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Women and the Canon: the Measure which Is Not One

January 16, 2013 by · No comments

Milena Kirova, Ph.D.

 Dora Gabe, Josip Vidmar, Bagrjana. Budimpešta, 1932
Photo: “Bagryana and Slovenia”

Translated from Bulgarian by Ralitsa Muharska

Bulgarian literary history is a well developed scholarly area with traditions going back to the late 19th century. What it still lacks, though, is a comprehensive systematic History of women’s literature.

Of course, one could easily claim that the work of women writers has been subject to study in a thematic variety of non-gender-based studies. A statement like this would also be true, albeit with limitations and provisions. Bulgarian literary history has always been condescending, not to mention straightforwardly cruel, to all authors and phenomena outside the scope of concepts like “high” and “important”, i. e. canonic literature; we could call it a history of “generals”.

As for the presence of women writers in the canon – it could be counted with the fingers of one hand. No wonder, then, that all written literary histories only make scarce and fragmentary mentioning of women’s work, limiting their observations to a few writers (for example Elisaveta Bagryana, Dora Gabe, Vera Mutafchieva, Blaga Dimitrova) mobilized in such a manner as to fill the gaps of an utterly male-constructed canon.

Worse than that, there is no awareness whatsoever that it is possible for women to present themes of specific concern for themselves, or that they are capable of giving alternative interpretations to “common” themes. This lack has prevented the writing of such histories, organized around particular issues, where the role and place of women would dominate in spite of their exclusion from the canon.

An earlier version of the present essay served as an introduction to the first critical collection exclusively dedicated to Bulgarian women’s literature from the National Revival to World War I (Kirova 2009). What it aims at is not so much the mentioning of all authors and phenomena in the field of women’s writing from that period, as pointing out the main directions in that literature’s development – in accordance with or in contradiction to – the Bulgarian literary canon.

It argues that women writers have always been active and important participants in the making of the national literature; it proves that their contribution was far from insignificant (but had remained unnoticed up to this point) in most historical trends and schools between the National Revival and World War I. The study also aims at locating and formulating themes and problems that characterized women’s ways of thinking, which was why they stayed invisible in critical work traditionally allotting secondary positions to women writers. It is methodologically grounded in contemporary women’s studies, but is dominated by a more global strategy of questioning established critical claims and practices, which entails attempts to discover and formulate different links and relations in Bulgarian literary history.

Flashback to the distant year 1875. A Bulgarian woman living in the Romanian town of Tulcea proposed a collection of her poetry to be published by the Promishlenie Printing Society. The Society discussed her letter at a special gathering and assiduously made a record of the fact: “Pursuant to a discussion of her proposal, a decision was made to respond to said lady that printing books of this kind is not included in the Society’s programme, therefore the Society does not accept the book for printing.” (TILEVA, 1985:367).

So it turned out it was the very principles of enlightened reason – or Promishlenie in Bulgarian – that prevented the first Bulgarian book written by a woman from becoming a fact of the period of National Liberation from Turkish domination. If that had happened we would now have a verse collection of about 100 pages almost contemporaneous with the poetic classic Izvorut na Belonogata, which could have spared me having to play detective in the periodicals of that time hoping to salvage a woman’s poem. The name of the author who dared to make a request to the masculine Promishlenie was Karamfila Stefanova(1).

/1. Karamfila Stefanova was a Bulgarian woman poet from the second half of the 19th century, of whom practically no biographical information has been found, which was why some scholars claimed that wa a man’s pseudonym. In the 1870s she published in the periodical press articles and poems with an emphatically female problematic and were directly targeted at women in Bulgaria. Here I present her case the way it was presented in a very convincing manner by prof. Ivan Radev Радев (RADEV 2009: 77-89)./

Still, even if we just put together the scattered creative achievements of our first women authors – Stanka Nikolitsa Spaso-Elenina, Elena Muteva, Karamfila Stefanova, Irina Exarch, Irina Bachokirova – we will have enough material to formulate the earliest tendencies in the relations between women’s writing and the Bulgarian literary canon.

Women’s earliest literary efforts were recorded in the public domain around the middle of the 19th century. Which is actually the time when men, too, made their first steps in the literature of our National Revival. The earliest work by women was in the area of translation: plays, instructive biographies, fables, odes, tales… The task quite consciously perceived as one of foremost significance for “women’s writing” at that moment was to depart from the “dark continent” of female anonymity, to provide a voice for the female presence in the community, to gain the right to publicity.

A prevalent strategy at that early stage was imitation, or as Katya Staneva called it, “imitation as a practice of itself” (STANEVA 2009: 48). The first Bulgarian women writers found themselves in a position of double imitation, with the grand canon of European models on one side and the little homey familiar canon of the male attempts at cultural construction on the other.

The fact that this position was twice subaltern did not bother them at least, nor did it give them reason to protest or hesitate. What was more, the early women’s literature found certain snugness in imitating anyone deemed worthy of it. In conditions like these one could hardly expect an idea of difference, specificity, or originality to appear on the agenda.

Women’s literature in Bulgaria began as a modest claim to the right of existence. Any idea of competition, of imposition of women’s own voices or models was out of the question. The woman writer of the Bulgarian National Revival did not have the historical chance to be aware of her otherness and to strive for a manner of writing different from an already set tradition.

What she wanted instead was rather to be “the same”, to be “like a man”, for that meant being entitled to a voice in the ongoing big debate about the collective values, which stood center stage in the cultural life of the epoch. As for imitation as an attempted way of “practicing oneself”, one could say that was what the entire Bulgarian literature from the 1850s and 60s was doing.

Or, in other words, at that time imitation was not a “female” way of coping with cultural backwardness, it was a generally accepted, male-female – that is, national – practice. Still, if one insists on considering it in terms of “the feminine”, emphasizing on such meanings as secondary, dependent, inauthentic, one would have to claim that all Bulgarian literature from those decades was “feminine” in character.

Poetry written by women appeared a little later, in the 1870s. Here we need to recall once more the rejected poetry collection of K. Stefanova alongside with the unpublished translations of novels and plays by other women writers.

Nevertheless, K. Stefanova, the only woman who had no male back-up – from a husband, brother or cousin – left the exceptionally lively spirited poem, entitled „Българка съм!” (I am a Bulgarian woman!), which could be called a manifesto of female identity as collective sense of belonging to its own time. It clearly demonstrates what the emancipatory project of female creativity looked like during the National Revival: a struggle for the right to women’s own voice, which was completely embedded within the ideological, thematic and poetic boundaries of the newly sprouted and still very precarious literary canon.

Yet there is something that makes possible a discussion of specific accents in the writing of Bulgarian women from that period. That ‘something’ amazes with its very presence at such an early point: decades would have to pass after the Liberation before it could be traced again. It was noticeable even in the early 1850s, in an often quoted verse by Stanka Nikolitsa, where she explained to her readership the purpose of her translation of „Две приказки за славните жени и за Аза человекомраза” (Two stories of glorious women and Self Human-hater):

Малка книжка за жените,
дето им разказва бодро
да се пазят от злините
и да се отнасят мъдро.

