Zdravka Evtimova: Hope Is the First Step on the Road to High Achievement

Zdravka Evtimova. Photo courtesy of Sloane Starship Publishing

България. Bulgaria. Bulgarija. Bullgaria. Болгарія. Bulgarien. Bulgarie.

Bulgaria and Bulgarian literature are discussed in dozens of languages around the world, and Bulgarian writer and translator Zdravka Evtimova has an outsize contribution to this reach.

Her short stories and novels have been published in more than 30 countries, are taught in schools in Europe and North America, and have received numerous national and international awards. She was awarded the inaugural prize for speculative fiction named after US scientist and inventor Dr. Thomas O’Conor Sloane for her novel He May Wear My Silence (2023). Moreover, the 2024 annual readers’ poll of the influential writers’ workshop Critters selected He May Wear My Silence as the best novel in both the science fiction & fantasy and magical realism categories.

The magic of Zdravka Evtimova is in her ability to create full-blooded characters who sometimes make you laugh, sadden you at others, and, at others still, manage to infuriate you, but who you can’t help rooting for. Both ordinary and extraordinary, her characters rebel against cowardice, corruption, and violence and overcome even the greatest challenges with integrity, kindness, and hard work. In her world, hope remains alive even in the darkest of times.

Zdravka Evtimova is the author of seven novels and eight short story collections and has translated over 25 novels by English, American, and Canadian authors into Bulgarian as well as works by Bulgarian writers into English.

In an interview for the America for Bulgaria Foundation’s monthly newsletter, Zdravka Evtimova talked to us about what inspires her and what gives her hope in Bulgarian society. She also discussed the power of ordinary people, her love for the Roma, and what she calls the writer’s destiny.

America for Bulgaria Foundation: Your protagonists are invariably ordinary people. What do they inspire you with?

Zdravka Evtimova: My life has turned out in such a way that I interact with exactly such people, people who get up at 5–6 in the morning to catch, if not the first, then the second train from Pernik to Sofia. I have lived and continue to live in Pernik, where almost all people work very hard to be able to put bread on the table for their children. These are people who know that their children are born to get a good education and earn a place under the sun thanks to their knowledge and the skills they will acquire as a result of hard work. Key characteristics of these ordinary people are, on the one hand, perseverance and hard work. The other side of their lives, of each one of these so-called ordinary people, who are actually both the engine and the fuel driving humankind toward greater humanity, is their talent. I am convinced that every person is born with a talent, without exception. One person writes, another paints, a third one fixes broken appliances or cars. Others have what we call charm — the ability to cheer up the downcast or to become a company’s heart and soul. This, too, is an infinite talent. People with greater life experience have a responsibility to detect talent — in a friend, neighbor, colleague, and, above all, in youth.

We should work in such a way that this talent unfolds and flourishes. This is exactly what “ordinary” people do. They understand that they have value, that they were not born to be bullied, duped, or pushed into a corner. An ordinary person cannot be pushed into a corner because, over the course of their life, first their parents and then school teach them that they carry inner strength. It is up to them to use this power for something constructive — to do something good for their community, family, or city — or use it to acquire what is not theirs, to defraud others, or to lie. It is both the family and the community’s responsibility to guide the person in such a way that their talent is steered toward the community’s advancement.

Many rich people have died most ingloriously, surrounded by gold objects and fat bank accounts. But history has not remembered them. History has remembered those who created something for humanity, for the community, a cure for a disease. They saved a child, built a public university with their own money, found a talented person and supported their development.

I am not saying that ordinary people are just good or just bad. Human beings are an alloy of benevolence and malice… We should act in such a way as to appeal to and encourage their good side. When a person feels appreciated, when they are convinced that their talent has been noticed by others, that they have created something good for someone, then this talent has value.

ABF: So even the bad guys can be enticed to do good? And if so, how do we go about it? How do we appeal to their better side?

Z.E.: There is a saying that the past is a lesson, not a life sentence. That is, a person may have done something very repulsive, but it should not brand that person for life. An evil person, in my opinion, is a person who has turned their back on their talent, on the opportunity to do something good.

There’s a Latin saying, “Once a traitor, always a traitor,” but I think the essence of human nature is the opposite of treachery. A person is born for something beautiful. By betraying someone’s trust or by being cruel to someone in order to use their power, you are actually destroying the strongest part of yourself, the most human of your characteristics. So, betrayal, no matter how helpful it is sometimes in climbing the hierarchical ladder, inevitably ruins us.

