A Blog Post about Hospitality, Books and Big Sticks

In the town of Omurtag, Hasan the geographer welcomed me with a story about the perils of refusing hospitality. Hasan is a vigorous man in his late forties, and he is locally famous for his fierce home-made rakia (although, being a Muslim, he doesn’t drink any of it himself). He has about him an air of restless intellectual curiosity. He is an Esperanto speaker, an expert on the history of local place names, a respected scholar, a translator, and a compiler of collections of folk tales.

With Hasan the geographer in Omurtag
With Hasan the geographer in Omurtag

Hasan had invited us to lunch — myself and my hosts from the Lecti Center in Varna, Sabira Ståhlberg and Ivo Ivanov. We ate nettles cooked with bulgur wheat, whilst Hasan told us a tale about three guests beaten with a large stick for refusing the hospitality of their hosts. The nettles were delicious. I looked around the room. ‘Where’s your stick?’ I asked. Hasan laughed and told me that it was hidden, but cautioned me that it was within easy reach should he need it. I took another mouthful, to demonstrate my good intentions.

With teacher Louis Ayetola and Sabira Ståhlberg in Omurtag
With teacher Louis Ayetola and Sabira Ståhlberg in Omurtag

We were in Omurtag — stopping on the way to Varna — so that I could pay a visit to the school and give a talk to some of the children. We were running late due to the heavy rain and sleet on the way from Sofia. When I arrived, I was greeted by the school teacher, Louis Ayetola, and then I was hustled straight into a classroom of where I had bunches of tulips thrust into my hands, and then I put on a show for forty minutes. It was good, but hectic, fun. I acted out parts of my children’s book, The Snorgh and the Sailor, took questions from the kids (“What do you think of the political situation in Ukraine and the Crimea?” — I hadn’t seen that one coming), and was briefly interviewed for the school radio station. Then I was hurried onwards for lunch with the geographer.

In Daki Yordanov school, Omurtag

After nettles and bulgur wheat, we ate baked pumpkin and drank tea sweetened with treacle, home made from sugar-beet. The conversation was just beginning to hit full swing when we had to be on our way again, Hasan thrusting jars of treacle, jam and preserves into my hands, and reminding me of the large stick that he kept out of sight for beating guests unable to accept his hospitality.

We left Omurtag early afternoon and arrived in Varna at four. I caught an hour’s sleep and then we were back in town for a literary evening at a local restaurant. At the end of the evening, I staggered into bed, and slept for a good nine hours.

Friday was calmer. I slept for a good long while, had a couple of meetings during the day, and had the chance to spend a little more time in Varna. But yesterday once again I was back to doing events, with a two hour writing workshop in the morning in the library and then a launch event in Varna’s lovely Ciela bookstore in the afternoon. I always enjoy multilingual writing workshops. A couple of years back I spent a week or so in a French art school running creative writing workshops in both French and English, and found it hugely stimulating. Today’s session cut between Bulgarian and English, with some people writing in one language, some in the other. I’m always frustrated by the horribly monoglot character of creative writing as a discipline, as if English was the only language in which people might write creatively (how many creative writing courses, in the English-speaking world, are a part of English departments?), so working between languages is always enriching and exciting.

The launch here in Varna was my final formal event in Bulgaria. Between now and the end of my visit, I’m catching up with friends and making further connections, but I don’t have any official book-related things to do. And although I was nervous before the event, the second book launch was a relaxed affair: between us, Sabira, Ivo and I have honed our patter and our approach to two-way translation, and so the interview was fun and freewheeling. The audience members were considerably more loquacious than in Sofia, leading to an extended session of questions and answers.

Of course, given that The Descent of the Lyre is set in Bulgaria, the fact of launching the book over here in Bulgaria has a particular significance for me. But spending time doing events over here makes me also realise that it’s absolutely a worthwhile thing to do to move beyond the writing world in one’s home country and to go and run events, readings and launches overseas. It gives you a broader sense of the publishing world. It is a good way of meeting different readers. It puts you in touch with writers and people in the publishing world elsewhere. It potentially feeds into new projects. And it is — above all — huge amounts of fun.

On this occasion, I’ve been particularly fortunate to have such great support for this visit from the wonderful Lecti Center, and also from my Bulgarian publishers, Enthusiast (who are particularly well-named). I could not have hoped for better and more generous support. And I hope that I’ll be back to do more over here in Bulgaria in the future, whether writing new things or running further events.

As for the next few days, tomorrow is entirely free. I’m taking a break and enjoying being a tourist. Then on Monday I’m heading off to visit friends near the town of Teteven for a couple of days, before heading back to Sofia, where Im going to meet up with both old and new friends, prior to heading back home to the UK some time next Thursday. As for my book in Bulgarian, Произходът на лирата, I’ll leave it now to its own devices, although I’ll check from time to time to see how it does out there in the world. As the great Canadian poet Erin Mouré said (and I’ve quoted this before), books are emigrants — they belong where they end up. The Bulgarian edition of the book has cast off from the shore. Wherever it finds itself settling down, that’s probably where it belongs, or where it will find itself belonging. I wish it luck. The life of an emigrant is uncertain, but it is full of possibilities. As a writer you can only hope that your books, when they emigrate, meet with hospitality and generosity; and if they do, it is hospitality that should not be refused (stick or no stick).

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