Saturday, September 20, 2014

Writer and Friend of Bulgaria

The first email that I received from Knigi News, a website devoted to Bulgarian books and authors, had the word "Inquiry" listed in Bulgarian as its subject, and the message it contained was simply "Do you speak Bulgarian, Mr. Shuman?"

This was the start of my correspondence with Bulgarian author Stoyan Valev (When God Was On Leave; Time To Be Unfaithful; The Bulgarian Decameron). He wrote to me in Bulgarian and I responded in English. At some point, Google Translate failed to correctly relate our messages, as Valev assumed that I was married to a Bulgarian woman who would help me with translations.

The following is my interview published on Knigi News. The questions were given to me in Bulgarian and I wrote my answers in English. I am sincerely grateful to friends who helped me with translations to enable this interview. I must admit that what pleased me most was the description of my image that accompanied the article. The caption was: "Ellis Shuman, writer and friend of Bulgaria".

The interview (listing the questions as I understood them):

Ellis Shuman is an American-born, Israeli author who writes about Bulgaria. His suspense novel "Valley of Thracians" tells the story of an American Peace Corps volunteer who goes missing in Bulgaria, and of the man who arrives in the country to search for him while encountering Bulgaria's culture, cuisine, history and its Thracian past.

How did you by chance form a connection with Bulgaria?

I was born in the United States and moved to Israel as a teenager with my family. I finished high school in Jerusalem, served for three years in the Israeli army, was a founding member of a kibbutz (collective society), and worked for many years in the hotel industry. For the last ten years I've been working in online marketing, and for a two-year period (2009-2010), my position was relocated to Sofia, where my company has a large customer support center.

My wife and I related to our two years in Bulgaria as a huge adventure. We traveled extensively around the country, learned about Bulgaria's history and culture, enjoyed eating Bulgarian food, and made many friends. Unfortunately, despite having a tutor, we failed to learn to speak Bulgarian, but we managed just fine in English.

Upon our return to our permanent home in Israel, I couldn't stop thinking about Bulgaria. I decided to devote my free time to writing about Bulgaria. I began writing travel articles to encourage western tourists to visit the country. And I wrote my suspense novel, providing them with a page-turning mystery as well as an introduction to Bulgaria.

For 25 years, it was forbidden for us in Bulgaria to say nice words about our country, about its nature, its history, as this was considered an expression of wild nationalism and the rehabilitation of socialism. Only foreigners were not held back by these anti-Bulgarian requirements imposed by our new masters but they were unable to read or hear anything about our beautiful land. You probably do not suspect that we lived like this?

I admit, I had the advantage of living in Bulgaria almost like a tourist, although I did have to get up every morning and go to work. But, I was not connected to the day-to-day troubles and concerns of the citizens who lived around me. Elections were held while I was in Sofia, but that didn't concern me. I was able to focus on the positive side of life, experiencing everything like it was truly an adventure. There were many things about Bulgaria's past and its culture that left a very strong, lasting impression with me, and these were the things that I wanted to write about.

Before I arrived in Sofia, I really didn't know what to expect about Bulgaria. Perhaps this is the reason that characters in my fiction are new arrivals in the country, experiencing Bulgaria for the first time. These experiences, by the way, are quite different, and therefore captivating, for western readers. And Bulgaria's history and culture, while undoubtedly very common and ordinary for Bulgarians, really do serve to fascinate those who have never visited the country.

To paraphrase a well-known maxim, stated by the British, Bulgaria has many friends who have discovered it as it reinvents itself, but that does not prevent Bulgaria from being a victim. Bulgaria today is a victim of forces, conspiring forces. Many in this country believe that all evils that fall upon our heads are made by the Bulgarians. What is your take on this?

Despite having lived in Sofia for two years, I cannot claim to truly understand the Bulgarian mentality. I have done my best to learn about Bulgaria's culture and history. I enjoyed exchanging martenitsa on the first of March; I visited Kazanlak during the Festival of Roses; I drank homemade rakia with friends; and I hiked in the Rila Mountains.

But it would not be proper for me to comment on how Bulgarians relate to themselves and their country. I will always remain a foreigner looking in from the outside. However, what I see from afar is very interesting. I have come away from my Bulgarian experiences with a true respect for Bulgarians, their way of life, and even for their struggles. I believe that Bulgaria and Israel share a lot of things in common (and it's not only the many years when we were both ruled by the oppressive Ottomans).

It is interesting that your novel "Valley of Thracians" has not yet been translated into Bulgarian. I do not know if you know, but in Bulgaria we read translated literature. It's a paradox, don't you think?

I write about Bulgaria for western readers. My novel has been described as "travel fiction", in that the setting (Bulgaria) plays a very important role in the story. Readers have said that they learned a lot about Bulgaria while at the same time enjoying a fascinating suspense story.

I was quite surprised to see that my travel articles about Bulgaria, in particular those that have been published at The Huffington Post, have become very, very popular, with most of the readers being in Bulgaria. Apparently, I learned, Bulgarians like to read articles written by foreigners about Bulgaria.

