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 Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Where are the moderate Tories condemning Zac Goldsmith’s campaign?

Conservative MPs are reluctant to criticise the London mayoral candidate’s dogwhistle rhetoric.

Very few Conservative politicians have criticised Zac Goldsmith’s campaign to be elected London mayor. And, amid repeated accusations of racial profiling, Islamophobic undertones, and patronising London’s Indian communities, there has been plenty to criticise.

Ever since describing his rival, Sadiq Khan, as having “radical politics” at the end of last year, Goldsmith’s campaign has come under fire for attempting to sound a dogwhistle to voters for whom racial politics – and divisions – are a priority.

You may feel it’s naïve of me to expect Tory MPs to join in the criticism. Presumably most Tory MPs want their party’s candidate to win the mayoralty. So it is unlikely that they would condemn his methods.

But I’d argue that, in this case, we can’t excuse dodged questions and studied silence as good clean tribalism. Granted, Conservatives only want to see their party make electoral gains. And that is understandable. But trickier to explain away is how willing all of the party’s MPs – many of whom are as moderate and “cotton-wool Tory” (in the words of one Labour adviser) as we once assumed Goldsmith was – are to ignore the campaign’s nastier side.

Why aren’t the Cameroons (or neo-Cameroons) who wish to further “detoxify” the party speaking out? There are plenty of them. There is more enthusiasm on the Tory benches for David Cameron than is generally assumed. Many of the 2015 intake are grateful to him; those in marginal seats in particular see him as the reason they won last year. And in spite of the grumbling nature of the 2010-ers, a number of them are keener than appears on Cameron. After all, plenty wouldn’t be in parliament without his A-list and open primaries (a time when the party was supposed to be opening up to candidates of different backgrounds, something Goldsmith’s rhetoric could threaten).

And we know it’s not just Labour whining about Goldsmith’s campaign. It makes Tories uncomfortable too. For example, the Conservative Group Leader at Watford Council Binita Mehta, former Conservative candidate Shazia Awan, and Tory peer and former minister Sayeeda Warsi have spoken out.

And it’s not just non-MPs who are riled by Goldsmith’s rhetoric. Behind the scenes, Conservative MPs have been muttering for weeks about feeling uncomfortable about the campaign.

“There has been a sense that this is a bad dogwhistle, and it’s a bit of a smear,” one Tory MP tells me. “I don’t think Sadiq Khan’s a bad man at all – I think his problem is, which happens to all politicians, is some of the platforms in the past and the people he shared them with, and maybe he didn’t know – I mean, the number of times David Cameron or Gordon Brown or Tony Blair were shown at some fundraising thing, or just visiting somewhere, shaking hands with somebody who turns out to be a crook; that’s the nature of mass politics.”

There is also a mixed view among London’s Tory MPs about the tone of Goldsmith’s campaign generally. Some, who were frustrated in the beginning by his “laidback, slightly disengaged” style, are simply pleased that he finally decided to play dirty with the more energetic Khan. Others saw his initial lighter touch as an asset, and lament that he is trying to emulate Boris Johnson by being outrageous – but, unlike the current London mayor, doesn’t have the personality to get away with it.

One Tory MP describes it as a “cold, Lynton Crosby calculation of the dogwhistle variety”, and reveals that, a couple of weeks ago, there was a sense among some that it was “too much” and had “gone too far and is counterproductive”.

But this sense has apparently dissipated. Since Labour’s antisemitism crisis unfolded last week, moderate Conservative MPs feel more comfortable keeping their mouths shut about Goldsmith’s campaign. This is because racism in Labour has been exposed, even if Khan is not involved. Ironic really, considering they were (rightly) so quick to condemn Ken Livingstone’s comments and call on Jeremy Corbyn and Labour MPs to speak out against such sentiments. It’s worth noting that Labour’s moderates have been significantly less reluctant than their Tory counterparts to call out such problems in their own party.

There is also the EU referendum to consider. Tory MPs see division and infighting ahead, and don’t want to war more than is necessary. One source close to a Tory MP tells me: “[Goldsmith’s campaign] is uncomfortable for all of us – it’s not even considered a Conservative campaign, it’s considered a Zac Goldsmith campaign. But [we can’t complain because] we have to concentrate on Europe.”

So it makes sense politically, in the short term, for Tory moderates to keep quiet. But I expect they know that they have shirked a moral duty to call out such nasty campaign methods. Their calls for Labour’s response to antisemitism, and David Cameron’s outrage about Jeremy Corbyn’s “friends” in Hamas and Hezbollah, are simply hollow attack lines if they can’t hold their own party to higher standards.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.