Earlier this month, Kapka Kassabova won the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award for Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe.
Kapka Kassabova is a poet of itinerancy and transience. Her prose and verse inhabit the physical and imaginary edge-lands of our lives. She was born in 1973 in Communist Bulgaria, and grew up there, on the periphery of Europe. In her memoir Street Without a Name (2008), she wrote about her childhood behind the iron curtain.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall her family emigrated to New Zealand, where she studied French at university. It was there where she first made a name for herself as a poet and novelist. Some of her early poetry, written on the far side of the world, can be read in her collection Someone Else’s Life (2003), which is full of people who live on the margins of society: the forgotten and dispossessed.
After brief spells living in Berlin and Marseilles, Kassabova settled in Scotland when she was thirty years old. She continued to work in different literary forms. In 2007, she published the poetry collection Geography for the Lost. The poems drift between lands near and far, from Hong Kong to the Balkans, and are always searching to capture the feeling of being un-homed in the world. Dancing is a kind of physical poetry, and in 2011 Kassabova wrote about the art of the tango in Twelve Minutes of Love. Her novel Villa Pacifica (2010) is about two strangers in a strange place: a travel-guide writer and her husband who travel to an outpost of South America.
Kassabova’s most recent book is called Border, a work of narrative non-fiction. It is her most original and assured publication to date, and won the 2017 Saltire Book of the Year Award. It is an exploration of the border zone between Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece. During the Cold War, this was a perilous demarcation line between east and west. Once heavily-militarised, it is now a wild mountain region thick with ancient history, folk culture and the buried remains of those who lost their lives trying to escape communism. Kassabova travels through this area collecting the stories of the border folk. She meets all manner of people, from border guards and hunters to botanists, psychics and fire-worshippers, and weaves their individual stories into the wider history of the region.
Kassabova lives in a cottage in rural Inverness-shire near Beauly with her partner, who owns an art gallery in a converted church nearby. Nick Major met her on a bracing, damp day in January, not long after the snow had melted on the hills. They sat in Kassabova’s study. Built on top of a garage, it is structure made of dark wood and looks over a neighbouring croft. The floors were carpeted and on the walls – in between bookshelves – there were maps of the Balkans and notes for her next book, a project which has taken her deep into Macedonia and Albania. On her long wall-to-wall desk were the tools of a writer’s life: pens, pencils, notepaper, a laptop, various herbal teas, and a row of books, including a hardback edition of Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.
After reading her work, one might expect Kassabova to have the look of the down-at-heel traveller, but her face retains a youthful freshness and lambency, which is matched by her sprightly attitude and intelligence. She has black hair and olive-brown skin. She sat on her office chair, with her legs tucked underneath her; a red and white kufiya was wound around her neck and a pair of pink woollen hand warmers covered her wrists. She talked eloquently of her struggle to find her writerly voice, of the un-homed imagination, and the importance of unearthing the true stories of the past.
SRB: In Street Without a Name you describe your childhood home as a ‘two-room flat in an eight-floor concrete building surrounded by thousands of identical concrete buildings, purposeful and sturdy like nuclear plants in freshly bulldozed fields of mud.’ Did you often dream of escape?
From a young age, I was instinctively drawn to stories of escape, adventure and the high seas. It wasn’t just that I was living in a society where I felt trapped, it was also because I was a reader and a dreamer. In retrospect, no matter where I grew up I probably would have dreamt of escape. But the fact that we were living behind the iron curtain fuelled that escapism.
At the start of Border, you recount reading Jack London at the age of ten.
He was big in Eastern Europe.
The authorities thought he was a favourable influence?
Yeah, because he had socialist leanings and his work critiqued the rapaciousness of a capitalist society. But before I knew any of this, I simply loved his work. It spoke to me.
How much control did the state have over what books were available?
I was a child in the last fifteen years of the regime. As the regime aged, censorship became more relaxed, so there were books in translation in the 1980s that would have been unthinkable before, especially science fiction, like the work of Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov. But major books from the Western literary canon were banned until the regime fell – authors like George Orwell. Then again, there was a surprisingly high quality to the literature that was published. The quality of literary translation was very high, considering these were translators who had never left the country, because they couldn’t. I went to a French college when I was a thirteen, but I was in my twenties before I actually made it to a French-speaking country, by which time I was so fluent in French I sounded like a native speaker. That was typical of countries behind the iron curtain. People had a high level of education, perhaps because we were a captive audience.
What other books could you get hold of?
