On an unseasonably warm autumn day, an American teacher walks down a staircase beneath Sofia’s National Palace of Culture, looking for sex. Among the stalls of a public bathroom he encounters Mitko, a charismatic young hustler. He returns to Mitko again and again over the next few months, and their trysts grow increasingly intimate and unnerving as the enigma of this young man becomes inseparable from that of his homeland, Bulgaria, a country with a difficult past and an uncertain future.
Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You is a stunning debut about an American expat struggling with his own complicated inheritance while navigating a foreign culture. Lyrical and intense, it tells the story of a man caught between longing and resentment, unable to separate desire from danger, and faced with the impossibility of understanding those he most longs to know.
Garth Greenwell Biography
Garth Greenwell is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where he was an Arts Fellow.
His novella Mitko won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction and a Lambda Literary Award.
Garth Greenwell on the Inspiration Behind What Belongs to You
I often say that my novel begins and ends with a place. But really I should say something more: not just the novel, but my life as a novelist began when I moved to Sofia, Bulgaria, in 2009. I would spend four years there, teaching English literature to Bulgarian high schoolers. Before I lived in Sofia, I had only written poetry; in some way I don’t fully understand, being there made me hear sentences that weren’t broken into lines.
Sofia is an endlessly fascinating place, beautiful and difficult in equal measure; as soon as I arrived, I knew I would have to write about it. I don’t know what’s behind the chemistry one sometimes feels with a place, why some cities seem full of significance to be mined and others remain opaque and uncharged. But in Sofia I felt almost immediately a reaction that intensified over the years I spent there.
Maybe two things amplified my response to the city. The first was working with young people, which puts you in a particular relationship to a place; it implicates you somehow: to care about the fates of your students is to care about the fate of the place that shaped them. Bulgaria is the poorest country in the EU; in December 2010, the Economist declared it the saddest place in the world. But that wasn’t really my experience of it. My students were full of talent, of promise and hope, and through them I got some sense of the complexity of a place that they both loved and longed to leave.
The more immediate inspiration for the novel, though, came from elsewhere. Very early in my time in Bulgaria, I began to meet queer people there, and discovered some of the communities gay Bulgarians have formed. When Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, LGBT people gained rights and protections they had never had before; but Bulgaria remains a deeply conservative place, a place where queer people continue to feel that in many ways there is a very narrow horizon drawn across their lives.
This was a feeling I recognized, and the strangest thing about my time in Bulgaria was the intensity with which it reminded me of my past, of the first queer people I met in Kentucky in the early 1990s. Though Bulgaria was the last refuge in what I’ve sometimes thought of as a long flight from that past, in Sofia I found myself forced up against it.
Something about the place and the people I met stripped away defenses I had built around my life. I wrote What Belongs to You as an attempt to make sense of a present and a past made newly vivid by my vulnerability to them.