Not to the entire readership, though. This quatrain is unequivocally addressed to its female part; it caters for the moral uplift of Bulgarian women. The same can be said of all translations by women writers from the National Revival. They choose from foreign literary traditions mainly literary works that had a woman as their protagonist or focused in their plots on the dramatic vicissitudes of female experience.

Using the language of the time, one could say that the earliest Bulgarian women writers were dedicated to the idea of female virtues and the ways they could be endangered, lost or preserved.

The tendency could be said to have culminated in K. Stefanova’s poem mentioned above. It is clearly addressed to all other women in their capacity to be spiritual sisters to the central character:

Докато аз живея
Деня, нощя секи час
С радост всегда ще да пея,
Сестри: „Българка съм аз!”
И на последния мой час,
Кат ми са строши лира,
Ще надам гръмовити глас:
Че Българка умира!

One could generalize that in wishing to belong to the canon, the women writers during the Bulgarian National Revival expressed the marked tendency to use the literary text as an appeal for national awakening and consciousness-raising. Alongside with that, however, they were concerned first and foremost about women’s awakening and awareness, they demonstrated a sense of belonging to their own sex and a strong “sisterly” collectivism.

The first book written by a woman came out in 1890. That was the verse collection Bulgarka (A Bulgarian Woman) by Irina Bachokirova, the daughter and wife of outstanding revolutionaries from the National Revival. It provided the link between the collective identity of the author (the model referred to as ‘one Bulgarian woman’) and the sprouts of a modern representation of feelings and moods that would gain ground in the first decade of the new century with the poetry collections of Dora Gabe and Ekaterina Nencheva.

According to the canon, which even at this early stage began to make connections between “women’s writing” and the lyrical outpour of “sincere” feelings, it is in this temporal slot (between the Liberation and the first decade of the 20th century) that almost all public expression of female creativity falls. However, in reality there were many things that happened.

Ekaterina Karavelova’s(2) satirical pieces started coming out in the „Търновска конституция” newspaper. Throughout an entire decade, until the appearance of the remarkable publicist Aleko Konstantinov, they offered the most powerful satire on political life in the country. It was about one of them, which ridiculed the then chairman of the National Assembly, that the well known modernist Pencho Slaveykov(3) wrote: “Only two of the countless Bulgarian feuilletons written before Aleko’s will stay in our memory much longer: „Политическа зима” by Hristo Botev and „Нов Мемиша-а-а” by Ekaterina Karavelova.”

/2. Ekaterina Velikova Peneva-Karavelova (1868-1947): an activist and publicist, wife of Petko Karavelov – three-times prime-minister of Bulgaria between 1885 and 1903. President of the “Mother” Women’s Society, the Bulgarian Women’s Union, the Bulgarian section of the International Women’s League for Peace and Freedom. A highly educated woman who grew up and received her education in Russia; a woman of remarkable character and strength./

/3. Pencho Petkov Slaveykov (1866-1912): a poet educated in Germany, the first modernist in Bulgarian literature, a founder of the „Мисъл” circle, which struggled for Europeanization and modernization of Bulgarian culture./

Though the sternness of his judgment was proverbial, Pencho Slaveykov failed to estimate correctly the strategy of the Bulgarian canon: while „Политическа зима” can still be found in today’s textbooks, Karavelova’s feuilleton never made it there and left with suspicious alacrity both the memory of its contemporaries and that of generations to come.

In 1894 Vela Blagoeva(4) published the novella „Царица Теодора”. Thirteen years before Ivan Vazov, the Patriarch of Bulgarian literature wrote his novel „Иван Александър” she introduced the Bulgarian reader to the 14th century, rife with dramatic conflict between love and power in the lives of the last Bulgarian kings. And even at such an early point center stage in the plot there was a woman.

/4. Vela Atanasova Zhivkova-Blagoeva (1858-1921): founder of the women’s socialist movement in Bulgaria, publisher of magazines, writer and publicist. Wife of Dimitar Blagoev (1856-1924): politician and philosopher, founder of the organized socialist movement in Bulgaria and the first socialist party on the Balkans. /

In contradiction with all the historical authorities of her time, the author claimed that Sarah, the Jewish queen, was not a traitor, nor was she politically involved in Bulgaria’s fall under Ottoman power but was rather a victim of historical circumstance. It would not be until 60 years later that the reputed writer and historian Vera Mutafchieva came up with the same thesis, long forgotten in Vela Blagoeva’s interpretation.

Blagoeva was also one of the first journal editors in Bulgaria: even before the Unification she was editor in chief of „Съвременний показател” and in 1895 – the publisher of her own magazine „Дело”, where many of the most significant names at the time got published.

In 1897 Anna Karima’s(5) story „Али-беговица” came out. Regardless of their negative attitude to the writer later, at this early point it was the “modern souls” from the „Мисъл” magazine that recognized in the story “their own” theme and their own rebellion against tradition and old ways of thinking. (That text was an early manifestation of the Bulgarian-woman-loves-Turkish-man motif, a very provocative one for its time. )

/5. Anna Karima, pseudonym of Anna Todorova Velkova (1871-1949): a pioneer of the feminist movement in Bulgaria, founder of the first school of commerce for women, of the Bulgarian Women’s Union (1901) and of the Equality Union (1908), newspaper and magazine editor, writer, author of many plays, novels and short story collections./

P. Todorov(6) gave two public lectures about that story, the topic of which would later be revived in his own story „Мечкар”.

/6. P. Todorov gave two public lectures on this story, the theme of which he would himself revive a little later in his own piece entitled „Мечкар”./

The skeptic Pencho Slaveykov, who was even more skeptic when it came to women, expressed the hope that “Karima will become carissima for the Bulgarian readers”. Dr. Kristev, the editor in chief of the magazine, stated in his typical categorical manner: “A great plot but clumsy development.” Actually Anna Velkova-Karima became editor in chief of a magazine published in the capital (Ден, 1891) several years before he himself made his first steps as the editor of „Мисъл”.

In 1898, only 2 years after the first Bulgarian novel, „Под игото”, was published, Vela Blagoeva wrote the novel „Процес”. Though not exactly a paragon of artistic merit, it was the first political novel in Bulgarian literature, with a plot based on an actual court case against D. Blagoev “for an insult to the monarch’. I believe the necessity is already noticeable to correct a certain prejudice which claims women writers were slow to master the genre variety in Bulgarian literature before World War I.

More facts can be added to refute that prejudice. In 1906 the first collection of short stories by a woman writer came out: „Из живота” by E. Mars(7).

