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One of the most intriguing areas for comparative research in contemporary cultural studies and world literature(s) is the interrelation between cultural identity and the imagination. This article aims to focus on the perceptions and representations of Bulgaria in the American cultural imaginary. To fulfill this goal, I examine critical and fictional transatlantic readings of Bulgaria through American eyes, focusing on the following questions: How are conflicts of identity thematized and represented in imaginary creative outputs, which reflect on the construction of the “West” and the “East,” of Self and Other, of “Europeanness” (“Balkanness”) and “Americanness”? Bulgaria emerges not only as a setting for the action in fictional works written by U.S. writers, but also as a sub-text rich in implications and references, as demonstrated by four novels: Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian and The Shadow Land and Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You and Cleanness, which are the focus of analysis.

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1. Research Questions and Methodological Framework

1One of the most intriguing areas for comparative research in contemporary cultural studies and world literature(s) is the interrelation between cultural identity and the imagination (Apter). This paper aims to focus on the perceptions and representations of Bulgaria in the American cultural imaginary. To fulfill this goal, I will focus on contemporary critical transatlantic readings of Bulgaria through American eyes, while examining the following questions: How are conflicts of identity thematized and represented in imaginary creative outputs, which reflect on the construction of the “West” and the “East,” of Self and Other, of “Europeanness” (“Balkanness”) and “Americanness”? How do perceptions of the transatlantic Other aid in defining and constructing American spaces of cultural identity?

2The first question I address is why I have chosen to explore this topic, apart from the obvious fact that I am a Bulgarian academic whose narrow field is American Studies. My motivation arises from the surge in nativism and populism through the revival and formation of many “America First” official societies and unofficial groups in recent years. The earliest use of the phrase was in the 1880s as a Republican slogan, and it entered the national discussion in 1915, when Woodrow Wilson used it in a speech arguing for U.S. neutrality in World War I. Nativist groups have consistently sought to impose isolationism and economic protectionism, striving towards the political ideal of ethnic homogeneity and racial purity in America. Such attitudes have been demonstrated by several U.S. presidents, not just Woodrow Wilson but also Theodore Roosevelt, who questioned the loyalty of hyphenated Americans. At the time the hyphen was seen as a hindrance to the full integration of the newly naturalized, and to the attainment of that 100% American quality.

  • 1 The Silver Shirts, the White Shirts and Gentile League, the Khaki Shirts, the Gray Shirts, and many (...)

3Sarah Churchwell claims in Behold, America: A History of America First and the American Dream (2018) that there is an American brand of fascism, which entered the American political conversation when Mussolini took power in November 1922. Around the same time, the Second Ku Klux Klan, which had emerged in the post-Civil War Reconstruction period in the U.S., was on the rise. The Klan, the epitome of white supremacism, was not the only group of its kind. There were the more “aristocratic” Knights of the White Camellia, as well as violent paramilitary groups including the Red Shirts of Mississippi and the Carolinas, and the White League of Louisiana. Churchwell points out that more than 100 nativist groups were identified in the early 1930s by the American Civil Liberties ­Union, many of whom imitated the European colored shirt movements,1 while others established militant Christian groups, for example Defenders of the Christian Faith and Christian Front. Such groups declared themselves “pro-American,” against “alien” races, religions, and ideas, including liberalism and communism. The past six years have brought a revival of similar groups and sentiments. For example, The Proud Boys, founded in 2016, among the most ardent and violent supporters of MAGA (Make America Great Again), resort to political violence in defense of what they perceive to be Western values and society. The evolution of the group has seemingly culminated in the role its members allegedly played in the storming of the U.S. Capitol to disrupt the certification of the 2020 presidential election. The Oath Keepers, founded in 2009, is an American far-right militia organization composed of current and former military and police, who claim to be defending the Constitution of the United States. The OK draw on historical memory of the American Revolution and consider themselves to be the successors of the Founding Fathers. Not to forget Qanon, who are also a far right-wing community of believers embracing a range of unsubstantiated beliefs, amongst some wild conspiracy theories. Even without being as extreme as the above-mentioned examples, the promise to regenerate the nation—to make it great again—has taken a stronghold. The researcher of U.S. history is well-aware that this vision of America is cyclic, accompanied by the belief that there are “real Americans,” thus denying the loyalty, citizenship, or even humanity of everyone else perceived outside this category. It is within this larger context that I position my research.

  • 2 See, for example, the collection America Imagined: Selected Conference Papers, edited by Vernon Ped (...)
  • 3 Efirni pesni I taini sluzhbi. Obrazat na Balgariya v britanskata, amerikanskata i anglokanadskata p (...)

4So far, the U.S. has been studied extensively in relation to Bulgaria by Bulgarian critics and academics from the period of the Bulgarian Enlightenment to the present day with a focus on the representation of America in the Bulgarian cultural production.2 However, the image of Bulgaria as reflected in American cultural spaces has remained so far largely unexplored, especially regarding recent American cultural productions in the periods post-1989 and post-2007 (when Bulgaria joined the European Union). In my analysis, I build on three main studies in this field: Larry Wolff’s Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization in the Mind of the Enlightenment (1994); Maria Todorova’s Imagining the Balkans [1997] (2009); and the collection Comparisons and Interactions Within/Across Cultures edited by Ludmilla Kostova et. al. (2012). To these seminal works, which focus on the larger geopolitical areas of the Balkans and Eastern Europe, inclusive of Bulgaria, should be added a more recent exploration of the image of Bulgaria in British, American, and Canadian press (1980-2000) by Kristin Dimitrova in Ethereal Songs and Secret Services.3

5What interests me are the manifestations of the complexity and hybridity of cultural interactions with a focus on Bulgaria as a Balkan / East European country, but specifically as presented from an American point of view, discussed within the theoretical matrix of the transcultural (Dagnino, Epstein, Welsch). Transculturalism offers a framework for analyzing the creative expressions in the age of transnationalism and globalization, in this case applied to the analysis of the critical readings of Bulgaria provided by Americans who have perpetuated and/or challenged established views about Bulgaria / the Balkans / Eastern Europe: its founding myths, its history, and its constructed images.

