On Monday, author Garth Greenwell will read a section of his debut novel, “What Belongs to You,” at Literati Bookstore. The novel draws from Greenwell’s four years living in Sofia, Bulgaria, where he taught English at a Bulgarian high school. The main narrative of the book describes a relationship between an American man living in Belgium and a young Bulgarian man whom he meets and pays for sex, and how the relationship between the two men develops over the course of a few years.
Broken up into three parts, “Mitka,” “A Grave” and “Pox,” the book also explores the narrator’s childhood growing up in Kentucky, where, in the early 1990’s, people felt as though their lives had no dignity if they admitted to being queer.
“The structure of the book came from thinking about what it means to be a queer person in places like these,” Greenwell said in an interview with The Michigan Daily.
All of the information that the reader learns about the narrator of the novel, who is never named, lines up with Greenwell’s personal autobiography.
“That’s the kind of game the book is playing,” Greenwell said. “It wants to explore the blurred space between fiction and autobiography.”
Greenwell wrote this book over three years while in Bulgaria, waking up at 4:30 a.m. (two hours before he was to teach) and writing by hand in a notebook.
“It was the most private experience of my life,” he said. “To have this very private thing become public has been bizarre. It’s not quite like a journal, because I was thinking of it as art, but a very private kind of art. But it is similar in the sense that I really did feel like I was writing entirely without an audience, and therefore able to say and explore anything I wanted.”
Greenwell said that it was moving to see his book placed in a category of books and writers — such as James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room” and Edmund White’s “A Boy’s Own Story” — that saved his life when he was a 16-year-old boy in Kentucky struggling with being queer.
“Those books told me my life had dignity,” he said. “And in Bulgaria, that is still the case, that gay people are told one thing about their life: their lives have no dignity and no value. I wanted to write a book that gave those lives dignity and that recognized the value that those lives and communities have.”
“What Belongs to You” has been incredibly well received, with The New York Times regarding it as “an instant classic,” and Publishers Weekly claiming that “it’s the first great novel of 2016.”
“It’s a surreal experience. The response is beyond anything I could have imagined or hoped for,” Greenwell said. “Shocked and bewildered is kind of what I feel.”
Greenwell is looking forward to returning to Ann Arbor, where he taught for three years, and reading at Literati, a place he comes every time he is in town.
“It’s so wonderful to meet readers and get to talk to them,” he said. “I’m so excited to come back to Ann Arbor.”