By the time I was a teenager at the French college we could get our hands on most of Albert Camus’ works. I remember reading Nausea by Jean Paul Sartre, a seminal text for a teenager. But I suppose Sartre was a communist. Anglophone culture was the most censored. We had Italian and French music, books and films. They were considered safer by the regime. I grew up with iconic Italian pop songs. There were two channels on TV so people read avidly. At primary school we were given a long summer reading list. I looked forward to that and ticked them off one by one. It was part of mainstream culture to read. Everybody’s homes were full of books. On our shelves at home I remember Erich Maria Remarque, Stefan Zweig, all the classics like Montaigne, Rousseau, Descartes, French historic fiction, Jerome K. Jerome, the violent rural sagas of Emile Zola, and of course all the great Russian writers, except the banned ones like Bulgakov. I loved Pushkin.
In Street Without a Name, your teacher asks you to write a description of your house. Instead you write about the house you’d like to live in. In the margin of the completed piece the teacher wrote: ‘very good, but a fantasy. Next time, concentrate on reality.’ What effect did those attempts to constrain the imagination have on young people?
Yes, ‘socialist realism’ was the only officially accepted art-form. But in reality, family culture had more sway. In our family there were political jokes. We weren’t rebels – hardly anybody was; it was too dangerous. But, I could detect bullshit when I saw it, and my escapist fantasies were encouraged by that.
Your dad was a mathematician and your mother an engineer. Did you get a sense early on that they wanted to leave, if they could?
Not really. They were too busy coping with ‘socialist realism’. In reality, it wasn’t socialism. There is sometimes a confusion when people refer to these regimes as socialist. Socialism is still a completely valid social ideal. What we had in Bulgaria was something else.
Yeah, Communist totalitarianism. One reality of living in that system was the empty shops and constant deficit of goods. People had nothing to spend their money on. At one point my parents received bonuses from work, and I remember over-hearing their conversation when they said, ‘but there is nothing to buy!’
You said hardly anybody was a rebel. In Border, you write about the Goryani, a peasant rebellion against the soviet terror. Were you aware of that when you were young?
No. It had been stamped out by the 1950s. It went on for about ten years. Everyone in the movement was either put away in labour camps or executed. I was not aware of it and it is still not taught in Bulgarian schools. So, there is still a kind of censorship.
Is the current censorship a reluctance on the part of the authorities to recognise the truth of the past?
I think so. The trauma of half a century of social life based on lies is going to take several generations to heal, if it heals at all. That’s why I had such a sense of urgency when writing Border. There were so many voices and truths that are untold and unrecorded. I wanted to let those voices speak. But, also, because I see where things are heading politically in the Balkans. For the first time since the 1930s a far-right government is in power in Bulgaria, which is – again – censoring the media, censoring public discourse. The border has become a taboo subject again. Some of the places I visited in the book are now out of reach.
People are not allowed to go there?
No, because of the new fence with Turkey, which is close to where the old fence used to be. You can literally see history repeating itself, because the trauma has not been properly processed – the bones have not been named. You cannot go there in more ways than one.
We’ll return to the present situation in Europe. In French college you were involved in a literary magazine. Was it then you realised you wanted to become a writer?
It is hard for me to draw a line between being a reader and a writer, because books were always such a huge part of my life. Beginning to write poetry in childhood was a natural extension of reading poetry. In my twenties, I made a decision to pursue a writer’s life. But that was after I had gone to New Zealand and been to university.
How old were you when the Berlin wall fell?
I was sixteen.
Do you remember what the atmosphere was like in the country or in your house?
I was not aware of the adults seeing it coming. Having said that, in the late eighties in Bulgaria there was the first protest movement, Eco-Glasnost. It was a green movement. It was mostly intellectuals, writers and actors – several of them, one a famous comedian, were beaten to death while in custody. And there was Glasnost coming from the Soviet Union, all of those winds of change. One of the popular song at the time among my peers was ‘Winds of Change’ by a German band called The Scorpions. But the regime was so repressive until the last moment that people almost didn’t dare hope for change. In the Bulgarian case, it was an internal coup within the Communist Party rather than a revolution.
They thought they had better change themselves before they were changed?
That’s right. I remember my mother saying: ‘It’s not for real. I don’t believe this is happening.’ She had become so pessimistic. But my generation believed it.
When you and your family left, did you think you’d ever go back?
