A text from the The Alone Together series, an initiative of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation
I've been to Bulgaria twice, separated by a gap of three years, though it feels like I've actually been to two different Bulgarias. This difference is on my mind as I think of how my home country, America, has changed in about the same timeframe. I feel like I've lived in two different Americas lately, and think back to Bulgaria looking for words to pinpoint this sensation.
I visited my first Bulgaria as a fellow of the 2009 Sozopol Fiction Seminar, and I instantly loved the country and the wonderfully open people in its literary community. Bulgaria had just joined the European Union in 2007, and people exuded a sense of confident hope when they talked about the future. This confirmed my enthusiasm for the place, which spilled over to my family back in America when I Skyped with them. (Somewhere there's a video of my sons, then four and two, running circles in our living room while the eldest shouts “We're going to Bulgaria!”) When I came home I immediately started plotting ways to get back.
I visited my second Bulgaria as a guest of the 2012 Sozopol seminar and found the mood more sombre. The same people I'd met three years earlier didn't talk about their country the same way. The national future didn't sound as rosy, and people's individual futures seemed less rosy too. I learned that the government in place back in May 2009 was ousted two months later, and by my 2012 visit its replacement was on shaky ground—I remember hearing about problems with utilities and oil. The grumblings I heard would turn to protests and this government, too, would eventually collapse in early 2013.
Some of the difference I felt between 2009 and 2012 stems from my own impressions, of course. But I can't shake one fact: vastly more Bulgarians I met talked about wanting to leave their home country in 2012 than in 2009, and they talked about it more stridently. I think back to this phenomenon when I compare America today to America before the November 2016 presidential election. Fantasizing about leaving the country has been a pastime of the literary/cultural community for much longer than I've been part of it. But under the previous administration those fantasies didn't feel as urgent. We had awful skeletons in our closet, but we were starting to face them with hope. America felt on the up-and-up.
Then came the 2016 election and its massive cultural swing from center-left to hard right. Escape hatch fantasies in the community of writers, artists, and musicians I know and love became urgent and loud. As America's national and personal futures grew less rosy, we looked to other countries for freedom and hope. (My personal favorites: Portugal and Norway.) Covid-19 has severely damaged my fantasies of escape, but I still find myself envying friends who live in countries that aren't tearing themselves apart aggressively like America is. Sometimes when it gets really awful, I excoriate myself for never learning a foreign language well enough to gain employment in it – which means my family and I are stuck here no matter how far down the sinkhole of its own darkness America wants to dive.
How far down we go is anybody's guess because America isn't used to such rapid swings in national identity, and American psyches aren't either. The last time we experienced such disaffection and self-questioning was during the run of political assassinations in the 1960s, and our current fracture feels potentially more violent. But Bulgaria is more used to national disaffection, since it has survived Ottoman rule, Communism, a rickety transition to European-style capitalism, and multiple quick regime changes.
So I look out my writing room window asking what lessons Bulgaria has for America, because it has to know something to survive almost fifteen hundred years. Doesn't it? But I fear the only lesson America can learn right now is the same one our species keeps learning regardless of nation or era: The powerful will always take more power, and those they take it will from suffer. That story never changes, whether it unfolds in Sofia or New York or Sozopol or South Dakota. All that differs are the details of place, the specificity of loss, and the shapes that people twist themselves into to keep their sense of being intact.
This is the flower of the human species –what stubbornly remains when hope for the future gets stripped away by other people's need for control. This is what Bulgaria knows. America, protected from its darkness by its willful self-delusions for so long, is no longer able to maintain our facade, and we're learning hard truths the hard way.
The Alone Together series presents literary work by Sozopol Seminars' faculty and fellows written in the confines of our authors' homes during the coronavirus outbreak in an attempt to connect each other and to carry on the magic and spirit of the Seminars, which for the first time in thirteen memorable years has had to be canceled. The Elizabeth Kostova Foundation asked writers from five different continents to look through the windows of their studies, literally and metaphorically, and share their literary imagination. The project was launched in March 2020 and culminated in the end of May 2020.