Kapka Kassabova: My mission as a writer is healing 

About borders and bridges in Southeast Europe, about the natural and human treasures waiting to be discovered: an interview with Kapka Kassabova, author of the books Border, To The Lake

The Bulgarian-Greek border area (source: Nedret Benzet)

About borders and bridges in Southeast Europe, about the natural and human treasures waiting to be discovered: an interview with Kapka Kassabova, author of the books Border, To The Lake

Smaranda Schiopu & Vladimir Mitev

We spoke with the writer Kapka Kassabova in early March 2022, on the occasion of the Romanian translation of her book, Border. By then the war in neighbouring Ukraine had already been raging for two weeks. We talked about borders, the Balkans, war, but also about the things that unite us in this corner of the world. She reminded me, and she reminds us all, that continuing to be witnesses and offer solidarity is our collective responsibility.

Kapka Kassabova is a multifaceted writer, moving from poetry to fiction and non-fiction, yet she is probably best known for her spellbinding blend of personal and local history travel writing. Originally from Sofia, Bulgaria, she emigrated with her family to New Zealand in the late 1980s and after graduating from university, she started on her own travels and settled in the Scottish Highlands. 

Choosing an occupation previously reserved for men – the travel writer – Kapka Kassabova can sit next to other authors who have made their way to Southeast Europe, such as Mary Edith Durham or Rebecca West. What makes her stand apart is her deeper connection with the mysteries of the Balkans which translate into a more nuanced understanding of the contradictions in this area. 

In 2017, she published the book Border – A Journey To The Edge of Europe, awarded all over Europe. In it, Kassabova embarks on a journey along the border between Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, documenting the present and the past of the towns and villages at this southeastern end of the former Iron Curtain. Before the collapse of the USSR, many lost their lives trying to reach the dreamy West. Today, part of that border is the border between the European Union and Turkey, another line separating freedom of movement beneficiaries and refugees seeking a better world.

On each side of the current borders, the writer encounters shepherds, former border guards, traders, farmers, refugees or even human traffickers. They talk about lost lives, but also about the symbolic violence of physical boundaries and their effects across generations.

In her most recent book, To The Lake, Kapka Kassabova explores her maternal grandmother’s roots, around lakes Ohrid and Prespa, a geographically contested area, subject of international quarrels among Greece, North Macedonia and Albania. 

This interview was published on 8 April 2022 at the Romanian cultural magazine Scena9.

Border was translated and published into Romanian and Ukrainian about the same time, in December 2021. A few months later, Russia invaded Ukraine. What does this war on borders tell us today, more than 30 years after the former Soviet republics proclaimed their independence?

We have to talk about Ukraine, how can we not. Border is called Kordon in Ukrainian and it came out just a couple of months ago and instead of me going there to meet my publishers and my readers and make new connections in a creative way, we are now witnessing the destruction of their world and of our world, as we knew it. And now we are forced to make connections in a war situation and we are rising to the occasion as an European community. I think humanity has really made a stand here, that’s very clear. And I think we should take heart from that, really, because that is the future. 

We can see that with Border and To the Lake, there is an increasing interest from international readers for our area, Southeast Europe. Where do you think this interest comes from?

I think the Iron Curtain of the mind has fallen, indeed it has taken a generation for this Iron Curtain ignorance of the collective Western consciousness about the Balkans in particular to fall. The Balkans are distinct from that broader entity of Eastern Europe, they have a distinctive flavour and history which is different from our other Eastern European family. And there is also the question of nature and the kind of natural wonders of the region, which I think is one route of discovery for a lot of westerners, and for ourselves as well. When I started travelling more widely for Border and then To the Lake, in the Southern Balkans, I just kept falling in love with these places, with these mountains, these rivers, these forests and these kinds of embedded ways of life and I don’t mean just villages; I mean the human connection with nature is still very much alive in the Balkans. And in fact, when I was writing my latest book, which kind of follows a river, and I looked up rivers of the Balkans, it turns out that the last unspoiled or relatively unspoiled rivers in Europe are all there. 