  • 4 For more on this, see Alexandra Glavanakova, Transcultural Imaginings: Translating the Other, Trans (...)

6I prefer the term “transcultural” to “transnational” (the latter has been used widely in recent decades by many Americanists: Amy Kaplan, Rob Kroes, Heinz Ickstadt, Winfried Fluck, among others) to refer to the interdisciplinary nature of cultural studies at the crossroads of literature and history. The transcultural approach acknowledges the limitations of each culture, alongside the continuous role of cross-cultural contact. Transculturalism provides an alternative approach in cultural and literary studies at once building on and surmounting the limitations of border studies, diaspora studies, postcolonial studies, multiculturalism, and the many strands of cosmopolitanism, just as it builds on them. Transcultural dialogues and reflections are significant in shaping and reflecting on identity, as is the urge for self-protection from alien cultural forms.4

7The methodology is based on the following: compiling a database of fictional and cultural texts by Americans, which offer a variety of representations of Bulgaria, and analysis of selected illustrative ones from the perspective of the transcultural. The analysis aims to outline the shared thematic, genre, and stylistic features of the texts and to provide explanations for the choices made by their authors. At this point my corpus consists of twenty books by Anglophone writers, several movies and TV series which offer representations of Bulgaria. Clearly, this is a wide research topic for a future book-length publication, so here I can present only a fraction of my continuous work in progress by considering the input of four literary works, which have been published within the past two decades by two American writers with ties to Bulgaria. The four texts I analyze here—two by Elizabeth Kostova and two by Garth Greenwell—employ ethnography, references to totalitarian practices, leaders, and ideologies, but most significantly they are narratives problematizing history and identity in an Eastern European, and specifically a Bulgarian context.

2. Theoretical Considerations Regarding the Representations of Eastern Europe in Western Fiction: Op/positioning Bulgaria

8Eastern Europe and the Balkans have been traditionally represented as the periphery in Eurocentric and Western discourses in a recurring gesture of Othering. As Ludmilla Kostova has pointed out, since the eighteenth century the distinction between the dominant center and dominated periphery has played a major role in the master narratives of Eurocentrism in which Western Europe had inscribed itself as the center of the civilization and progress, reserving for itself the exclusive right to “represent” the Old continent (L. Kostova, Tales 11). Because it has been portrayed as a place profoundly different, underdeveloped, and inexplicable, always at the crossroads of civilizational contacts and conflicts, Bulgaria has been “translated” in Orientalist discourse as the opposite in constructing and stabilizing the self-image of the Western observer and the image of the West. However, Edward Said’s theoretical framework has been interpreted as limiting, for “a binary opposition between East and West has been a more or less static feature of Western discourses from classical Greece to the present day. Thus, Said’s book is seen to flatten historical nuances into a fixed East versus West divide” (Loomba 46). Realizing this flattening of the Orient, Milica Bakic-Hayden has offered the concept of “nesting Orientalisms”: a “gradation of Orients.” Her model is created with Eastern Europe and the Balkans in mind, for “Asia is more ‘East’ or ‘Other’ than Eastern Europe [and] within Eastern Europe itself the Balkans are perceived as most eastern” (Bakic-Hayden 918).

9The op/positioning of the Balkans to the West is a recurrent image, which Maria Todorova clearly accounts for:

As in the case of the Orient, the Balkans have served as a repository of negative characteristics against which a positive and self-congratulatory image of the ‘European’ and the ‘West’ has been constructed. With the reemergence of East and orientalism as independent semantic values, the Balkans are left in Europe’s thrall, anticivilization, alter ego, the dark side within. (188)

10Further complicating the theoretical discourse of Orientalism in conceptualizing the binary opposition Self-Other in the context of the East-West dichotomy, Todorova offers the notion of Balkanism. She insists on the necessity to differentiate between Orientalism and Balkanism for several reasons: the complex and strategic geopolitical positioning of the Balkans; the absence of a colonial legacy; the construction of idiosyncratic self-identities, which especially in the case of Bulgarians, are erected against an “Oriental” Other (Todorova 20). Todorova locates the period when Balkanism evolved into a stigma: at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries with the concomitant disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, the struggle for dominance between the great powers and the newly emerging nation states. It is precisely at this time that a Western audience developed its imagination of the Balkans as an uncivilized, violent, and backward part of the world presumably based on the historical facts of the First and the Second Balkan Wars, and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914. In the elusive process of identification through self-designation for the people from the Balkans, the question of how to deal with stigma and in particular with self-stigmatization comes to the fore, according to Todorova (57). This confusing and often traumatic experience is what Garth Greenwell has clearly captured in his writing, as well as Elizabeth Kostova.