/7. Evgenia Mars was the pseudonym of Evgenia Boncheva Elmazova (1877-1945): writer and lady of fashion known for having inspired Ivan Vazov, active member of the Club of Bulgarian Women Writers, president of the Bulgarian Women’s Union for Education and Culture, author of short stories, plays and a novella./

The following year E. Mars was also the first to make her debut in the travelogue genre with „Разходка из Цариград”, and starting in 1912 her plays were staged at the National Theatre (two were also staged abroad). Though few in number, women writers showed a clear interest in exploring all genres established at the time.

However, the answer to the question whether women experimented is not so clear and straightforward. If by experiment we mean attempts to discover new issues and thematic areas within the boundaries of an already established system of genre practices, the answer will be moderately positive. V. Blagoeva’s „Процес” was an example in point, and in the interwar years Karima produced two surprisingly unusual – and downright modern – interpretations of traditional plot motifs in traditional genre frameworks.

Going back to the long hackneyed figure of the woman guerilla fighter the author expressed the insightful idea that the Bulgarian national revival knew no greater bulwark of the patriarchal status quo, and of male domination in it in particular, than… women themselves (an idea that takes us to the psycho-analytical concept of identification with the aggressor or to the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu).

Her 1924 novel „Чиста любов” is an even more noteworthy case. Five years before Virginia Woolf’s classic essay “A Room of One’s Own” was published the Bulgarian writer presented the cultural growth of a young girl as directly dependent on her ability to have some space of her own to be alone and pursue her spiritual interest: a room of her own with a writing table and a small bookcase. A. Kamenova’s(8) memoir „Неповторимото” also needs to be mentioned: for the first time in Bulgarian literature a travelogue came to sound like a trip in the ‘private’ nooks of the soul; a nostalgic journey to the lost places of a spiritual homeland.

/8. Ana Kamenova, the pseudonym of Ana Madjarova-Staynova (1894-1982): writer and public figure, active member of the Union of Bulgarian Writers, author of novels, short stories and memoirs./

Yet again, if we come back to the question of women’s experiments, women avoided attempts at experiment within the boundaries of the genre, and more broadly speaking, poetic status quo. Style and genre turned out to be institutions harder to conquer and more stable than thematic models – precisely because their institutional nature is perhaps invisible (therefore less prone to immediate resistance) and to a considerable extent coincides with the most popular concepts of a “good” and “successful” fictional text.

Furthermore, Bulgarian women writers as a rule did not participate in the circles and schools widespread in the first half of the 20th century; they did not join the efforts that went into the imposition of any avant-garde “-ism”. The most significant exception was Native Art in the 1920s – precisely because it was a cultural movement with a rather wide-ranging programme and popular in character. The best example here is ”Харитининият грях” by A. Kamenova: an emphatically conceptual novel, which generalized in “perennial” symbols the importance of native values as a redeeming alternative to the “people’s soul” that underwent a crash during World War I.

The case of Magda Petkanova’s(9) early poetry is as interesting from the perspective of literary history. Her poetry collection “Македонски песни” was barely noticed and even less appreciated by the criticism of its time – and of later times, for that matter. Still, it is a typical example, and a very good one within the limits of its type, of a product of the Native Art idea. Unfortunately, nobody chose to read it in the context of its effort to solve the most important issue of Bulgarian culture after World War I.

/9. Magda Petkanova, pseudonym of Smaragda Dragova (1900-1970): poet and playwright, wife of the noted Bulgarian writer Konstantin Petkanov (1891-1952), active member of the Union of Bulgarian Writers and the Ckub of Women Writers./

Though it was the debut of a still unknown author, “Македонски песни” attempted to resurrect the failed national ideal for unification of the motherland(10). The stylized folklore material with a “Macedonian” theme was targeted at the effort to heal the collective wound by means of a dream-like strategy; the lyricism compensated the crushed dream by “correcting” historical reality with the power of nostalgic memory.

/10. Macedonia was a region that was torn from Bulgaria and left within the boundaries of the Ottoman empire after the Liberation in 1878. From that moment on it kept causing waves of revolutionary activities aimed at its return to the Bulgarian state. /

But it was not only 1920s criticism that failed to figure out this strategy. Bulgarian literary history, focused on canonic norm, would also label the book a one-dimensional (and therefore outmoded or “feminine”) stylization of folkloric images. However, what critics fail to recognize, is understood, symptomatically, by popular culture, at the foundation of which lie real social needs. It appropriated and multiplied in songs M. Petkanova’s early poems; we are here faced with an extremely important attempt on behalf of popular culture to cope in the most widely accessible (and necessarily pleasurable) manner with the collective traumas of its time.

The second interwar decade unraveled another interesting attempt on the part of female creativity to join the big social movements and the norms of writing connected with them. Maria Grubeshlieva(11), who made her first steps with the flow of Native Art(12) in the 1920s, rejected the well-trodden path of the “archetypal” female values. A typical woman from the Sofia urban middle class, she chose to write about social inequality, to champion the proletariat and its right to a decent life.

/11. Maria Ivanova Grubeshlieva (1900 -1970): poet and prose writer, anti-fascist, wife of the noted Bulgarian writer Lyudmil Stoyanov (1886-1973); active participant in the construction of socialist culture in Bulgaria, author of many poetry collections, short story collections and a book of reportage about the Spanish Civil War. /

/12. Native Art was a cultural movement that appeared in the 1920s in Bulgaria after the national catastrophe caused by World War I. It aimed at bringing back faith in the national values by resurrecting images from Bulgarian mythology and folklore./

These are the more noticeable exceptions, though. The Bulgarian women writers (at least until World War II) were not keen on schools and did not show the affinity to participation in groups and circles characteristic of male authors. Here, a very important question is due: Did this lack spring from “natural” unwillingness, or from a cause rooted outside women? The answer should come easily if we choose to consider more closely the facts of Bulgarian cultural history.

The Club of Bulgarian Women Writers was founded in 1930; it was the first women’s organization of this kind, even by the standards of the much more advanced in “emancipation” European countries. The work it immediately applied itself to doing amazes even today with its consistency, tenacity and ambitious scope. “The women writers were fighting as if their lives depended on it – to stay afloat, to get established in cultural life”, Atanas Dushkov, a reporter for the Зора and Заря newspapers at the time wrote (SIMOVA 2009: 149).

It was as if the collective enthusiasm of the National Revival had returned. As if a jinni that had been kept in the bottle of patriarchal social life too long was at large. That was a totally purposeful and focused struggle (no longer for the mere existence of the female voice but) for the right of being heard in public and for social significance; it was hardly accidental that only in its first eight years over 60 public readings and lectures were organized.

We cannot but come to the conclusion that the refused presence in public life (including by participation in literary groups and circles, which often guaranteed publication in the magazines and newspapers the groups themselves published) was not something immanent to the female creative “essence”, nor was it a peculiarity of a special “female nature”.

The reasons for their absence from collective cultural activities were probably social in nature – the invisible boundaries, interiorized by the women writers themselves as personal behaviour norms in their relations with others. Or in other words, the social codes of behaviour until World War II did not allow for too much publicity and collective display (especially bearing in mind the fact that intelligentsia collectives were exclusively male) of female behaviour, moreover as the women writers were also mothers, wives and daughters.