Returning to my books, Border and To the Lake and the response, I think the response was to the humanity of the stories; I think a lot of Westerners have a fascination with the Balkans but they don’t have a way in. It’s just too confusing, there are too many clichés, like the mis-named Balkan Wars which were the Yugoslav wars, not the Balkan Wars; we know that the Balkan Wars were in 1912 – 1913 and we owe to them the borders that we have now, in the Balkans. And they were paid with some terrible prices.

I was actually surprised that after Border there has been a kind of trail of visitors, readers, who have followed the border trail looking for the villages and maybe the experiences that I describe in it; and it surprised me, because some of these stories are dark, and the border of the book is a descent into hell, it’s a descent into the collective memory of that border. It started off as my own journey to this militarised zone of my childhood, with this kind of a personal return and, because I think all honest works of art have to have something personal at stake for the artist, that was its stake for me, this kind of anger and the sense of injustice that I carry in me since childhood about what borders do to us. We should be quite clear in distinguishing between violent borders and voluntary borders, because there are borders of sovereignty and self-definition and respect for another’s space, and that is what, at the moment, is being violated and attacked in Ukraine, the very right of the Ukrainians to exist. That is a different border from what we are talking about here which are violent borders; the quiet violence and the overt violence of borders, and the aftermath. As a poet, I was always interested in the invisible forces that shape our lives; what happens before an event and what remains after an event, because the aftermath is generational. 

You left Bulgaria when you were a teenager and you have lived in New Zealand and now Scotland, do you see yourself as a bridge builder across continents and countries and how are you connecting these across large distances? 

I’m interested in the timeless encounter with place and for me, places are faces and faces are places, I’m always interested in the human experience, but I’m also very inclined to fall under the spell of a place. And each book for me starts with falling under the spell of a particular place; so Border started like that. I went to this border village for a fire-walking festival and visited the remains of the Iron Curtain with a friend, and I was just struck, there was something in the atmosphere of that place. Obviously it’s beautiful, it’s near the Black Sea, but I was struck by this atmosphere, because I am very sensitive to the character of a place, the emanations if you like. I felt immediately as we were driving to The Village in the Valley, the opening chapter in the book; we were driving down a forest reserve and there was a long drive down this broken road to reach this last village, last border village, and it’s always dark there because of the forest, and I really felt that we were descending. It was a descent into the world of the border. And I like Dante-like descents, into hidden worlds; and so, it’s not that I set out to be a bridge builder, I simply follow my instinct as a poet and ultimately I think my mission as a writer is healing. I didn’t know this until now, but my new book is called Elixir and writing this book I realised what my mission has been all these years, it is healing. The whole experience of meeting these people of the border, going to these forests and meeting their unmarked graves and trying to unearth the truth felt like an act of exorcism, a collective exorcism. Because someone has to do it. And because truth telling has always been one of my obsessions, since I grew up with so many taboos, political taboos, even the word Granița was a kind of taboo; you know that. It’s a word that was like barbed wire in itself.

It does sound impenetrable and the word we have in Romanian for the border guards, grăniceri, it’s just terrifying, it gives you this feeling that you’re not going to escape a grănicer. I was also wondering what is the emotion that carries you back to Bulgaria or to Macedonia, to your ancestral home, rather than to New Zealand or Scotland, your adoptive homes? 

