Miroslav Penkov on Falling in Love with Bulgaria and the Making of STORK MOUNTAIN

Miroslav Penkov’s novel Stork Mountain sprawls in unexpected ways. Initially, the plot seems familiar: a young man returns to his ancestral home in Bulgaria, near that country’s border with Turkey, to hash out the fare of some familial property. But this, like so many things, refuses to go according to plan. The narrator’s relationship with his grandfather is a complex one, each revealing and withholding certain pieces of information along the way. There’s also the narrator’s infatuation with Elif, a young woman whose family’s history hearkens back to Bulgaria’s treatment of its Muslim citizens in the days of Communism. Along the way, Penkov incorporates several decades’ worth of history, along with folklore and mythology, both real and imagined. Our conversation, conducted via email, touched on everything from the way gender and family are handled in Stork Mountain to the time Penkov spent being mentored by Michael Ondaatje.

Tobias Carroll: Reading Stork Mountain left me with a substantial sense of the spaces you’re writing about–the Strandja Mountains, the city of Burgas, the border between Bulgaria and Turkey. What first drew you to writing about this region? And given that they loom large throughout the novel, I was also curious about your experience with the nestinari. When did you first encounter them, or the idea of them?

Miroslav Penkov: It was around the time I turned nineteen that I felt, for the first time, the kind of a pull place can exert on the human heart. I had just left Bulgaria and now a student in the US I was feeling terribly homesick. Writing was the cheapest, quickest way I knew that would get me back home and it was through writing, I think, that I truly fell in love with Bulgaria.

I knew then, from the get-go, that like with my story collection, I must write a novel set in Bulgaria. But I wanted the novel to be of grander scope–to combine several timelines, past and present, to weave in legend and myth, historical fact and complete fiction. And I knew I would need a central image–an anchor for the place and the story and the characters.

Once in my childhood, vacationing with my parents on the Black Sea, I’d witnessed the dance of the nestinari. It may have been only a tourist attraction, but the memory of these beautiful women and men walking barefoot across glowing coals never really left me.

One day, many years later, I was reading Gore Vidal’s Creation. Early on there are descriptions of Zoroastrian fire temples, of drinking haoma and hearing the voice of the flame, and I remember catching myself thinking of the nestinari and of their own ritual fires. I knew, right away, that I’d found my anchor.

The problem was, I knew nothing of substance about this old ritual. So I resolved to learn. To my amazement, certain sources really spoke of a Persian influence. Of the Wise Lord Ahura Mazda, of the Zoroastrian veneration of fire which had somehow made its way to the Balkans, where Greeks and Bulgarians had incorporated it into their own rituals. But there were other influences. First, the Eleusinian Mysteries, held every year in Greece for the cult of Demeter and Persephone. Then, the maenads, the mad priestesses of Dionysus who drank doctored wine and danced madly in his honor; and who, in their exhilaration, were known to tear sacrificial goats to pieces and even men who’d be foolish enough to disturb them. We all know those stories of Orpheus, himself dismembered by the maenads, his wretched head floating down the Helikon river. And Orpheus was a Thracian deity and the Thracian tribes had once lived in what is now Bulgaria. The maenads too had danced in Bulgaria and specifically in one particular mountain, where the cult of Dionysus had been most widely spread. The Strandja Mountains, on the border with Turkey, close to Greece. The Strandja Mountains, which, as I discovered in my amazement, happened to be the only site where the nestinari still practiced their dance.

The more I read, the clearer it became to me that the Strandja herself was a fire dancer. That for millennia, time and again, she had passed through fire, been reduced to ash and risen again.

I knew then that I’d found my place. But again there was a problem–I didn’t know all that much about the Strandja (beyond the basics I’d learned in school) and I’d never hiked its hills. So I began to read more about its tragic history, about the countless wars, the massive migrations of people forced to abandon their homes. The more I read, the clearer it became to me that the Strandja herself was a fire dancer. That for millennia, time and again, she had passed through fire, been reduced to ash and risen again.

TC: Have you found that this is a region that hasn’t been written about much in literature, or are there other works that you’d recommend to readers looking for more about this part of the world?

MP: Strangely enough, not that much fiction has been written about the Strandja Mountains. Or if it has, I couldn’t find it. And maybe that’s for the best as I felt like I’d been given a blank canvas; like I could be absolutely free. By the way, it’s important to note that the Strandja Mountains of my novel are my own invention, a fictional place like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha county or Garcia Marquez’s Macondo. I wasn’t interested in writing a history book, or an ethnographic monograph. I was interested in doing what Kazantzakis does in The Last Temptation of Christ. His characters are walking as much through Jerusalem, as they are through the Crete of his childhood. And so I too was describing the actual Strandja, but also the mountains where I’d spent my summers as a child.

I did, however, find some great sources describing, in excruciating detail, the rituals of the nestinari. I acknowledge them at the end of the novel, but most notably helpful was the early 20th-century work of Mihail Arnaudov.

