‘What Belongs to You’: An Interview with Garth Greenwell

“Queer people have to fight for their lives everywhere in the world.”

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“What Belongs to You” by Garth Greenwell

Garth Greenwell’s debut novel, “What Belongs to You” has been on the U.S. market for barely a few weeks and it has already earned accolades as “the great gay novel of the decade,” in the process becoming the toast of the world’s most prestigious media outlets: The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Guardian, and more. The story is set in Bulgaria, where Greenwell spends four years from 2009 until 2013 as a teacher at the American College in Sofia. An unnamed narrator, also a teacher at the same school, recalls an affair with a young male Bulgarian hustler, Mitko. Mitko is fascinating, elusive, prone to drugs and alcohol and – as the jagged chip in his front tooth recurrently reminds us – drunken brawling. He is a tragic, flawed, endlessly charismatic human with whom the narrator becomes desperately infatuated. The book is revelatory in that ultimately, we can’t run from who we are – not even if we cross oceans, not even if we scuttle deep below society’s gaze in dirty, underground men’s toilets, and we especially cannot run from our memories. But not all is lost: love may not be for sale, but humanity is everywhere – including the places where you might least expect it.  “What Belongs to You,” published by FSG is available here.

Izidora Angel interviewed Garth from Chicago (you can read the interview in Bulgarian here), where she lives while the author was in Iowa, where he resides. The conversation took place a few weeks before “What Belongs to You” came out.

Garth Greenwell Anelia Barenska

Illustration by Aneliya Barenska

The entire book takes place in Bulgaria, mostly in Sofia, the capital, but also in this beautiful seaside town of Varna. How does an American from Louisville end up in Bulgaria?

Almost by chance! The real choice happened several years before, when I decided to leave a PhD program to teach high school – I thought for just a year. One year turned into three, and I realized that I didn’t want to go back and finish my degree. But I also didn’t want to stay in the States – I had always wanted to live abroad, and this seemed like a good opportunity. So I went on the job market fairly late and got two offers, one for a very posh school in Switzerland, and one at the American College of Sofia. When I researched the history of ACS and learned about the quality of students there, I knew that was where I wanted to go. Also, I had one friend from college – a pianist who studied with me at the Eastman School of Music – who I knew had returned to Sofia, so I knew, at least, one person there. I decided to take the plunge, and ended up staying for four years, and forming a connection to the place that I feel sure will last the rest of my life. 

When were you there?

From 2009 – 2013.

I will not overstate if I say you are kind of a national treasure in Bulgaria. You wrote a great piece for the New Yorker about Georgi Gospodinov’s book “The Physics of Sorrow”, translated by Angela Rodel, and have been so supportive of Bulgarian writers and Bulgarian literature. As a Bulgarian, albeit one living in Chicago, I want to thank you for that.

Oh, that’s unbelievably nice of you to say! But the privilege was all mine in writing about Gospodinov’s brilliant book. I think there are so many terrific writers in Bulgaria now, and they have an amazing champion in Angela Rodel. I want to do all I can to bring that work to the attention of more readers. 

 

The fact that you speak Bulgarian makes Bulgarian people instantly fall in love with you.

Ha! I wish I spoke it better than I do. I think it’s the most beautiful language in the world – certainly the most beautiful of those I speak. (My boyfriend, who is a Spanish poet, hates when I say this, but it’s true.) I worked hard to learn it, and I’m so glad I did. It allowed me to know a wider range of people in Bulgaria than I would have otherwise. And it gives me access to an incredibly rich literature. 

 

Very early on in the book, the protagonist says Bulgarian is a language no one bothers to learn if one does not know it already. I hadn’t thought of it that way before and it is so true and it delivers such a sting.

I wish it were less true. And it’s an exaggeration – there are foreigners who speak amazingly well. (Like Angela, though it seems wrong to call her a foreigner at this point.) But it’s very hard, and it’s easy to be discouraged. Almost all of my American colleagues at ACS gave up after learning здрасти and как си. But I fell in love with it. It was hard work to learn enough to be proficient, but I’m so glad I kept at it. 

