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.”