pages was my way of erasing the distance, of returning home at least in spirit if not in body. But Stork Mountain is not a novel of nostalgia or homesickness. It is a novel of transformation, an alchemical novel whose characters embark on their own adventure, descend into darkness, pass through fire so they may be purified and born again. And like Dionysus, a god once revered there in the Stork Mountain, this novel too was twice-born: I wrote it first in English, a language I didn’t really begin to study until I was fourteen, and then again, in Bulgarian, my mother tongue.

I think I was seven when I first saw fire dancers, a tourist attraction on the Black Sea. Men and women, beautiful in their traditional costumes, dancing across live coals, barefoot, carrying in their arms large wooden icons. The mystery of their dance never left me. Why didn’t they get burned? What did it mean to enter the fire and then walk out unscathed?

It was this memory, of the women barefoot in the glowing coals, that returned to me many years later. Here was an image powerful enough to anchor my novel, to hold together its characters, places, and stories.

But there was a problem: I knew nothing of this fire dancing. How long ago did it all start? In what land? And was it still practiced today, not as a tourist attraction but in earnest? For the Persians, I learned, fire had been a sacred thing. Their Wise Lord, Ahura Mazda, had spoken to Zoroaster through flame, and it was this fire veneration that had somehow made its way to the Balkans. Then there was Eleusis, where every year for centuries on end the ancients gathered to perform the most secret rites of Greece, a rave unrivaled ever since, all in the name of Demeter and her daughter Persephone.

And then there were the maenads, the raving ones, the crazy priestesses of Dionysus who drank their doctored wine and danced madly, frantically in honor of their god; and who, in their exhilaration, tore to pieces sacrificial goats and even men foolish enough to trespass on their holy ground. The great singer Orpheus himself fell victim to these maenads, his wretched head floating down the Helikon River.

The more I read, the brighter one place burned: the Strandja Mountains, a range on the border between Bulgaria and Turkey, not far from Greece. That was where Orpheus had roamed. That was where the maenads had danced, where the cult of Dionysus had been most widespread — and where, today, the fire dancers, the nestinari, still walked in burning coals.

And this is how I found my place, a place of beauty and of sadness. Burned in countless wars, a theater of massacres and mass migrations. The Russo-Turkish Wars. The Balkan Wars of 1913. The Ottoman armies retreating left nothing but death. Ethnic cleansings of Bulgarians, Armenians, and Greeks. The more I read, the clearer I saw: the Strandja was herself a fire dancer. For centuries on end, time and again, the mountain had passed through fire, had been reduced to ash only to rise reborn.

Finally there were the storks. Each year, on their way back from Africa, 85 percent of all European white storks fly over the Strandja Mountains. Their babies hatch in Europe, get strong, and then in August the flocks fly back, once more over the Strandja. What would it be like, I wondered from my home in Texas, to look out the window and see thousands of migrating storks, trees heavy with their nests? What would it be like to cross not flat fields but an ancient mountain that holds in its bosom ancient secrets that only fire can release?

The more I read about the place, its mysteries and times, the more I ached to write. So what if I had never visited the Strandja? So what if I was far away from Bulgaria, here in Texas? I began to imagine wildly, to conjure up strange and enchanting places — a giant tree heavy with stork nests; human skulls buried in the nests; and the main characters climbing up the tree, hiding in the nest, their safe place. I imagined crossing the border into Turkey to discover old Thracian ruins up in the hills; I imagined a place where a river flows into the Black Sea. And before I knew it I’d written half the book.

Fear set in, naturally — what if I was wrong? What if all that I had thought of simply couldn’t be? Sick with dread, I flew to Bulgaria. I drove to the Strandja Mountains and watched the fire dancers walk in burning coals, and I roamed the hills and met their people. They were all there — the giant trees, the ancient ruins — as if somehow I had wished them into existence. What a beautiful feeling that was, what an eerie feeling, to see with my eyes for the first time that which my heart had always known.

BNR: Did you worry about what it might be like to bring these worlds to our world today? The anxiety of the political upon the personal, perhaps? I want to always say I am bigger than these concerns as an author, but I am far from it!

MP: There is a piece of advice I’ve learned from my father, something my great-grandfather had once told him: two things in life you should never mess with — electricity and politics. Unless you know exactly what you’re doing, they’ll both hit you with a deadly force.

I adore Chekhov and appreciate (as he called it in one letter to his brother) the “absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature” in his writing. I think politics, or too much of it, can poison the heart of a story. But at the same time, the stories I’ve wanted to write in the past fifteen years, the human beings about whom I’ve wanted to speak, have almost always been critically branded by history and politics. So that even when I’ve aimed to put character to the forefront, politics has always managed to rear its noxious head.

