"Why do you want to write about us?" my newish Bulgarian friend asks me, smiling a bemused smile as she takes a sip of coffee.
Though it's a legitimate question, and though I'm prepared for it, I'm immediately uncomfortable, on my back foot, searching for the words to explain my motives – to her and to myself.
Why do I—a privileged, [arguably] well-educated woman from the west, a foreigner who can only just wish someone a happy birthday and order a salad in this country—want to write about Bulgaria?
"Yes," I say, "Well." I take a long breath, stalling, gathering. I've never been good at elevator pitches.
Because I'm married to a half-Bulgarian man?
Because this country used to be a place I endured—toilets and all—out of love for my husband?
Because the ways Bulgarians think, the ways they survive, the ways they relate, the ways they are political or apolitical, confuse/surprise/fascinate me?
Because now, after ten-plus years of traveling back and forth between Berlin and the Balkans, I can't imagine a life without Bulgaria?
"Okay," says my friend, "Sure." She pushes the cup and saucer to the side. "But what's the story?"
I tell her some version of the following: The story takes place in Bulgaria in 2013, when rising electricity prices triggered a wave of mass protests around the country, as well as a wave of self-immolations. While the setting of the book is factual, my two main characters—a Bulgarian goat cheesemaker and a former Peace Corps volunteer turned professional cook—are fictional.
My friend looks skeptical.
I know I'm an outsider, I say. I know I've got to be careful about misrepresenting a country I'm not from. I know I have to come clean about my frames of reference. I know I must improve my Bulgarian. I know I need to do research—lots of research.
Ergo this blog, where I'll chronicle my research experiences in Bulgaria and among the Bulgarian diaspora, parsing these experiences to inform my novel.
The intention: to immerse myself, to listen, to remain aware of my filters and my ignorance.
The hope: to deepen my understanding, to learn from experience, to find the wherewithal to tell a credible and compelling story.
In the words of the great Katherine Boo, I will try "to compensate for my limitations the same way I do in unfamiliar American territory: by time spent and attention paid."