This week I attended my final fiction reading as part of my graduate program and it could not have been a better note to end on. We were pleased to welcome the 2010 winner of our own Miami University Novella contest, Garth Greenwell, for his novella, Mitko.
There are a million things I want to say about this writer, but I don’t want to gush too much. He is originally trained as a poet, though says he hasn’t written a poem in over two years because of his new love for the novella as a form.
If this is how poets write prose, I want more of them to make the switch because this book is quite possibly one of the most stunning works of language I’ve read in a long time.
The story of Mitko revolves around the relationship between an American teacher (the narrator) working abroad in Sophia, Bulgaria and the male prostitute, Mitko. The narrator becomes consumed by Mitko, wanting more than just the transactional encounters he pays for, only to realize that anything he thought he might have with this man was an act, a lie, and that it has simply always been nothing more than a transaction.
The sentences are long and fluid, the words are beautiful and chosen with care, and heard aloud, particularly in Greenwell’s own voice, the auditory appeal of this book is astounding.
We also had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Garth in two classes before the reading. He is an absolute joy to talk to, or really, just listen to. Here comes the gushing, but listening to a brilliant person talk about his life, his art and the country he lives in is fantastic. He told us about his job teaching high school in Bulgaria and how it came about because of his need to feel a little lost after being on the straight line of the academia track for so long. He actually dropped out of his PhD program at Harvard and went off to teach high school, first in Michigan, before deciding to teach abroad. It was only by chance that he landed in Bulgaria, and he has been there now for three years.
He talked about how being surrounded by non-English speakers, never hearing the language, made writing in English a very private experience. Every morning, he says, he gets up at 4:30am and writes until 6am, as it is the only time he has, and writes with a pen on paper, in bed, in his dark apartment, alone.
He also spoke to us about work in translation, about the clashing of traditions, of languages and how all great changes in the world were the result of people reading work in languages, or translated from languages, that were not their own. And now, students don’t feel this need to read in translation as much because we don’t have to. But his advice:
“Read as promiscuously as possible.”
Something about hearing his story, watching him talk and engage us about our craft and our desires, really got to me. Maybe it’s me coming up on my own looming graduation and movement to the next stage of my life, but I think maybe, he might be right about the whole “being lost” thing. And, as he told me when he was signing his book, teaching high school did amazing things for his writing. I wouldn’t mind seeing what all that’s about.
My one regret after this reading, and it was shared by everyone in the program, was that Greenwell wasn’t able to go drinking with us. Instead, he had to leave right away to return to Michigan to do another reading there. It would have been a pleasure to talk with him more.
“Place provides the form that lives will fill.” – Garth Greenwell