We have to say this for the patriarchal world of the interwar period: the cultural environment was on the whole benevolent to women’s literary attempts – state institutions tended to support and recognize the appearance of their works. Still, there was something wrong, something stigmatized the presence of women writers, not so much in their individual expression, but in the prevalent attitudes to their very ability to write.

Good women’s literature was seen as something exotic, the exception to an obvious though unwritten rule. Even when it was a fact of public life society went on trying to unravel the tactics of some kind of simulation, to suspect a scam… The most popular mechanism for the production of these doubts was rumours: ubiquitous, unpunishable, irrefutable… It was Vazov who wrote the good pieces of Evgenia Mars, K. Gulabov – those of Zhana Nikolova-Gulabova, Alexander Balabanov was the figure behind all artistic successes of Yana Yazova…

Not surprisingly, women also participated in the spreading of rumours about other women. The reproduction mechanisms of social relations have no gender, and marginal figures generally gravitate towards the centre, often with excessive zeal. They often appropriate as their tactics the most widespread methods for the establishment and reinforcement of those hierarchical structures in which they are themselves pushed towards the undesirable periphery.

Let us go back to the canon-sanctioned ideas of “women’s writing”. Here we are faced with one more myth that needs to be re-examined and corrected in accordance with literary facts. This is the persistently widespread idea that women are capable and fond mainly of the writing of poetry, that lyrical poetry in particular – because of its “spontaneity” and “intimacy” – is a genre that somehow naturally suits their gifts.

Even the facts I have enumerated so far suffice to show how untrue such a statement was. The first women writers after the Liberation – E. Karavelova, V. Blagoeva, E. Mars, A. Karima – strove for a place in the sun writing stories, novellas, feuilletons, even novels, and somewhat later – plays. The picture is even more intriguing if presented with the precision of bibliometric data.

Prose fiction books published by women between 1878 and 1944 outnumbered poetry books two and a half times. On the whole, in the literary repertoire from that period 356 women were present with 982 titles. Growth of women’s literary production with time became a clear tendency as World War II approached (DASKALOVA 1993: 86).

As already mentioned, women wrote everything but seemed to favour prose genres. Why then is it that we remember the outset of their presence in Bulgarian literature with their first successful poetry books?
I for one would name two important reasons.

In the first place, because the first women authors admitted into “grand” literature happened to be poets. The names I have in mind are Elisaveta Bagryana(13) and Dora Gabe(14). One cannot fail to notice a paradox here: the more praise and comments their work gets from the critical canon, the thicker the shade where the rest of the women writers are huddled.

/13. Elisaveta Bagryana, pseudonym of Elisaveta Lyubomirova Belcheva (1893-1991): famous poet, translator and author of children’s books. Her work is believed to have revealed woman’s nature in a bold and honest manner for the first time in Bulgarian literature./

/14. Dora (Isidora) Petrova Gabe (1888-1983): famous poet, translator and author of children’s books; graduated in French from Swiss and French universities; founder and long time president of the Bulgarian PEN club (1927); author of many books of poetry, short stories, essays and memoirs./

Bulgarian literary history has always arranged phenomena following the cruel principle of either-black-or-white attitudes: ample light on the foreground and thickening darkness in the background where the phenomena stigmatized as insufficiently significant end up. The bias and the teleological foregrounding that characterize this type of judgment – which is in effect anti-historical – become obvious when we figure out that the “great” Dora Gabe was implanted in the canon of Bulgarian poetry retrospectively: as late as the 1960s, when her best poetry collection Почакай слънце came out.

The second reason is connected with a hidden specialization of the attitudes to literary genres. Lyrical poetry (or rather lyricism, the way it was understood in Bulgaria according to the never-fading romantic ideas of the 19th century) was implicitly thought to be concordant with female perception as it was characterized by the same qualities – sincerity, spontaneity, a painfully heightened sensitivity, introvert fixation on the mirror of the soul…

And though as a rule this analogy was not articulated, lyrical poetry became the measure for female creativity as early as the beginning of the 20th century. A good poet became synonymous with a good woman writer. A case in point was the first novel of Ana Kamenova, Харитининият грях, published in 1930. All positive reviews that followed its appearance, as well as those for decades to come, expressed – though not in the same terms – approval for the emotional and lyrical qualities of the novel as characteristics of “feminine” style; they also mentioned “softness and intimacy” and “delicate feminine charm”.

The negative appraisal of Харитининият грях had the same starting point: the novel was deemed a failure precisely because of being naïve, sentimental and clumsily lyrical. All of which comes to show that good women’s work, even when it managed to find a place in a prose genre, had a chance of success mostly when it succeeded to be “skillfully” and appropriately lyrical while expressing the innermost thrills and trepidations in the soul of its author-cum-heroine.

Besides the obligation to write lyrical poetry the authors from that time also experienced the pressure of the task to write “in a feminine manner”, “as women”. Here is what the omniscient Pencho Slaveykov had to say on this issue while portraying the poetess Vita Deleda, an inhabitant of the fictional country he invented and called Island of Bliss: “The poetesses on the Island of Bliss are few, though many are those who write verses. And the worst ones among them are those who keep writing of love, stealing from life the time God allocated for it.

If they would only write what they, as women, felt! All they do is castrate men’s feelings, thinking that way they can make them similar to women’s feelings So Pencho Slaveykov created the imaginary figure of a “real” poetess, who wrote “as a woman”, without castrating anyone. What did she write, however? “The divine marche funebre entitled Може би моя.”, a poem about death and an early vision of the poet’s own grave.

Thematically it was a direct allusion to the last poem in Slaveykov’s own collection entitled Сън за щастие. As for the mentality required for this kind of writing, it was clear that the ideal poetess had to have read Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, and take after Pencho Slaveykov, Yavorov, the symbolists from the turn of the century. To write as a woman therefore, she had to be a replica of the high tradition established in the male poetry of the time.

Yet another curious thing can be noticed in the artistic behaviour of Pencho Slaveykov. We can see it in the way he distributed genres in the anthology of his fictional writers. He reserved for himself the mastery of the function – which came with seniority – of the editor who selects / presents the best created by other people. (Having in mind his own metaphor of the anthology as a wedding invitation, we could say that the editor took the traditional role of the best man, the leader and director of the wedding ritual.)

It was from this position that he chose for himself the prose genres: the foreword and the engrossing biographical portraits. The rest – the object of presentation – was only lyrical poetry. The active – passive dichotomy in his subconscious behaviour implicitly introduces the reader to a whole set of oppositions, among them are the functionally analogous pairs male – female, prose – lyrical poetry.

