Demetra Duleva: I come back to leave again

You need a reference point in your coordinate system to be able to measure the length of your life's journey

Leaving Bulgaria is not just a desire to get out of poverty and earn more money. It is something much more fundamental, which is obviously so significant that most of the emigrants are willing to pay a very high price to have it, Demetra Duleva says in an interview to EUROPOST.

Mrs Duleva, what inspired you to write the novel Wandering Albatross?

This is my first novel. I thought it would make sense if I tell the story about my generation - the people who were born during the socialist era. We experienced both the transition to democracy and the economic emigration. A generation whose life was split into two parts, “before the changes and after them”, and “those who stayed in Bulgaria and those who left abroad” - these are two spiritually traumatic ruptures that have yet to be told and analysed. We need this reappraisal in order to better understand, through our past experience, why we are the people that we are now and what future we are capable of building.

Are there any autobiographical elements in your novel?

I am related with the main character, Gabriella, in geographical terms (as I've lived in the same towns as her), and philosophically as well - in terms of her search to find and preserve herself. However, Gabriella's life is not mine as she is a fictional character. I identify with Gabriella as much as anyone of us can identify with her. It is not so important whether these separate events are autobiographical or fiction, but what was generally experienced by our generation as a whole - the shared feeling of the irreversible collapse of a fake system, a state which was falling into a coma, the impossibility of being yourself and finding your place in that ugly and immoral world, the compulsion to leave and to start from scratch. To some extent, Gabriella is the unifying character of a whole generation.

Why do young people from Eastern Europe prefer the hardships and deprivations of the emigrants' life to “vegetating” in their homelands, according to you?

Everyone has a different answer. I would rather say: Because of the different scale. I think that a similar opinion was voiced in the short public debate around Christo's death, with the main question being: Were Christo's grand artistic projects possible in Bulgaria? Why is it that he became a world-famous artist only after leaving Bulgaria? I would add even more questions: Is a visionary like Elon Musk possible in Bulgaria? How many people dream of the impossible and how to make it possible?

Isn't the price that emigrants have to pay for settling in Western Europe too high?

Leaving Bulgaria should be examined more deeply. It is not just a desire to get out of poverty and earn more money. It is something much more fundamental, which is obviously so important that most emigrants are willing to pay a very high price to have it.

Which feeling of loneliness hits harder - to be alone among foreigners or to be alone among your own people?

Loneliness is a hard feeling in itself. In my novel it accompanies Gabriella everywhere: among foreigners and among her own people. Loneliness is not just a physical condition, but a spiritual and emotional one. When you live in an environment which rejects you for some reason, either because you are a foreigner or because you cannot connect with other people due to differences in your understanding of morality, freedom or justice, you remain alone, and this is always a painful feeling. If you are not resistant enough, you may not be able to withstand the pressure and the environment may overwhelm you. Gabriella turns out to be extremely strong, and regardless of the circumstances in which she finds herself, she manages to survive.

Have you yourself been discriminated against, simply because you are coming from Eastern Europe?

Yes, many times passively, less frequently - directly, but the “hidden” discrimination is more dreadful because it cannot be proved. I felt it most heavily years ago when I was looking for a school for my children in Brussels. They rejected us everywhere, with the argument that there were no available places, but I knew they were saying so only because we come from Bulgaria. They were afraid of us. My children can tell more about it, because they experienced it later in school, where initially they were isolated from the group. The others accepted them only after they achieved excellent results at the end of the school year. My children were not only the best in their class, but they showed overwhelmingly better results than the others did. This seems to be the most powerful way to resist discrimination and one of the few formulas for integration - in order to be accepted, you must not be just smart, hardworking and successful, but you must be the best.

We, the Bulgarians, are not so tolerant of those that are different. So, how can we ask from others to accept us without any reservation?

This is exactly one of the paradoxes, which I often reflect on, and I cannot explain it myself. How a nation that has two million emigrants already - literally we have a second Bulgaria living abroad - continues to be so intolerant of “the other”. Such a behaviour is not inherent only for people who remained in Bulgaria. On the contrary, I can see it among Bulgarians abroad, who know from bitter experience what rejection feels like, but this does not prevent them from speaking aggressively, almost viciously, about blacks, Arabs, or gay people.

When people live in a foreign country, they must comply with its rules, laws, customs and culture. However, many emigrants believe that others should comply with them. Many of them are afraid of losing their identity. Where do you think the middle ground is?

Generally, I am one of those people who believes that travelling and living in a foreign country can only enrich you, and in that sense, not only it does not deprive you of your national identity but complements it as well. Europe is bigger than the homeland, the world is bigger than Europe, so there should be no borders. Wherever I go, I try my best to immerse myself in the new rules, behaviour and culture, and would even proudly call myself a little bit Italian, Belgian or French, but that does not make me less Bulgarian. I will always remain Bulgarian and that is why I have chosen to write my books in Bulgarian, although I could do it in another language. The topics that interest me are those that I experienced together with my classmates, friends and relatives. And Bulgarian is the language that can best express that. I think that this sense of “a common memory and destiny” is vital for any writer.

You have lived in four different countries, where do you feel at home?

You touch on a very sensitive issue. When you are so frequently on the move, changing your town, country, and especially your house (I have moved more than twenty times), you start to wonder where “at home” is. On the other hand, such are the times of this new millennium - “mobile”. We grew up in a closed society, where we were taught that the only way to be happy is to create a home and a family. Today, there are many more life choices and they are immeasurably more flexible. It is much easier for people now to change their home and job, even their country or partners, there is no such anchoring in the same place. Globalisation, especially before the coronavirus pandemic, made our world accessible, our planet small, we dream already of landing on Mars and colonising the Moon.

But, to answer to your question, there is a place where I feel at home. That place is Sofia, Bulgaria's capital, with its beautiful view of the tender silhouette of the Vitosha Mountain. Wherever I go, no matter how many years I stay abroad, I always come back. Only to leave again. You needs a reference point in your coordinate system to be able to measure the length of your life's journey.

Close-up

Demetra Duleva lives at high speed between Bulgaria and abroad. She moves frequently but always returns to Sofia, her hometown. She graduated with a degree in Modern Languages (Italian and English) from the University of Sofia and later specialised in Comparative Linguistics at the University of Rome II. Her career began as a freelance translator before joining the diplomatic service of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria. Her first mission was in Brussels, at the Permanent Representation of Bulgaria to the European Union. Currently, she lives in Paris where she works as a Bulgarian diplomat.

The novel Wandering Albatross (2019) is her first book.

Similar articles