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Guest Post: How I Researched Anna’s Dance: A Balkan Odyssey by Michele Levy

Today’s guest is Michele Levy, author of Anna’s Dance: A Balkan Odyssey, who will explore the research into Anna’s Dance, a journey of self-discovery. But first, as always, please check out the book’s synopsis.

Book Synopsis:

It’s 1968. The world is in turmoil. So is twenty-thee-year-old Anna Rossi, who questions everything about her life, from her mostly Jewish heritage to her fear of intimacy. Summer in Europe with a childhood friend offers a perfect way to escape her demons. When her friend abandons her in Italy, Anna makes the rash decision to travel on with strangers. Her journey takes a perilous turn, leading her into conflict in Eastern Europe and into the heart of the Balkans.

Love, Intrigue, Betrayal—Anna must find the strength to survive.

Without further ado, here’s Michele Levy’s guest post; give Michele a warm welcome:

It seems I have been doing ‘research’ for Anna’s Dance since I first encountered Balkan music and dance as a high school student. References to Balkan dance and songs learned at dance workshops, camps, and groups over many years permeate the novel. But eventually I wanted to explore the roots of that vibrant culture— its tangled ethnic past. Reading Balkan literature and history, I published two articles about the myths and images that history engendered, some of which made their way into Anna’s Dance.

Then in 2008, after co-teaching a Senior Honors Seminar on Genocide for English, history, and psychology majors, I shaped a component on the Bosnian War. That summer, during a week-long seminar on genocide at the US Memorial Holocaust Museum, I explored the museum’s huge library. The following summer, as a museum Fellow, I spent a month immersed in its holdings on both the Holocaust and Balkan violence. From those materials I shaped a conference paper that grew into an article since published in three separate venues: a journal and two books (the most recent listed among the sources).

I widened my research to include the survival of Serbian Jews during the Holocaust and the politics of memory in Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia post-WWII and the Bosnian War. For this I studied survivor testimonies, newspapers, and relevant online and library materials. I also began to read ancient, but particularly 19 th century, Balkan history and the emergence of competing ethno-nationalisms, like those that engendered the Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination by a young Serb from the Bosnian Black Hand, which aimed to free Bosnia from Austria-Hungary. This desire for ethnic autonomy sparked World War I, helped fuel the outbreak of World War II, and ignited the Bosnian conflict of 1992-1995. Given Macedonia’s recent struggles to name itself, the story has not ended. I wove much of this history, both of Balkan Jews and the Macedonian question, as it is called, into Anna’s journey and Spiro’s character.

For the novel’s settings, I relied on the memory of my four trips to the Balkans, maps old and new, others’ recollections, and guidebooks, especially older ones, given how many routes and names have changed since 1968. Mihajlov, the tiny mountain village where Anna stays with her beloved Spiro, does not exist. But trolling a Macedonian chatroom in 2010, I encountered declarations of extreme nationalist sentiment, some including violence. This convinced me that small pockets of proud former Macedonians might have existed in 1968 Bulgaria, under Zhivkov’s oppressive regime. [A tour of YouTube shows that strong ethno-national feelings continue in 2020. Labeling a song Macedonian might anger a Greek who views it as Greek.]

Since minority communities within a majority culture often cling to their suppressed traditions, e.g. Irish, Scottish, Basque, and Catalonian nationalists, or European village Jews, it seemed possible that Pirin (part of Macedonia till Bulgaria took it in 1913, at the Treaty of Bucharest that ended the Second Balkan War) might harbor some former Macedonians squirming under Todor Zhivkov’s nationalist regime, which sought to create a homogeneous population loyal to Bulgaria. Having earlier labeled its Macedonians a ‘minority’ to please Stalin, by 1968 Bulgaria had reclassified them as ‘Bulgarian’ to suit a changed reality. For this part of the novel, besides consulting books, webpages, and chatrooms, I interviewed Macedonians from both within and outside Bulgaria. Fragments of those stories shaped Spiro’s history.

Belene, one of Bulgaria’s infamous labor camps, proves pivotal to Spiro’s backstory. Here I studied online histories and testimonies from survivors of those camps, some of which operated till communism fell in 1989. Their existence left a painful legacy not yet fully acknowledged. Tzvetan Todorov’s Voices from the Gulag: Life and Death in Communist Bulgaria. provided particularly poignant images, while Elizabeth Kostova’s novel The Shadow Land explores this issue and why some still wish to conceal it.

For Spiro’s past I also researched Bulgarian spy craft, since Bulgaria, the Soviet Union’s most faithful satellite, worked closely with the KGB. In 1978, its spy network became notorious for murdering dissident Georgi Markov with the poisoned tip of an umbrella on a bridge in London, to which he had fled in 1968. Here I used mostly online sources, including reports from MI5 and 6, US government documents, and so forth.

Regarding the American and Western European elements, I experienced what I mention and only made sure to validate those memories online.

Some Relevant Sources

Intense historical research underpinned Anna’s Dance. The articles and chapters include many useful sources that explore Eastern European nationalism and the violence it kindled:

  • Levy, Michele Frucht. “From Skull Tower to Mall: Competing Victim Narratives and the Politics of Memory in the Former Yugoslavia,” in Life Writing and Politics of Memory in Eastern Europe (Palgrave/MacMillan UK, 2015).
  • “The Last Bullet for the Last Serb: The Ustasha Genocide against Serbs, 1941-1945,” Nationality Papers, Vol. 37, no. 6, November 2009 (807-837).
  • Petersen, Roger D. “Understanding Ethnic Violence: Fear, Hatred, and Resentment in Twentieth-Century Eastern Europe,” Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • Poulton, Hugh. “Who Are the Macedonians?” Indiana University Press, 2000.
  • Todorov, Tzvetan. “Voices from the Gulag: Life and Death in Communist Bulgaria.” Robert Zaretsky (trans.). University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 1999.

About the Author:

Like Anna, Michele Levy fell in love early with Balkan dance, which ignited her fascination with the Balkans. Having published on their history and culture, and traveled there several times, she sought to portray in fiction the special beauty, vibrancy, and complexities of the land and of its peoples. And she still delights in dancing to a sinuous rhythm and a strong drumbeat. Visit Black Rose Writing and the website.