However, there was a woman poet at the beginning of the 20th century who did her best to write “as a woman” according to Pencho Slaveykov’s prescriptions. That was Mara Belcheva(15), his friend and faithful companion in life to his very death in 1912. She dutifully read (and even translated) Nietzsche, wrote about death, tried to contain her affection, to be a self-possessed observer of her own experiences. To top it all, Mara Belcheva was a good poet – better than Slaveykov himself at times. Unfortunately, she never dared to “stand out” with her poetry, to write and publish alongside her companion – not until 1922 when „На прага стъпки”, her first poetry collection came out.

/15. Mara Ivanova-Belcheva (1868-1937): poet and translator, wife of finance minister Hristo Belchev (who was murdereed at an early age), faithful companion to Pencho Slaveykov from 1903 to his death in 1912, author of several poetry collections./

At that point, however, paradoxically at first glance, she was rejected by the most ardent proponents of modernism – and of Pencho Slaveykov as its priest – among the critics. Apparently, something had happened, some change had occurred in these ten years, and Mara Belcheva was not that thing. She was faithful to her strategy of staying in a pre-war era that was now past; her poetry sounded as an echo of early Bulgarian modernism. And that was precisely what was wrong with it for the very concepts of “women’s writing” and “real” poetry created by women had changed.

A new model had appeared and it bore the name of Багряна. Is it because Elisaveta Belcheva under the pseudonym Bagryana actually did invent the “woman” model and managed to impose it on Bulgarian culture? I don’t think so. In spite of the habitual laudatory tone, in my opinion she did something else: she turned to the new popular model of the woman artist that was becoming a cultural necessity earlier than anybody else.

That model ( for the first time in Bulgarian literature indeed) saw woman as capable of rebellion against the collective norm of patriarchal morals, as an individual entitled to a personal life beyond the confines of home and family, as a human being moving freely in the space of the entire world. We should not forget, however, that this was precisely the model of a male poet brought by modernity at the end of the 19th century (with the work of Kiril Hristov), which was continuously asserted during World War I.

In other words, Bagryana managed to secure a place in the canon imposing women’s writing as a specific version of male experience form the time of early modernism. The strategy she chose was one of conquest: she won for women’s writing a high regime of modern identity without changing the traditional imagery and the boundaries of that regime associated with it.

What she did change was only the gender identity of the lyrical poetic persona. That was a rebellion struggling for the right to lyrical heroism, not one for a new alternative strategy of lyrical experience. And as heroism, particularly the modernist heroism of the writing subject in the first decades of the 20th century was manifestly male, what Bagryana did was what characterized any initial period of female emancipation: she won a place in the canon of poetic writing by offering in exchange the ”use” of ample space in her own female gender identity.

Now let us go back to what was typical of women’s experience until World War II, to the women writers who were not seen as rebels rejecting patriarchal norm. Here, too, actually we will find differences, historically constructed fluctuations of what was considered typical. Until the Bagryana model was asserted around the mid1920s compassion and mercy dominated the norm of writing “as a woman”.

Until then what writing well implied for women was articulation in acceptable poetic form of the mandatory marks of female sensitivity. A memorable piece of advice was given in wholehearted benevolence by the Patriarch of Bulgarian literature Vazov to his friend Evgenia Boncheva-Elmazova, who had adopted the aggressive sounding name Evgenia Mars. According to that advice she should “leave to men” all social themes and plots and write “in a feminine manner”, i. e. under the dictation of her kind and loving heart. Obedient to his authority, the then young woman heeded his advice and wrote comme il faut.

Not until thirty years later, when Vazov was long dead, did she dare publish a short story collection on a social theme: „Човекът в дрипи”, 1935. But what are thirty years of waiting? Vazov himself had waited for fifty years before he published his first collection of love poetry, „Люлека ми замириса”. “Waiting” in those days was apparently something more than a male or female practice, it was a role of suitable public behaviour in a semi-patriarchal – semi-modern culture.

Alongside with compassion and mercy, the register of feminine qualities until World War II necessarily included the capacity for unconditional selfless love, loyalty, attachment to the home and all accessories of its symbolic presence. There was, however, an undisputed centre that legitimated the need for all the abovementioned virtues and that was the male. What I have in mind here is not a particular figure but the socially sanctioned set of male roles: father and son, husband and lover, a solder of the motherland, a sufferer, a poet, the conscience of his time… It was from the attempt of the female poetic persona to position herself in a small piece of the space occupied by these roles that the Bagryana revolution started.

The positions of female presence that took longest to construct were those not implicitly centered in male–female relations. By way of example, I can trace the development of two themes which today seem “naturally” female but have in fact undergone a symptomatic process of gradual construction.
The first one is the love to children.

To the infant and little child, I should specify, for a mother’s love to her son was a richly represented theme, albeit in the works of … the male writers themselves. Love to children seemed to be perceived as part of a woman’s love to herself.(16) Anyway, the path to rediscovering one feeling was turned out to be dependent on that to the other. That dependence was clearly discernible in the behaviour of the first “real” woman poet, Ekaterina Nencheva(17).

/16. The infant or little child was usually perceived as belonging to the mother, so its gender was as yet socially unnoticeable and unusable./

/17. Ekaterina Nencheva-Harizanova (1885-1920): the first known Bulgarian woman poet after the Liberation from Turkish domination (1878). She published a single poetry collection, „Снежинки” (1909), and died at a very early age of tuberculosis./

In the adolescent Ekaterina’s high-school diary we can read the following amazing revelation: “A woman am I – that is my greatest misfortune! A cursed lot! This is a perennial dissatisfaction that agonizingly rips my chest and makes my poor heart at any moment stop and come to life again… being a woman – what a fatal mistake!” (NENCHEVA 1995: 40). Woman’s fate as a motif of quite some importance must have accounted for the generally pessimistic mood that marked the early work of Nencheva.

That was perhaps the reason why present-day commentator Katya Kuzmova_Zografova referred to her as the woman poet “with the perfect oval of a fallen angel” (NENCHEVA 1995: 13). That beautiful metaphor was actually coined by a man …about another man: love made Baudelaire dedicate it to his friend Rimbaud. Generally speaking, E. Nencheva always provoked the passion for acquiring a not quite decipherable female presence in the clichés of invented or adopted femininity: “Madonna in black”, “the cursed woman poet”, “the condemned angel of Bulgarian poetry”…

Less than ten years after the highschool diary, E. Nencheva, now married, would discover happiness – that happiness that completely reconciled her with the fate of being a woman, and with life as such. A letter she wrote to Dora Gabe says: “From day to day I have been getting used to this new life as a “mother”… Oh, Dora, you can’t imagine the tremendous happiness, the abandon I feel when I take this tiny sweet creature in my arms and feel that it lives through me” (NENCHEVA 1995: 144).

