Jasmina Tacheva talks with Bulgarian-American author Zlatko Anguelov about his newest book, Erotic Memories (2012), and the ideas of love, devotion, harmony and memory on the border between two cultures.
Zlatko Anguelov, born 1946 in Varna, Bulgaria, is a Bulgarian-American writer, a Canadian and American citizen who lived for 21 years in North America, and recently moved to Southampton, United Kingdom. Although his non-fiction, medical, journalistic, and critical writings are in English, he writes fiction in Bulgarian and follows Bulgarian literature regardless of the place he lives in or the language (English or French) he speaks on a daily basis. Ten years after the publication of his memoir “Communism and the Remorse of an Innocent Victimizer” (Texas A&M University Press, College Station, TX 2002), a collection of five novellas, titled “Erotic Memories” appeared in the Bulgarian language (Ciela, Sofia 2012).
Currently, Zlatko is a staff writer with the International Writing Program in Iowa City, IA; he writes biographies of the writers who have studied or taught at the world-famous programs in creative writing at the University of Iowa for a website called Iowa Writing University. These profiles are also featured in the iApp Iowa City, UNESCO City of Literature.
Jasmina Tacheva, born and raised in Bulgaria, is a poet, journalist and translator living in Buffalo, New York. She is the author of one book of poetry, Несподеленост (Unrequited), and the co-author of a fiction book, The Legacy of Lysimachus. She edits the online literary journal Public Republic and the art blog Absinthe-Minded. Her poems, fiction and articles have been published in numerous outlets, including Public Republic, The Quadrangle, The Griffin, Philosophia, The Institute of Modern Politics, Kultura, Literaturen Vestnik, Knigolubie, and others.
J.T.: In The Symposium Plato states through his character Aristophanes that, “[l]ove is simply the name for the desire and pursuit of the whole,” and also that when one finds a true lover, “the pair is lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and one will not be out of the other’s sight … even for a moment.” And yet in your book you often talk about the idea that “there can’t be an absolute balance.” You also describe the “strange, juicy mix of admiration and disgust” that sometimes arises between two people in a passionate relationship, so allow me to begin thus: do you believe that harmony between a man and a woman is ever possible?
Z.A.: What is possible is the illusion of harmony. By definition, harmony is the full resonance between two entities or processes – and in a physical sense, that can only be achieved between inanimate objects or processes, where the components follow natural rules. People have will and autonomy, two properties that make them ungovernable by the laws of nature.
Now, it seems to me that you want to frame our conversation about the complexities of love in a philosophical perspective, and I feel I want to resist that. For two reasons. One is that we are discussing novellas about love, that is, an artistic representation of love relationships, which are inevitably laden with unpredictability and thus, escape formal logic; they follow the “ill”-logic of the soul. They cannot be generalized – and there is nothing more prone to generalization than philosophy. And two, philosophy can never help people love each other, or even more so, love each other in a kind of prescribed way. Then, why bother to search for the ideal? The Greek philosophers were idealists, and they, as well as thousands of thinkers between them and the 21st century, have attempted to present love as a special, elevated form of spirituality that takes people out of the mundane triviality of their daily lives.
I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in love that is tangible, and experienced spontaneously on a daily basis: as part of our dreams, careers, fulfillment, failures, aspirations, procreation, rises and falls, etc. Love is out there for grab. And everyone makes of it whatever he or she is capable of. It is this capacity to love that defines our souls, and makes us distinctive individuals.
In this context, how can we talk about harmony? Instead, it is a struggle to overcome our selfishness. We are fundamentally egotistic creatures. Love, as I have experienced it and understood it, is a way to satisfy our egos. The paradox is that it comes at a price: love makes us dependent on our beloved (to a degree of enslavement). And if a person can realize that the only way out of this dependence is actually to turn the egoistic love into altruistic, and at the same time succeeds to persuade his or her partner to do the same, we may hope that a harmony can be established. But it will be but a temporary harmony, as we all change throughout our lives, and the changes are more often than not unpredictable. Here, we meet another paradox: in the majority of cases, we fail to use our will and autonomy to change in the direction that would keep us in harmony with our partner in love. We usually fall prey to our ego.
