Between Lightness and Shadow: A Conversation with Kapka Kassabova

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Kapka Kassabova is a writer of narrative nonfiction, poetry, and fiction. Her work explores the alchemy between places and people, geopolitical “peripheries,” nexus of cultural confluence and conflict, and geographies both inner and outer. Her nonfiction books, Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe (Graywolf Press, 2017) and To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace (Graywolf Press, 2020), explore the ancient trans-boundary human geography of the southern Balkans.

Kassabova has long been a wanderer, through places and languages. Born in November 1973 in Sofia, Bulgaria to scientist parents, Kassabova studied at the French Lycée in Sofia. In 1992, she emigrated with her family to New Zealand, where she studied French and Russian Literature at Otago University, and English Literature and Creative Writing at Victoria University of Wellington. In 2005 Kassabova moved to Edinburgh, Scotland where she wrote her first book of narrative nonfiction, Border. Her reviews and essays have appeared in The Guardian, The New Statesman, Granta, Tin House, Aeon, and Vogue, among others.

Her latest book, To the Lake, is an exploration of the human geography of two ancient lakes, as joined by underground rivers, Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa are a biosphere an unknown millions of years old, now partitioned among three countries: Macedonia, Albania and Greece.

Kassabova and I spoke via phone in June, she from her rural home in the Highlands of Scotland, and I from my rural home in the mountains of New Mexico. We chatted about how odd it is to live apart from the world, even as the global pandemic and increasingly global Black Lives Matters uprisings prove a fundamental interconnectedness. To the Lake fills a similar, uncanny space—a book about the Balkans and its ongoing legacy of conflict that is both a microcosm and also a metaphor for the undeniable Balkanization of the world at large.

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The Rumpus: After years of being a self-described wanderer, how did you know you’d found home?

Kapka Kassabova: I’m really fascinated by this whole question of home. Once you leave your original homeland, even if that’s just your parents home, there is a search. Consciously or subconsciously I have explored this through all my work, since my early writings, my earliest poetry and more recently, in To the Lake and in Border. I’ve explored that relationship, that chemistry, between me and these places. There is the ancestral sort of home, and then there is the home of the imagination, the home that we choose later in life. And often they’re not the same thing. But there’s also this circular movement that we can have, searching, which is really circling the heart of the matter, as it were.

I don’t know if you’re a fan of Jorge Luis Borges, but he said, and I’m paraphrasing, that after years of traveling the world, cities and rivers and crossing various landscapes, trying to map the world, at the end of his life he sees that what he’s done is traced the lineaments of his own face. It’s a very poetic sort of metaphor for this search, possibly a self-centered one, and I think in my search, in my writing and in my life, I’ve looked for something that would feel like home on a personal level, but that’s always been tied in with how I feel connected to the collective.

It’s been interesting living in the Highlands. First you connect with the place on a subconscious level before you understand. For me, that initial deep connection, that sense of coming home, even though I’d never been here before, I have later understood that as a kind of return to some primal landscape of childhood, a kind of Balkan psychic landscape, almost as if there is something Baltic about the Scottish Highlands and vice versa. Ultimately, this deep intimate relationship between the human being and her environment is a mystery. We can only hope to understand it up to a point. I guess that’s what I try to do in To the Lake.

Rumpus: Which is something like an epigenetic homecoming, or in your words, the ancestral home as opposed to a personal home.

Kassabova: That’s a nice way of putting it. And I do like this whole concept of epigenetics, which is still quite new, isn’t it?

Rumpus: I think you used the word exactly once in the book. If To the Lake is an epigenetic return then I’m curious, in writing about the experience, do you feel like you’ve achieved any wholeness, or have a new understanding of your inherited pain?

Kassabova: Yes. Sure. But you know, it’s a process. I’ve come to see my writing, and also just the business of living, as a sort of alchemy. In To the Lake there was an alchemical journey of plumbing the depths, and also of purification, a sort of psychic purification.

I believe that when you do that kind of psychic work by yourself, you’re also doing it for others. You may not know who you’re doing it for, whether it’s the dead or the living; it’s not even so important. This kind of work, of peeling back layers, ancestrally and collectively, is a kind of generational work. It’s not linear. Time is not linear when it comes to this sort of inquiry. The dead and the living meet in certain power points, power places, and I think these two lakes were revealed to me to be a kind of power point, a power point in time if you like. We all have such places. And this work, it’s the work of individuation. And that’s required work. As writers, we have a moral responsibility to do it.

So to answer your question, it’s not so straightforward is it? It’s a process. You come through one layer, and then, through a process of purification, or perhaps sacrifice or surrender, you discover that there are further layers yet. And it’s almost the task of an artist to constantly remove yourself in this way.