In 2013 I went to the village of Balgari, to watch a proper fire dancing ritual. A little before sunset, an hour or so prior to the dance, it began to pour, drenching spring rain. People crammed inside the old church on the village square (an old-fashioned church, with a balcony for the women folk) and so I too hid inside. And there I stumbled upon a writer friend–Kapka Kassabova–she lives in Scotland and writes in English–who, accompanied by the village mayor, had been collecting material for her own book.

This book is coming out soon, I believe, a collection of essays, and I imagine it will show the region in a more journalistic fashion. Here is a link to one of the essays.

Also of interest may be Georgi Gospodinov’s novel The Physics of Sorrow, beautifully translated in English by Angela Rodel.

TC: The scope of Stork Mountain expands outward–it starts as the story of a young man returning to his ancestral home, and gradually incorporates stories from mythology, the narrative of his family through much of the 20th century, and questions of nationality and religion. How did you go about finding the right balance between these elements?

MP: I’m not sure I ever did find the right balance. I think I did my absolute best searching for it, but I’m entirely prepared that some readers may find themselves overwhelmed. Too many stories within stories, too many tangential legends and myths that don’t, at a first glance, advance the narrative. But in actuality they do advance it. They are the past manifested and they exert pressure on the characters and on their present. I wanted, no, needed to include these stories even if that made for a manuscript which would be perceived as less than optimally “tight.”

A novel can be many things, and this one, among others, is a territory.

A novel can be many things, and this one, among others, is a territory. An expanse through which the reader is meant to roam and even lose herself for a while. That’s not to say there isn’t a narrative to follow in Stork Mountain. On the contrary, there is a distinct path of causes and effects on which, ideally, the reader marches on. But there are moments when the path meanders, on purpose, so that the reader may take in the vistas, the place, the peoples and the cultures.

TC: Periodically, Stork Mountain flashes back to the days of Communism, looking into what its characters were doing then. What kind of research did you have to do into that period?

MP: Very little. I took the approach Edward P. Jones discusses in his essay “Finding the Known World.” For ten years his research constituted of reading, on and off, the first forty pages of the same book. Then one day he closed the book and started writing on his own.

What am I going to research about Communism (at least for the purposes of this novel)? Don’t I know that one of my great-grandfathers owned some land and when in 1944 the Party seized control of Bulgaria that land was confiscated and he was proclaimed a kulak? Thank God he’d shelter Communist partisans in his house before that, village friends of his, so the Party didn’t send him to a camp. Don’t I know that another of my great-grandfathers, a school teacher, publicly renounced his Party membership and so the Party exiled him to teach in the Rhodopa Mountains, far away from his wife and children? Or should I research what Bulgaria was like after 1989 when the Party had fallen and taken with it all semblance of economic stability? When we spent hours waiting in line for bread, and could never watch the Ninja Turtles on TV because the scheduled power outages somehow always coincided with the time the new episodes aired; and meanwhile the bastards across the street, whose apartment complexes were powered by different generators, had all the electricity in the world and could watch the Ninja Turtles to their heart’s content (of course later, when we had power, they didn’t, but who cares about them?).

No, I needed no special research to talk about Communism within the context of Stork Mountain. What I did research, however, was the so-called “Process of Rebirth”–the forceful name-changing campaigns against the Bulgarian Muslims, the attempts to either assimilate them or drive them out of the country. This process reached its climax in the mid-eighties, but it took different forms throughout the twentieth century. I wrote about it in my story collection and here too I had to be careful because it’s grave, serious business and because so few people are willing to talk about it openly and without some hidden agenda.

TC: Midway through the novel, when the narrator becomes fixated on rescuing Elif, you raise questions both of agency and of the narrator’s idea of masculinity. To what extent did critiquing the latter become incorporated into the narrative?

MP: One of the things I love about fiction is that it allows me to be other people; people who sometimes are as different from me as can be, but whom I try to understand and, ultimately, embody. Because of this I would never presume to judge my characters, nor would I judge the culture which shapes and traps them and which in turn they shape.

…I would never presume to judge my characters, nor would I judge the culture which shapes and traps them and which in turn they shape.

Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold deals better with the questions of masculinity, machismo, the place of women in that specific society, of religion, of history than almost any other work of fiction I’ve ever read. And there is no judgment in it that Marquez, the writer, directly passes on anything or anyone; only perfectly presented situations which a reader can witness and weigh against her own moral compass.

Stork Mountain starts with an example of such maddening machismo–a young Muslim girl cuts her wrist on a piece of broken glass and the narrator bandages her before she’s lost too much blood. But when her husband discovers that another man has touched his woman, he removes the bandage, entirely out of spite, and carries her, bleeding to the side. The peasants around shrug and go about their business while the narrator is left to ponder what the hell has just happened. This moment, in essence, lays out one of the big clashes in the novel–this foreign boy has entered a foreign world which he’ll fight to change; but the world will push back with equal force. It’s the clash of cultures and people, with their preconceived notions and beliefs, that interests me. Seeing how this clash manifests on the page is infinitely more interesting than providing a critique of one side or the other.

