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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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.