Kapka Kassabova explores the intersection between past, present and future in her work, and in particular how ancestral legacies and ideologies linger on. We spoke to her about the Balkans, belonging and how to avoid clichés.


Let me start by asking you about the past. In writing about Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, but also about Macedonia and Albania, you write about countries with official versions of history and state, nation and language, people and religion. Do you think these versions of history still exercise the same power that they used to? Does the romanticised past still have the same pull as it did before decentralisation, before the internet? Or do you feel that it never held much power anyway?

Things are always different on the ground. And often surprising. That’s why I am an experiential writer and not an academic one. Encounter – with people and place – is central in my writing. My encounters with the people of the border region showed me just how ideology can be in turns powerless and powerful. The ideology of a single national, religious, ethnic identity tends to be counterbalanced, often, by the reality of people and communities having poly-valent, multi-faceted, messy and interesting pasts and presents. 
So for instance, many of the Turks of Thrace are descended from Balkan Muslims expelled from Greece, Bulgaria and Bosnia some 100 years ago and some speak remnants of Slavic dialects. My friend and translator in Turkey, the photographer I call Nevzat in the book, is one such person – and it was thanks to his Bulgarian language, passed down by his grandmother, that I was able to access the people of Turkish Thrace at all. Despite the savage and stupid border imposed on this region during the Cold War, it is very much a ‘Thrace without borders’, as a Bulgarian Orthodox priests in Edirne put it. 
On the other hand, the iron curtain and its legacy is a powerful reminder of how ideology can cast a lasting spell over a region. Part of that legacy is a spirit of paranoia, fear, and a choking sense of the unspeakable – this is some of what I tried to capture in Border. It is also symbolic that the iron curtain was recycled and sold as scrap by locals. The scrap of history: this is the future of all inhumane borders and walls, because they go against the flow of time and understanding. On the whole, I feel that ideology of any kind takes greater hold over the minds of those without much variety of life experience, those with sheltered lives. The more varied your life experience, the more sharply you can see through the facade of an ideology. This is why it’s so vital for all of us to cross various borders and see how things are on the other side. That way, the human principle always wins over dogma.  

Increasingly it seems to me that separating past, present and future is a futile task, they inform each other so much. I’ve read in another interview that you’re interested in ancestral legacies, and I was wondering if you could expand on that a little bit. (For me, personally, my ancestral legacy is something that drives me to make up for past shortcomings and crimes.)

Your take on it sounds intriguing! A futile task indeed – because the real task is to truly understand these connections and change the groove of repetition. William Faulker nailed it: ‘The past is not over yet. It’s not even past.’ 
I’m interested in how small acts of kindness or cruelty can impact generational and collective fate. There are many such cases in Border. For instance the nice man in The Village Where You Lived Forever, locally known as Indiana Jones, whose shepherd-father back in 1984 saw a young East German fugitive trying to cross into Greece, eating some apples in what he thought was Greece but was still Bulgaria, and duly handed him over to the border police who beat him to death. The whole village lives with that memory. If you spend time there and listen to people, it’s as if that young man is still there, eating his last apples.  

My interest in legacies from the past began during the journeying for Border, and went on to become a new book, To The Lake. I explore how ancestral legacies (emigration, exile, war, tyranny, perfectionism, idealism, nationalism) travel down generational lines to each of us. None of us is spared, we all carry the past, whether conscious of it or not. Through the landscape of the Ohrid-Prespa Lakes in the south-western Balkans, I explore how we each carry psychic, emotional, political, and cultural legacies from our families and nations. Families are microcosms of nations. I start with myself and my maternally inherited fear of loss.

I wanted to ask you about belonging. In Border, you frequently touch on the idea that you could be at home anywhere, a notion that you question throughout the book. I wonder what you think about belonging now, years after your trips to the border. And in a more general sense, I wonder if you think it’s possible to feel at home everywhere, growing up, as we have, in states that indoctrinate us with the idea of ‘the nation’ as the ultimate indicator of where we belong.