One cannot help but have a sense of this moral failure they are experiencing. I have always known that there is something in common between the richest man and the beggar. What they have in common is not only that they were born and that they will die, but also that they share the billions of years of evolution that have developed this sense of integrity, of honesty. And when the thief or murderer sometimes wakes up at night or when their phone rings randomly during the day, they feel a pain or a discomfort in the chest. I think it is the voice of billions of years of evolution. One cannot suppress this sense.

In my mind, and I may be very naive, but I think that a person who errs is not doomed to a terrible prison of the mind. They can turn their life around, invest their money for the benefit of others if they want to atone for their guilt. The fraud, the destroyer of human lives, does not want to live in a spiritual wasteland lest he becomes the poisonous ash covering everything before his eyes. This ash coats his thinking and his life, however glamorous it may be. I very much hope that this person will shake off the ashes or at least try to thin the shroud of ash by doing something good.

ABF: What happens to people who choose the opposite and stick to the course of wrongdoing?

Z.E.: This would be their profound tragedy. Here is a man surrounded with considerable wealth, with extravagant possessions, but he cannot, as you and I can, go out for a coffee without being flanked by twenty bodyguards armed to their teeth. We are not afraid that someone will gun us down because we have done something awful…

I think that the only way for this person to feel normal again — normal in the sense of being able to enjoy parenthood without scheming how to land his children cushy jobs or set them up in life or whom to defraud next — is to say, “I will buy hospital equipment for premature babies. Today I will build a stadium in our city so kids can play football and where the next Hristo Stoichkov will be born. I will build a bike lane in this city.” This will be the first step toward that person feeling that doing something useful — not for himself, nor for his bank account or his family, but for strangers — is actually a source of unsuspected joy.

ABF: What makes you sad about our society?

Z.E.: I like laying stones. It runs in the family: my grandfather was a stonemason. I make stone enclosures so that the sheep do not enter my small place near Radomir… I know that the sturdiest stones should be laid at the bottom, at the base. If you put a weak stone at the foundation, the wall collapses.

Sometimes, there are small pebbles at the base — people who cannot bear the weight, the burden of building our country. The strongest, most resilient, toughest person, the person of greatest substance should stand at the base, so that he can bear not only the difficulties, but also the responsibility that the other stones — that is, other people — will bring into his life. It saddens me to see the grains of sand that find their way into the foundation; they cannot carry this weight.

I am convinced that today’s challenging conditions will inevitably produce people capable of shouldering such a burden. Hardship and trying times create great politicians, great writers, great scientists. A person must feel the pain and the burden to wake up, to unleash the energy that will help him resist dishonoring himself and engaging in corrupt schemes.

Yes, money is a wonderful thing. Ready money is quickly spent. I pray that every single person, not only in our country, but everywhere in the world, raise children who are not dependent on our money. On the contrary, I hope that our children will turn away from our money and that we will have cultivated in them a desire to earn their own livelihoods in a dignified way. When you pamper a person, when you give them something they did not earn, when you put them in a position they did not fight for, you are doing them an enormous disservice. You commit a crime against this person because he feels his worthlessness.

Three paths are open to the person who has not acquired any knowledge or skills. First is subservience. “What a lovely jacket, boss! What a wonderful report you gave! What a wise thing to say!” You advance slowly, crawlingly up the path of subservience, but you don’t get very far. The second option in front of the person without knowledge or skills is to inform on others, and the third path — the most damning of all — is betrayal.

Is it possible for a person to reject all these repulsive options? Of course it’s possible. The human mind is bright. Get an education — even if it’s late, even if you’re already an adult. Start studying what you love. Let’s say you studied computer science, but you like working in a kindergarten. You studied finance and you work in a bank, where you grovel or snitch on others — even though what you love is working in a kindergarten with little kids. Can you imagine introducing kids in a small town to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons? Can you imagine a five-year-old saying, “This is Vivaldi’s ‘Spring,’ mom! His mother, who, let’s say, works in a bakery, might say, “Who is this Vivaldi? How do you know him?” There’s nothing wrong with not liking Vivaldi; it just means that someone hasn’t yet introduced her to this wonderful music. But her child has been introduced — by a person who realized that he was not born to be a snitch or a traitor or a flatterer.