Oh, no. But I was eighteen and everything is very final when you’re eighteen. Still, it was a traumatic move. Emigrating to New Zealand felt like jumping off a cliff. In fact, I didn’t go back to Europe for many years – too far, too expensive – and New Zealand was another world. I was stuck between cultures and languages.
In one of your essays you say you spent years feeling culturally divided in your mind?
Yes, I experienced that most acutely in terms of literature. I was just beginning to find my way around English Language Literature, but I had been through French literature and was studying French at university in New Zealand. So, I was steeped in a Bulgarian, Russian, and Francophone written world, trying to enter an Anglophone world. It was a rough transition. I read a lot of Nabokov and Conrad!
You have been peripatetic for a lot of your life and your poetry dwells in liminal places. Does that create a problem: being un-homed is not a comfortable condition, but it could be what makes you a good writer?
The American writer Paul Bowles spent much of his life away from his homeland, and in his memoir, he says, ‘Like any Romantic, I have always been vaguely certain that sometime during my life I should come into a magic place that in revealing its secrets would give me wisdom and ecstasy – perhaps even death’ [laughs]. But, I think this un-homing is probably an imaginative condition for a writer rather than a domestic condition because the moment I arrived in Scotland I felt at home, inexplicably perhaps. Yet despite feeling utterly at home – and it is as if I was always meant to find a home here, there is almost a fatefulness about it – I haven’t stopped exploring this theme.
Do you still think in Bulgarian?
It depends on the context. It’s difficult to analyse. It’s like dreams: I remember the images rather than the words. Although, I remember in one of Nabokov’s books – maybe Ada – one of his characters has a linguistic nightmare. I’ve always wondered, what’s a linguistic nightmare? Perhaps I did experience one, in that early transitional phase.
In the essay at the end of Geography for the Lost, you write that a writer’s adventure starts in childhood with doggerel and lullabies, ‘with the deepest, pre-language memory of a certain smell of damp leaves. I can nicely render this memory into English, but it is an emotional travesty because the smell of those damp leaves is in Bulgarian.’ Does poetry, perhaps more than prose, allow you to explore that gap between the word and the emotions?
Poetry was my primary form. But think- ing back to those rough years of linguistic and literary transition, I was reading a lot of poetry in English, but much more prose, yet I continued writing poetry. I think that was because of the question of voice. In poetry – instinctively, not intellectually – I felt I had found a voice. And I felt I could find my voice in poetry in any language, including a new language like English. Somehow, poetry was effortless, perhaps because of its purity. I could exist in poetry but not in prose, because prose is heavy and there is so much of it – there can be so many different voices and narratives. I wrote my first novel in my twenties in New Zealand, and I made it a multi-voiced novel, which I think was too ambitious for a first-time novelist writing in a new language. That was symptomatic of my struggle to find a voice in English. Perhaps I have truly found my voice in the kind of narrative non-fiction – a hybrid form that combines poetry and prose – I have arrived at with Border and Twelve Minutes of Love.
I found it difficult to find information on the two novels you published in New Zealand.
They were not published in Britain. I was thirty when I moved to Scotland and discovered that the literary gulf between Britain and New Zealand is barely breached. It was a shock. Not only was I beginning from scratch in Britain, even though I had a body of published work in New Zealand, but I also discovered that New Zealand writers as a rule were not known in Britain, apart from Katherine Mansfield, from a previous era, and perhaps Janet Frame.
Has moving around so much affected the day-to-day pragmatics of writing?
My writing comes out of physical places. I become obsessed with a particular place, then stories and characters and themes begin to emerge from that place as if by osmosis. It’s the same for me as a living being. I am sensitive to the place where I’m living. I’m not a natural nomad and can’t live out of a suitcase. For a while my life was quite unsettled and that pulled me back. When I was living in New Zealand I was constantly moving flats and cities, constantly looking for my place. I never stopped writing, of course, but it was a struggle to remain grounded and I lost a lot of energy in that struggle.
You said you are an orderly writer. Do you have a strict routine here?
It’s a simple routine: I’m in here all day every day.
This might be a bit of a stretch: is there a connection between writing in a variety of different forms and living a peripatetic life?
It might be a bit of a stretch. If I think why I have written in so many different forms, it’s more a product of the way my imagination works. I have never felt any sense of dutifulness towards a particular form. Chekov said, ‘If you want to work on your art, work on your life.’ If you are lucky enough to have a good lifespan as a writer then I think each book reflects the stage you’re at. I was only able to write Border because of the twenty years I spent writing in different forms. I am not a self-analytical writer; my relationship to my writing is instinctive. Before I know why I am writing a book, I am already writing it. I become obsessed and pursue that obsession to the end. Only then do I look back and think, oh my God, how did that happen?
