Northwords Now Issue 39

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Places in the Mind: An Interview with Kapka Kassabova

by Nick Major


To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace is published by Granta Books, £14.99, and was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week in February this year.


Kapka Kassabova. From the writer’s collection.
Kapka Kassabova. From the writer’s collection.

“Nan Shepherd has a lovely line in The Living Mountain: ‘Place and mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered. I cannot tell what this movement is except by recounting it.’ I guess – ultimately - that is what drives me too, this fascination with how place and human beings interpenetrate each other.” Kapka Kassabova is sitting cross-legged on the floor of her study talking not - as you might think - about The Cairngorms, but about Europe’s two oldest lakes. Lakes Ohrid and Prespa are “embedded diamond-like in the mountain folds of western Macedonia and eastern Albania,” and seen from above, “the pair look like eyes in an ancient face.” The description is an apt one. There is no scientific consensus on their precise age, but they could be three million years old.

Ohrid and Prespa’s natural and human ecology are the subject of Kassabova’s new travel book, To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace. Lake Ohrid has been a presence in Kassabova’s life since childhood. As she writes in her sparky and insightful 2008 book Street Without a Name, about her childhood growing up in communist Bulgaria, Macedonia was her “first real encounter with the outside world” when she was nine years old. Ohrid, the lake’s main town and namesake, was the birthplace of her grandmother, Anastassia. She is a central figure in To the Lake, which examines “how families digest big historio-geographies, [and] and how these sculpt our inner landscape.”

I last met Kassabova two years ago in this very study, which is split between two rooms, one designed for reflection, one for hard graft. The study is adjacent to her cottage near the Beauly river, in rural Inverness-shire. Born in 1973, she arrived in Scotland when she was 30 years old and felt immediately and “inexplicably” at home here. She lived in Edinburgh for seven years, but this has been her base for the last eight. Her study sits atop a garage, and looking up at the dark wooden panelling on the outside, I was reminded of a description in To the Lake of the enchanting “handsome wood-clad houses that hoard their secrets in towering stacked-up floors” along the streets of Ohrid’s old town.

Back in 2018, we met to discuss her book Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe (2017). Border was about another frontier, a tripartite border zone between Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece. During the Cold War, it was a militarized, forbidden area. Hundreds of people lost their lives trying to cross it, looking for a long way round to the west. For that book, Kassabova travelled around this region collecting human stories, some of which spanned centuries. Along the way, she met fire-worshippers, border guards and dancing priests. She weaves these into a kind of folk history and a meditation on borderlands and their affect on the human psyche. It won her a host of prizes, including The Saltire Scottish Book of the Year, The Highland Book Prize and the Stanford-Dolman Travel Book of the Year.

One of most intriguing aspects of Border was Kassabova’s near-insatiable hunger for stories. At one point she was warned by a mountain ranger “not to get addicted to story-hunting, because it is like climbing. It only takes once…” From this perspective, it is useful to understand her in the folklorist tradition of song and story collectors. In Scotland, one thinks of Walter Scott and Robert Burns. In America, Alan Lomax, the wandering ethnomusicologist. In the Balkans, it’s the Miladinov brothers, born in Struga, a town on the shores of Ohrid. The pair travelled throughout the Balkans in the 19th century and “gathered an epic collection of folk songs.” Many are still sung today.

Every age needs writers like these, those prepared to collect and preserve what otherwise might be lost. Thought about this way, Street Without a Name, Border and To the Lake form a neat Balkan triptych of captured stories, ripe for preservation. But, in another way, her story-addiction is simply part of her modus operandi. Andrew O’Hagan once wrote that it was important for him to leave the desk behind, venture outside and “test the weatherproof nature of one’s style.”  And so, with Kassabova. To the Lake moves from the deeply personal to encompass big political changes in Balkan history (the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of nation states, for instance). A glance at the bibliography reveals the amount of desk-work, reading and research it took. Yet, Kassabova says, “it would have never been ok for me, being the writer that I am, for me to sit here in my study and theorise about all of this. For me, it had to be once again an experiential journey. It’s a kind of reckoning on the internal level, but on the external level of encounters with people it was a very peaceful experience, which I think has something to do with the lakes and their particular character.”

