“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.