Love in the no-land space between two cultures: an interview with Zlatko Anguelov

Z.A.: I’m not a child psychologist to speak of the causes. I’m registering the results, and how these results matter for human relationships. Throughout life, my opinion of men evolved from admiration toward contempt. Rare are the men who meet my today’s standards of manliness, dignity, and friendship. In contrast, women have gained in my eyes throughout my life in so many important aspects of human behavior and achievements. In my relations with people, I judge every person individually and you should not take the above claims as a unjustified, unjust generalization. There are good men, great men as well as disgusting women, and vice versa. But I – and for that matter anybody – cannot and should not ignore the fact that in any country, even the most advanced in terms of democracy and civilized culture, violence against women is prevalent. This statistical violence is the sum of the individual men’s violence. Isn’t the French politician DSK enough of an example of what I’m talking about?

Again, and in relation to your previous questions as well, a writer observes the world and picks from it characters that reflect his persuasions about what is truthful about the human condition in the times he or she lives in. Those writers who have been insightful enough and responsible enough to see the truth that reflects trends in the human condition are what we like to call great writers. But a living writer simply tries his or her best in this respect. I’m aware that the knowledge that their physical superiority has deluded men to think that they are superior to women in all aspects of life is not at all new. But today this situation is not taken for granted any longer, and it has acquired a lot more subtle characteristics than, say, a century ago. In the culture that I call mine, the Christian culture that made out for democracy, the human condition is changing toward equalizing women with men in terms of social roles. But men do no like this trend. Every man carries inside him a little despot, some keep it invisible, others brandish it proudly. Those who fail to dominate, descend into depression and self-deprecation.

All of the above has its manifestations in love. Love is the freest expression of men’s and women’s flaws, and therefore, escapes any attempt to be framed. At the same time, it is the magnifying glass writers can use to see and reveal to their readers the unruly nature of the human condition.

J.T.: In your stories, a contrast between American men and the Bulgarian immigrant can often be noticed. And it seems as though it’s not simply a matter of “cultural differences” but rather of the very psychological makeup of the two groups. The immigrant in “Erotic Memories” comes from a culture of “pleasure, relaxation, openness of the senses,” and is taken aback when he sees how American women are self-sufficient and therefore capable of showing interest in men not simply to demonstrate power, but because they feel free to choose a man according to his personality. In your opinion, how does kef, the “Balkan state of dreamy contemplation,” differ from the social culture that can be experienced in the United States? Was it hard for you personally to adjust to the beat of this society? Did you, as one of your characters says, “struggle like adult child to adapt to this continent?”

Z.A.: Let’s not confuse genuine cultural differences that require immigrants to adapt quickly if they want to not simply survive but prosper, with the psychology of love. The latter is universal, regardless of the forms it takes in different cultures. And yes, I felt like a child in the beginning, because I came with the confidence that I know the world and the instruments I needed to function in it, but was shocked by the realization that vis-a-vis the local culture, I’m like an ignorant child who has to learn new things from scratch. I was an established professional who was deluded to believe that the world was based on commonalities, not on differences. But that is easily overcomeable if you pay attention and approach your host society with an open mind.

That is by far not what my stories are about, however. They are about a much deeper aspect of our life histories, which is best demonstrated on an emotional rather than intellectual level. My characters come to the place where they dream to begin from scratch in an emotional sense, with a heavy emotional baggage; they are divorced, or have unsolved relationships with their kids, or have suffered the death of their love partners, or even have erased from memory past dramas, in which they played the main character. They hope to experience love on a clean slate. And soon they realize that they cannot flee their past; it is deep inside them and it affects adversely the happiness they may have achieved in America. This makes so organic the employment of memory as the main method of narration.

The parallels some of my characters make with their American peers are only the necessary background. They are made in passing, without the intention of becoming a cultural conflict, they are more of a characterization of the newcomer than a comment on the psychology of American men. It would be arrogant if an immigrant writer’s goal were to portray the host culture. My credo is that one can only know in-depth one’s native culture – and writers shouldn’t dare write about a culture in which they didn’t grow up. No transplanted writer has ever ventured in such territories, even Conrad and Nabokov who are considered American writers by most have not created characters that are genuinely American – Humbert, for example, is a typology of the lecherous male but it is immaterial that he is American by birth.

I belong to a new and growing group of people who hang in-between two cultures: we cannot fully unhook ourselves from our native bouillon and at the same time we are unable to merge organically into our host culture’s fabric. This is the culture I best know, I associate with, and I want to explore in my writing. In this interface culture, kef coexists with America’s focus on work and humorless experience of the existence. We speak an interlanguage. And we mix great cocktails from our past love affairs stirred into the hard booze of our drive for new, achievable happiness.

J.T.: Besides the group of inter-culture or trans-culture people, however, I think you belong to another „new and growing group“, namely, the one of ever expanding tolerance for sexual freedom. How did you personally learn to appreciate cultural and sexual diversity in order to be able to create such open-minded and unprejudiced characters, especially since socialist Bulgaria wasn’t exactly an example of a country underscoring the importance of tolerance and understanding … ?

Z.A.: Why should sexual freedom be anyhow different from freedom, period? We make our choices in all domains of our lives, and sex is one important such domain. I can pinpoint only one choice of mine that put me on the path to tolerance. In August of 1992, I came to Canada determined to destroy all bridges back to my native land. Now, this choice seems silly, a bit too radical, but at the time I was so disillusioned with Bulgaria – and I was proven right, actually, in my disillusionment – that this looked the obvious decision to me. The unanticipated effect of this decision was that I harnessed all my energy into integrating myself in the host society. And this happened on all levels: language, customs, finding friends, dealing with diversity, understanding the social fabric. It prompted me to enroll in graduate studies in Sociology where I was able to understand the cultural and social debates that drive North America, its class structures, its political system. But I must admit, it is not just a matter of intellectual prowess. I was freedom-hungry.