Rumpus: Interesting, because To the Lake didn’t seem to have a true sense of beginning, or of linear time. Insofar as there is a present, there is also an inroad to the past. So, how do you conceive of the beginning? How do you know where to begin?

Kassabova: It’s a very good question, isn’t it? Several things have to be there to start with. There has to be a sense of something calling. Something that compels me to go there, to a place or to somewhere far away, but that place might be completely internal. In my case there is the lake, or the border, places I feel compelled to explore. But I think that compulsion came because I sensed, from an early encounter with those places, that they were psychically very rich.

As a writer, I am instinctually on the lookout for these power points where I feel elements converge, both visible and invisible. I’m interested in this connection of experience, but I’m also prone to falling in love with places and sensing the potential, the untapped depth, both from a narrative point of view, and an emotional point of view.

And, it’s also got something to do with anger, or a sense of justice or an inborn sense of intolerance and injustice. That there is some unfinished business and so a desire, not in any moral sense but a kind of spiritual desire, for redressing some sort of balance. Seeking some sort of original wholeness. The original whole of the psyche, the completeness of the psyche that we all have at birth and that is fractured throughout life and experience.

My primary method is storytelling because I love discovering stories within stories. And while that is my method, my primary motivation is this need to gather the broken pieces of our life, all of our lives. That’s what writers do. We just have different ways of doing it.

Rumpus: Maybe this is an odd question, but what is the role of the page in all of this, as a place where the alchemical can occur? Is the page also a place you feel called to?

Kassabova: It’s a nice thought. As a reader, the page is a place and I go there everyday, many times, different pages of different books. I almost don’t think about it because it’s such an integral part of my life. My favorite place is the page. And ultimately, these places come to me; whether it’s the lakes or the liminal space of the border, I go there because I want to see these places on the page as well.

But having said this, I no longer fetishize this idea of the page as the ultimate destination. I probably used to, as a younger writer and reader, but I no longer fetishize the idea of language. Now, the experience of something is primary. I’ve become really interested in how experience can transform us, and that includes the experience of reading something.

But writing Border, and experiencing the material of Border, transformed me. I’ve become interested in this idea of transformation: how can an experience or an encounter actually have a deeply alchemical effect on your psyche? I’m interested in how that is different from an intellectual idea that’s safely experienced at your desk. So I’m interested in how these two worlds meet. The mental world, and the embodied.

Rumpus: Those two concepts were beautifully blurred in To the Lake, to the point where I wasn’t even sure of the difference of inner and outer landscape. One was the pathway to the other. Can you describe what that experience was like, then, of writing in such a way that the outer converges with the inner? I imagine it can be disorienting.

Kassabova: It’s a process. And I suppose a question of energetics and exchange. When you meet someone and receive their life story, especially when it’s in a place that is not really your place, when you are a visitor or a guest—and we might argue that this is the case for all of us who are on this planet, in this life we are just guests, and we should be grateful.

The energetics of an embodied experience, when you are present with your whole being, not just with your intellectual mind full of preconceptions, and perhaps a sense of superiority, which is, I think, what happens in academic writing or in the writing of history, there is a very top-down approach. I’m interested, to use a Zen Buddhist term, in being a beginner. The idea of being in a situation or an encounter in a completely receptive mode, rather than arriving already filled up with your own self. That’s where there seems to be an energetic shift in me.

During the research for Border in particular, I felt so humbled by my encounters with people in these very powerful places, powerful not in terms of worldly power but of natural power and spiritual power and ecological power, I felt that I somehow shed some of my previous ideas about what my writing should be or what I should be as a writer. Which were fundamentally narcissistic, as they are for a lot of writers I think.

It’s important for all of us as human beings and writers to experience such moments of humbling. And we might find that we are asked to travel more lightly through our work.

Rumpus: I want to turn to the term “Balkanize.” The region of the lakes, a region that has almost always been at war, is the source of the term, as first used in 1918 by the New York Times as “meant to divide a region into smaller or mutually hostile states or groups.” You reconsider “Balkanize” and what it might come to mean, if given “less of a negative hue.” You write: “contrary to the lazy and inaccurate stereotype of ‘ancient hatreds’, the peninsula had long housed a polyphonic, sometimes cacophonous, diversity. It still does.”

You were just talking about the transformation of narcissism into humility, and I’m interested how it is related to the idea of Balkanization, and to larger processes of prejudice that are so central to your work. I’m sorry if that’s a complicated question.