That makes sense after reading Border. I got the sense that there must have been something that kept you going, above and beyond the moral responsibility towards the border people. Did you become addicted to collecting stories?
I could not operate purely on moral responsibility. I remember thinking at the end of the final journey for the book, my god, I’ve got so much material, but I just sense there is so much more there; I could do this for the rest of my life; why should I stop now? I knew instantly why: I felt I could carry no more. I had reached saturation point. But, yes, it was like a high. I wanted to hear the next story, and the next one and the next one. A mountain ranger in a Greek village said to me, ‘be careful not to get addicted to story-hunting, because it is like climbing. It only takes once…’ I think she was right. From the start, I was daunted by this journey – the enormity of it – but I also knew I was prepared to pay almost any price to get to the border, and get to the real story of it.
When did you first go there?
And you made several trips?
Three trips altogether.
Did you do any specific reading before you set out?
The collecting of books and material ran parallel to the physical travel. For the first time I read the collected essays of Georgi Markov, who was a dissident writer and the victim of the famous umbrella assassination on Waterloo Bridge in 1978. I had not read the work for which he was killed, Bulgarian Reportages in Absentia. The year after his assassination, it came out in English as The Truth that Killed. I hope it is reissued at some point. I read the complete essays and they are stunning. He is a great writer, and he fuelled my fascination and my anger, even though he doesn’t write about the border specifically. He writes about totalitarian society; his essays are often portraits of places and communities in the 1950s and 60s.
Did he give you confidence to write Border?
Well, he couldn’t help me with my task. I had to create Border from scratch and find the right form for it. The nature of the border zone is multi-layered and non-linear and the way people narrated stories to me was also non-linear – time-planes were mixed up, and that is true to the nature of the region. In the forest you find strata from antiquity to the Cold War, so I was aware that the form of the book would have to accommodate that.
Did you write in between travelling to the region?
Yes, it was a continuous process.
Did you know much about the region before you set out?
These are ethnographically highly specific regions and I came to them as a partly informed outsider. Everything that I was discovering felt exciting, like some of the folk motifs. For instance, I had never witnessed fire-worship before. The way people spoke was a challenge, in terms of how to render it into English without losing the authenticity. The source languages were Bulgarian, Turkish and Greek, with dialect variations. That’s why I ended up using some of the regional words, because they are a sensory part of the story of the landscape.
You write that ‘there is a strong spirit of mysticism that runs through the Bulgarian psyche’. Where does that spirit come from?
That predilection for the mystical, which comes hand in hand with a spirit of fatalism, is not only Bulgarian but Balkan. I became aware of it in Albania recently, when researching this new book. There, I saw the pagan custom of hanging garlic above your doorway to ward off evil spirits. In the ‘Tomb of Bastet’ chapter, I tell a true story of totalitarian mysticism. Totalitarianism added to what was already there, which comes from the peasant roots of Balkan culture. Despite centuries of Christianity and Islam, then obligatory Atheism, people’s thinking remains tied in with the land, with seasonality, with oral tradition, and with the fatalistic idea that there are greater forces at work. In Bulgaria, and in Albania too, totalitarianism intensified that, because it was almost a form of witchcraft; a kind of supernatural tyranny, evil without a human face…well, that was the effect it produced on people, that there were forces you could not contend with, so you might as well have a lucky charm and go see a fortune-teller. It explains why customs like fire-worship have survived after so much repression. Some things just refuse to die.
Why have you decided to travel to Macedonia and Albania for your next book?
It’s where the two ancient lakes of Ohrid and Prespa are, and they are the focus of the new book. My grandmother was from Ohrid, and that’s a starting point. Like Border, this is a psycho-geographic journey, a pilgrimage of sorts. It’s a bewitching and disturbing part of the world, but I’m above all interested in how each of us carries ancestral legacies, how we carry landscape and collective memory, and how that can make us well or unwell.
As you said, the border fence between Bulgaria and Turkey has been re-established again. Was that happening when you were there?
It was being built while I was there. The locals joked that because the government and the firm contracted to do the fence were so corrupt, they were going to fill their pockets before they finished it. People were cynical about the fence as a project. None of the locals thought it was a good idea, even the ones who were anti-refugee.
And its main purpose is to keep refugees out of Europe?