It was around that time that Nencheva wrote the happiest one among her poems that came to directly disprove her former misogynistic moods:

Аз някога проклинах бога във небето
че на жената е отсъдил скъден дял,
ах, някога разкъсваше сърцето
таз вечна, спотаена жал!…

А днеска благославям тоя бог суров,
че във пустинята житейска на жената
отсъдил е да пие тя водата
от извора на майчина любов…

If we compare this text with the poems from Снежинки, her first collection, we can see that the affected cursed femininity from the first years of the 20th century had matured into an awareness of the right to oneself. It was motherhood that proved for E. Nencheva the road to the happiness of being a woman.

After her death the theme of motherhood would have to wait a few more years before it exploded in Bagryana’s first collection, simultaneously with the more general theme of matrilineal blood kinship. Bagryana was an undoubtedly an innovator in this respect and the specific motives of her readiness to get into a new lyrical role are of little concern, really.

Almost all poems representing these two themes were collected in the Вечната и святата cycle that gave the title and the face to the entire collection. They alternate with themes of “betrothal”, bridal and love themes. The cycle apparently expresses the search for what is perennial in woman’s nature, employing a strategy of moderate and contained stylization of folkloric images and motifs. It unquestionably fits the atmosphere, style and thematic priorities of the Родно изкуство (Native Art) movement which was dominant at the time.

Symptomatically, the “perennial” femininity of the poetic persona reached motherhood and “the female connection” via the moods of the national “masculine” art that was most topical at the time. Once again, motherhood in Bagryana’s work was present and significant, but it was inscribed into the ongoing collective processes that marked the general development of Bulgarian literature after World War I. It was hardly an accident that this theme abruptly disappeared from her lyrical poetry in the 1930s.

After Родно изкуство had revived the need for lyrical motherhood, the theme quickly gathered momentum in women’s poetry from the 1930s. Magda Petkanova, yet another woman poet brought up by this movement first responded to it in her Македонски песни (Macedonian Songs) – entirely stylized in a decorative folklore-like manner…

It was precisely that stylization that masked the presence of motifs actually untypical of the traditional experience of the Bulgarian “folkloric” woman: daughterly sympathy for the mother, sadness in missing a married sister, the monologue of an abandoned wife… Only with her subsequent two collections Изгубен камък, 1933 and Кавали свирят, 1939, did it become possible to fully appreciate how significantly innovative this author was, who, so far as Bulgarian literary history was concerned remained totally overshadowed by Bagryana.

Though still true to the style of Native Art, the two books were truly obsessed with the motherhood theme, the various texts introducing a variety of voices and positions of mothering. Thus the idea that a woman made poetry solely as confession of her personal feelings was disproved. With M. Petkanova, motherhood was not merely a manner of making her own / feminine confession: it was a process in which a new space of lyrical experience was constructed. Nothing analogous to the poem entitled Балада in the Изгубен камък collection has been produced n Bulgarian poetry to this day.

It developed the psychologically dramatic plot of a woman destined to be a stepmother in a strange house with an indifferent husband and another woman’s children. The poem is a dialogue between the stepmother persona and the deceased mother whose place she has taken. What seems surprising is the fact that the sense of women’s connectedness replaced the “logical” and “natural” feelings of hurt and anger:

A rather unusual manifestation of the motherhood theme can be found in the Ветрове cycle from the collection Земен път (1918) by Dora Gabe, the second woman poet to gain a place in the canon after Elisaveta Bagryana. This was a real lyrical spasm of the “empty” womb, a brave expression of pain for an unborn child. Nevertheless, the critics from the 1930s refused to broaden the canon to accommodate the innovative themes in women’s writing.

Authors like Blenika and Severina who devotedly stood the already conquered ground of selfless and placid motherly love were more typical of the spirit of the time. Their poetry clearly indicates that the motherhood theme lost its challenge to the canon whenever it managed to get inscribed into the register of the popular lyrical standards of femininity.

The second “natural” theme to gradually gain public territory was the daughter’s love to the mother. That breakthrough was also accomplished by Bagryana and I do have to point out once more that the figure of “the mother of daughters” was depicted everywhere with the means of folkloric stylization, not infrequently explicitly decorative in character.

Actually the two themes in Bagryana’s early work formed a semantic entity: the idea of ancient (female) blood, a direct translation of the “perennial values” in which the epoch also recognized the male, the race and the nation. Another, heavier influence fell on the lyrical persona of the mother: the mother-in-black symbol, an obtrusive metaphor in the creative imagination after the catastrophe of the Bulgarian national ideals in World War I.

In the work of the other woman poets of the 1920s the mother was still a fleeting presence; in the 30s new psychological accents were added by M. Petkanova, but on the whole the theme remained mysteriously trivial and weak in Bulgarian poetry by women, especially after the heyday of Родно изкуство faded. Love for the mother seemed more like “a man’s job” in Bulgarian literature, at least until World War II. That enables us to see once again the extent to which in any epoch the attributes of female perception and the “natural” priorities of female experience were socially constructed in accordance with the culturally dominant trends of collective experience.

I would now like to go back some more, to compassion and mercy as mandatory characteristics of female perception. It is with them that another thematic direction is connected, one that seems completely lost for the attention of Bulgarian literary history: the war theme. It is important that women – despite the benevolent advice of their patriarchs – did go that way.

It was none other but E. Mars, “our Georges Sand”, who published a collection of short stories many of which told of the wars and the nation’s “military” experience between 1912 and 1918 Белите нарциси, 1924. Lyba Kasurova, a poet now completely forgotten, published five verse collections from 1921 to 1937. In the first two of them there are many poems with military themes.

In 1937 Sanda Yovcheva, now also forgotten, published the novel Ние – в дълбокия тил. It really must have taken a lot of prejudice for our literary history to succeed in burying completely a book that caused a lot of stir in its time, received a national award and was even compared by contemporaries to All Quiet on the Western Front by E. M. Remarque….

Antiwar poetry was published during World War II by Bagryana, Blenika(18), M. Grubeshlieva, Vesela Vasileva(19)… That should tell us that towards the end of the 30s Bulgarian literature had come considerably closer to the possibility to stop dividing itself into “men’s” and “women’s” and to be men’s-and-women’s in the tackling of collective issues.

/18. Blenika, a pseudonym of Penka Daneva-Tsaneva (1899-1978): poet, author of five books of lyrical poetry and a memoir./

/19. Vesela Grigorova Vasileva (1919-1944): poet and critic, author of strongly antiwar lyrical poetry. She died at a very young age in a tragic accident in a Vienna street./

It was in this direction of “common” (mostly understood as national) values that a symptomatic manifestation of female creative experience unfolded. What I have in mind is the attitude / appropriation of the past, a very important part of the cultural rehabilitation of Bulgarian identity after the catastrophe of World War I. We can recall that women writers’ interest in history sparkled for the first time with the novella Царица Теодора by V. Blagoeva in 1984. It was followed by a thirty-five-year long silence.