This view on love reflects human imperfection, which rarely allows humans to achieve the ideal love. Yet, it helps me think of love as a great instrument of personal improvement. If your heart is really hot and shaken by someone, and you desperately want to keep them longer near you, you begin to willfully make changes (people call them compromises, but they are good, positive compromises) that are in sync with the changes of your beloved. Think how rare this can happen between two people: either of them to change for the sake of the other.
To sum up, illusion of harmony and temporary harmony is not so bad, after all. We shouldn’t aspire for the impossible perfect state that our mind can conceive of but never really achieve.
J.T.: Would you say, then, that the zeal for harmony and perfection that has been handed down to us by the ancient Greek thinkers has a vertical trajectory, with the absolute being the final destination, while your characters inhabit a world that is rather spread out horizontally and thus, is inclusive, because it does not dismiss any possible manifestation of love? By the same token, I find the idea you just expressed – “I’m interested in love that is tangible, and experienced spontaneously on a daily basis: as part of our dreams, careers, fulfillment, failures, aspirations, procreation, rises and falls, etc. … It is this capacity to love that defines our souls, and makes us distinctive individuals.” – to be indicative of both the emotional and cognitive canvas of Erotic Memories. Is that so?
Z.A.: Yes, it is. The division into vertical and horizontal trajectories of love is an artificial construct. We are endowed with the capacity to love – humans, not God – and everyone of us makes out of this capacity whatever he or she can. We people cannot surpass ourselves.
J.T.: So, you believe that we can find love or love can find us anywhere, anytime. It surely equips us with hope that the pangs of separation won’t last forever, since sooner or later a new love will come our way. But on the other hand, doesn’t this exclude the possibility of the one and only great love that can last forever? Do you think there are, so to speak, “greater” and “smaller” loves in one’s life?
Z.A.: Of course, there are. Today’s world is a very dynamic and complex one, and our encounters with other people have increased dramatically. Our world also is a very pragmatic one. If in our youth we may have dreamt of the “one and only great love,” of which we have read in the books, reality knocked us down to our senses very soon. However, there are also many excellent books that speak of love in real life. For example, my wife and I like to remember André Maurois’s novel Les Climats published in 1928, which I read as a young man and she read as an adolescent girl. Turns out that this novel about the intricacies of marital love and infidelity has significantly shaped her and my ideas of marital love for good.
The ideal love is not interesting. It is defined in an abstract way, without taking into account human nature. We always love a concrete person. The evolution of this love is what sits at the core of our emotional well being. The standard of “ideal” is set by everyone for themselves. Any intimate relationship is a world in itself and there can’t exist universal standards. In this sense, everyone is actually able to experience the ideal love as defined by them. We usually hear about failed love relationships, because of the pain they cause and because we like sharing our pains. There are many happy love relationships of which we don’t hear, but they exist out there, in silence and quiet happiness. Call them ideal, call them great love, if you wish, this won’t change their life nor will it serve as an example of the ultimate achievement. Who needs such examples?
J.T.: Orson Welles famously said that “[o]nly through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.” By the same token, in “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love,” Raymond Carver’s short story you allude to in one of your stories, Mel exclaims, “All this, all of this love we’re talking about, it would just be a memory. Maybe not even a memory.” If the authenticity and reliability of even the real occurrence, the actual relationship, can be questioned and called an “illusion,” let alone the mere memory of it, then what is the value of memories to you, especially seeing that they appear to be the gravitational force of your narrative around which all plots revolve?
