Miroslav Penkov’s debut novel Stork Mountain is a multi-layered, multi-faceted story about family secrets, young love, superstition, politics and religion set in a remote mountain region dripping with history. A young Bulgarian-American man returns to his native country in search of his grandfather, who has exiled himself to a small village near the Turkish border, where for hundreds of years a mysterious band of people have performed a ritual by dancing across burning embers and a horde of storks passes through on its yearly migration.
Miroslav Penkov was born in Bulgaria in 1982 and moved to the United States in 2001. His short story collection East of the West was a finalist for the 2012 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing and the Steven Turner Award for Best Work of First Fiction. He teaches creative writing at the University of North Texas, where he is editor in chief of The American Literary Review.
I’m a sucker for books about Eastern Europe, and Stork Mountain fell squarely in my wheelhouse: stories that braid together and twist back on themselves, love that crosses cultural divides, layer upon layer of history, each trampled by the next wave of civilization to pass through and left buried for someone (our unnamed narrator!) to dig it up again and find new relevance for his own life. I spoke with Penkov over the phone about the sparks that drew him to the story and why this region of the world seems to produce so many good stories and storytellers.
The Rumpus: I saw on your Facebook page that you wrote the book in both English and Bulgarian. Did you write it one way and then translate, or did you work in parallel?
Miroslav Penkov: The same thing happened with the short story collection, East of the West. I wrote it in English first. Then there came a time when the Bulgarian publisher was going to publish it, and we debated a long time whether I should do the translation. I thought it would be difficult, so they found a translator, and it was such a bizarre translation. It did not feel right. It didn’t get the right voice of the story. Out of sheer desperation I resolved to translate the collection. I think it was truly the most difficult writing assignment I’ve ever taken on.
So when I was done with the novel, I entertained the idea of not publishing it in Bulgaria because I didn’t think someone else could do the translation and because of how hard the collection was. But once again I had very little choice. It took about eight months to translate.
I wrote the novel in English first with exception of a few chapters that are so specific to Bulgarian folklore and myths. I wrote those in Bulgarian originally. But the majority was first written in English.
I wouldn’t call it a translation because that would be disrespectful to literary translators throughout the world who try to stay true to the author’s work. I took great liberties with my sentences. Because it’s in first person, in essence I had to rebuild the voice, so I allowed myself great, great liberties. But when compared, the two versions are very close. And I think it’s an interesting experiment to compare them.
Now, there’s no definitive answer for the origins of the firedance ritual, but in that area of Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey, the Thracian tribes used to live, and they venerated the god Dionysus. So there were all these rituals and crazy priestesses that danced madly in his honor. They called him the twice-born. He was born once by Persephone and then he was sort of violently killed or torn to pieces. Zeus saved his heart and transplanted it in the uterus of a woman, and he was born again. In essence this novel is also twice-born.
Rumpus: That idea reminds of a scene toward the end of the book. The narrator starts teaching his girlfriend English, and he has this epiphany. “I could create for her a brand new world,” he says. He realizes he could tell her the word for “blanket” is “ocean” and completely alter her perception of reality. That’s a really powerful way to think of multilingualism and also kind of a metaphor for writing in general.
As you translated, were you essentially creating the same story twice, or did it feel like you were creating a new world each time? Are there differences between the two versions?
Penkov: I did feel that way, yes. The two versions are true to each other, meaning you wouldn’t think it’s a completely different book, but there was definitely a moment of rebirth.
I have done literary translation because the University of Arkansas, where I did my MFA, was program of creative writing and translation, and it’s a very different experience. You’re trying to honor the writer. You shouldn’t allow yourself, for example, to encounter a sentence that’s three lines long and break it up into four smaller sentences, which I did in this book to make it sound more natural in Bulgarian.
I’m also interested in the way our world is defined by language, the living word. How restrained we are by the concept of language, but when you tweak it a little bit your eyes can be opened and your world is totally changed.
I was thinking about the concept of reality and about wishing things into existence through the power of language. That words physically have power to bring things into existence, that was interesting to me.
Rumpus: What is it like, writing in your second language? Does it feel freeing or restrictive, or a little of both?
Penkov: I don’t find it restrictive, but it brings a level of discipline to my writing that I wouldn’t have in Bulgarian. My control of English, however you define it, my ability to work in English, is more limited than in Bulgarian. That means out of necessity I have to develop a style that goes for clarity of expression which I may not have done otherwise.
In Bulgarian I am much more flowery, the sentences are wilder. In English out of necessity I try to be clear and disciplined. I realized by writing in English there is so much more to writing a good story than the style. I mean character, plot, point of view. Things that are obvious to most writers, but they weren’t so obvious to me when I was writing in Bulgarian, when I could hide behind beautiful prose.