TC: The narration sometimes consciously overstates things: “And after this it rained, melodramatically, for many months,” for instance. Did you intend that more as a way to characterize your protagonist’s moodiness, or to show a kind of blurring of the lines between the novel’s more realistic aspects and the references to folklore?

MP: I believe a detail or a sentence should work on several levels. Ideally this particular sentence A) adds to the portrait of the narrator as a person melodramatic and a bit theatrical and B) adds to the general mood of the story. You’re right that the deeper we get into the narrative, the more indistinguishable fact becomes from myth. But this sentence is also meant to work on a third, more practical level. Readers don’t like coincidences in fiction (or at least coincidences that don’t get the hero in trouble); so if a coincidence must occur then it helps for the writer to acknowledge it as such (through the hero). Something similar happens here: at this point in the novel I had noticed that it had been raining for quite some time (necessary plot-wise) and now that the narrator was dealing with a broken heart I didn’t want the downpour to make the moment unnecessarily melodramatic. So I thought I’d let him acknowledge the melodrama of all this rain, for the sake of the reader.

TC: In your acknowledgements, you mention that some of the mythology and legends that are featured in the novel are fictional–the incorporation of Attila the Hun, for instance. How did you decide which aspects of mythology to work with directly and which to create for the purposes of this novel?

MP: There is only one little story in the book that is based on an actual legend–about a particular region in the Strandja protected by the Ottoman sultan. Right after conquering Bulgaria, the real legend says, Murad I desired to take as a wife a beautiful Bulgarian girl, a local noble. In return she asked him to let one of her horsemen hop on a horse. However many villages the horseman rounded in his gallop, the Sultan would have to take under his wing. Both the villages of Balgari and Kosti, the last two places where to this day the nestinari dance, fell within this ancient protected territory. I wanted to keep the seed of this legend, but I ended up changing it significantly to fit my own narrative (and, if I may be so bold as to say, improved it a little).

All other stories–and there are many, of janissaries and rebels and Slavic gods–I made up entirely. I don’t know how sacrilegious it is that I created, for example, certain Slavic deities, like Starost, the goddess Old Age, or imagined the topography of an underworld which does not come from Slavic folklore. But I worked with universal archetypes and allowed myself freedom since all these characters and stories arise either from the imagination of the grandfather or from that of the narrator, and take the form of allegory in an attempt to make sense of the real world.

TC: Were there any scenes from mythology that you had hoped to use in the novel that didn’t quite fit?

MP: Originally, five years ago, I wanted to include in the novel a second story line–letters exchanged between the grandfather and the grandson over the course of many years, but under the guise of a game–the boy would impersonate the first tsar in history, Simeon I the Great (914 AD), and the old man would pretend to be his Greek tutor from the days Simeon studied in Constantinople. You can see already how big of a mess such an idea creates. There were quite a few little stories I wrote (about the early Bulgarian khans) that never made it into the novel. For the longest time I wanted Stork Mountain to be titled Nominalia of the Imaginary Khans (after a famous historical list of rules called Nominalia of the Bulgarian Khans). But none of the people I asked for an opinion knew what “nominalia” meant and a good number of them weren’t sure about the meaning of “khans.”

TC: Much of Stork Mountain involves questions of family–both how it is defined and what a family’s obligations to one another are. How have you feel about these questions in your own life?

MP: So many of the stories in my collection East of the West deal with the idea that the members of a family, or a larger unit, say, a nation, are somehow bound together by blood. That somehow our blood unites us in one great collective which then permits us to share, unconsciously, experiences and knowledge. In Stork Mountain I wanted to explore this idea further, but the more I wrote, the more I realized (or rather, the characters realized it and I did through them) that underneath our genes, culture and traditions, there lies a deeper, greater bond rooted not in blood but in our common humanity. And suddenly, in the face of this greater bond, all the talk of blood binding us seemed like empty rhetoric.

TC: Your biography mentions that you were recently mentored by Michael Ondaatje. What was that process like? Do you find that it’s had any effect on your fiction?

MP: It was a real privilege to spend a year close to Michael. All this happened under the umbrella of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative (an amazing program, well worth looking into and one I was unfamiliar with before they called me). They made it possible for Michael to visit me in Bulgaria and in Texas and for me to visit him in Canada. I’d already finished Stork Mountain by the time the mentorship began but even so, he gave me his thoughts on the first hundred pages. His input was incredibly helpful, but I feel like the things I learned from him, through conversation, or through the books he recommended I read, will be tremendously helpful when I sit down to write another book. Which I’ve promised myself will be much shorter. And tighter. Now that I’ve written the big, sprawling story, I’d really love to try my hand at writing a sparer 200-page novel.

About the Author

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