 

The book is about an unnamed protagonist and Mitko, the male Bulgarian prostitute who comes into his life and disappears several times. The two speak only in Bulgarian and for me, it heightened the experience of reading it so much. Perhaps it was the recognition because I know the language, but there is that other component – the music of it, in words like “mrusen” (dirty), or “gadno” (nasty; repulsive) or “chakai, chakai, chakai” (wait, wait, wait), which adds such an element of being right there in the room. Did that come naturally when you were writing the book? Did it matter you wrote it while in Bulgaria?

Oh, it mattered so much that I wrote it in Bulgaria. The place is the key element in the book, and the key element in my writing it. I had never written fiction before moving to Bulgaria – all of my training had been in poetry – and in some way I don’t really understand, the experience of being abroad was key in the turn my writing took. 

I want the book to immerse the reader in an experience of a particular consciousness, and one of the things I wanted to explore was the experience of living in a different language, and how that experience changes over time. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator doesn’t speak the language well at all, and his relationship with Mitko develops with very limited access to language. Which is important, I think, since the narrator is a writer, and kind of hyper-verbal, and so not having access to eloquence (which he uses as a defense much of the time) makes him relate to Mitko in a particular way. 

Also, I do hope that the book gives some sense of the music of Bulgarian, and having those Bulgarian words woven in with the English is important to me aesthetically, even for the shapes the sentences took. 

 

So this brings me to another aesthetic point. You don’t demarcate dialogue, which I loved. As if the punctuation would have broken a spell. Why did you do that?

I think “breaking the spell” is pretty close to what I felt. As I say, I want the experience of reading the book to be one of immersion in the narrator’s consciousness, and so I wanted everything, including other people’s speech, to be filtered through that lens. 

This is a tricky balancing act because the degree to which the book is successful also depends on the degree to which Mitko emerges as a character available to the reader – someone the reader can care about, with inherent value. If Mitko seems just to be an occasion for the narrator to have thoughts and feelings, the book has failed. This was something I thought a lot about as I worked on the book with my brilliant editor, Mitzi Angel – trying to find the right balance between inwardness and attention to the vivid human presence of the other character. 

You’ve achieved it really seamlessly. Overall, there is the feeling of an intentional vagueness, a haziness, a sort of poetic rambling which comes into a super sharp focus when Mitko shows up. Almost as if things are black and white, but Mitko is in color.

I hope that’s true: I want him to be an electric presence in the book, as he is for the narrator.

The power plays between Mitko and the narrator are fascinating: Mitko only really ever shows up when he needs money or (brief) shelter from what is very obviously a hard, street life. The protagonist knows this and attempts to use it to his advantage, but that is so short-lived; Mitko never truly gives him the satisfaction, his head is always somewhere else.

I think that’s right: it’s clear that they are living in different stories of the relationship. It’s clear that their relationship is limited by, maybe determined by, the transaction with which it begins. But what I really wanted to explore in the book are moments where their feelings seem to transcend those limitations, or at least offer the possibility of doing so. There are several moments in the book where they connect in ways that, however transient, seem to me profoundly human. The narrator feels increasingly frustrated by his own failure to find a way to relate to Mitko that seems at once morally responsible and bearable. But he also recognizes that what he feels for him is something like love – as much as love as anything he’s ever felt, maybe. 

Right, there is that brief, brief moment in Varna when the narrator and Mitko walk through town together and it is something resembling friendship, or love, and it feels so hard-won, so fleeting. Why should love requited love be so hard?

Ah, the eternal question! I think the middle section of the book tries to explore why love is so hard for this particular character, delving into his childhood growing up in Kentucky and his first experiences of love. The narrator does have profound feelings for Mitko, however, he fails them. And Mitko acts in ways toward him that can’t be entirely explained away by material advantage. I wanted, without presenting an overly enchanted or romanticized portrait of their relationship, to explore the ways in which they remain full, which is to say complex and deeply feeling, human beings even in a context – sex work, anti-gay prejudice – that might be seen as dehumanizing. 