The new upsurge of interest obviously gathered momentum in the context of the common literary tasks in the 20s and was directly influenced by the leadership of male prose. Then it had a swift abrupt outburst, on the borderline between the 20s and the 30s. In 1929 Солунският чудотворец, a novel by Fani Popova-Mutafova(20) came out, followed by three more of her novels before the decade was over: Дъщерята на Калояна, Йоан Асен ІІ, Последният Асеновец .

/20. Fani Popova-Mutafova (1902-1977): a writer very popular between the wars, a translator from Italian, the author of more than 20 novels, among which the most widely read ones were the historical novels about medieval Bulgaria./

A. Karima wrote three historical plays, starting almost simultaneously with F. Popova: Поп Богомил (1930), За свободата (1931) и Панагюрската дева (1940). Yana Yazova(21), after she had gained some experience in poetry, joined in a little later and published the play Последният езичник (1940), and 1944 finished the novel Александър Македонски (destined to remain unpublished for six decades), which, much to the credit of women’s writing, was the first Bulgarian novel based on a historical theme that was itself not Bulgarian.

/21. Yana Yazova, a pseudonym of Lyuba Todorova Gancheva (1912- 1974): poet and writer, author of historical novels, a strikingly beautiful woman./

During the entire period under discussion the historical novels written by women retained a peculiar ambiguous attitude to the theme of the woman in history.

In my opinion this position can be regarded as a birthmark inherited from the specifics of their springing up in the bosom of a “male” tradition. On the one hand, the novels (as well as the plays and poetry on this topic) frankly sought examples of women who participated in history as its subjects; history itself was searched with the aim of finding in it “women’s” places.

We can speak of a new “gender topography” of the nation’s past: the women writers took pains to inscribe the female presence into key moments, when “the people’s destiny” was manifested. On the other hand, however, the female presence became a collective value only when it was incorporated in the model/s of male heroic behaviour. Both F. Popova and Y. Yazova saw woman as a heroic subject of Bulgarian history only as a result of her ability to undergo a gender metamorphosis: she had to become “like a man”.

Otherwise woman remained not a subjcet, but the traditional object of historical processes; her presence was allocated the area of what was ugly and horrifying. When she was not acting / thinking like a man woman “entered” Bulgarian history as a powerless and helpless object of male violence and male aggression. That solution brings us way back; its roots were in the image of the native land, Mother Bulgaria: torn, bloody, dishonoured, that was very widespread before the National Liberation.

There was in fact yet another, third path, used often by both Y. Yazova and F. Popova – where women applied some skills of their own, enigmatic, magical skills, in overcoming history and in coping with men. “Witchcraft in the novels of Fani Popova-Mutafova was also thought as a symbolic strategy for participation in the making of the world of the woman oppressed by man”, Ognyana Georgieva-Teneva wrote (TENEVA 2009: 294).

Sofia Angelova said almost the same thing about Y. Yazova: “The feminine found its only adequate place in the territory of the mystical, in conceptualizing the historical as predestination and woman as a mediator between them” (ANGELOVA 2009: 328). Such a strategy was of course far from revolutionary; it has always been part of patriarchal thinking. The fact that women had internalized it to the degree of their own “feminine” nature should not come as a surprise, either.

All that has been said so far indicates that the female tradition in the historical novel reproduced concepts of Bulgarian history which had already been made cliché by the canon and which had been constructed in the grand process of national myth-making in the last decades of the National Revival. It attempted to add value to the female presence in social reality and, quite logically, discovered that presence in the two most popular roles of the “historical woman”: the heroic tomboy and the dishonoured mother / sister.

History proved a hard test for women’s self-approval even with the progress of the 20th century. Not unimportantly because in that thematic space the “feminine” was cornered by the indomitable authority of the collective concepts of national history. Women’s self-awareness, at least at that point in time, was unable to withstand the competition of the grand ideas born and reproduced in the context of the need for national pride, in the model of patriotic feelings. And in that context a woman’s place and functions were clearly defined and fixed in unmovable positions due to the romantically legendary character of the myth-making imagination.

Yet, there was an exception: not among the important women writers, but hidden in the drama written by the author least loved and most ridiculed – Anna Karima(22). By way of example, let’s look at her 1931 play „За свободата”. In that play, the idea of national freedom came to contradict the clichés of patriarchal thinking; freedom proved possible only through cruelty and violence among the Bulgarians themselves.

/22. A condescending attitude to Karima in her lifetime seemed to be a fact that was mentioned in different texts from the first four decades of the 20th century. At the same time, one should not forget that this fact was far from being the “only one” as it seems today thanks to Bulgarian literary history. Karima was actually an author very popular with wide audiences; her play „Отнесена” was an undoubted bestseller, published with a circulation of 50000; very few male writers could boast such figures. /

The second important revelation of that text can only be expressed by a formula coined much later: the personal is political. Or vice versa; in any event, what was happening in society and in the intimate experience of the characters (especially the women characters) could not be separated; they were equally inevitable, equally deformed by the weight of what was happening on a national scale.

Though under the strong influence of Родно изкуство and though they shared with the men the faith in folklore mythology as a matrix for “perennial” models, the Bulgarian women writers before the wars were altogether urban people. On the one hand, they lived in the city (in the same city, actually, in Sofia) themselves, on the other – both the characters and the themes in their works were urban in character. In prose fiction there were very few exceptions and the most typical one among them was the novel Харитининият грях.

It did not really describe the traditional village but rather a small mountain town. However, Koprivshtitsa was presented as the antonym of the modern city. Besides, Харитининият грях was an emphatically conceptual novel; it made use of the anti-urban pre-modern environment to send the message of it being doomed, not so much as a specific place but as a mindset characteristic of Bulgarians. Our women prose writers seemed hardly susceptible to the nostalgic utopia of a “golden time” of the Bulgarian soul, when moral values in the lives of village people just occurred, without interference from the state institutions, somehow “inwardly”, “of their own accord”.

The myth of “the better life” left behind in the past seemed to have beеn reserved for male prose writers since the end of the 19th century. Women seemed more adaptable to their own historical reality, less prone to fixing their imagination on utopian visions, more clearly forced to seek concrete solutions to concrete problems from the reality that surrounded them. However, the work of the institutions in the modern Bulgarian state came to contradict such mindsets. A concrete example could show how it was the official concepts of “good” and “proper” women’s literature that encouraged precisely the “male” models of lyrical experience.

In 1932 the Great Poetry Award of the Ministry of Education was given to the poetry collection Нива by the almost unknown even in her time Slava Shtipileva. The greatest merit of that book was that it was similar to some established works by men, already accepted in the canon, though written about 30 years earlier… A totally urban woman sang praise to life in the country where one sleeps well, works well, love is pure and people bathe in spiritual health. S. Shtipileva managed with a certain skillfulness to reproduce the “native” clichés of her time; she did write “like a man” and got a well earned award.

But let me try to summarize, though in dangerously broad terms, the relationships between women’s works and the Bulgarian literary canon. “Women’s writing” had generally tended towards the canon before World War II since it had first appeared in the mid-19th century. That should hardly come as any surprise, having in mind that nothing legitimizes better than the canon the right to existence of a national literature.