Kassabova: Well, it’s a complicated problem, isn’t it? I mean, look at our world today. The world is Balkanized. America is Balkanized. European nations are Balkanized. One of the themes of my book, as it emerged, is the projection of the shadow onto another, which is essentially the principle of denial. You deny the shadow in yourself while projecting it onto another. It seems to me very convenient because you can say, “well, that’s the person on the other side” or “the person with whom I’m at war.” It seems convenient for a little while but ultimately backfires as demonstrated in the whole process of Balkanization, as applied not just to the Balkan nations, because really the Balkans is a metaphor for a bunch of people who are really the same but through a process of manipulative politics have been made into enemies. We can take that metaphor at any level. It also happens in families, which I also look at in the book; as above so below, you know? Culture which favors this othering, ultimately backfires.

The reason I subtitled the book “A Balkan Journey of War and Peace” is because, in the process of writing about the place which is my family’s place, I realized that what has happened to the people of the lakes is happening at the most innate, psychic level. The principal of war, or the principal of conflict, even as exemplified by the greek word anon, the origin of agony, well, it’s close to each of us, isn’t it? I wanted to look at this closely, at the painful conflict in our family, which revealed itself to be a microcosm of these painful conflicts of Balkanization.

My primary interest is in the psychology of war and peace, conflict and reconciliation, feeling and healing. It seems to me we need a lot of healing in the moment, as a human community, because we have been Balkanized for a long time, generation after generation, and we are all wounded; we all carry generational wounds. It’s important to look at the wounds.

Rumpus: Toward the end of To the Lake you write about swimming out into the lake with your father, who taught you how to swim. “It was thanks to him that I could swim out and swim back to the shore without fear. Thanks to him that I had broken free.”

I was going to ask you what freedom meant there, because it seemed the whole book was grappling for that, but now I’m wondering if it isn’t as much about freedom as it is about healing.

Kassabova: The central inquiry of the book is more concerned with women, and there is an ambivalent dynamic there, not just for me but also culturally, a kind of possessive love that mothers can have for their daughters. It was important to also bring in a different kind of legacy which, for me, is my father’s legacy, which is a much lighter one in my case. Ultimately, this scene is a freeing of what no longer serves. And in the water, which has that liberating, almost absolving or dissolving effect on us, I become less dense. The ego dissolves in water. That’s an incredibly liberating experience.

Rumpus: But in that scene, you’re also writing about crossing that line from the shallows into the deep, and then you feel like there’s also the potential of death, or is it the presence of death underneath?

Kassabova: Well, yes! I guess water is very ambivalent. A bit like this feminine generational dynamic I described which contains both the origin of life and the possibility of death and annihilation. One moment this lake is like a tomb and the next the water is transparent, as if you’re flying. This ambivalence, the constant dance between lightness and shadow. Here it is again.

Rumpus: For the last question, I want to take another turn. The book is populated with the presence of the monasteries that surround the lakes, but not necessarily in a religious sense. I’m wondering if it has something to do with the way you ended the introduction of the book, by asking for forgiveness. Why was this your introductory instinct?

Kassabova: What a lovely question, and such an interesting thing to raise. I think forgiveness, well, this needs no disclaimers, but I was raised as an atheist, by atheist parents, and I have never really studied Christianity or been, in any way, a Christian. So my understanding of forgiveness comes through a different channel, not through a conventional religion. I am not a religious person. But I do believe in the redeeming possibilities that we all have. Forgiveness, in this context, for me it is a siding with suffering, our own suffering and the suffering of others, which is ultimately the same thing. Everybody needs to be forgiven, and everybody needs to ask for forgiveness.

We touched on Balkanization before, for me Balkanization is a form of trauma. This book looks at trauma closely. In that sense, forgiveness is the opposite of arrogance. Forgiveness is the opposite of the idea of vendetta, this kind of twisted idea of the family or the clan’s honor.

You mentioned the monasteries, and the frescos in the churches; they truly are extraordinary. The way you feel when you visit these places, regardless of what your religious background is or where you come from, the natural setting of these cave churches, and the inaccessibility, what it took for these artists to paint in these niches so far up above the lakes, is very poignant. And it still seems to be holding the presences of the hermits from a thousand years ago. It’s not an intellectual experience; it’s an embodied experience of the uncanny, of these hidden inaccessibility of these places.

By asking for forgiveness ourselves, I think we break down barriers, we break down these walls, and so it was really kind of a gesture of friendship towards my readers, especially readers with Balkan trauma. Does that make sense?

Rumpus: Yes. Absolutely. As you say, the world as it is full of these invisible walls between us, and the forces that construct them seem so obvious. But what brings them down seems more mysterious.

Kassabova: Yes. I suppose so. The idea of forgiveness and reconciliation is also tied in with seeing, with really seeing. And you will have noticed that that’s one of the motifs of the book. Seeing. So forgiveness is a way of seeing, of saying I see your pain.

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Photograph of Kapka Kassabova by Tony Davidson.


Sarah Haas is a writer living in the mountains of northern New Mexico. Her work has appeared in Longreads, Tupelo Quarterly, The Rumpus, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Entropy, and more. More from this author →