3. Images of Bulgaria in Anglophone fictional texts: general trends

11Bulgaria emerges not only as a setting for the action in films and fictional works written by U.S. and other Anglophone writers, but also as a sub-text rich in implications and references. Bulgarian culture, history, mythology, and folklore serve as a point of departure for self-reflection and for reflection on the Old World-New World, East-West, margin-center dynamics, in a post-communist, post 9/11-world. These texts interlace thematically across several categories, which I have laid out in the following chart.

  • 5 See also Alexandra Glavanakova, “Authenticity and Autofiction: John Updike’s ‘The Bulgarian Poetess (...)

12The books by Anglophone writers in my corpus published during the time of socialism and in recent years share a common representation of Bulgaria as a violent land. The fictional texts portraying Bulgaria under the totalitarian regime naturally foreground violence in one form or another, even if only suggested by the ever-present secret police shadowing the narrator of John Updike’s short story “The Bulgarian Poetess” (1965), which builds on the author’s four-day stay in the country in the year prior to its publication. Academic inquiries by Quentin Miller (1996) and Joseph Benatov (2008), for example, have analyzed the short story within the framework of the Cold War with a special focus on Eastern Europe in the American imaginary. Several researchers have delved into the text aiming at a detailed and, more significantly, an authentic reconstruction of events, places and people appearing in the story: James Schiff (1998), Alexander Shurbanov (2002), Vesela Katsarova (2010), Yordan Kosturkov (2012), Ward Briggs and Biljana Dojčinović (2015).5 Notably, the story reveals how Eastern Europe has functioned as a generative transnational space in the production of American culture.

13A preoccupation with violence defines the texts whose focus is on Bulgarian history such as Thomas McGonigle’s The Corpse Dream of Nikola Petkov (1987), dealing with the execution of the leader of the Bulgarian Agrarian Party by the socialist regime by dramatizing the last twelve minutes of his life, and in other representations of a nation under a totalitarian dictatorship: Malcolm Bradbury’s Rates of Exchange (1983) and Julian Barnes’s The Porcupine (1992), for example. Vaclav Havel is responsible for what is probably one of the most memorable statements of the conception of socialist Eastern Europe as the West’s distorted self-image. Havel writes that totalitarian systems are “a convex mirror of all modern civilization and a harsh, perhaps final call for a global recasting of that civilization’s self-understanding” (448), and the Anglophone writers briefly mentioned here illustrate this tendency.

14More recent novels focusing on the historical past of Bulgaria, perceived through the lens of mythology and folk legends, intertwine murder with mystery: Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian (2005), Will Buckingham’s The Descent of the Lyre (2012), Ellis Shuman’s Valley of the Thracians: A Novel of Bulgaria (2013), Ronesa Aveela’s Mystical Emona: Soul’s Journey (2014), and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Shadow Land (2017). Violence pervades the novel Solo by the Indian Rana Dasgupta (2009), who offers a panorama of Bulgarian history throughout the 20th century, as well as the Israeli Ellis Shuman’s The Burgas Affair (2018), which focuses on a real-life terrorist attack at the Burgas airport on the Black Sea coast. I put in a separate category, but still thematically linked to the other publications mentioned here, several texts about “the forgotten Eastern Europe” as written in a blurb on the back cover of one of the books, for this is the focus of Cynthia Morrison Phoel’s Cold Snap: Bulgarian Stories (2010) and Garth Greenwell’s two novels: What Belongs to You (2016) and Cleanness (2020).

15In the representations of Bulgaria, violence is all-pervasive, a central theme that bridges other cultural texts as well. A telling example of this comes from the movie Game Night (2018), directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, starring Jason Bateman and Rachel MacAdams. The elaborate plot of this black comedy involves the stealing of a Faberge egg from a criminal character called the Bulgarian. The real name of the person is never revealed but his alias remains in the generic form with all the ensuing inferences and associations that the construction brings about. The Bulgarian is involved in the whole range of illegal activities from heroin and weapon deals to sex trafficking. Criminality is brought to the fore in a similar representation of a female character in Spy (2015, dir. Paul Feig), featuring an evil arms’ dealer of Bulgarian origin (played by Rose Byrne) who poses a global terrorist threat resolved by a female CIA agent (in the role Melissa McCarthy). Even the TV series on a theme seemingly unrelated to a life of crime as The Chair (2021), focusing on the tensions of academic life at a fictional New England university, also includes a reference in passing to perceived violence in Bulgaria when David Duchovny’s character emphatically states that there is “a lot of shooting” going on in Bulgaria, playing on the double meaning of the word. The ultimate portrayal of the backwardness of the countries in the “East to the West” in recent cinematic representations is to be found in Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm (2020, dir. Jason Woline), which utilizes the “rigid stereotypes and formulaic discourses that are applied in the portrayal of East European women in post-1989 cinema” (Deltcheva 163). The negative connotations abound in the character of Tutar Sagdiyev (played by the Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova, the first to receive an Academy Award nomination for the part) and reinforce the simplistic, essentialist stereotype of the marginalized and sexualized female, who in this movie is objectified and dehumanized to the extreme. In the opening scenes Tutar is referred to as “livestock” and is shown in chains in a barn, watching a fairy tale about “Princess Melania from shithole Slovenia,” while dreaming about marrying an old, wealthy American: a satirical reference to the “mail order bride” stereotype. Later, she willingly changes the chains for a cage, still dreaming of the “golden cage” to be gained through marriage in the U.S. The movie purportedly aims at a feminist message, as Tutar’s emancipation is made possible only under the combined influence of several American women, though the movie’s creators clearly intended the satirical exposure of the societal limitations imposed on women both in the East and in the U.S. The examples offered here are only a few that demonstrate the use of these dominant stereotypes.

