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Harriman Talks: Q&A With Georgi Gospodinov
September 25, 2023

Each academic year we host hundreds of interdisciplinary events with regional experts and members of the Harriman community discussing a range of issues on Eurasia, and Eastern Europe.

In a new web and print feature, Harriman Talks, Harriman Magazine follows up with some of those speakers about ideas or experiences discussed at the Institute. In the first installment, 2022 Writer in Residence Georgi Gospodinov describes what happened when he was honored with 2023 International Booker Prize several months after his Harriman residency.

 “People in Bulgaria are rarely united by joy—it happens much more often with negative feelings—but this time, at least for a week, we shared in each other’s joy.”

 —Georgi Gospodinov, 2023 International Booker Prize winner

When Harriman Director Valentina Izmirlieva reached out to Georgi Gospodinov, Harriman’s 2022 Writer in Residence, to congratulate him on being the first Bulgarian author honored with the International Booker Prize, he shared with her the “incredible” response in his homeland (which is also Izmirlieva’s homeland). Gospodinov’s novel Time Shelter was the first Bulgarian book ever to receive a Booker nomination, and when it won, it became an instant sensation.

“Our winner is a brilliant novel,” International Booker Prize Chairperson Leila Slimani said in announcing the award for Time Shelter in May 2023. “It is a novel that invites reflection and vigilance as much as it moves us, because the language—sensitive and precise—manages to capture, in the Proustian vein, the fragility of the past.”

Time Shelter’s English translation, by Angela Rodel, appeared only months before Gospodinov arrived at Harriman in September 2022. That fall, more than half a year before the Booker recognition, the New York Public Library hosted Gospodinov and Izmirlieva to discuss Time Shelter at the opening event of the library’s literary season. The author and the Harriman director spoke about it again at a public event in the Harriman Atrium during Gospodinov’s residency.

Months later, Izmirlieva reached out via email to ask Gospodinov how the Booker award had affected him and his global audiences.

Valentina Izmirlieva: Congratulations, Georgi! Your triumphant journey to the Booker was a source of much suspense and jubilation for your friends at the Harriman Institute. I can only imagine how overwhelming the entire experience must have been for you. What surprised you most during those strange and exciting days following the announcement of the award?

Georgi Gospodinov: I was struck by how many people stayed up to watch the Booker ceremony live, even though most of them have nothing to do with literature. It happened a little before midnight Bulgarian time, on the eve of Bulgaria’s most beautiful holiday—the Day of Slavic Letters, May 24. So many people, both at home and abroad, getting excited about a book award, about literature—isn’t that incredible? Three days later I had a signing at a book fair in Sofia. The line was four hours long. People kept coming to tell me stories, to weep and laugh together. Their excitement was the most exciting thing for me during the truly strange days following the award.

VI: The Man Booker International Prize was established in 2005 with an inaugural award to the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, and two more writers from “the Harriman part of Europe” have gotten the distinction before you: [Hungarian novelist] László Krasznahorkai (another Harriman Writer in Residence) in 2015, and [Polish writer] Olga Tokarczuk in 2018. Can we talk about a reorganization of the international literary space, with the former “other Europe” becoming increasingly more visible and influential worldwide?  

GG: I think so. European literary critics have finally begun to take literature coming from Central and Eastern Europe seriously. It had been undervalued for quite a while, played down as merely local, peripheral, or exotic. What I have always aspired to do with my own work is prove that so-called small or peripheral languages and literatures can also speak about big things, about the world’s sorrows and crises. And in recent years, when we feel the center of Europe is the place where things hurt the most—in the East—East European literature can give us even more.