I think what takes me back to the Balkans again and again is my wounds which are not really mine, they are ancestral, collective wounds and it just happens that I feel them, I carry them, I’m aware of them. My wounds and my love and my curiosity, because growing up behind the Iron Curtain it also meant that we couldn’t get to know our neighbours. And we couldn’t get to know ourselves, because symbolically the barbs of the Iron Curtain are turned inwards…

There was no mirror… 

Yes! So, I think the culture of the Iron Curtain, the border culture, is a culture of lies and my generation grew up with that culture of lies. And the culture of lies discourages self-knowledge, collectively and personally, because it encourages complacency, ignorance, forgetting and violence. And it’s this sort of quiet writer’s mission that is my activism which makes me go back and tune in into these places and really listen. The Balkans is a huge umbrella, it’s a very vast and diverse region of nations, and what we do share is this extraordinarily rich ecosystem of cultures, nature, ways of life, which are still there. Much has been destroyed, especially by the Yugoslav Wars but much remains, and I think we owe that remaining richness to the richness of our nature because nature harbours worlds. And there are so many untold stories in the Balkans, because we have been suppressed, because we have had so many crises in the 20th century, so much remains to be told. And as a storyteller, for me that’s kind of a treasure chest, I could easily dedicate the rest of my life to writing about the human experience with a very clear setting in the Balkans.

Kapka Kassabova speaking to an old woman in the Bulgarian-Turkish border area (source: Kapka Kassabova)

In my travels in Northern Bulgaria, from Vidin to Oryahovo, I noticed a lot of empty villages, similar to the empty villages in Border. So I was wondering  what would be a hopeful vision for them, because it’s quite sad to drive for hours and not see anyone. And I had the same feeling reading some of the passages in Border – people have left, there is no work for them, there is not a lot for them to do. What do we hope for in these places?

Yes, it’s an eerie feeling, like driving through post-apocalyptic scenery. And there is something wrong with this, because humans should be where nature is alive. And I think it’s a symptom of what’s gone wrong politically, socially and economically with that region but also with the region of my border and it’s also a symptom of what has gone wrong in the human – nature relationship. I think the hope is that somehow, we will reconnect with these forgotten places and we might even come to a point collectively where it’s a matter of survival to rediscover our roots, which are in the earth. For centuries people were busy growing things here, raising large animal herds and prospering, it was a fertile area, there was trade so the feeling that we get when we go to those places now, of something being wrong, is correct. I feel quite strongly about this and I dedicated my new book to this, Elixir, to the relationship between us humans and the world of plants, in particular, the power of the earth to heal itself and to heal us. It’s something we have forgotten. I think we will be forced to remember it, I think the pandemic was a kind of wake up call to that and I think we will continue down this painful road of remembering. 

I noticed how in Border you use a lot of local mythologies to sometimes open chapters or sometimes they’re woven throughout the book,  like a chorus announcing a theme; I was wondering if you knew them from before or were they a revelation as you were researching? They convey a sense of mystery but also now that we’ve been talking about it, I see there’s also a connection to the Earth itself and to old ways where the Earth was important, since a lot of the mythologies are about spirits of nature. 

I discovered them there and discovery is what keeps me in a state of passion, obsessions and devotion during the writing of a book. I always start from a place of not knowing; I didn’t know any of the places that I visited in Border so it was a first time experience for me. I was on the one hand fascinated and enamoured with everything that I discovered and on the other hand, I was daunted by the sheer richness, density and complexity of these layered histories of the border and the border people. And at the same time history was happening before my eyes, as refugees carrying their lives in bags were literally popping up in the forest, people in a state of shock, which is what we are witnessing right now, people who don’t even know what has happened,  as their world has collapsed. And I was faced with this daunting task of capturing these multiple time planes and also these multiple ways of life. The way of life that is still very close to nature, to the seasonal cycle, which is how human communities have lived forever until very recently, until industrialisation, which in the Balkans came quite late. And I think this is why some of these old ways of communing with nature, the fire rituals that I describe in Strandja, survive, while they have been destroyed in wealthier, more industrialised societies in Western Europe. And this is not to romanticise it, it is a fact and it is part of the psyche of the land and part of our collective psyche as well. And I think those mini-chapters were for me a kind of offering of a small poem or a small reflection on a feature of these lands, on a feature of the border culture, or of the mountain culture, that I found very striking and symbolic. So, for example, the cheshma… in Romanian it is called cheshma, isn’t it?

Yes, it’s cișmea, there is always a place in villages called La Cișmea, – as a meeting point or as a place where people would go to bring water to their house …it’s exactly the same. 