4. Images of the Bulgarian past: Elizabeth Kostova’s novels

16Elizabeth Kostova’s love for the beauty of the Bulgarian natural landscape with the traces of ancient civilizations, the people’s kindness and hospitality, as well as her empathy for the tragedy of Bulgaria’s past, has inspired two of her novels. The U.S.-American Kostova, who married a Bulgarian man she met at the time she came to do field work on Bulgarian folk music in November 1989 at the exact moment of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the fall of communism, exploded on the literary scene with her debut novel The Historian, published in 2005 after ten years of intensive research. The novel became famous for the huge bidding by publishing houses for its publication and the fact that part of the royalties, which Kostova received for the translated editions in now over 40 languages, were channeled towards the establishment in 2007 of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation (EKF). The EKF has been instrumental in popularizing Bulgarian fiction through translation into English and publication in the U.S.

17The novel has been read as an example of vampire fan fiction, though it has to be noted it preceded in time the current upsurge in publications and popular culture products on the theme. The tale of several scholars searching for the original Dracula (one of them a female descendant of the original count Vlad Tepes) across Europe incorporates myth, history, and travel writing in a genre-bending text. A love story across the Iron Curtain and a Bildungsroman (tracing three successive coming-of-age stories), it is an adventure story on par with Dan Brown’s historical thrillers. The scholars come from Anglophone cultures: English and American, with one exception, Helen, who is of English-Romanian origin but grew up in socialist Hungary before transferring to the U.S. to continue her studies. All of these characters, including the unnamed female narrator, are historians and anthropologists on an obsessive quest to hunt down Vlad the Impaler.

18Not much critical work has been done on The Historian, especially regarding the representation of Bulgaria. The occult script about the undead comprises the ultimate Gothic tale of horror that synthesizes human fears, fantasies, and fetishes. Hence, the novel has been examined as Neo-Victorian or Neo-Gothic in a few publications. One critic claims that “[i]n Kostova’s handling, however, the Gothic also becomes a way of engaging larger societal traumas when the novel presents Dracula as a figure for the suicidal terrorist” (Ambrisco 19). Another academic paper also discusses the novel within the context of post-9/11 American discourses on terrorism and finds that The Historian “addresses a number of themes centring on religious conflict between Christian and Islamic beliefs and provides an outline of post-World War II European politics” (Smith 54). The invitation to do so comes from the narrator of the novel. In addition, Smith claims that “the explicit use of the Gothic in The Historian demonises European history which is variously associated with religious intolerance, fascism and communism” (52). Daniel Olson also touches upon Kostova’s depiction of political, ideological, and religious confrontations. He finds that she “extracts the lifeblood of Carmilla and Dracula and mingles it with that of historic martial leaders from Genghis Khan to Stalin and Hitler to create a war Gothic of her own” (289).

19The versatility of the vampire character allows for its infusion with monstrosity, sexuality, perversion, eccentricity—always a site of rebelliousness and resistance (Gelder 65). True to its predecessor, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Historian is also told in interacting nested “documents” comprising journals, letters, and an academic paper, all emulating the great canonical Victorian novels that Elizabeth Kostova used as her model. It is set in numerous richly evoked Eastern European cities, libraries, monasteries, and temples, with one-third of the novel taking place in Bulgaria. The arduous task of finding the vampire symbolically marks the effort of breaking through the Iron Curtain into a mysterious country to comprehend its enigmatic culture. The images that accompany this effort fluctuate between the horrors of the Neo-Gothic and the romanticized vision of an ancient Eastern (Bulgarian) culture.

20The central figure of the novel allows for the blurring between myth, historical fact, and reality, calling forth diverse and contradictory sets of associations. He is represented variously as “one of the great demented psychopaths of history,” a “heroic Christian crusader” (Leatherdale 95), and at the same time as “the bogey-man from the East” (Leatherdale 236). The Count’s cultural hybridity is emphasized in the novel: his Orthodox Christian ancestry, as well as his knowledge of life in Istanbul while he was held hostage by the Ottoman Emperor: “Yes, my own father left me to the father of Mehmed, as a pledge that we would not wage war against the Empire. Imagine, Dracula a pawn in the hands of the infidel. I wasted no time there—I learned everything I could about them, so that I might surpass them all. That was when I vowed to make history, not to be its victim” (E. Kostova, The Historian 457). Dracula becomes the vehicle of history in the book, which recalls important and traumatic events in Southeastern Europe in the times of the Ottoman Empire, Romania, and Bulgaria in the 15th and 20th centuries, with a focus on the Cold War during the 1950s and 1970s. The text emphasizes the South European victimization by the Ottoman Orient alongside its 20th-century victimization by the socialist regime and the Soviet Empire. The persistence of Vlad the Impaler after death under the form of Dracula contributes to the atmosphere of insecurity and disorientation that permeates many parts of Europe (and the U.S.) where he resurfaces.

  • 6 See Christopher Craft, ““Kiss Me with Those Red Lips”: Gender and Inversion in Bram Stoker's Dracul (...)

