In northern Greece, writer Kapka Kassabova finds herself running down a hillside in terror. “A curse fell over the scene,” is how she describes what happened in Border. “Time stopped, my heart stopped. Then I woke up and broke into a run, down the steep road. I’d never run like this in my life.”
Her panic is generated in part by the behaviour of her shifty guide, Ziko, a former people-smuggler from the Bulgarian side of the Rhodope Mountains, in part by the frontier landscape itself which, she writes, “hummed with malignant intent”.
Lost on the mountainside, she finally recovers when she encounters a woman and her two companions loading loaves of bread into a small boat. She realises she was in the wrong and goes on to ask Ziko’s forgiveness. “It wasn’t just Ziko who was full of shadows,” she explains. “I was too, and my shadows were even more treacherous than his because they were undeclared. He owned up to everything he did in life, but I had projected my own darkness onto him.”
The incident is emblematic of much of what Kassabova describes in the critically acclaimed Border, which is dominated by implicit violence, the supernatural and divided lives. Part memoir, part travel book, part poem, the book, published in 2015, flows not only from the author’s fascination with the meaning of national boundaries, but her upbringing in then-socialist Bulgaria and fluent Bulgarian.
Kassabova, 45, emigrated to New Zealand with her family in 1992, but now lives just outside Inverness in Scotland. From her perch in the Highlands she has morphed from a poet to an increasingly important travel writer, who is challenging perceptions about the Balkans.
“I increasingly see Balkan cultures and peoples as a whole — in other words, as a distinct civilisational realm, and only then as a peninsula with separate nation-states”
In Border, the focus is on the three-way frontier between Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey: the ancient plain known as Thrace and its surrounding mountain ranges. Her subject matter is the people of this area, who live and die, often forgotten, in the shadow of the borders. “It is the careless national and regional politics that deeply affect the peripheries, which make for sadness and isolation — the sadness of missed opportunities, of depopulation,” Kassabova says in an interview over email. “The border regions of the book, especially in Bulgaria and Turkey, are ignored and worse, exploited (through logging, quarrying and dumping) by the corrupt centres of power and their industrial cronies.”
She charts the shifting fate of borders — hard and soft — as physical obstructions holding back, or channelling, the movement of people. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the militarised Bulgaria-Turkey border was a deadly crossing point for young people fleeing the Eastern Bloc. These days, the same border is the southern flank of the European Union and the pressures are reversed, as refugees from Syria and Iraq, aided by human traffickers, strive to reach Europe.
When Kassabova was researching Border, the migrant crisis that exploded in 2015 was just beginning. But she speaks to Kurdish and Syrian refugees during her travels. “I looked across at the skinny girls next to me,” she writes of one encounter in western Turkey. “And felt everything with them: the humiliation, the injustice, the mindfuck of having to hate where you come from but having nothing new to love, your parents desperate to give you a better life struggling against impossible odds. The sensation of being invisible, unwanted, speechless, a disembodied soul waiting in one of history’s drafty corridors.”
Its haunting descriptions, honesty and powerful evocation of life on the edge has meant that since its publication last year, Border has scooped several prestigious prizes. Not only did it win the Stanford Dolman travel book of the year, but also the inaugural Highland Book Prize and Scottish Book of the Year at the Saltire Literary Awards.
Kassabova’s next book is another travelogue about the Balkans, focusing this time on Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa, which straddle Macedonia and Albania. Her grandmother was from Ohrid. “I’m exploring questions of migration and syncretism, borders again and the invisible ancestral baggage we all carry,” she says. “I’m interested in how the private politics of families link with the broader politics in the Balkans, as we continue to witness them today in all their messiness and extravagance.”
While she has lived outside the Balkans for her entire adult life, the region defines her writing, whether it is poetry, fiction or non-fiction. Kassabova’s first novel, Reconaissance, was set in New Zealand, but described the adventures of a Bulgarian backpacker, musing on the state of Bulgaria and the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 2008, she published Street Without a Name, a memoir of her childhood growing up in Bulgaria mixed in with descriptions of the contemporary reality she has encountered in more recent travels.
“Much of my emotional and imaginative make-up remains Balkan and East European, even if my intellect and my world-view have been shaped by an Anglo-Saxon model,” says Kassabova. “The Balkans are where my love and my anger is. And I increasingly see Balkan cultures and peoples as a whole — in other words, as a distinct civilisational realm, and only then as a peninsula with separate nation-states.”
She charts the shifting fate of borders — hard and soft — as physical obstructions holding back, or channelling, the movement of people
When researching, Kassabova travels alone, relying on her language skills and ability to listen in order to meet the people about whom she writes so evocatively. She does not reject comparisons with Edith Durham or Rebecca West, the great 20th century female travel writers of the Balkans. “I am not especially interested in gender (and Durham and West weren’t either, that’s why they travelled and wrote in the way they did, which is to say, like men),” says Kapka. “[But] yes, I do see a continuity, simply because it is so rare (even now!) for women writers to explore the Balkans in solo journeys. The key difference is that I am a native of the Balkans.”
Asked which contemporary Balkans books she admires, Kassabova names Faruk Šehić‘s Quiet Flows the Una, a coming of age novel war novel; Olja Savičević‘s Farewell Cowboy, a tale of families set in Croatia’s Split; Sofija Stefanovica’s memoir Miss Ex-Yugoslavia; and Elvira Dones’ Sworn Virgin about Albanian women who take a vow of chastity and live as men.
Travel writers are often criticised for playing fast and loose with the facts. While Kassabova says nothing in Border is fictionalised, she adds that there is a higher truth for which she strives. “There is an important ethical aspect to all non-fiction: the writer enters a contract with herself and with her reader to tell the truth,” she says. “I’m talking here about the broader truth of a situation and of a subject. This is very different from reporting, from diary-writing, or any other form of literal data-gathering.”
The beginning of Kassabova’s literary career was in poetry and she has published several collections of poems since her first volume in 1997. Recent years have seen her move increasingly into writing non-fiction prose — for which she has ultimately enjoyed more critical acclaim. She says, however that she has not left her poetry behind.
“Because I see literature not as a bunch of formal categories, but as distinct ways of seeing, I’d say [I was a] poet,” she says. “Fundamentally I work with symbols, patterns, and stories hidden within other stories. Which is a poetic way of seeing the world.”