A North Texas fiction writer is making his debut next week with a collection of short stories, East of the West, that’s been called “impressive,” “fantastic” and “heart-crushingly funny.” KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports that he’s followed an unusual path to become a Texas author.
- KERA radio story:
- Expanded online story:
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It’s a classic, only-in-America story. Miroslav Penkov is from Sofia, the capitol of Bulgaria in Eastern Europe. He’s married to a woman from Japan whom he met, naturally – in Arkansas. And the 28-year-old Bulgarian teaches at the University of North Texas – in the English department.
[Penkov addressing his class: “If you have any questions about your re-write, feel free to send me an e-mail … “ continues under]
Penkov’s students aren’t bothered by someone teaching them creative writing who learned English as a second language. They value his perspectives on the craft – and his frankness about their own work.
Aaron Case is a junior at UNT.
Case: “Our writing has only gotten better because of it. As creative writers, we want Miro to say, ‘It’s a helluva story,’ but he doesn’t say that for everybody. And I think that’s what we’ve been needing.”
Penkov knows English well because in the seventh grade, he took a country-wide aptitude test — and was admitted to an intense language school. He studied English 20 hours a week.
But growing up in Bulgaria under communism, it wasn’t easy to get hold of works by American novelists. Penkov says his grandfather knew a bookseller who’d sell him copies under-the-counter. He’d always buy three — to give to different family members.
Penkov: “So we have amazing libraries at home. I mean, we have collected Hemingway, collected Steinbeck – “
Weeks: “Did you read these as a young man?”
Penkov: “I read – [laughs] not these books as a young man, no.”
He did read Robert Louis Stevenson, but the author who truly inspired Penkov was Stephen King. He started reading him at 16. By the time he was 17, Penkov had already published a book of Bulgarian stories which aped Stephen King’s more psychological horror writings.
Penkov: “It’s how you fall in love, you can’t explain it. . . . I had my own little fictional town. His is Castle Rock [in Maine]. Mine was Mountain Springs — where there’s a character named Johnny and a character named Becky and Sara. It was so extremely fake, it rang false on every page.”
Penkov still admires King and doesn’t regret his apprentice work; it confirmed that his need to write was serious. But after the fall of communism in 1989, every new government in Bulgaria just seemed to make the country’s political and economic stagnation worse. By 1997, the country regularly operated on one hour of electrical power followed by four hours without — through the entire winter.
So Penkov gambled on the possibility that he could transform himself into an author – in America. (“As soon as I tell this to anyone in Bulgaria, they say, ‘You’re kidding. You’re an idiot. This can never happen.'”) He won a scholarship to the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville — originally as a psychology student (his parents are doctors; he admits he was hedging his bets).
Ten years ago, Penkov arrived in lush, hilly, northern Arkansas, seemingly equipped to survive in a desert. He thought Arkansas was like Arizona. Plus, a friend’s mother had warned him to bring everything he could.
Penkov: “She says, ‘Things in America are so expensive, buy sheets, buy pillows, bring a blanket.’ I brought a line for laundry, I brought a little bucket, I brought – it was absurd.”
In the end, he dragged 200 pounds of luggage with him.
As for absurdity, it happens to be a major element in Penkov’s fiction. His writing has won the Eudora Welty Prize from The Southern Review, and his book, East of the West, has already been sold for translation in 11 countries.
In East of the West, Penkov’s stories range from low-key, lyrical realism to the out-and-out mythic and dream-like. The author he’s most often happily compared to is Gary Shteyngart (Super Sad True Love Story). But Shteyngart has a more antic and vaudevillian spirit. As brilliant as he is, Shteyngart can betray a need to keep the reader entertained at all costs — it leaks through like flop sweat. In contrast, Penkov’s humor is often laced with a gentle melancholy, a sense of loss. He has that characteristic Eastern European fatalism that can flip between nostalgic acceptance and hilarious absurdism.
Penkov’s best-known tale is “Buying Lenin” (selected for Best American Short Stories 2008, co-edited by Salman Rushdie). It’s narrated by a young Bulgarian in America. His grandfather is a staunch Stalinist still living in their old village, still angry over the boy’s selling out to capitalism. Feeling guilty and homesick, the narrator eventually buys his grandfather a peace offering. He found the embalmed corpse of Vladimir Lenin — for sale.
Penkov insists that even when his stories draw from his life, he flips things around. He didn’t have a diehard Communist for a grandfather, for example. And Lenin, it seems, is not currently up for auction. Best to keep one’s PayPal account ready, though.
It’s the narrator’s homesickness in “Buying Lenin” that seems real enough. Penkov says he truly appreciates the American Dream – and all that it’s brought him. But he admits he has a tendency to find the grim side of things, their hidden costs.
Penkov: “I have a house, I have a great job, I have a family and I get to write. It’s nice. But you also have to think, what have I sacrificed? Well, everyone that I’ve loved, I had to leave behind in Bulgaria, and I mean, I’m very close to my family – to the point that it’s really painful.”
This, too, is a classic American story: the immigrant author who’s torn between all the benefits of America and his deep loyalties to home. Consider the sub-title to the collection: A Country in Stories. Penkov says that he’s not been in Texas long enough to write about it — although he’d like to, sometime. For now, he hopes to invent an entire country’s mythology, history and folklore.
He wants to use his fiction to build a kind of dream Bulgaria.
- The opening of “Buying Lenin,” read by Miroslav Penkov:
Some of the reviews:
Kirkus Review (subs. req.)
Dallas Morning News review by Stephen Kellman (subs. req.)