It is never too late to say no to betrayal, flattery, groveling, and snitching. It’s not too late as long as you slap yourself on the head and say, “What on earth am I doing here?” Yes, the children in the kindergarten will scream all day, they won’t eat their soup, they will roll around on the ground. You will be trying to get them to settle down, but, in the evening, you will go home happy.

I speak from personal experience. My daughter graduated in finance and didn’t want to work in a bank. Now she works in a kindergarten. She comes home happy and tells me about Vancho, about Danielka… I can see how she smiles. Her house and her children lit up when she found her place.

ABF: Do you know a lot of happy people?

Z.E.: I know happy people. They are not rich people in the sense of having millions of dollars. They are people who earn a salary, who save, who have a garden or, if they don’t have a garden, who like to go to the mountains, take their children to the Museum of Illusions, to Muzeiko. They worry about their child making eight mistakes on a dictation assignment, wonder how to help them reduce the number of mistakes to three, and, instead, the next day the child comes back with ten mistakes… These ordinary things are actually part of happiness.

Most happy people I know are healthy or have had someone in their midst restored to health.

Happiness is not a constant. Sometimes you feel that you have fallen into an abyss, but you realize that if you do not bend, you can turn the abyss into a natural landmark, a gorge. You can then call out to people: “Hey, come and see what is down here. There is water that is rich in iron. Whoever has anemia can pour himself a bottle!” Then this gorge will become something very useful.

We carry happiness within us, as well as unhappiness and whining. It is up to us whether we will keep on whining, or we will seek iron-rich water at the bottom of the abyss.

ABF: Where do you draw your “iron water”? In other words, what gives you hope?

Z.E.: Small things, very small… For example, when I am in a big hurry and nearly missing the train but manage to get on in the last minute, I’m so happy… When I’m grafting trees and the graft is successful…

The graft is made on a wild plant, a wild tree that can withstand rain, wind, sleet, and cold. You use an apricot, peach, or almond graft, and you get a healthy tree with the fruit you want. It’s the same with people. You go to someone who, let’s say, is not so educated or brilliant, but is very healthy and fearless, because he lived in not particularly favorable conditions and did not fall apart. And when you kindle in that person a desire to take from the culture of the world, from the world’s achievements, when you tell that person that he is capable, that he has a very strong and sharp mind, that he is resourceful, and you push him to learn, then you get a healthy sapling with a solid foundation. With spiritual grafts, you enable people’s growth. This is what I call a source of hope.

I am reminded of Botev [nineteenth-century Bulgarian poet and revolutionary Hristo Botev, ed.], who wrote, “My uncle is a cursed man! / He’s cursed, mother, I tell you.” The uncle predicted that “I will rot in a dungeon, / and my flesh will hang / on Kara-bair, on a stake!” Every person has weaknesses. If you start telling them, “You are absolutely incompetent, you are a mediocre writer, you are good for nothing,” you are actually putting that person down, covering him with mud. Some are like Botev; he had the will to prove himself brilliant. But many people do not have this inner strength. Therefore, it is our responsibility not to cast judgment that “a person will come to no good.” We should do the opposite! We should address them with the words “It is up to you to make something of yourself. I’m telling you that you can become someone. I see it in you because I have lived at least twenty-five years longer than you have. You may not believe me now, but it’s eye-poppingly obvious. Whether you believe it or not, it’s in you.” And the person realizes that they do want to achieve something lofty and challenging. That gives me hope.

I was a high school teacher, and now I teach creative writing at Sofia University. When I find a beautiful metaphor in a story, I point it out right away to the student writer. If you can just see how their eyes light up! Next time, they write even more beautifully. This is what you should tell a person — something good, so they know. But if you lie, if you flatter them, you commit a crime, because you deceive the person. Your task is to point out a specific example — one, two, or twenty — so that they know what is good and focus their attention and efforts on it. I believe this is how good hope is born. Find something good, convey it openly to youth, plant it in their thoughts. Hope is the first step on the road to high achievement.

ABF: So, you don’t believe in criticism as an educational tool?

Z.E.: I do believe in criticism. It is an invaluable tool, but criticism can be two kinds. One is humiliating, crushing criticism. We know how Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake was received: it was labeled a conduit of Western influence; they said it ruined Russian spirituality. We know how the opera Carmen by Bizet was smeared. Resilient as their creators were, they must have felt crushed.