21Kostova departs from traditional vampiric representations adding a touch of irony as one character states: “Yes, Dracula. A feudal lord in the Carpathians, otherwise known as Bela Lugosi” (18). The transgressive form of the erotic as it appears in Stoker’s Dracula6 is written out of The Historian. Instead of women, the vampire in Kostova’s rendition seeks out academics and librarians—the curators of knowledge. His dragon books “go only to the most promising scholars, and to those [he] think[s] may be persistent enough to follow the dragon to his lair” (449). For Kostova’s Dracula is obsessed with preserving the past by collecting archivists and gathering historical evidence that document his history—the history of evil. The Enlightenment narrative of progress through knowledge is inverted in the novel, for it is only by a close study of the records of evil throughout the centuries that the historians can track down Dracula’s tomb, located in a crypt in Bulgaria, and eventually face the vampire.

22By attempting to exorcise evil through gaining more knowledge of it, all archivists in the novel become infected with vampirism: the librarians in the traditional way, and the academics too through their obsession with the eradication of evil, which only amplifies humans’ natural inclination towards cruelty. The characters are “digging at that dreadful crossroads of history” (80) at their own peril. The reader is reminded on several occasions through this fictional account that “history’s terrible moments were real.... Only history itself can convince you of such a truth. And once you’ve seen the truth—really seen it—you can’t look away” (E. Kostova, The Historian 32). Kostova provides many parallels with historical figures: the Turks, Stalin, Hitler, Georgi Dimitrov, the war in Vietnam, therefore persistently questioning the purposes of historical knowledge as both she and the historians of her novel are complicit in recording the history of evil. However, the reader comes to realize that the historian of the title of the novel refers to none other but the undead Count himself, who is portrayed as a bibliophile and archivist, a scholar gone wild: “I became an historian in order to preserve my own history forever” (450). The vampire, who is in the possession of a great library filled with rare books, admits: “I have told you, I am a scholar at heart, as well as a warrior, and these books have kept me company through my long years” (450).

23This gap between the civilized West and the backward East, where all marks of civilization are ancient, medieval or pre-WWII, is brought forth by the constant feeling of cultural displacement the American experiences during his European travels. The novel foregrounds the mysteriousness of Eastern Europe by stressing the West’s incomprehension of the Balkan condition, while simultaneously aiming to fill in the historical gaps of the many Balkanizing interpretations. The contrast between Us and Them is repeatedly foregrounded: Turkey (Istanbul in particular) is represented as “a completely different planet from this one [the West]” (144), for “it had an Arabian Nights quality that no number of honking cars or businessmen in Western suits could dissolve” (144). Found at “the edge of the Eastern world,” it offers “another riddle, as this whole place” (177). The narrator and her father are often “struck by phenomen[a] of this Eastern world” (148), while Budapest is described as “neither quite Western, nor Eastern like Istanbul, nor, for all its Gothic architecture, Northern European” (226). While getting familiarized with the cultural riches of Istanbul, often perceived as a continuation of the glorious Byzantine Empire, itself an offshoot of the Roman one, a character observes that “Vlad Dracula’s forested stronghold, with its barbaric rituals of violence, seemed far indeed from this ancient, cosmopolitan world” (157). Thus, Kostova continuously shifts the center-periphery boundary, when writing that “[v]iewed from the center of culture, he [Dracula] looked like a backwoods thug, a provincial ogre, a medieval redneck” (157).

24Bulgaria appears as a mysterious place difficult to enter physically because of the fearsome mountain ranges, and politically because of totalitarian restrictions. The image of Bulgaria the American has before he eventually visits it is of “a joyless country in the grip of delusions [of socialism] from which they might never awake” (343). All cultural idiosyncrasies are faithfully recorded: from folk songs, accordion and bagpipe playing, the Bogomil heresy, fire walking, lamb roasting, national drinks, to the famous monasteries of Rila and Bachkovo, their Eastern Orthodox churches and libraries. The life in Bachkovo in the western part of the Rhodope Mountains is perceived not only as a beautiful, rare, and exotic place for the American, it is where “we were seeing its life flow on as it had since the eleventh century: the chickens looked for bugs, the kitten rolled near our feet” (420). He looks for signs of the 20th century in the village of Dimovo, where Dracula is hiding in the crypt of the small church but is again “struck by the utter lack of modernity” (423).

25The vampire functions as a transgressive figure from the past, embodying the periphery’s difference from the center, for “as an early emblem of the periphery, it also became an indispensable image in the system of images invented by the West to define and contain the East” (L. Kostova, Tales 11). The obsession with books and the heavy emphasis on the past, especially the period of Eastern Europe’s struggle against and the fall under Ottoman rule, which dominate The Historian, provide a historical context otherwise lacking in much of the writings about the fictitious vampire, who is based in this case on an actual historical figure. That it was only with the publication of Dracula in 1897 by the Irish writer Bram Stoker that the vampire came to be associated with Transylvania is a well-known fact, as John William Polidori’s Vampyre (1819), which preceded it, had a different setting. This brought forth the many “Balkanizing” interpretations in the representations of Dracula, which reveal a tendency to bring a political perspective on the vampire, as Ludmilla Kostova has noted (“Straining” 19). According to her, the political concretizations in the interpretation of Stoker’s canonical text appear in three main areas: “Ireland, the British Empire, and Eastern Europe as perceived by the western gaze” (“Straining” 13). An often-cited example of this particular critical interpretation of the vampire figure is Stephen Arata’s text, which interprets the Transylvanian setting of the novel as an indirect reference to the late Victorian “Eastern question,” i.e., the decline of the Ottoman Empire leading to disorder and political strife in the periphery of Europe. Arata reads Stoker’s novel also as a threat of reverse colonization that could lead to the eventual decline of the British Empire, if the vampires’ new “race” multiplies.