It is such a symbol of the Balkans, the roadside water fountain and in a way, how do you know you’ve arrived in the Balkans? Because every few kilometres there is a cheshma. And even if you don’t meet anyone for hours, you will meet a cheshma. It’s always a kind of meeting, you stop, you have an experience.

It’s what remains after people…

Yes! Yes, and what is still there if you want to return. The cheshma is still there. So in a way, these kinds of mini-chapters are points of connection in the narrative, as you said, it’s like a refrain, like a chorus, because the Balkans are a polyphony; we are a polyphonic culture, we have forgotten it because of these Iron Curtains between us and I think we are slowly remembering it. We have no choice. We have no choice but to remember how connected we are.

You often travel alone and it was somewhere in the Rhodope Mountains that you had a scary moment while you were travelling; how does the world feel like to a solo female traveller/researcher , do you worry a lot when you’re on the road?

I tend to alternate between reckless courage and feeling invulnerable, I think enthusiasm gives you courage. Being in love with what you’re doing makes you brave and I’m generally friendly to the world, I always have been. And then I have moments of terror, when I suddenly feel ‘this was a very bad idea and now I can’t turn back, I’ve gone too far’. When you are in a strange place, you can’t really read the landscape, all you feel is a kind of menacing atmosphere that adds to the feeling of vulnerability at times and obviously as a woman, it’s probably healthy to feel afraid from time to time. But at the same time, there are actually great advantages to being a solo woman if your aim is to talk to people and to get close to them, because you are seen as non-threatening. I couldn’t write these books if I hadn’t been greeted everywhere so warmly, so openly and so whole-heartedly even. I also think women are better listeners and I have gradually learned to be a listener, which really means not imposing your agenda, arriving as a beginner; because if we arrive and we are full of ourselves and full of what we know about this place about these people, we are probably not going to learn very much. 

While you were researching the book, travelling, did you read media at all? Do you think local or national media in Bulgaria or the other countries bring any understanding of what life is there, in the same way that a book does?

The short answer is no. I follow very little media. I follow it at the moment because we all do, because it’s a duty, but generally I don’t set my calendar, my compass, my books or my way of life by the media at all. When I’m on the road, researching a book, it takes me about two years to write it, a combination of research, at home and research on the ground, so I generally shut myself away from all external distractions. And because books are not abstract, they deal with very intimate, visceral experiences of people’s lives, that’s a very absorbing world and I need to be fully immersed. I’ve always been drawn to an experiential dimension of life because I think that’s where truth lies and that’s what truly changes us, experience rather than ideas and opinions. And since I’ve been doing this for a long time now, I trust myself to connect with the right places and people at the right time, so that some kind of truth will emerge. And because it’s the long view that I take, the long view of events, of trauma, of the human experience, the media is not appropriate for me as the media exists in a different dimension from the one that I operate in. 

When I finished writing Border, I felt changed. I actually went through some kind of personal transformation, in the act of writing and in the act of meeting these people in these places. I saw Bulgaria differently, I saw the Balkans differently, as if a veil had fallen and I could really see what the Balkans are, what this border is, what we are as human beings. Ultimately I set off to write about something very painful, the Iron Curtain and the border that still separates the world between those with European passports and those who were coming with plastic bags and who were Muslims and had the wrong passports and who were dying in the border forest or living in a no man’s land as refugees – that border in a way continues to be an Iron Curtain; it continues to be unjust and violent. I  set off to write about a very painful thing and I ended up experiencing connectedness, with people, across time, across languages even.  And I was really this uplifting feeling that what it all comes down to in the end is that we are what we love. A human being, at the end, when all is said and done is what she loves. We are not what we hate, we are not our ideas, we are not even this moment in time; we are what we love. And so, we are now forced to remember in a way, what we love. What we love and who we love. That’s a lesson that the border taught me.  

Photo: Kapka Kassabova (source: Kapka Kassabova)

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