Garth Greenwell, an American poet, critic, and fiction writer, first came to prominence in 2011 with his novella Mitko. The book, a mix of fiction and memoir, is an account of the sexual and romantic relationship between two men: the eponymous Bulgarian male hustler, and the narrator, ostensibly based on the author, who works as a teacher at the American College in Sofia, where Greenwell taught for four years. In his debut novel, What Belongs to You, Greenwell expands Mitko into a 190-page meditation on sex, desire, identity, rejection, humiliation, and what it's like to navigate these complex subjects in Bulgaria during the early 2010s. It's a country that's moved past the cultural stagnation of communism but still suffers from open homophobia and refuses even to acknowledge hate crimes.
A communist country from 1946 until 1990, Bulgaria was relatively bereft of the tools that challenge the dominant heterostructure and propel discourse—film, literature, and art. It has yet to achieve the momentum of gay rebellion that creates a mainstream gay culture—even today the majority of gay people simply stay in the closet. Assen Kokalov, 34, a gay, Bulgarian-born Spanish professor who lives in Chicago and has written extensively on heteronormative masculinity, told me, "I had never even met any openly gay people until I left Bulgaria and came to California for college 15 years ago."
What Belongs to You is radical and brave not only because it explores gay lives with openness and nuance, but because it does so by avoiding the trappings of a narrative built around gay people aiming for the heterosexual model of life. Greenwell writes in an e-mail interview that it's "a beautiful model of life, and one that should be available to queer people—but it isn't the only model of queer life that's legitimate."
"Even many gay people are trying to disown the underground queer culture that has its roots in the 1960s and 1970s," says Kokalov. "Promiscuity, bathhouses, and sex parties are looked down at by many mainstreamed members of the LGBT community."
Greenwell's unnamed narrator is first introduced looking for sex in the public toilets beneath Sofia's National Palace of Culture. There he meets Mitko, the young, troubled, and magnetic male hustler with whom he becomes infatuated. "I felt myself gripped yet again by both pleasure and embarrassment," the narrator says, "and by an excitement so terrible I had to look away."
The Bulgarian language conveys the connection between the characters. It becomes symbolic of Mitko: Bulgarian is something the narrator adores and finds achingly beautiful, but his grasp of it is slippery at best. Greenwell infuses slight words and phrases with potent meaning: gadno ("nasty," "repulsive"); or chakai, chakai, chakai ("wait, wait, wait"); the ambiguous priyatel ("male friend" or "boyfriend"); and even the tender skup si mi ("you're dear to me"). The inclusion of these words creates the thrilling yet uneasy feeling of intimacy: "mrusen he said," Greenwell writes, "dirty, with the same tone of voice he would use in response to the requests I made of him later . . ."
There is a rare moment in What Belongs to You when the two men are out in public, taking a walk through Varna, a beautiful seaside town depicted here as desolate and empty during its off-season. But like the majority of the LGBT community in Bulgaria today, the duo confine their rendezvous mostly to the indoors to avoid overwhelming self-consciousness and shame. Lacking any societal safety nets, Mitko appears in more disrepair, with less money and fewer clothes and possessions, with each successive engagement.
So while Greenwell's narrator grows into an educated, self-sufficient adult who is nevertheless still fighting for an identity, Mitko—like most LGBT youth in Bulgaria—is fighting for his life.
Greenwell is extraordinarily proud that his book will appear in Bulgarian (in addition to French, Spanish, Dutch, German, Italian and Greek). He says, "My book will be one of 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, and my greatest hope for the book is that it will help open up a space for LGBT people in Bulgaria to tell their stories." v