Life is the best critic, after all. We know about the poet Emily Dickinson, who was born in 1830. She wrote over 1,800 poems, of which only ten were published during her lifetime, and even those were published in non-specialized, not literary magazines.

I have a very interesting view on awards. Awards are a wonderful thing, but Emily Dickinson did not receive a single award in her lifetime, unlike her contemporaries. Nobody remembers them, but we remember her. Thanks to her sister, who managed to find a publisher, not a big publisher, but a small one, for a small book. It was that little book that launched the march of Emily Dickinson’s poems to the hearts of readers.

I would like to share an interesting thought about the role of literary criticism by the English poet W. H. Auden. He said, “Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.”

ABF: The characters in your books are remembered for their talents bordering on superpowers. Can we turn our talents into superpowers, too?

Z.E.: At different points in our lives, we rely on different qualities of ours to help us cope with challenges. I really like that youth in Bulgaria no longer speak of “huge problems” but of “challenges.” The choice of words itself shows that young people are ready to deal with these challenges. They also use the expression “No problem” very often. Their thinking is very practical, directed toward solving difficulties. I believe that at any moment a different component of the energy we possess can become a superpower. Sometimes, our ability to comfort a person is our superpower, and at others it is leaving them alone with their grief. It matters whether we are good psychologists, whether we care about the person. It seems to me that people no longer say “I love you” but rather “I care about you,” which to me is much stronger. Love is a transient thing. It is like a volatile chemical compound that breaks down at the slightest disturbance of conditions. But “I care about you” means that I will stand by your side even when you are sick, when you are angry with me, and even when I cannot stand the sight of you.

This is human beings’ greatest strength — the ability to create lasting relationships with other people. Perhaps one of our biggest strengths, the most important component of people’s energy, what you call a “superpower,” is our ability not to jump to conclusions. There is an English proverb “Least said, soonest mended.” No matter how much someone hurts us, let’s face the hurt with dignity and calm. When we provide room for the offender to realize what they have done, we are actually giving them a chance to change their attitude.

ABF: Your works are taught in high schools in Europe and the United States. Do you feel a greater responsibility addressing younger audiences?

Z.E.: I am more interested in how people in these countries will interpret what I have written. I feel a greater responsibility with what I am working on right now and, God willing, what I am yet to write in the future. The thought that, in these trying times, people part with some of their money to buy one of my books means that they have put their trust in me. This is foremost in my mind; I would hate myself if I lied, if I let the person down, if I betrayed their trust, if it turned out that they have wasted their hard-earned cash on something worthless.

ABF: You write, but you also translate, including your own books. Do you consider yourself mainly a writer or a translator?

Z.E.: I have translated all of my writing that has been published in the US, UK, and Canada, but it’s not like translating someone else’s work. Sometimes I get so stuck in places that I can’t come up with a phrase for two weeks, and then I end up rewriting it. I even change whole scenes, but that’s because I am the author, and I have the right to do so…

I can appreciate how difficult the work of a literary translator is. When you write, you feel, if not happy, then at least free. When you translate, you are venturing into the most challenging of artistic endeavors — translating the magic, the life created by an author and conveying it to other people, under a different sky. That’s why literary translators have my respect, the good ones, those who say it can always be better and strive to make it better.

Writing is — and I’m not kidding here — an anomaly. If I translate, I will earn money. If I write, I will earn much less or nothing, but I keep on doing it… For example, why does a person like to swim? Why does someone else like to grow flowers? Why does a third like to collect glass sculptures? You write because you can’t cope with the injustice in this world, you can’t deal with being subjected to something painful that you can’t change. Writing about it somehow makes it easier. When my son was sick, I wrote a book for him. Now I’m not a doctor to help him, so I wrote a book… I think that at least one tiny bit of that story got into him and helped him survive. I like arranging words and images into a story. No, liking is too weak a word! You have worked all day, no one gave you anything for free, you are tired, and instead of sleeping at night, you stay up writing. Why? Well, you are surely crazy, but that’s just how people are.

ABF: Thanks in part to how you are, the world knows about Bulgarian literature. What does it have to say that’s relevant and important to the rest of the world?

Z.E.: The history of our people is actually the story of a great big scar that says, “I have endured.” This is why the world should learn about us, understand the tragedy permeating our history and the fact that the Bulgarian people managed to turn tragedy into victory.