Nor should the fact be seen as anything but normal that the canon stubbornly refused to identify with women or to expand into new thematic spaces, encouraging their alternative contribution.

But how did “women’s writing” behave in this (far from exceptional) state of predestined defeat? In a meekly resigned rather than belligerently oppositional way, I would say. Our women writers slowly and persistently, each within the scope of her capacity, conquered their entitlement to a place in the public realm. And judging by the results of their work, we could say that the most successful ones among them were those who best imitated the canon.

Here I don’t have in mind so much the direct imitation of established styles and schools as the readiness to identify with the popular notions of the day on how a “woman” should write/feel. Someone could ask: aren’t precisely the most “canonical” of our women writers also the best (I will deliberately avoid the vague term “talented” here) in the art of writing?

In the first place, we should not forget that all women writers gravitated towards the canon – as by the way did all male writers in Bulgarian literature. In the second place, there were exceptions, among which the neglect of the critics towards the poetry of M. Petkanova was particularly outrageous. She was, however, in her collections Изгубен камък и Кавали свирят the most thoughtful, varied and intellectually independent woman poet of the 1930s.

If we want to figure out the reasons for that neglect we should start from her juxtaposition with Bagryana. Broadly speaking, M. Petkanova did not exhibit the lyrical behaviour of a man. She did introduce some really feminine themes, one could say irrelevantly and even a little embarrassingly feminine by canon standards.

Unlike Bagryana, who glorified male individualism with a woman’s means, M. Petkanova took the liberty to open a considerable literary space where, from different thematic angles, she articulated the imaginary unity of many women. In the abovementioned poetry collections the lyrical voice constituted the communities of disenfranchised women, of women suffering from lack of love, of women who never gave birth, of grape pickers, of animal mothers – all with a special sisterly intimacy which was not forgivable because it seemed oblivious of the grand figure of man.

It is true that women did not invent new trends, did not author any great ideas, were not the proponents of avant-garde “-isms”. That was not because they “were incapable”. Bravery takes special upbringing. It requires a stimulating family and social milieu, direct access to other cultures, freedom of public contacts with many people… – all things that late patriarchal reality in pre-World War Bulgaria failed to provide, except as an exception. Still, in a period of seven decades, a considerable number of women authored texts in almost all genres.

As for the cases when a woman writer made attempts at being conceptually innovative, critics rarely let her get away with such deviations from the simple essence of her feminine nature. Here is, for example, the evaluation of the collection of eight poems entitled Лунатичка, in which D. Gabe attempted an experiment with a trendy “-ism”: “Carried away by the spirit of constructivism, which is foreign to feminine nature, D. Gabe fell victim to unforgivable mannerism.” (GORJANSKI 1938: 21).

At the end there is little left to do but ask a final question – both an important and difficult one. Do we have the strength to claim that the Bulgarian literary canon can be rearranged in accordance with the cultural situation of the early 21st century in such a manner as to restore some denied justice to women writers? And even if we decide to do that, what, if anything, could a speculative attempt of this sort lead to?

The only certainty I could claim is that it is worthwhile: to provoke the historical literary tradition, to tease the status quo, without any naïve optimism that it might prove easily ready for change. I will try to define three approaches to this challenge, three hypothetical strategies for correction of the canon.

В първия случай можем да четем паралелно българската литература, написана от жени, и канона, като търсим в канона онези места, в които конкретни авторки и творби би трябвало да присъстват, но все пак ги няма, отказано им е право на достъп по една или друга (исторически обусловена) причина.

In the first case we can read writing by women in parallel with the canon, looking for the places in it where certain authors and works should be present, but are not, having been refused access for one (historically determined) reason or another. In other words, we can try to bring women back – if not all the way into the canon, at least to the visible part of Bulgarian literary history, thus building retrospectively its flawed integrity. That was the strategy I adopted in „Неслученият канон” (KIROVA 2009), the collection I edited, a strategy oriented to a wider readership that seemed better suited to a first attempt at restoring women’s work to Bulgarian literary history.

In the second case, the existing canon will stay intact in its most popular form – as the finished monument of an era. Alongside with it, however, the construction of a second, canon – women’s – an independent and alternative one, could begin. This strategy seems attractive and not too hard, despite the huge amount of work that needs to be done. It contains some serious dangers, however.

The first among them is a methodological radicalism, which can easily turn into a new type of segregation of literary phenomena and processes. Besides, the building of an independent women’s canon not only activates no changes in the methodological status quo, but actually strengthens it, reproducing its approaches and, first and foremost, the desire for power.

In the third case we could venture a brave and radical strategy which can attack the very boundary between masculine and feminine, high and low, centre and periphery. What I have in mind is the possibility to abandon the idea of the canon as a restrictively discriminating measure of the value of literary phenomena, i. e. to deconstruct the traditional idea of a canon. We could make precisely its centro-cratic authoritarian monophonic character fall apart.

We could replace the old canon with a free constellation of concepts: simultaneously existing multiple centres with different thematic, ideological and poetic orientation. That canon could be poli-topic and poli-phonic, it would speak simultaneously from different “places” and in different literary voices. Of course this approach is still utopian. That, however, does not mean we are incapable of preparing at least the necessity for its appearance.


1. ANGELOVA, S. 2009: Zenite i istorijata v romanite na Jana Jazova. In: Nesluchenijat kanon, 19 p.

2. GEORGIEVA-TENEVA, OGNJANA. 2009: S Klio I Mnemosina. Kak razkazva Fani Popova-Mutafova. In: Nesluchenijat kanon, 20 p.

3. GORJANSKI, P. 1938: Vduhnoveni zeni. Literaturni silueti. Sofia, 62 p.

4. DASKALOVA, K. 1993: Zenite I bulgarskata kniznina (1878-1944) In: Godishnik na Sofijskija universitet, Tsentur po kulturoznanie. Tom 86, 22 p.

5. NENCHEVA, E. 1995: Prokulnatijat angel. Stihove, dnevnik, pisma, nepublikuvani slova. Sofia, 184 p.

6. KIROVA, M. (editor). 2009: Nesluchenijat kanon. Bulgarski pisatelki ot Vuzrazdaneto do Vtorata svetovna vojna. Sofia, 430 p.

7. RADEV, I. 2009: Bulgarskijat stih I vuzrozdenkata ot 70-te godini na 19 vek. In: Nesluchenijat kanon, 12 p.

8. STANEVA, K. 2009: Zenite pisatelki prez Vuzrazdaneto. In: Nesluchenijat kanon, 30 p.

9. SIMOVA, Z. 2009: Evgenia Mars – vuv I otvud marginalnostta. In: Nesluchenijat kanon, 20 p.

10. TILEVA, V. 1985: Bulgarskoto pechatarsko druzestvo “Promishlenie”v Tsarigrad, Sofia, 420 p.

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