Rumpus: Most of the time in the book, people are speaking to each other in Bulgarian. How did you compose the dialogue? Did you compose it in Bulgarian and then translate?
Penkov: In certain places, not always, there are moments where I tried to convey in English a sense of foreignness. I wanted the reader to get the sense that another language is being spoken.
Helpful to me over the years was some of Hemingway’s writing, for example A Farewell to Arms. You have characters who speak Italian or Spanish to each other. It’s been helpful to me to study and try to emulate that in that way.
Rumpus: There are so many different threads in this book: the natural world with the storks, the firedancers and other folk tales, the grandfather’s story, the grandson’s journey, the love story. Which, if any of these, provided the first spark of the story?
Penkov: Some people may say there are too many stories. I’m not sure I was able to find the balance, but it was important to me to keep them in there.
I started with the idea of the boy’s story: that he would return back home with some basic desire, to sell the land, and I wanted to draw him into this other world and to explore the clash between who he is and what the world is like. That for me was always the driving force of the book.
After that I started asking questions. Who is the grandfather, what is the reason behind everything he’s doing? I had no idea about the storks, the wind turbines, any of it. But I was reading about this place. My whole family is from the north of Bulgaria, and the book is set in the far, far south. I’d never gone there, so I started reading and finding out new things, and the place just brought so much conflict into the story.
Rumpus: So it sounds like you incorporated quite a bit of research into your process. How did that work? Were these topics already things that interested you, or did each idea come up as you went along?
Penkov: I was really interested in the ritual of fire dancing. I saw it when I was a kid. My parents took me to the Black Sea, it was like a tourist attraction. I think it would be hard to find a Bulgarian who is not familiar with the image. I started reading about it, and I found out there are only two villages in Bulgaria were they still do it properly, where it’s not for tourists, and they were both in the Strandja Mountains.
So I started reading about the place. I had written about half the book before I visited. I had imagined things with great liberty, and at some point I got afraid I had imagined too much, based on my childhood on a different mountain.
But when I got there I saw that so many of things I’d imagined were actually there. Including these massive trees, they didn’t actually have stork nests but these bizarre formations in the branches. Maybe that’s just how I wanted to see it, who knows? But it was a very strange experience.
Rumpus: I think I know what you mean. I’ve had moments in my own writing where I’ll make up what I think something would have been like in the past, then I’ll google it and find out I was exactly right.
Penkov: I’m a big believer in the collective unconscious. The idea that there is a deep connection between all of us that goes back to our ancestors and forward to the people who will come after us. It’s essentially the job of the artist to anchor that nebulous space, and I think that’s what a writer does: goes to that strange place and brings back these little trinkets. The unspoken experience percolated throughout the generations allows you to have knowledge of things you wouldn’t know first hand.
Rumpus: Your first-person narrator often serves as the conduit for other stories, while his own takes up relatively few pages in comparison. Is that why you chose first-person, so he could be a stand-in for the author, in effect, the way to tell the audience the stories you wanted to tell?
Penkov: The boy’s story might be proportionally short compared to the rest of the book, but his own personal realization is impossible without him learning and passing all these other stories through his own perception and reliving them in his own experience. He’s not able to get to where he is at the end if he’s not learning all these stories.
I think first-person point of view can be problematic when it’s such a big novel. I was a little concerned, I thought third may have been more natural, but I really wanted him to try to make sense of it intimately. And I wanted to have that level of uncertainty with everything that is said, the unreliability. Not that he would try to deceive, but that he was struggling to make sense of everything that happened. That was an interesting experience not be removed.
A novel that I was thinking of was Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis. It’s about a Greek who goes to a village with a special goal in mind and experiences the world there and struggles with his own beliefs and so on. That was kind of a model I used.
Rumpus: I was reminded of a couple other books while I was reading: The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht, which I’m sure other people have mentioned, and one of my favorite books, The Turk and My Mother by Mary Helen Stefaniak. All take place in the Balkans, and all of them braid together family, storytelling and the relationship between grandparents and their grandchildren.
Penkov: I think that’s the nature of the region, not even simply Eastern Europe but the Balkans. They are their own region. They are a peculiar place. They do share a history that we don’t share with a country like Ukraine for example, and that’s because of the presence of the Ottomans for hundreds of years. So that might be why it feels thematically similar to Téa Obreht. Another book it might feel similar to is Ivo Andrić—he was a Bosnian writer who lived about a hundred years ago and won the Nobel Prize—his book The Bridge on the Drina is about 400 years of history around this bridge in Bosnia.