Yes. Greece got there first. They built a fence with Turkey, and Bulgaria followed. It’s not electrified. Apparently, it’s quite easy to cross. People can cut out holes in it with shears. But it’s off-putting, and it’s actually higher than the original.
How have people on the border reacted to the refugees?
The whole spectrum of reactions, from wanting to help – that’s the minority – to indifference, to active hostility.
From the outside, it seems strange that anyone would support a new physical border when the old one – and all the exclusion it represented – is still a part of living memory.
Not everyone is able to make those connection between the past and the present. And from the locals’ point of view, the new fence is there to stop incomers, whereas the old fence was to stop us getting out. This Us and Them thinking is very blinding and self-wounding. It stops you from seeing the similarities between people and situations; it doesn’t help when the government speaks in those terms too.
You write about the divisive Revival Process in Bulgaria. How did that change the cultural and ethnic diversity of the country?
This was an episode of ethnic cleansing – a horrible term for a horrible intention – on the part of the Communist government. It started with a state-orchestrated nationalistic campaign against the ethnic Turks, who were 10% of the population and had lived there for centuries. Muslim names were to be forcibly replaced with ‘Christian’ ones, including the names of the dead. It was state terror against a peaceful minority. 350,000 ethnic Turks emigrated to Turkey, becoming refugees overnight, the largest forced movement of people in Europe since WWII. It was the summer of 1989, months before East European Communism collapsed, and just as toxic nationalism was being stoked in Yugoslavia by Milosevic. The assault on the Bulgarian Turks was the last mass crime of European Communism, but it was followed by worse crimes in Bosnia. The state-owned tobacco industry crashed as a result – most industry workers were ethnic Turks – so it was not just evil, it was also stupid and self-wounding.
And now Britain wants to establish a hard border with mainland Europe. What did the Balkan people think of our decision to leave the EU?
My impressions are episodic because I don’t live there. But some of the reactions I have heard in Bulgaria and Macedonia are that the British are spoilt and don’t know what they’ve got. I think the sad internal reality – that the British were lied to, tricked by demagogues and by their own fears – is understandably lost on non-Brits.
How do you think our leaving the EU might affect the arts?
Negatively, as in all spheres of life. However, Scotland has an extraordinary tradition in the humanities, and I want to be optimistic.
Nationalism has obviously been disastrous in the Balkans. Do you think nationalism is a failed idea, even in Scotland where some progressives practise a relatively benign form of it?
The border of my book, and all borders in the Balkans, with their desperate dramas, are almost entirely the product of national- isms and other failed ideologies. I suppose I do think that nationalism is a failed ideology. I am not sure what benign nationalism means, to me it’s almost an oxymoron. Love of one’s country, like love of one’s adopted country, is a deep and necessarily complex emotion, always evolving, always reflecting back on itself. It should not be confused with the group mentality of nationalist passion. I mean, just look at the twentieth century, its main symbol was the marching rally! Maybe that is why the Independence Referendum didn’t excite me; it chilled me, with its scenes of flag-waving, the mass ecstasy, the righteousness of those rallies with their barely concealed menace that if you didn’t join in with the beautiful progressive people, you were somehow an enemy, a reactionary. [There was an] Us and Them mentality that spread like wild fire. But, above all, I was chilled by the manipulative language used by some politicians, one of whom recently starred in the state-controlled media of a state where journalists are routinely murdered. Far from progressive, this strikes me as a betrayal. It is also very self-revealing.
Scottish civic nationalism is the product of Scottish civic society and its admirable humanist tradition. That’s what has kept it clean in the sense that it has not been taken to its bitter end, and the bitter end of all nationalism is violence. I think we are all becoming aware of this sobering reality, now that various nationalisms are on the rise in the world, and it is clear that some of them are assuming malignant forms. In Scotland, we have been fortunate and we therefore owe it to ourselves, as a society, to always question herd behaviour and group-think, even when it feels seductive, which it often does.
Earlier, you said that you felt at home in Scotland but you didn’t know why. Do you have a sense now of why you feel at home?
Yes, I do. It’s the people. At every level, I felt included and welcomed from the beginning. For me, the Scots and the society that’s been created here is truly exceptional. Scot- land is a country with which I can engage imaginatively. That seems to have created a sense of home for me. I was a city person so Edinburgh spoke to me for the obvious reason that it is a great European city, but, equally, The Highlands feel wonderfully rich as a home. It is an old world and the stories are written into the landscape. It is the same sense I had in that forested border zone: the landscape here speaks to me, not least because of its wounds, its secrets, and its ghosts.