The second reason is that there may be only seven million Bulgarians, but Bulgaria churns out a lot of talent. I meet people in different places, most recently in Belene, in Radomir, in Sliven, in Dobrich, in Varna. The people I meet ask me to read their writing, and I find many beautiful things in the books they give me. A nation that reads and writes will never be assimilated, will never disappear… Therefore, the world should see how a nation of seven million has given birth and will continue to give birth to talented children. We are simply destined to produce talent. Not only in literature, but in mathematics and physics as well. We have remarkable artists, musicians, philosophers, doctors.

ABF: No other Bulgarian author speaks with such love and empathy for the Roma and has so many of her characters be of Roma origin. Where does this appreciation come from, and can literature nurture it?

Z.E.: My love for the Roma has a very simple explanation. In Pernik, the Roma neighborhood was right next to the Tsarkva neighborhood, where we lived, and I played with Roma children and spoke their language. At first, they didn’t accept me. They said, “You are not like us. Go away from here. We’ll throw you into the river.” And they did, twice.

I started telling them stories, and they told me: “If we like this story, we will give you clay. If we don’t like it, we will throw you into the river.” The best time was when they made me a clay bowl. At the time, I didn’t know of Scheherazade, but I discovered the power of words. I would tell them a story and end in a very interesting place, such as when my father was chasing a piglet. And they’d say, “What happened to the pig, what happened to the pig?” So I told them. Little by little, I realized that they had given me not just a bowl of clay, but a great friendship.

Rozichka and Meliha were crane operators at the metallurgical plant, and I worked as a translator at an institute at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. They’d buy me coffee because they made a lot more money than me. They are my friends to this day. Maybe I would have married a Roma man, Doncho, but we went our separate ways… My love is not imposed, it is not artificial, and it has very deep roots.

How do we overcome our differences with the Roma? We overcome them by working together with these people and living with them, not putting labels on them… You shouldn’t insult someone because of their way of life, because of their thinking. I trust a person who does quality work consistently. There are no minorities for me; there are people who are decent, who work honestly, who have dignity, and then there are crooks and shirkers. The latter are not the type I would admire and drink a cup of Sunday coffee with.

The task here, in my opinion, is for the Roma to be included in the education system and to learn and, above all, for Bulgaria to recruit people with eyes for their talents and abilities.

ABF: Your latest novel, He May Wear My Silence, is described as a science fiction novel, but, in an interview, you say that the main theme is truth. What about truth was it important for you to say?

Z.E.: In the novel, truth is a way to overcome death. Truth is humanity’s way of preserving itself, and any deviation from it automatically holds society back. Imagine you are constructing a building, and something happens, something that you caused. The building collapses, and you have to start over. Such was, roughly speaking, the role of truth in the novel for me.

In the avalanche of disinformation that floods us, my work as a translator really helps or at least provides a good clue about how to approach my work. I check something against seven, eight, and up to ten sources that I trust. Sometimes, sources I trust give contradictory information, which makes me very confused, and when this occurs — it is not very common, but it happens — I turn to experts in the field that I know and trust. I strive to obtain the most credible information. Credibility is very, very important. As Solzhenitsyn writes in The Gulag Archipelago, “If we add even a small grain to the truth, we diminish its value many times over” [this is a paraphrase of the original quote, ed.]. This is what truth is like.

ABF: Isn’t it too difficult to maintain such information hygiene? How do you help your students, for example, to maintain a better information diet?

Z.E.: Information hygiene helps us keep our nose above water; otherwise, we will sink in this stinking bog of fake news, propaganda, etc.

Young people handle new technologies very well. They are also very practical — that is, whatever young people discover, they try to apply it in their lives so that they can more easily cope with a given task. I really like their can-do attitude. It has often been my experience that the young person in question can’t really do what they claim. Sure, you can always rub it in their faces, give them something really difficult to do, and have them give up. But this is the unproductive approach. Instead, give them something slightly more challenging to do. They will struggle, they will falter, they will think, but, in the end, they will come up with a solution that works. Look at them beam with joy! So, little by little, you let them know that they are not as capable as they can be yet, but it’s up to them to get better. At the heart of this process is the teacher! Young people are very open to learning, to achievement — and the higher the goal, the more their skills grow.

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