J.T.: Erotic Memories gets ahead of the majority of Bulgarian literature in that it talks freely about homosexual love and the attraction between people of significantly different ages. But in its liberal treatment of these topics it also outstrips a major segment of the American culture as well, its conservative, puritanical streak. A mere week ago, the notorious DOMA was struck down by the Supreme Court, and barely a day after that the Senate passed a sweeping Immigration Reform Bill. Even though you just said that one ought not to make a diagnosis regarding a culture he or she wasn’t born in, I’d still like to ask you what you think about these two recent social reforms. What do you think they suggest about Americans’ values and their stand on democracy, and also – why do you think they stir so many communal and political tensions in a country that’s been seen as the paragon of democracy and liberalism?

Z.A.: Both they are about equality: equalizing people and stripping the privileges from those who feel that they are more equal among equals. But they are of a different nature. As an immigrant, I want all newcomers to this country to be integrated in her fabric as soon as possible. It makes the country stronger. As a human being, I want the society to institutionalize all instances where the social behavior is a result of free choice – and homosexuality is a free choice that, most importantly, does not do harm to anybody. Therefore, I welcome the DOMA decision. However, neither an immigration reform nor an all-encompassing definition of marriage can change the anti-immigrant sentiment or the homophobia, both deeply entrenched and perpetuated generation after generation in the less educated, religious, and thus rabidly reactionary segment of the American population. And here is one reason why America is so great a country. This big segment of racists and homophobes cohabits with another big segment, which consists of tolerant, liberal, and progressively thinking and acting individuals. There is tension, ideological clashes that are called cultural wars, political clashes between the different branches of government, the balance shifts from one side to the other and vice versa, and yet, people from both sides can be who they are because they are free and their freedom is guaranteed under the Constitution and by the institutional system of checks and balances. Democracy is messy, as President Obama likes to say, but it allows even the most reactionary people to freely express their views. It also allowed the progressive ideas of equality to gain ground, first for the African Americans, then, for women, then, for ethnic minorities, and now for gays and lesbians. In other words, there is a commonality for all Americans – individual freedom and the pursuit of happiness – which permits differences to cohabit without disrupting the social order.

J.T.: “I am entranced by the power of love and believe that in all cases, regardless of who might be wounded and offended, it necessarily forces us to admire it,” says a character in one of your stories. But as responsible adults, your characters are also concerned about the occurrence of “accidental amour” and the disastrous impact such affairs may have on the sanctity of the family. Is following one’s heart always justified and permissible?

Z.A.: This is a big question! The answer depends mainly on the value system an individual shares. Now, it can also be read as if you have perceived me as a rugged moralist. Which I’m definitely not. I neither profess the “sanctity of the family” nor condemn “accidental amour.” But in full honesty, your question hits at the heart of my philosophy about how we experience – consume, if you will – our love relationships.

There is a world-renowned novel written in the 21st century that portrays a kind of ideal love: “The Museum of Innocence” by Orhan Pamuk. It has all characteristics of the great classic novel: its plot is made up in a way that no one would think it could happen in real life yet the whole story its utterly believable. It is an epic story that sounds like a comment on the ideal love. It is indeed the story of an ideal love: an adoration of a woman by a man by the name Kemal that has all the features of a psychotic obsession, but an adoration so beautiful and so deeply humane, such a metaphor of Love that it turns into an apotheosis of something at once ethereal and eternal, unachievable yet admirable. It is literature as a museum of a man’s devotion to a woman. Please note, the woman, Füsün, does not experience reciprocal love for Kemal, and that is the only way Kemal’s love can appear as ideal: he falls in the trap of his infatuation with the idea that he can achieve love even when it is not requited. Love itself becomes an object of adoration.

While Kemal’s love slowly but inescapably turns into platonic idolization of the furtive Füsün, in real life sex interferes with love. Nowadays, I would dare even say that sex is the strongest competitor to love. In the past, it has been performed secretively as people’s morals were much more puritanical. Prostitution has always been regarded as the necessary relief for men’s sexual proclivities. The church was the hypocritical guardian of love. Well, it still is. But look how freer people are in their sexual behavior today, and there have been a constant and always louder outcry against church’s hypocrisy, and prostitution is no longer an issue, and sex is publicly declared as a tool of fun and psychological well-being. All this is in line with the liberal values that characterize advanced societies. I am liberal in my guts, and that makes me a liberal, socially and politically. As an expression of human freedom, I find it a great progress.

But here is the problem. This sexual progress has come at a time when people are still unprepared for the responsibilities it demands for. I’m talking about the responsibilities we have for each other’s well being. Giving the other or receiving from the other pleasure is great. But pleasure is not a goal in itself. And in a great number of cases, it comes at a huge cost: a child born out of love or out of a family environment or to a mother who has no means to rear it, infidelity that leads to the destruction of a couple – at an un-estimable emotional cost, children brought up in the so-called dysfunctional families, STDs, drug addiction, you name it. And all this because we are always ready or even encouraged to indulge, no matter what, in our sexual impulses that are divorced from love. In this sense, sex is more often than not a destroyer of love.

My characters live with the morally ambiguous consequences of their sexual irresponsibility. It is as simple as that. Yet, I’m fascinated by the complexities each such case in the aftermath of love presents, complexities that reveal the human condition in its major and least studied aspects. The short answer to your question is: yes, following one’s heart is always justified and permissible on condition that one is prepared to live with the dire consequences of a heart gotten cold.

J.T.: “Love of a child is not tied to possession – it is entirely about giving, self-denial.” It follows then that there are various kinds of love. Would you care to give us your account of them? Is the idea of ownership the defining criterion for this division?

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