26Ludmilla Kostova further points out, while referring to Misha Glenny’s article “Only in the Balkans,” that Dracula has turned into a “‘crucial Balkan metaphor’ epitomizing western exclusion of the region and its denizens from Europe ‘proper’” (“Straining” 16). Even though southeastern Europe did not experience “conventional” colonial domination by the West, as Vesna Goldsworthy has observed, it was nonetheless subjected to “the imperialism of [its] imagination,” which turned parts of it into an “exotic backdrop in travelogues and tales of romance, adventure and political intrigue” (Goldsworthy x). Indeed, the tendency of the imperial gothic to imagine “the meeting between East and West as catastrophic, producing a corrupted, unpredictable and monstrous hybrid,” which is “aggressive, dangerous,” “infectious and transformative” should not be relegated to the late Victorian age, as Höglund points out (2). This transcultural reading as a form of apocalypse persists in contemporary art. However, Höglund finds that the characters of The Historian are more flexible and dispersed in their self-identification and therefore more open to transcultural contact (10).

27Therefore, the story about the transnational search and obliteration of the monster does not dismantle but actually reinforces the Western stereotypes of the Islamic Orient and its struggle with Christian Orthodoxy, and in this context the image of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Bulgaria. Obliterating the vampire is only made possible by the heroic acts of an American family where the women play a leading role, though evil is still persistent and, as the final pages of the novel suggest with the reappearance of another dragon book, will continue to haunt the narrator.

28The Shadow Land, Elizabeth Kostova’s subsequent novel about Bulgaria’s past, continues with the project of the cultural translation of the country, reinforcing the connection between historical writing and travel writing. The novel has a young American woman, who has experienced a traumatizing personal loss, come to Bulgaria in 2008 to be a teacher. Traveling through a post-communist chaotic world dominated by rampant corruption, she learns about the recent past of the country under communism. The dark core of the novel revolves around different forms of political repression and brutalities in the communist years with a special focus on the forced labor camps. Emulating the Stalinist blueprint, the Bulgarian state constructed its own Gulag. Zelenets, though a fictional place, is based on the actual camps of Belene (1949-1980) on the largest island on the Danube, Persin, and of Lovech (1959-1962). According to estimates, there were 17 thousand inmates, most of them political prisoners, in forty correctional facilities, most of which were administered by the State Security. Employing the same technique as The Historian, with the characters traveling compulsively across Bulgaria to work out the puzzle of an urn with ashes, this text also portrays characters haunted by dramatic history. The real topography, culture, and social ills of contemporary Bulgaria are revealed once again through American eyes. A great part of the text reads more like a descriptive travel guide, or a verbal rendition of a fast-rolling camera in a documentary about Bulgaria, part of which at times leads to overplotting and repetitiveness.

29The very title of the novel once again emphasizes that Bulgaria is an unknown, mysterious land, but also a land haunted by the ghosts of the past, and a land plagued by difficulties. This is summed up in the words of one of the characters, Bobby (Asparuh): “My country has come a long way in a short time, in spite of everything. I think we have something special to give the world—culture, and lessons from history. And beauty. It would be tragic for us to go backward. We have already suffered too much” (E. Kostova, The Shadow Land 134). The characters in both novels follow a similar typology: the state security services, the old generation born before WWII, the monks at the monasteries, the country people from small villages in the Balkan Mountains or the Rhodopes. The plot also follows a similar construction and resolution: the slow evocation of the Bulgarian traumatic past and the overpowering of the bad guys, which are once again facilitated by an American, though the second novel has less of the layers of history and its interpretations.

30Despite Kostova’s all-together favorable representation of Bulgarians, the reader often comes across scenes where they are portrayed as backward, invariably quaint, and exotic. Indeed, the well-intentioned attitude of the writer does not guarantee a greater measure of objectivity, for the images she creates reflect the author’s mode of perception and ideological positioning. This novel, indeed like all travel writing, is not only about visiting and “discovering” other cultures, but “it is ‘always already’ addressed to one’s own culture. To gain their addressees’ trust, narrators must emphasize their own ‘sameness’” (L. Kostova, Tales 35). It has to be noted that the images of exotic, faraway lands and customs that the two novels produce are concretized as photo material in the illustrated companion, entitled Shadow Journey, edited by Dimana Trankova and Anthony Gerogieff (2018). It provides a visual guide to the reader through most of the locations in Bulgaria and Southeastern Europe where the action takes place, further amplifying the established western perspective dominating the narratives.