But for me, what really influenced me was Zorba the Greek and another by Kazantzakis called in English Freedom and Death, which is about the Greek rebellion on the isle of Crete. It’s probably my favorite novel, it has a million characters and a million stories about all of them.
Rumpus: As I read I was trying to formulate a theory about why Eastern Europe seems to lend itself to telling layered stories like this. Is it something about that region’s malleable borders and the way they’ve been a crossroads for so many different peoples throughout history that produces some inherent tension? This is something that comes up in the book, too, the long line of civilizations and peoples that have left their mark on Bulgaria.
Penkov: One of the things people often say about America is that it’s a such a young country, relatively, and its problem—Europeans say this—is that they have no memory. I don’t agree with this. In the Balkans, the problem is that we cannot forget. The problem is we have great memory. The problem is we bear grudges that go a thousand years into the past. Really, I could find people who begrudge the Greeks for doing awful things to the Bulgarians more than a thousand years ago.
All these wars, all these territories. For example, Macedonia is a disputed territory, and there are people directly to the west of Bulgaria who are in Serbia now because of where they lived when the borders were drawn but who are Bulgarian. It makes the Balkans an insanely interesting place to explore.
The clash of religion. I go to get a haircut from my barber—I live in very Republican Texas—and people are just terrified of Muslims and outrageously hostile to the foreignness of Muslims. We’ve had to coexist for hundreds of years in Bulgaria, in the Balkans, and we still don’t get along. It’s a reason for so much tragedy.
And that’s one of the things I wanted to explore, the idea that I don’t agree with one bit, that to be Bulgarian is to be Christian and if you’re Muslim you’re a Turk. It’s that sort of line of reasoning that’s causing a lot of trouble. Because what does religion really have to do with anything? It’s just a bizarre question.
Rumpus: How did you put the book together? Did you have a set structure as you worked, or did you allow it find a shape more organically?
Penkov: If you flip to the beginning of the novel, there is an epigraph that is an alchemical motto (“Visita Interiora Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem”). It translates to “Visit the interior of the earth and by rectifying you will find the hidden stone.” It’s the idea of finding the philosopher’s stone and elevating yourself to this higher form. Each letter of these seven words spells V-I-T-R-I-O-L. The alchemists called it liquid fire, which burns and purifies everything.
These seven words symbolize seven stages of transformation, of going underground to find yourself. There are seven parts of the novel, and they loosely correspond to this alchemical motto. The marriage of opposites and so on. There’s an alchemical structure of the novel, which I believe may remain hidden for the reader who doesn’t seek it out.
Later on, I was reading about fire dancing, doing research, and I started learning all sorts of interesting facts about alchemy, ancient rituals, psychedelics. The cliché is to write what you know, but there’s so much this novel taught me that I didn’t know. I was learning all these concepts, and I realized the novel was following a certain structure, and I just helped it follow it through.
I tried to really keep in mind the hero’s journey of the narrator. His journey toward transformation, the hidden meaning of his past, his grandfather’s past and ultimately the merging of the two characters, the grandfather and the boy, at the end.
Rumpus: There are many recurring motifs and symbols throughout the novel: There’s a connection between hair, rivers, and the goddess Lada, there’s the language of the storks, and there’s a question about whether the nestinari and the storks are actual curiosities of this region or metaphors for the grandson and grandfather’s lives. Even the grandson and grandfather’s own stories have parallels. Did you have all these parallels in mind as you wrote, or did they come together later in the process?
Penkov: What’s great about symbols, what a writer can do with them is provide a really vivid, interesting image, and the reader will do the rest of the work. That’s always been very interesting to me. Like if I just introduce the storks, I don’t have to say what they mean because the reader will do that. And if I bring in the dark history of the region, other trends come up, for example how in ancient Egypt they are associated with the souls of the dead. You can surprise yourself by introducing an image and then see how developing the story fills it with meaning that is suddenly new.
I do like to find parallels between stories. The grandfather’s relationship with the Greek girl parallels the boy’s relationship with Elif. That’s what I wanted to do with the fictional stories about Lada and Attila, they are a bridge between the grandfather and the boy. They’re their own stories, they’ve made them up, it’s their way of telling each other truths that are too painful to speak. They’re hiding those truths behind allegory, until the end of the story when nothing is left other than the fire and the bond between them.
Rumpus: Did you always plan to write about Bulgaria, or was that the topic that found you?
Penkov: I never wanted to write about Bulgaria. When I was still living there I did my absolute best to never write a story with a Bulgarian character with a Bulgarian name, and only after I came to the US and I was far away and missing it a great deal did I realize that writing about could be my way of returning back home. I think it was only through my writing that I fell in love with the country and with the history.