Z.A.: The emphasis in Welles’ quote should be on “for the moment.” He obviously felt the same temporality of the love harmony I mentioned above. Now, I wouldn’t say that Mel’s account of love as bound to only turn into a memory – and perhaps even into something we are bound to forget – is “by the same token.” It is of quite a different order, and I wouldn’t use it as enforcement of the illusion idea. In the context of the two couples’ conversation over a bottle of gin in Carver’s story, this is just a passing remark typical of such conversations, which expresses Mel’s nebulous regret, anybody’s vague regret, that love cannot last forever. It is a typical common metaphor of the human condition, and a subconscious acknowledgment that the ideal is indeed unachieveable. He regretted the concrete love he was talking about. Love as a thrill, an infatuation, love before the experience of its long-lasting consequences. Moreover, love as a memory is the opposite of illusion. Usually, our memory cleans up the bad and ambiguous feelings that always accompany love while it lasts, and actually, helps us believe in the illusion that love is something beautiful and different from everyday life. Caveat: when it hasn’t ended in full disaster or outright personal war.
And you may go back to the story “Crush” and reread the passage about Carver’s WWTAWWTAL to realize that I’ve used it with a different meaning in mind. And that meaning can be summarized in the claim that love is so beautiful and overwhelming in its various manifestations that it can justify even violence, killing, and suicide. The entire confession of the narrator in my story is, if you think about it, an attempt to justify his feelings for Adelia, that is, to justify his emotional ambiguity. Why is he ambiguous, though, and why is his ambiguity the most natural occurrence in a man who lives life instead of imagining it or philosophizing about it? It is because he lives in a harmonious relationship with his wife. But he lives in the aftermath of love.
Let me explain what I mean by that and how it relates to my using memory as a literary device. It is no wonder that you, and all readers for that matter, have focused on the crush Yovo experiences for Adelia, considering that this is the love story I’m interested in. As a matter of fact, the true love story, and the love story that made me write “Crush,” is the love between Yovo and his wife Elena. It is in the background, but it is key to understanding the soul-searching Yovo undergoes – using his memory – in his desire to sort out his relationship with Elena whom, he is fully aware, he has hurt. It is no accident that Yovo tells the story of his crush in the form of a confession for Elena. Inadvertently, the readers focus on the “fresh” love, the hot love, because this is what we think love is; and love after 10 or 20 or even 30 years of relationship is not regarded as love anymore. It is regarded as cohabitation. It is, really, the aftermath of that Love.
It is this aftermath that preoccupies me as a writer. It is in these long years after the flames of love have died out that harmony may or may not replace them, in the cases they haven’t turned into ashes. Telling the story from the memory of a person who lives in the aftermath, that is, lives with all the consequences of his love behavior – the ups and downs, the euphoria and the defeats, the elegy as well as the violence, the longing and the separation, the successes and failures, the pains s/he has caused – is in my mind the most convincing way to make a story about love at once gripping and believable. The omniscient writer can describe the thrills of the new love, but a person who has kept this new love in his memory while continuing to experience its aftermath for many years, can analyze it in 3-D and convey a fuller understanding of its meaning for the two lovers who remained together for life. That is how literature can play an educational role with regard to people’s emotions.
J.T.: In one of your characters’ own words, “[t]here is something cruel in the infantilism of the men here: they are like children who love torturing animals, but without the innocence,” and also, “Lust is a weakness of men, not a means of exercising power.” What do you think prevents men from properly assessing their abilities and opportunities; what is this “infantilism” like, what causes it and keeps them from reaching emotional maturity?
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?
Z.A.: I hope you don’t expect me to give you a list of loves. The defining criterion is, I believe, whom you care for: mother, child, partner, country, nature. It is not ownership. You know that there are lovable people and loving people as well as lovely and loveless people. In the English language there is a semantic distinction between I’m in love with, which one says about a woman or man, and I love: my child, my country or a landscape, the ocean, walking, you name it. Falling in love is a process of acquiring a novel feeling toward a person or an object, whereas one loves (without falling in) things by default. In the Bulgarian language, this distinction is achieved with two different verbs: любя and обичам.
Barring the sexual taboo, parental love and romantic love have many a common characteristic. In the quote above, I have underlined a key difference to stress that romantic love is egoistic – you want to possess the person you love, to keep her for yourself alone – unlike parental love, which is altruistic.
It’s quite telling that you ask me about ownership, as we inadvertently associate love with possession. It may perhaps help your search for ideal love if you thought of it as the ability of some individuals to free their love from ownership: giving in love instead of taking.
J.T.: “But none of us knows everything about anyone” – this idea voiced in one of your stories seems to me to be one of the focal points of the book. The past in the stories is almost as deep a well of uncertainty as the future – the consequences of faded or forgotten memories materialize in the present and bring about life-changing realizations. It often turns out that we don’t know everything about our own lives, let alone about those of the people around us. Is this lack of complete knowledge necessarily a bad thing and do you really think it can never be overcome?
Z.A.: I couldn’t add a bit to your amazingly excellent reading of the books’ underlying concept. Bad or good, it doesn’t matter, it is what it is, a property of our memory and, hence, of our consciousness and self-perception. It is our utter subjectivity. And love is subjective. Isn’t that the beauty of it? We don’t want to destroy that beauty. Everything personal is subjective because of how we remember. We can only search for objectivity in knowledge and claims that do not relate to the personal.
J.T.: You describe Bulgarians, especially, Bulgarian intellectuals living in the time after the democratic changes as “children with their noses bent out of shape at the villainy of democracy;” you even point out in one place that “the talented left [Bulgaria] with a feeling that they have been driven away;” and you talk about “being unappreciated by your own people;” and all of this is “some kind of freeness about this [immigrant] man that made him akin to the solitude of the ocean” that the male Bulgarian transplant emits to his American peers in your stories. Would you mind telling us a bit more about that feeling of un-appreciation, about which you rightfully observe that “there isn’t a single word to describe it yet?” Do you think it is still there now, 23+ years into Bulgarian democracy? How does the “freeness” come about? I almost think that the feeling of neglect by our country strengthens our will and gives us a kind of a competitive edge by making us more resilient and self-sufficient than the citizens of countries with well-developed democratic policies and social nets…
Z.A.: There is a very long answer to this question that no one has thus far dared to tackle. The short answer is yes! Bulgaria is an amorphous society due to historical reasons. Nothing has changed for the past 23+ years after the fall of communism. The principle of survival was and remains “save yourself without caring for the others.” While you are there, no one cares for you, hence, no one appreciates you for what you are or are doing. When you get out of it, you take with yourself this survivalist kit and you appear to your new peers as tougher and rougher and bolder and assertive, even aggressive, because, in addition, you have mobilized yourself to make it in an unknown and allegedly hostile social environment. It is the combination of nurtured toughness and purposeful mobilization that endows you with a freeness, of which you actually aren’t aware. So, the “competitive edge” is there. And it’s there for almost about any immigrant due to the goal to remake themselves. We all come here angry at our native countries. The majority of those who fail blame the host country, and get even angrier. I’ve chosen to write about those who succeed, as only in success you can look back at where you come from without anger, and use your memory to make sense of what you have experienced along the road, and who you can become in your new life.
J.T.: In the last story of the book, the protagonist, Vladimir, tries to define destiny. He describes it as an “[i]nvisible force [that] was making me act against my nature.” This observation struck me as particularly interesting, since I’ve always thought of Bulgarian culture as, so to speak, more esoteric than the pragmatic American positivism. Free will appears to be a major part of American society, but in Bulgaria we seem to put a lot of weight on notions like luck, destiny, the zodiac, and other sorts of predetermination that Americans wouldn’t always be able to understand. What do you think of these differences?