5. Images of the Bulgarian Present: Garth Greenwell’s Novels

31Garth Greenwell’s novels vibrate on a different tone, language, and emotion. Greenwell was a high-school English language teacher to Bulgarian students at the American College of Sofia from 2009 to 2013 before returning to the U.S. He wrote two companion books, which reflect on this experience. What Belongs to You and Cleanness are narrated by the same unnamed narrator. In both texts Greenwell engages primarily with taboo themes, alongside his representations of Bulgarian life and culture, though he refrains from exoticizing the alien elements he encounters during his journey. The writer explores diverse forms of intimacy—be it sex, friendship, or citizenship—as a way of connecting and socializing with others. His texts focus on gay lives and thus belong to a queer literary tradition; Greenwell has reiterated that he is indebted in particular to James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room. By examining queer desire as a source of pain and shame because of the stigma attached to it by society, Greenwell explores the erotic as central to the process of transformation, as radical sexual exploration challenges the acceptable notions of self. Not denying shame, Greenwell reveals the arduous process of converting it into something productive: not only by surviving shame, but by using it as a source of inspiration.

32The exploration of the erotic impulse for Greenwell therefore provides a way for the intense examination of the interior. The explosive surfacing of repressed desire is revealed for its liberating and vitalizing potential to shape agency and selfhood. There is violence here on a personal level leading to the rupture of self. What Belongs to You explores the narrator’s passionate and problematic relationship with a young hustler, fluctuating between desire and obsession, fear, shame, and mutual use. In the first scene, the narrator descends into a subterranean space, the public toilets beneath the National Palace of Culture in Sofia, where he meets Mitko, who cannot pronounce his name, which is declared to be unpronounceable in Bulgarian, and who does not speak English. Thus, the narrator is stripped of two major markers of his identity from the start: of his name and of his own language that is so important to his notion of selfhood as a teacher and a writer.

33The relationship forces the narrator to confront the shame about being gay he carries from his teenage years in the American South, where his sexuality was met with brutal rejection. It is the second section of the novel, entitled “A Grave,” set in Kentucky in the 1990s, that explores the narrator’s trauma of self-repression. The juxtaposition of past and present, and the opposition between the two cultural spaces—the narrator’s life in the “liberal” but repressive West, and in the backward but erotic “East”—helps him realize the lack of value of a life reduced to secrecy. The inversion of West with East is further complicated by the fact that Greenwell comes from Kentucky, which is stereotypically perceived as the equivalent of the backward East in the U.S. He attempts to recapture authenticity by revealing to the reader that despite queer activism, there is still shame attached to queerness, which should not be suppressed or renounced, when it “belongs to you,” but has to be utilized instead in the redefinition of self. This text affirms the finding that contemporary queer literature “aims at substantiation and density, writing against the systematic subjugation and marginalisation of queer lives, the lingering inequalities of LGBTQIA+ people, and the disintegration and overriding of alternative spaces and networks” (Lloyd 42).

34Greenwell’s more recent text, Cleanness, a cycle of stories based on musical movements as the author sees them, further develops the connection between radical eroticism, agency, and freedom. Yet it overcomes the claustrophobic fixation of the narrator in the previous novel and is more open socially and culturally. It renders the topos and peculiarities of realia in Bulgaria with precision, providing a foreigner’s view of many parts of the country apart from the capital Sofia, including Varna, Plovdiv, Blagoevgrad, and Veliko Turnovo. Alongside its broader external view, this text also involves more and intense sexual encounters, which become self-revelatory. One example are the two companion pieces: “Gospodar” [master], a sado-masochistic episode written from the point of view of the submissive, and “The Little Saint,” which takes the opposing view of the dominant. The obsession of the narrator of What Belongs to You evolves in Cleanness into a transformative love relationship for him with R., a college student that appears in both novels. The author continues the argument from his previous book that the desire for purity, for an untarnished state of innocence, which the very title denotes, is dangerous and self-effacing.

35Something about Bulgaria allows the inner defenses to fall for both the writer and the narrator, which leads to confronting his past and accepting himself. It is in Bulgaria that the narrator comes to terms with his sexuality and is open about it though he always has to be on the alert to the intolerance he often comes across in the country. Despite the prevalent conservatism and the positioning of gender as a system of violence, Bulgaria helps him achieve a life of freedom from guardedness and guilt. This is evident in the first story of Cleanness, entitled “Mentor,” where the narrator experiences satisfaction, even pride “at having provided... some degree of solace” at least to his own students for being open about being gay (8).

36Greenwell’s writing fluctuates between the two languages. Interestingly, Bulgarian words, transliterated in English, infuse the most intimate aspects of the character’s experience. Both the erotic and subtle emotions are expressed through words such as “skupi”—“my dear one.” Bulgarian words interspersed in the English text are used to add local color and character nuance: “priyatelyu”—“buddy,” “prostak” translated as “idiot,” or “neshtastnitsi,” for which Greenwell offers both a literal translation “the unfortunate ones” and “assholes,” as he considers the latter more contextually appropriate.

37Bulgarian words abound in the chapter entitled “Decent People” included in Cleanness, which portrays anti-government protests. He captures the spirit of discontent and anger, while traversing the city, which is rendered with precision and nostalgia. The narrator joins the protestors, “wanting to be among them in person, it felt like something remarkable was happening or about to happen in this country were so little happens” (Cleanness 50). His conversations with protesters, friends, students, intellectuals, and people from Sofia’s “alternative scene” (Cleanness 59) revolve around the failure of the democratic state to live up to its potential, and a deeper-felt crisis of self-identification for Bulgarians. Following a discussion of one of the highpoints of Bulgarian history, the national revival period, one of his students expresses the uncertainty of national and personal self-identification: “we have no idea how to be Bulgarian in the real world, we have no idea how we should be” (Cleanness 71). This mirrors the existential crisis of the expatriate narrator and reiterates Vesna Goldsworthy’s observation that Western Europe has regarded its Eastern neighbors as “the barbarians of Europe’s gates,” which has led to their developing an inferiority complex engendered by the perceived “Western superiority,” while at the same time also perceiving themselves as “the guardian of European values” (ix).

