Garth Green­well

GT (UK) - - CONTENTS - What Be­longs to You is out now, pub­lished by Pi­cador, @garth­green­well

First-time nov­el­ist Garth Green­well comes with the high­est seal of ap­proval. The ven­er­a­ble Ed­mund White has called his book a mas­ter­piece. “And it ab­so­lutely doesn’t get any bet­ter than that,” says Garth, who makes Be­longs to You. “With­out Ed­mund White, what would gay lit­er­a­ture look like and what would Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture look like? He’s an ab­so­lute hero and in­spi­ra­tion.”

The 38-year-old teacher has been pen­ning po­etry for two decades and his novella Mitko came out in 2010. Since ex­pand­ing the novella the lit­er­ary spot­light, earn­ing the praise of crit­ics and fel­low au­thors. “I’ve been a writer for 20 years but, un­til now, I’ve been en­tirely in­vis­i­ble,” says Garth in the midst of a pro­mo­tional tour for the book, “so to get to meet peo­ple who’ve read my book and have a re­sponse to it is just sur­real.”

The book is all about an un­named Amer­i­can teacher fall­ing for a young hustler in Bul­garia and it’s bril­liant. It was in­spired by the time Garth spent as a teacher in a Bul­gar­ian school and his en­coun­ters with the gay com­mu­nity in a very con­ser­va­tive so­ci­ety. “I’d never been in Eastern Europe be­fore and had never lived abroad be­fore,” re­calls Garth, who was born in Ken­tucky and stud­ied in Michi­gan. “It was this weird feel­ing of strange­ness and for­eign­ness punc­tu­ated by mo­ments of fa­mil­iar­ity as I met gay men and lis­tened to them tell their sto­ries.”

As an English teacher at the Amer­i­can school in the Bul­gar­ian cap­i­tal, the ed­u­ca­tor day there, which was eas­ier be­cause he was Amer­i­can. There were also gay Bul­gar­ian teach­ers at the school but they told Garth

“But I had this great pro­tec­tion and priv­i­lege be­cause I was a for­eigner. Stu­dents who knew they were queer or thought they might be would come and talk to me. They’d say, ‘I want to come out,’ and we’d have a con­ver­sa­tion that I wish an adult would’ve had with me when I came out at age 14. They’d ask, ‘Will it be safe?’ and al­most with­out ex­cep­tion they came to the con­clu­sion that it’d be bet­ter and safer if they waited un­til they left Bul­garia to go to univer­sity.”

in­spi­ra­tion for the novella and novel. Hav­ing wan­der­ing around when he stum­bled upon the bath­rooms at the Na­tional Palace of Cul­ture – which is where his un­named nar­ra­tor meets the be­guil­ing Mitko.

Garth de­scended the stairs. “And I knew im­me­di­ately what it was,” he says of one of the cap­i­tal’s chief cruis­ing grounds. “I could barely speak Bul­gar­ian and was con­stantly mak­ing so­cial faux pas, but here I was the non-ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion of cruis­ing was ex­actly the same as the non-ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion of cruis­ing in Ken­tucky, source of shame, but also a source of joy.”

Shame, he ex­plains, is one of the novel’s dom­i­nant notes, namely the shame that comes from many of us be­ing taught as chil­dren that our lives lack dig­nity and value. These are, he agrees, more en­light­ened times than when he came out in Louisville in the early 90s.

He’s pro gay mar­riage, of course. “But we shouldn’t erase things like cruis­ing bath­rooms and parks,” Garth says. “Nor should we ac­cept or im­pos­si­ble to talk about shame.”

came out to his fa­ther. “And he said that if he’d known I was go­ing to be a fag­got, I’d not have been born. He put into words the les­son the en­tire cul­ture taught gay peo­ple at the time and it’s a les­son that, in most of the world – ex­cept for ex­tremely priv­i­leged com­mu­ni­ties – the cul­ture still teaches queer peo­ple.”

The nar­ra­tor in What Be­longs to You is based on Garth, to some ex­tent, but there’s life story. Nor does it ad­dress his painful ex­pe­ri­ences of com­ing out. “It was ter­ri­ble and, as I say, I wish there’d been an adult to tell me to wait,” re­calls the son of di­vorced par­ents, who went to live with his mother af­ter his fa­ther kicked him out of the house.

Join­ing a choir class proved to be his sal­va­tion, since the teacher helped him get into a spe­cial board­ing school for the arts in Detroit. “I don’t think I would’ve sur­vived had I stayed in Louisville. It was such a bru­tal place to be a queer kid. In my math class, there was a kid who sat be­hind me and – for the en­tire hour, ev­ery day – he’d whis­per ‘fag­got’ again and again.”

It was around the time of his grad­u­a­tion that Garth be­gan writ­ing po­etry. He went on to gain a BA in lit­er­a­ture and be­gan a PhD at Har­vard, took time out to teach at a high school in Michi­gan and opted for the job in Bul­garia he wrote Mitko and ex­panded it into What Be­longs to You. It was a four-year process, with Garth get­ting up early ev­ery morn­ing to write be­fore head­ing to his teach­ing job.

He’s now back in the US, liv­ing in Iowa City, and his labour of love sees him be­ing com­pared to James Bald­win and the afore­men­tioned Ed­mund White, whose books Gio­vanni’s Room and A Boy’s Own Story he dis­cov­ered as a teenager.

“Those books saved my life,” says Garth, who has pressed his pub­lish­ers to trans­late What Be­longs to You into Bul­gar­ian and pub­lish it there. “In Bul­garia, there’s no LGBT lit­er­a­ture,” he says, adding that he be­lieves the sit­u­a­tion for young gays over there is chang­ing for the bet­ter.

heart­ened to see there were two boys at a read­ing hold­ing hands. “They were hold­ing hands and they were not ha­rassed,” Garth mar­vels. “And I al­most burst into tears be­cause that would’ve been unimag­in­able in my time there.”

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