East of the West: A few words about the stories

East of the West: Stories

When I was a child, I did not much like to read, because I was lazy and preferred to play soccer outside. I did not like to be read to either, because repetition bored me and because my parents were really good story tellers – for years my mother told me about the adventures of two little hippos (brother and sister) who we’d send around the world and get into all sorts of trouble, while my father told me stories about Bulgarian history: khans, tsars, rebels fighting the Turks.
        As a college student in the US, I wrote stories of my own, pseudo-American stories influenced by my teenage love of Stephen King, a writer I still admire greatly. It became apparent, very quickly, that the fake American stories I wrote were unconvincing garbage. Taking a class in Western History, I was amazed to find out that the professor was writing his dissertation on janissaries in the Balkans. He asked me if I could translate a Bulgarian text for him. I was mesmerized, the way I’d been as a child, by our own history. How could I have forgotten it? Why was I not writing stories like these, packed with heroism, betrayal, courage and cowardice, freedom and death?
        And so I began this book. I wanted people to listen and be moved by our tales, and to show them that Bulgarians are not all car thieves and prostitutes, though there are plenty of those too. As a boy I’d listened to my father and felt calm and safe, and twenty years later I wanted to feel that same way. Writing about Bulgaria was the only way I knew that would get me back to Bulgaria – not just my family, whom I miss greatly, but also our muddy village roads, black fields, blue mountains...

A few words on Bulgarian history:

        Bulgaria was founded in 681 AD, and was a great European power for about six hundred years. Then, like Greece, Serbia, and other countries of the Balkans (the name comes from a Turkish word that means ‘chain of wooded mountains’), it fell under Ottoman rule. Only in 1878 it was finally free to make its own history again. The enlarged Bulgaria envisioned by the treaty that ended this conflict alarmed the Great Powers, who were guided by the ‘divide and conquer’ principle (just look at the term balkanization, used to mean the process of fragmentation or division of a state.) And so they started to chip away at our territories. The Balkan Wars ignited, and Bulgaria seized the first opportunity to get the land back that we’d lost in the wars: we allied with Germany during World War I, lost that war, and lost even more land.
        All this fighting and losing was bad for our morale, and many young people fell in love with Communism, which spoke of strange and beautiful ideas like fraternity and equality and power to the workers. An uprising in 1923 was crushed by the Tsarists, and Bulgaria stayed a monarchy until the second major uprising in 1944 when the Communist Party took complete control of the country for 45 years.

Back to the stories:

        In EAST OF THE WEST we have stories that speak of Bulgaria as it was during the Ottoman years and then as it was during the fights for liberation from the Turks. There are stories that speak of the Balkan Wars, of the chokehold and fall of Communism. There are stories that speak of what became of both Christians and Muslims in Bulgaria when regimes changed. Then finally there are stories that show the reader what’s happening now, while so many young people leave for the West in search of a better life. The final and most modern story of the collection, “Devshirmeh,” leads us onward in time, but also twists and takes us back, and like a snake bites its own tail.
        Once upon a time the Turks stole Bulgarian boys and turned them into Ottoman soldiers. This is the Devshirmeh, the blood tribute. It is an awful, sentimental, tragic part of our folklore, but if we read historical sources carefully, we can find instances when parents offered their children to the Turks – because a Muslim soldier could live a much better life than a Christian peasant.
        The stories in EAST OF THE WEST tackle all these upheavals of history individually, and through individuals, but I believe that when read together the stories complement each other, like pieces in a puzzle adding up to reveal a larger picture.
        Today, more than a million Bulgarians live abroad, and I have seen countless parents (my own included) encourage their children to leave, to seek a better life away from home; and I’ve seen Bulgarians change their names, abandon their language, take on new beliefs, new ideologies and identities, forget where they came from. Yes, history repeats itself and nothing is new under the sun, but history can be forgotten. With this book, I wanted to remember.

                                                                                Map of contemporary Bulgaria

Contemporary Bulgaria


Table of Contents

There are eight stories in East of the West. Here you can find either the opening paragraph of each or an excerpt that I thought captures the story's voice.


East of the West
Buying Lenin
The Letter
A Picture With Yuki
Cross Thieves
The Night Horizon


First Bulgarian Empire*  Brief Timeline

  • 681 Khan Asparuh establishes the First Bulgarian Empire.
  • 811 Khan Krum slays Emperor Nicephorus I in battle and, according to the legend, turns his skull into a drinking cup.
  • 864 Boris I converts Bulgaria to Christianity.
  • 886 Boris I offers refuge to the disciples of the saint brothers Cyril and Methodius. Two of these disciples - Clement of Ohrid and Naum of Preslav, both of noble Bulgarian origin, perfect the Glagolic alphabet originally created by Cyril and Methodius. They name the new alphabet Cyrillic, in honor of their teacher. Bulgaria adopts this new alphabet as official.
  • 913 Simeon I The Great assumes the title Tsar, thus becoming the first tsar in history (the first Russian tsar won't be born for a few more centuries).
  • 20 August 917 Tsar Simeon I defeats the Byzantine emperor in the battle of Acheloos, one of the largest in medieval European history. Bulgaria reaches its largest territory, spreading over land between the Aegean, the Adriatic and the Black Sea.
  • 927- 968 The Bogomil heresy spreads through Bulgaria during the rule of Tsar Peter I. Centuries later the Bogomil heretics reach Italy and France, where people dub them Bougres (Bulgres). The word passes into English as bugger.
  • July 29, 1014 Tsar Samuil loses the Battle of Kleidion (Klyuch). The Byzantine Emperor Basil II divides the 14,000 Bulgarian soldiers into groups of 100, blinds 99 in each group and leaves the 100th with one eye so he could lead the others home. With this Basil II gains the nickname Boulgaroktonos (the Bulgar-slayer). In 1205, as a counter-derivative, Tsar Kaloyan adopts the sobriquet Rōmaioktonos (Romanslayer).
  • 1018 the Bulgarian Empire is conquered by the Byzantine. It stays under Byzantine rule, as Theme of Bulgaria, with Skopje as its capital, for 150 years until
    the rebellion of the brothers Asen and Peter in 1185.
  • 1185 Asen and Peter reestablish Bulgaria. Second Bulgarian Empire begins.
  • * Empire is used here as a translation of the Bulgarian "Tsarstvo," which is sometimes mistranslated as "kingdom." The title Tsar is equivalent to Emperor, not King.

    Miro Cover illustration: Peter Sis
    Miroslav Penkov