Ilija Trojanow - Biography

Ilija Trojanow (German transliteration of the Bulgarian Илия Троянов, while the international scientific transliteration is slightly different: Ilija Trojanov) is a Bulgarian-German writer, essayist, translator, editor, and filmmaker. He was born on August 23rd 1965 in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. Trojanow is a professor at the European Graduate School where he teaches an intensive summer seminar.

Ilija Trojanow comes from a family that fled Bulgaria in 1971 to the Federal Republic of Germany (today West Germany) through Yugoslavia and Italy. There the family would obtain political asylum. Shortly after in 1972 they would move again, this time to Kenya where the father had been hired as an engineer. Trojanow would live in Nairobi, its capital, until 1984, with the exception of a four-year interruption between 1977 and 1981. During that time away, from the age of 12 to the age of 16 he was a student in Germany at the boarding school named “Staatliches Landschulheim Marquartstein” in Bavaria, a southern state of the country. Apart from this experience abroad he was mostly educated at the German school of Nairobi where he obtained the Abitur (examinations taken at the end of secondary school in the German schooling system).

After this he would move to Paris for a time before returning to Germany and study law and ethnology from 1985 to 1989 at the University of Munich. He would, however, not complete his studies and would found instead the “Kyrill-und-Method-Verlag” in 1989, and the “Marino-Verlag” in 1992, two publishing houses specializing in African literature. In 1999 he would move to Bombay, a city on the western coast of India, a country he would from then on take a keen interest in. That is, at least until 2003 at which point he moved to Cape Town in South Africa where he lived until 2007. The same year he was awarded the prestigious “Mainzer Stadtschreiber” German literary prize. He has since then lived in Vienna, Austria.  

Ilija Trojanow would first write in the 1990s several non-fiction books as well as guides on Africa. He would also edit an anthology of contemporary African literature and would translate works of African writers. In 1996, however, he would publish his first novel, “Die Welt ist groß und Rettung lauert überall”, unpublished in English and which loosely translates as “The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around Us”. In this first work he discusses the experience of refugees and asylum seekers, which he himself underwent with his family.

He would then publish his famous science fiction novel, “Autopol” (1997), written on the internet as a “novel in progress”. In 1999 he would publish “Hundezeiten”, unpublished in English and which translates as “Dog Years”, it is a story about his reunion with his native country of Bulgaria. The book would be republished in 2006 under the title of “Die fingierte Revolution. Bulgarien, eine exemplarische Geschichte”, which can translate as “A Sham Revolution. Bulgaria, an exemplary story”.   

Ilija Trojanow is since 2002 member of the famous P.E.N. Club. He is affiliated with the one in Germany. It stands for “Poets”, Essayists, and Novelists, although it now also includes other forms or writing. In November 2007 Trojanow taught poetry at the University of Tübingen together with the German writer of Turkish origin Feridun Zaimoğlu. This was as part of the “Tübinger Poetik-Dozentur”.


After this would follow books on his experience in India as well as a report on Islam in 2004 entitled “Zu den heiligen Quellen des Islam” (which can translate as “To the Sacred Sources of Islam”) in which he describes his pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. A couple of years later part of an interview in the Viennese daily newspaper “Der Standard”, published April 11th 2007, would create a confusion about Trojanow’s conversion to Islam. Indeed, to a question posed to him about his having completed in 2003 the Hajj (the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are expected to make at least once during their lifetime) and that German media at that point had disseminated the news that he had converted to Islam, he answered in such a way that left many unclear about whether or not he had indeed adopted Islam as his religion.

The confusion came from Trojanow making several comments that could be taken as contradictory by some and enlightening to others. For example, he said that even though it is indeed what people keep saying about him, it is all nonsense because as someone who is against ideologies he could not possibly be part of any dogma. He added, however, that what interests him in Islam are certain traditions of Sufism, which he would qualify as a rather sensual and liberal variant of it. Be that as it may, the fact remains that he did do the Hajj pilgrimage which is allowed only to Muslims, just like the very access to the holy city of Mecca in fact.

In 2006 he published a novel entitled “Der Weltensammler”, which would be published in English in 2008 under the title “The Collector of Worlds”. The work is devoted to the colonial official and traveler Richard Francis Burton and would be very well received by critics and would even be awarded the prestigious 2006 Leipzig Book Fair prize and would also be selected to participate in the German Book prize that same year. In this fictional biography the author insists on the Hajj undertaken by the English traveler under a false identity.  

In 2007 Trojanow returned to Europe and shot the film “Vorwärts und nie vergessen – Ballade über bulgarische Helden” whose title can translate in English as “Forward and Remember - Walks of Bulgarian Heroes”. The movie would be released and broadcasted the same year on the public channels ZDF and 3sat. This documentary features interviews with political prisoners and other imprisoned witnesses in both prisons and concentration camps in Communist Bulgaria. In this way Trojanow tackles crimes committed by the Bulgarian Communist Party together with the widely disseminated operational lies in today’s Bulgarian society.

In April 2008 Trojanow became the Commissioner of the literary festival “RE ASIA - Avatar. Asiens Erzähler”, devoted to Asian writers at the “Haus der Kulturen der Welt” (House of World Cultures) in Berlin. He writes a daily chronicle “Das Schlagloch”, which he shares with other writers, for the Berlin daily newspaper “taz”. Since 2008 Ilija Trojanow is also the editor of the collection “Weltlese - Lesereisen ins Unbekannte” (World Harvest - Iron Readers into the Unknown) in which he publishes both unknown authors as well as unusual and forgotten texts.

In 2009 Trojanow published jointly with the German novelist Juli Zeh the book entitled “Angriff auf die Freiheit: Sicherheitswahn, Überwachungsstaat und der Abbau bürgerlicher Rechte” (still unpublished in English), and which can translate in English as “Attack on Freedom: Obsession with Security, State Surveillance and the Dismantling of Civil Rights”. When presenting the book to the public for the first time, the authors criticized the fact that the state, under the pretext of combatting terrorism, imposes on its citizens intrusions in their private sphere and does so in a way that is ever deepening.

Trojanow’s picaresque and partially autobiographical novel still unpublished in English “Die Welt ist groß und Rettung lauert überall” (or “The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner”) was made into a movie in 2008 under the title English title “The World Is Big”. The film was directed by Stefan Komandarev and co-produced by Slovenia, Germany and Hungary. In 2010 it would be part of the 9 films selected for the 82nd Academy Awards (foreign language films). The plot is as follows. Because of a car accident, Alex, a young man of Bulgarian descent raised in Germany, becomes amnesiac. In an attempt to cure him, his grandfather organizes a trip to Alex’s country of origin, Bulgaria. This initiatory journey across Europe will allow Alex to regain both his memory and his identity.   

Ilija Trojanow is a Bulgarian-German writer.