Miroslav Penkov Wins BBC International Short Story Award

First Award open to entries from overseas won by Bulgarian-American writer.

“East of the West” by Bulgarian-American writer Miroslav Penkov has won the BBC International Short Story Award 2012. Exploring the personal and political implications of leaving his native Bulgaria, the story focusing on a village separated by a river that leaves Bulgarsko Selo on the Bulgarian side, Srbsko on the Serbian. The narrator works through a painful process liberation in terms which mirror profoundly those experienced by many in throughout country’s past.

“I wanted to write about major moments of Bulgarian history,” Penkov said. “There’s this moment at the end of the 19th century after the end of the final Russian-Turkish war when the Balkans were redistributed and a portion of Bulgarians were separated from Bulgaria for good. I wanted to write about these people and remember them, but I also wanted to write my own life into theirs.”

The £15,000 prize open for one year only to writers from outside the UK and Ireland, was judged by a panel chaired by Clive Anderson. Ross Raisin, a novelist and panel member, commended the story for its “understatedness” and for being “rich in historical detail, and imagery, without over-reaching for these effects.” Other writers shortlisted for the award included previous winner and nominees Julian Gough and M J Hyland, as well as the Man Booker-shortlisted Deborah Levy.

The £2,500 runner-up prize went to Henrietta Rose-Innes, whose story “Sanctuary” offered an ominous glimpse of a missing lion, which intrudes upon a child’s otherwise expansive vision of the South African bush.

Penkov was born in Gabrovo, Bulgaria, in 1982. At 19 he moved to the United States to study Psychology at the University of Arkansas, completing an MFA the following year. He is currently Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Texas and is editor of the American Literary Review.

“I went to the United States to study and so even though it was voluntary I found myself completely separated from the people I loved and the things I loved,” Penkov said, speaking about the emotional and historical compulsion underpinning his story. “I tried to reimagine myself through the eyes of these characters who find themselves on the two banks of a river – half of them staying in Bulgaria, the other half being given to Serbia.”

East of the West was published by Sceptre in 2011. Penkov’s story can be downloaded from the BBC4 website.

"Racho the Blacksmith" by the river in Gabrovo, Penkov's hometown in Bulgaria. Photo: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left