I didn’t want to write about the love between a Christian and a Muslim. Although, funnily enough, when the novel came out in Bulgaria a couple of months ago, one newspaper wrote exactly this as a title: Miroslav Penkov Describes What It Is Like to Be In Love with a Muslim. Instead, what I wanted to write about was the love between a young man who’s returned home after years in America and a young woman at odds with the world; a girl who struggles to escape her village, her father, and above all — herself.

But you can’t treat these characters as real human beings unless you position them accurately in the context of time and place. And so the boy becomes an immigrant scarred by the fall of Communism, hurt by a life of loneliness abroad, while the girl, hurt by that same Communist regime, is suddenly the victim of a zealous father, of a backward and superstitious culture, of the extreme application of her Muslim faith.

BNR: Can you talk about the differences between your audience abroad in Europe versus here in America?

MP: Even though my story collection East of the West was published in a dozen European countries, I have very little understanding of what my European audience is like. I simply don’t know Western Europe, because I grew up in the days of visas and austere borders and never got the chance to travel. And now that Bulgaria is part of the European Union and travel is unimpeded, it’s the lack of free time that proves the biggest obstacle. But I do think about the difference between my readers in Bulgaria and those everywhere else. Writing simultaneously in two languages — English and Bulgarian — has always put me in a difficult spot. Who is Stork Mountain really meant for? Western readers who are not intimately familiar with Bulgarian culture and history and for whom certain historical and cultural elements should be streamlined and simplified? Or readers in Bulgaria who would be supremely annoyed by too much simplification and streamlining? I don’t know how to deal with this issue other than to write for one ideal, imaginary reader — someone who knows close to nothing about Bulgaria yet is not afraid to wade out deep into its history and myth; who is not easily frightened by the politics of an unaccustomed region but is curious, hungry, and excited to learn; a traveler who understands that it is the journey that matters, the winding path with a heart, and not necessarily the straight, easy line that leads us quickly to the final destination.

BNR: Sometimes I find the English language cripples me so much when I want to write about the global or even the two sides of my hyphenated identity. What do you think about writing in English? Do you think about it?

MP: The greatest treasure in my life — aside from the people I love — is my ability to read in two languages. Bulgarian affords me a natural access to all Slavic literature, English to the literature of the rest of the world. There are writers I would have never read — and I don’t mean just Shakespeare or Carver — but writers like Borges, or Kawabata, who have never been translated into Bulgarian or translated well.
As a writer, my greatest treasure in the privilege to write in two languages. Not only doesn’t English cripple me, it simultaneously liberates and keeps me in check. In Bulgarian my prose is wild and turbulent like a river, because in Bulgarian I am often intoxicated by sounds and rhythms. My English, on the other hand, because I didn’t begin to study it seriously until I was fourteen, is much sparer, much more limited. But contrary to expectation, this austerity of prose proves to be a great blessing. Writing in English forces me to strive for clarity, for elegance; it prevents me from getting too tangled in sentences at the expense of characters and story.
Of course there are individual words, material objects that don’t exist outside of our Balkan world, outside of our Balkan languages. Like nestinari¸ for example, the fire dancers of Stork Mountain. And if I were a translator I would have felt limited and oppressed, trying to find accurate English equivalents for these words. But I’m not a translator. I just happen to sing the same song in two different voices. My aim is not to translate individual words but to carry over specific states of mind and spirit. My aim is to write in such a way that regardless of language and nationality the reader will be able to feel with her heart the place, the characters, the story.

BNR: Communism and the War on Terror have been huge American obsessions of the last decade — you can argue Islam has replaced Communism as the bogeyman. Do you feel this way at all?

MP: I’m afraid this issue is too complicated to discuss in a couple hundred words. I write this now mere hours after yet another bloody terrorist attack in Turkey. Radical Islam is the scourge of our times. I can’t imagine anyone disputing this painful truth. The people who practice it are easy to fear and easy to hate. In much the same fashion, they hate and fear us with ease. And in nefarious hands such fear and hatred are easily exploited.     I believe that there is in all of us a dark, primal force that strives for divisions. It works tirelessly to pull us out of the whole, to break the world around us into pieces that it urges us to claim, possess, and control. This is my house, my car, my wife. This is my tribe, my country. To this dark force, “the other” is always terrifying, menacing, unknown. “The other” must be feared and either subjugated or destroyed. I believe fiction has the power to counteract this divisive force. I believe fiction evokes empathy, dissolves borders, tames the ego, and ultimately erases the concept of “the other.” Fiction has the power to return us, if only for a short while, to the source, to our greater human collective.