Memoir and Place

Place. I’m asking how I can be part of the storytelling in places that I love. I feel an understanding with Pennsylvania farm country that is noticeable only when it is absent like in a recent vacation I took to Colorado. The mountains and plains and foothills startled me around every turn. I could never sense what would come next, how the rock would change color, or when a hill would turn into the edge of a flat and sparkling water reservoir. Here, the silk and tassel glamour of corn near harvest greets me with a familiar wave. The hills turn dark blue in the evenings. All is bright color about to turn dusty then burn in a dry, leafy flame.


One way to learn a place is to know the stories. I lived in Bulgaria for a year and I know far too few of its stories. Some of the old folklore is translated into English. But more readily available are the histories and ethnographies of Bulgaria since communism. The open door to English opened the door to writers, even as they document the mixed bag (the tragically mixed bag) that is capitalism. Bulgaria, in some places, felt as familiar to me as home. But in other ways, the wheat fields around Dobrich felt like the bottom of some sea I’d never seen. The violence of allergies once the linden trees came to life in late June felt aggressive and specific and foreign.


I’m writing about Bulgaria a lot these days, trying to remember the details that made it so itself. I have some of them. I’m losing others. What’s helping jog the fog is a large pile of books about Bulgaria that draw me back into the place I tried to learn first hand. They fall into two categories: the memoir and the short story. It’s all a way of trying to enliven characters and places and it brings me back to the streets I walked and the people I tried to talk to and all the confusion I experienced.


Research is a dear help for this kind of writing. I thought I’d share my favorite gems from Bulgaria thus far and perhaps inspire you to look up the memoirs and stories from places you’ve loved. They get at things in a way no rote history can provide.




Penkov, Miroslav. East of the West: A Country in Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

  1. Print.

Fantastic writing. I loved every short story in this collection. Notably East of the West and Picture with Yuki. The submerged church, the desperation to get out. It’s a lot about the damaging relationships between Bulgaria and the outside world and the disregard in return. Vivid Bulgarian pacing to the stories. Both modern voices and the voice of the Bulgarian folk tales.


Phoel, Cynthia. Cold Snap: Bulgaria Stories. Dallas: Southern Methodist UP, 2010. Print.

Short stories by Peace Corps volunteer. Interconnected through the adult lives of kids who were in the same class together. Very much a “modern Bulgaria” collection. I felt like I was back in the classroom at many points.




Ghodsee, Kristen. Lost in Transition : Ethnographies of Everyday Life after Communism.

Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. Ebook Library. Web. 13 Feb. 2015.

Absolutely fabulous. The fiction is didactic but the other narratives are wonderful. She’s seen Bulgaria from so many angles and has a knack for emotive and evocative story telling but with a documentarian eye. Addresses changes in a chronological manner including the changes in how personal and romantic relationships were managed between communism and after. Notes and discusses Bulgarian nostalgia for past times (particularly communism) as a driving factor in modern Bulgarian life.


Kassabova, Kapka. Street without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria.

New York: Skyhorse Pub. 2009. Print.

Begins as a personal memoir of childhood. And then shifts to a travelogue of her return to Bulgaria and her thoughts visiting different locations. I loved this last section of the book. It was like returning to place I had visited. She captures the history with the present conundrums, both personal and national, in a way that I haven’t heard before with the history there. I felt depressed and enchanted reading it: a very Bulgarian experience. The one negative is that she doesn’t have an artistic sense of narrative timelines arching the book. It creates a disjointed reading experience at several points.



Yakimov, Radka. Dreams and Shadows. Lincoln, NE: IUniverse, 2006. Print.

Memoir of growing up in Sofia during and after WWII. All the trauma of war and the consequences of being a lawyer’s daughter in a new Soviet country. Revealing. I didn’t understand a lot of things about life then that this memoir helped me see. A detailed description of ife pre-soviet control is rare to come by especially in English.



What are some of your favorite books that illuminate the places you love?

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