38Bulgarian is a language spoken by very few foreigners, and Greenwell is one of them. He observes that the language is shrinking just like the country’s population. So, “it’s not difficult to imagine it disappearing altogether, the language and the country both” (Cleanness 29). These lines reiterate a claim made on the last page of What Belongs to You: “the population declines and the warnings in the paper grow more strident and the nation itself becomes a little less real, fading away, some fear, to nothing” (130).

39The image of Bulgaria as seen through the eyes of the narrator is far from flattering. The capital Sofia is a city “that even in high summer held on to its grayness” (Cleanness 134). The construction of buildings is described as cheap, provisional, and tenuous (88), especially the “concrete desolation” of some neighborhoods (87), while the city itself is “filthy” (102). And this is true of other places the narrator visits in the country: Veliko Turnovo is “a sad place,” the river front in Rousse—a city by the Danube—is like “a stain seeping from the old hotel.” Moreover, Bulgaria, as the narrator sees it, is “not a modern country” (96), and one of the reasons for this is the limitations it imposes on queer people. Greenwell’s portrayal succeeds in overcoming reductionist views of Bulgaria as an Oriental fantasy or as a demonized version of Eastern Europe, but rather renders it as the reality he has perceived. He refuses to exoticize the country but represents it as a grim place with marginalized people devoid of a future. It is also for him a place of intense eroticism and secrecy, both alluring and disturbing. In addition, this involvement with eroticism firmly turns the Western gaze away from the typical literary and film trope of the sexual trafficking of young women associated with Eastern European countries, such as Bulgaria, Romania, or Moldova, among others.

6. Conclusion

40The texts under analysis illustrate this long-standing practice of op/positioning of Bulgaria to Europe and the West, albeit with some important distinctions. A typology of images of Bulgaria emerges from the narratives of the four books, and these fall into several distinct categories. Bulgaria is portrayed as a land of wonders—an antithesis to the society from which the authors originate; it is a land of ancient, violent, often tragic history; it is somewhat backward, untouched by modernity in many aspects of life, marginalized, even disappearing. It has a redeeming quality in that it offers both narrators and authors the potential for an uneasy self-discovery. Furthermore, the analyzed texts reveal a significant movement away from simplistic exoticizing, especially in the case of Greenwell, towards a more nuanced, transcultural lens in the portrayal of Bulgaria.

41This study is financed by the European Union-NextGenerationEU, through the National Recovery and Resilience Plan of the Republic of Bulgaria, project SUMMIT BG-RRP-2.004-0008-C01.

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1 The Silver Shirts, the White Shirts and Gentile League, the Khaki Shirts, the Gray Shirts, and many others. See Churchwell.

2 See, for example, the collection America Imagined: Selected Conference Papers, edited by Vernon Pedersen, American University in Bulgaria, 2001, including the chapter by Alexandra Glavanakova, “From ‘Dirty Fairy Tale’ to ‘Promised Land’—the Bulgarian Exodus,” pp. 197-207.

3 Efirni pesni I taini sluzhbi. Obrazat na Balgariya v britanskata, amerikanskata i anglokanadskata presa prez perioda 1980-2000, Colibri, 2015.

4 For more on this, see Alexandra Glavanakova, Transcultural Imaginings: Translating the Other, Translating the Self in Narratives about Migration and Terrorism, KXCritique and Humanism Publishing House, 2016.

5 See also Alexandra Glavanakova, “Authenticity and Autofiction: John Updike’s ‘The Bulgarian Poetess.’” Journal of Transatlantic American Studies, vol. 14, no. 2, 2023.

6 See Christopher Craft, ““Kiss Me with Those Red Lips”: Gender and Inversion in Bram Stoker's Dracula.” Representations, no. 8, 1984, pp. 107-33.

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Electronic reference

Alexandra Glavanakova, Migrating Literatures: Bulgaria in the American ImaginaryEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 18-4 | 2023, Online since 07 November 2023, connection on 04 March 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Alexandra Glavanakova

Alexandra K. Glavanakova, PhD, is an Associate Professor in American Literature and Culture at the Department of English and American Studies at St. Kliment Ohridski University of Sofia, Bulgaria. Her teaching, academic research and publications focus on the culture and literature of the USA; transcultural studies and identity; the major cultural shifts in literacy, education, and literary studies under the impact of digital technology. She is the author of two monographs: Posthuman Transformations: Bodies and Texts in Cyberspace (2014) and Transcultural Imaginings: Translating the Other, Translating the Self in Narratives about Migration and Terrorism (2016); the editor et al. of New Paradigms in English Studies: Language, Linguistics, Literature and Culture in Higher Education (2017) and Swiftian Inspirations: The Legacy of Jonathan Swift from the Enlightenment to the Age of Post-Truth (2020). She has been involved in several projects and publications on reading in the digital age and e-learning, including a Fulbright grant at UCSB (2022), and has recently served as the editor of the special issue “Reading Modes in the Digital Age” of the Sofia University online journal for arts and culture Piron (2020).

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