My novel has not yet been published in Bulgarian, although this is one of my goals as an author. I truly believe that Bulgarians will enjoy the suspenseful mystery, as well as reading about how Bulgaria is portrayed in fiction by a foreign author.

And, I have something else to add. I am in the final stages of editing my new novel. Once again I will present readers with a suspenseful story and the setting will again be Bulgaria. The difference, this time, will be that the novel is also strongly connected to Israel. I have no doubt that Bulgarian readers will enjoy the upcoming book as well. I look forward to having my books translated into Bulgarian.

"We noticed John Deere tractors working the land, but also farmers using horse-drawn plows" - this you wrote in one of your articles. But you didn't mention the systematic destruction of the Bulgarian village and its way of life. If you write about this 'murder', the world will gasp, but it is a topic that is strictly forbidden to Bulgarian journalists and writers. Is it the same for foreigners?

When the socialist experience similar to your kibbutzim was destroyed, the people in the villages had to survive without money, without agricultural machinery, and they plowed with donkeys and oxen, and this was genocide. It was profitable for certain countries and certain companies. From being a major exporter, our country was forced to import products, such as garlic, tomatoes, apples, and onions! Is it beautiful to see how our country was set back into the Middle Ages?

You state:  "I write about Bulgaria, because the world is shrouded in complete ignorance of this Balkan jewel." Yet, it is scary to live in this "Balkan jewel", do you not think?

Again, I am writing as a foreigner, describing things as I see them. The contrast between modern farming techniques (John Deere tractors) and the age-old traditions of plowing with a horse is very picturesque, but it's an accurate description based on what I saw during my travels. I cannot say that I know everything about the situation in Bulgarian villages, yet there seems to be a valid question how long they will survive. Living in Sofia I met many young people who had flocked to the big city in search of job opportunities and a better way of life.

In Israel, I was a founding member of a kibbutz at a time when this unique Israeli society had a very strong idealistic base. However, times changed, and the kibbutz changed with the times. Private ownership of property and goods was unheard of in the early kibbutz, yet today, many kibbutz residents own the home in which they live. Does this mean that the kibbutz will not survive? I think it will survive, but it will be different. I wrote about the kibbutz and its changing way of life in my collection of short stories = "The Virtual Kibbutz".

As for my comment that Bulgaria is the "jewel" of the Balkans, I think that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In my eyes, I see the stunning natural beauty of Bulgaria, its picturesque villages, and its colorful history and traditions. This "jewel" will certainly appeal to westerners, both to readers and to tourists. I cannot say that I speak for Bulgarians in my writing, but I would hope that I speak, in some small way, for Bulgaria.

In our often said, with sadness, that the Jews turned the desert into a paradise and we Bulgarians turned paradisiacal land into a desert. The finding, unfortunately, is generally true, but we don't know who is guilty. What do you think?

As an Israeli, I am very proud of my country, however, we have made our share of mistakes along the way. While we did manage to turn the desert green, we also caused some damage. We drained the Hula Lake to provide more land for farming, but recently had to re-flood that lake because of the ecological damage we caused. We extract many valuable minerals from the Dead Sea, a natural wonder, but in the process the lake is evaporating, creating significant damage. And, lastly, Israel has been in a constant war with its neighbors. We have still not come to terms with the Palestinians living under our control nor have we determined how to handle their future.

No country, not Israel or Bulgaria or anywhere else, is perfect. I think it is important for citizens to be fully involved in the democratic process wherever they live, and they must hold their leaders accountable. While day to day life can be challenging, due to economic and other considerations, sometimes you have to look at the bigger picture. You can be proud of your country, even though it is not perfect.

Do you know of one of the wonders of the twentieth century - the rescue of Jews in Bulgaria during the Second World War?

This is something that I knew nothing about before coming to live in Sofia, and it certainly is something which should make all Bulgarians proud, and Jews everywhere very grateful. I try to stress Bulgaria's strong regard for its Jewish citizens in my writing, to make my readers aware of this connection. When I lived in Sofia I felt very secure, both as a Jew, and as an Israeli. Things are never easy for Jews living outside Israel, but in Bulgaria, I felt that I was safe.

Who are you, Mr. Shuman? Tell us about your life.

After living in Israel for over 40 years, I still am very much an American at heart. I read, and write in English, and I speak Hebrew with an American accent. I have raised a family in Israel, and take pride in my children and grandchildren.

Despite having a full-time job, I am a very prolific reader and writer. I write book reviews for The Times of Israel and travel articles for The Huffington Post. I am hard at work on the final edits of my new novel and hope to see it published in the very near future. And finally, I am planning my next visit to Bulgaria. It's about time for me to return.

You can read the full interview in the original Bulgarian.


  1. Yes, friends helped you with the translation. I give credits to my mother which second university degree is Bulgarian. if it wasn't her, I would do a pretty shitty work transalting the interview. Though a Bulgarian, my Bulgarian is odd.

  2. There is something strange in the spirit of the questions, quite a few of our own national prejudices and suspicions toward us and toward the others (the foreigners). One could get the feeling of the lack of understanding of our own problems and of the looking for the answers from foreigners. We have long way to go with the development of our own self-knowledge and self-criticism I guess.