Speaking of the narrator’s childhood, there is a really heartbreaking scene, which seems to me a near universal experience for gay men – the father’s rejection. In this particular instance, the narrator is still a young boy, but the father’s realization, maybe, or suspicion, that his son might be gay and the way he is so utterly repulsed by even the possibility of it was really painful to read. Do you think the father/gay son relationship is still as complicated as ever?

I hope that this is changing and that fewer gay people are facing the rejection the narrator experiences. But certainly this change is happening slowly and unevenly, as the devastating rates of LGBT youth homelessness show. And if that’s true of America, it’s even more true of places like Bulgaria.

I do think that the spark of novel came from the weird sense of recognition I felt as I began to meet gay people in Bulgaria – the sense I had, talking to men in their thirties and forties, that I was hearing the same sorts of things I heard gay men saying in Kentucky in the early nineties. And working as a high school teacher gave me a particularly painful vantage point on the state of LGBT rights in the country. I was the only openly gay faculty member at ACS when I was there, which meant that many students came to speak to me about being queer, or about being unsure of their sexuality or gender identity. Almost always, as we spoke, they came to the conclusion that it wouldn’t be safe for them to come out while they were living with their families in Bulgaria. It was heartbreaking to see these brilliant, wonderful young people have to make a choice to continue living inauthentic lives, waiting until they went to college abroad to try to live more openly and more fully. 

You bring up a really important point, and I feel like it’s even true for Bulgarian gay men who came to America as college students. For one of my Bulgarian friends here in Chicago, his father assumed his being gay was a phase, something he would wake up from. Another one has been in a committed relationship with a man for 7–8 years, he is in his mid-30s also, and has not told his parents who are in Bulgaria. So every summer, he leaves his boyfriend behind for 3 weeks to go there and pretends he just ‘hasn’t found anyone yet’. 

Those are really familiar stories. Even for the couples I know in Bulgaria, couples that are as committed and stable as any I know, it’s often the case that one or both keep their relationship hidden from their families. I do think that Bulgaria is changing, thanks to the heroic efforts of brave LGBT activists there, but not quickly enough. 

And one thing I became aware of teaching in Bulgaria was the extent to which books were crucial to me as a gay kid growing up in Kentucky. Even though everything in the culture around me said that my life was without value, by the time I was 14 or 15 I was finding books that told a different story. James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story weren’t just crucial to my life as a writer, they were crucial to my life, full stop. I don’t think I would have survived without them. 

I could – and did – give those books and others to my students at ACS, but many, many Bulgarian kids don’t have access to that literature. When What Belongs to You comes out in Bulgarian, it will join only a few literary books that portray LGBT lives in Bulgaria with dignity. (I can think of Nikolay Boikov and Nikolai Atanasov, and really nothing else.) My greatest hope for the book is that it will help open up space for LGBT people in Bulgaria to tell their stories. 

You capture really well how so many Bulgarians are still so consumed with the image of this faraway, dream-like, perfect America. Mitko wears Levis and eyes, covetously, the protagonist’s computer and telephone. This dream of America – today so within arms reach for so many –remains forever elusive for Mitko and so many like him. In the book, you counter that image with one of those endless suburban malls that are anything but sexy. What would Mitko think of America if he actually made it over here? 

Oh wow, that’s a great question – and one I bet you can answer much better than I can. On one hand, I do think that in many ways life is easier here – and especially for LGBT people. It’s very hard to adequately state what it means to live in a country with marriage equality, for instance – I’m still processing that huge change, which allows me to feel like a full citizen for the first time in my life. That said, at-risk LGBT youth, the category Mitko falls into, remain hugely vulnerable and underserved in the United States. I do think the horizon of possibility is broader for LGBT people in the US than it is in Bulgaria. But it remains true that queer people have to fight for their lives everywhere in the world. 

Izidora Angel is a Bulgarian-born writer, translator, and curator living in Chicago. Her translation of “The Same Night Awaits Us All: Diary of a Novel” by Hristo Karastyanov is forthcoming from Open Letter Books in Spring, 2017. The translation is made possible by the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation.