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

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

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