‘Home is where they understand you,’ said the German writer Christian Morgenstern. And ‘Home is where they can pronounce your name’, in an Irish proverb. Where do we feel understood, and where do we bring the light of our own understanding? That’s a good indication of where we belong, at least for a time. Ultimately, we all belong in love – love is our true home. Wherever we are engaged with something that we truly love, and whoever we share genuine love with – that is our home. I grasped this through my encounters with the people of the Border – the last shepherds, lighthouse keepers, voluntary workers, gardeners, story-tellers, border people like Marina in Strandja Mountain who live in a plundered humanscape, but who continue to nurture what is left and infuse it with meaning and even magic. 
Nationally shared markers can be powerful in terms of cultural community (where they can spell your name…). As for me, these days I feel at home wherever there is unspoilt nature. I don’t miss living in Bulgaria, but I do miss speaking Bulgarian. Language is a powerful home and a powerful psychological glue. It is Bulgarian – and by extension other Slavic – languages that has made books like Border and To The Lake possible at all. Even if English is my literary language and therefore also my home. 
But artists should never be too comfortable anywhere, and good art by its very nature crosses all borders. 

Tell me about your next book. I’ve read that it’s a psychogeography of two lakes in Albania and Macedonia. I’m assuming that one of these is Lake Ohrid, where your grandmother (is that right?) is from. Like the border you writer about in Border, this is a region of religious syncretism, mixed languages and cultures, but it was also less of a periphery, at least in Yugoslavian times. What has been different about this book project, compared to the previous one? What has been similar?

Yes, To The Lake is a journey around the Ohrid-Prespa basin – one of the world’s most ancient lake basins. Like Border, the lakes today sit on a triple national border (North Macedonia, Albania, and Greece) and are very much a periphery. But they were shaped by successive civilisations, starting in antiquity with the Illyrians and the Macedons. The more personal journey into family dynamics is my way into the broader exploration of the southern Balkans with their extraordinarily stubborn legacies of trauma and survival. 
While the border with its masculine militarism was the central metaphor in my previous book, the lake is the central image here –  a feminine, gathering place, but of course the deeper truth turns out to be more ambiguous and uneasy. Because lakes are also places of secrets and death.  

Writing about South Eastern Europe is very often shaped by a curious mixture of exoticising and negative stereotypes. (Or Balkanism, as Maria Todorova called it.) Border has had great success, and I wonder what that has felt like. Have you felt like an unofficial and perhaps unwanted ambassador?

Balkanism is a cousin to Orientalism, and both are caused by the fact that often, we the natives of the Balkans or the Middle East, with our extraordinarily polyphonic histories and hurts, are narrated by others – usually others from the dominant colonising cultures. We resent that, of course, but passively. The curious result is that over time, we have become others in our own eyes – a strangely self-obscuring syndrome whereby we struggle to narrate ourselves to the outside world and are then extra resentful that the only times we are ‘noticed’ is when there is a war or some other negative event. This is changing, though. Contemporary Balkan writers are being translated into more languages, and there are also more of us Balkan natives who write through a double or even multiple cultural perspective, thanks to the free movement of people after the Cold War. Thanks to the removal of various walls. 
I’m a poet and storyteller. The artist’s job and destiny is to be subversive – very different from the role of a spokesperson. My focus is on capturing the essence of place and human experience. That is where my loyalty is: to the truth of the human historio-geographies I explore, because I love them so. If anything, I am an ambassador for the powerless, those who live history instead of writing it safely from behind a desk. So that history is not always written by the victors.   

Kapka Kassabova is a cross-genre writer with a special interest in human geographies and the hidden narratives of places, people, and peripheries. She has published several works of narrative non-fiction, as well as poetry and fiction. Border: a journey to the edge of Europe was shortlisted for, and won, multiple awards, including the British Academy Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding, the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year, the Edward Stanford-Dolman Travel Book of the Year, and the inaugural Highlands Book Prize. Born in Sofia, Bulgaria, she is now based in the Scottish Highlands. Her forthcoming book is To The Lake: a Balkan journey of war and peace (Granta/ Graywolf 2020).

Author portrait by TD.

Interview by Theodora Danek.

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