Z.A.: Vladimir’s nature is rational. And he suddenly finds himself in a situation that is so bizarre that he begins doubting his rationality. A rational person always tries to make sense of things that appear illogical or without clear causality. I want to avoid any generalization with respect to rational vs. irrational people or societies. We are always a mixture of the two, or a community is a mixture of people who are rational and those who tend to believe in invisible forces. Bulgaria is in a social limbo and it is only very natural that the majority of people would tend to put their faith in the so-called esoteric explanations of he world. America has prospered because of its rational approach to the social order and its trust in people’s rational behavior, and it would be surprising if people here were guided by mysticism. But the majority of Americans are religious, and those people claim beyond any reasonable doubt that their faith in Jesus drives everything in their lives. They even think that their Constitution was God-driven. So, how do you reconcile this religiosity with the pragmatic appearance of the Americans? To give you a most striking example, it is a mystification to me how the current Director of the National Institutes of Health, definitely a scientific establishment, the great geneticist Francis Collins, is a deeply religious person. Well, America is diverse and so big that it can tolerate irrationality but still thrive on the scientific fundament of its social organization and technological progress. It looks rational yet is able to obscure its esoteric side. Similarly, every rational individual has an obscure side where doubts about the rational nature of the world reside. These doubts are fueled by phenomena that haven’t yet found their scientific explanation. Isn’t love one such obscure, that is, uncontrollable, side of everyone of us?
J.T.: In this same story Annie talks about Vladimir’s “most intimate means of experiencing utter happiness no matter where he found himself in the world” – his ritual of dipping a cookie in his coffee, which he brought with him from his native country; a ritual that, to a certain extent, embodies his identity. In his book The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien talks in a similar fashion about the material and immaterial things the members of an American platoon in Vietnam brought with them from home. What do you still carry with you from Bulgaria? And on a more personal note – how closely related to your personal experiences are the events in “Erotic Memories?”
Z.A.: In spite of your attempt to differentiate the two questions, they both, actually, refer to very personal, private circumstances. Bulgaria is a very private matter for me, and in an effort to overcome my reluctance to talk about it, I have to confess that I carry her with the full awareness that her backwardness is in striking, painful contrast with my own forwardness. To anybody, I appear as a person of the 21 century, computer-savvy, cosmopolitan, well-traveled, forward-thinking. I do not carry any particular objects – amulets, if you wish – to remind me of Bulgaria, except for the family heirlooms that have no cash value but are precious to me and my children to whom I’ll bequeath them after my death. But I carry every bit of my native country in the depths of my soul where very few people are allowed to enter.
Your second question has been asked to writers since literature exists, I guess. But I found two reasons to nevertheless answer it despite my resistance. Number one is the delicate form, in which you put it, taking for granted that there is a relation and you are simply interested in the degree of it. Number two is my awareness that all novellas are narrated from a first person as if the author were non-existent, and this creates an intimacy that no reader takes for made-up. The novellas were conceived, in fact, as a fictionalized documentary.
The short and unequivocal answer to the question “did this or part of it happen in your own life?” is no. A resounding no! But I swear that every writer will tell you that their fictional works are quite closely related to their personal experiences. How close, no one can measure. But we write about things that we have learned about from personal experiences, both in terms of plot and psychological conflicts. There is no other way, except if you wrote sci-fi or fantasy books – but that’s another story. Good writing comes out of good knowledge about your subject. I will never write about war, for example, as I have never experienced war. Good writing is also the result of the writer’s curiosity about the subject matter. I have always been curious about human relationships – that curiosity made me knowledgbale to the extent that I know I need to know much more. I’m not curious about word games and playing with style, therefore, I wil never write an experimental, plot-less story for the sake of showing my ability to achieve a perfect style.
However, in wrapping up, I want to commend you and thank you for your ingenious questions that situated “Erotic Memories” in the no-land space between two cultures, thus demonstrating that you believed it came out of my personal experiences. The interface culture an immigrant lives in is, indeed, this book’s natural context.
Buffalo, NY – Southampton, UK, July 2013