That “internal reckoning” concerns an “unnamed menace” – “a malaise” or “indefinable sorrow” – that has dogged the maternal line in her family. “I think this is a book I have been – in a way - assembling all my life, because these women are a part of me and I’m a part of them.” Her grandmother was a remarkable person. Anastassia was a poet, a journalist and a scriptwriter for Bulgarian national radio. Kassabova compares her to Demeter, the goddess of harvests. “In times of poverty and tyranny, she [her mother] and my grandmother had passed on extraordinary gifts to me: a love of language and literature, people and places, emotion and expression, independent thought and anti-conformity.” But what motivated Kassabova to write To the Lake was a desire to understand why “the two women I had loved and who had so much going for them (including caring husbands) had become tragic Furies; why we were martyrs to an unknown cause.”

Much of Kapka’s early life was unsettled, in place and mind. Even in the womb she “revolved ceaselessly, and emerged from my mother nearly suffocated by the umbilical cord which I had tied into a knot.” She is the “fourth generation in a female line to emigrate.” Near the end of the Cold War, her family upped-sticks and moved to New Zealand, and later, Kassabova emigrated from New Zealand to Scotland. In her books, she is a peripatetic presence. Twelve Minutes of Love (2012), about Tango dancing, crosses continents, from New Zealand to Buenos Aeries. She has moved through the literary forms as well: novels, poetry and the essay. An early poetry collection is even titled Geography for the Lost. But it is narrative non-fiction that best suits her style and writerly temperament. A certain restlessness, of course, can be good for a writer, but it has a dark side.

In To the Lake, Ohrid and Prespa come to represent the uncanny doubling and paradox of the human psyche. Ohrid is the lake of light. “Prespa is dark, and located on the fringe of Aegean Macedonia, where the traditional colour for women has been black. When I saw those black costumes, and photographs of peoples’ mothers and grandmothers always wearing black – even as children, but only the women – [they seemed] born in mourning. I feel that a lot of women born in the Balkans are already in mourning. I was interested in teasing out those themes, which have been central to my life, but I wanted to do it with a light touch, precisely because it felt so heavy. I didn’t want this book to be a burden on the reader.  Ultimately, I wanted to understand the burden, and ideally, to shed it. And a lake is a good place to do that.”  

In the hands of a lesser writer, To the Lake might have become an exercise in self-pity. But this is no misery memoir. Far from it. She does eventually locate the source of the “unnamed menace,” but only through an outward-looking voyage of discovery. The Balkans are often misunderstood in various political and geographical ways. Ask someone where the Balkans are and many will point to Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo, those states at the centre of the wars and ethnic conflict that dogged former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. But the Balkans extends much further south and east, and the actual Balkan mountain range which gave the peninsula its name spreads fan-like across Bulgaria. As for the two lakes, their existence is hardly common knowledge.

Kapka has spoken to people who’ve travelled to Ohrid, but did not know Prespa even existed, let alone its twin, Little Prespa. “I didn’t know anything about the natural or environmental aspects of the lakes. I didn’t know they were connected through underground rivers. I hadn’t explored Prespa before, which is Ohrid’s hidden twin. It’s higher (850m), but oddly enough it has a warmer water temperature, which is why all the birds migrate there. It is one of Europe’s major birdlife sanctuaries, especially for the Pelican. But Ohrid has this incredible story of the Ohrid eel, which travelled all the way from the Sargasso Sea. Then, in the early years of Tito’s Yugoslavia, they dammed The River Drim, during an era of grand industrial communist projects.”

Of course, the region is not terra incognita. Many well-known writers have travelled through and written about the beauty of the lakes and their polyglot peoples, writers like Edith Durham, Henry Brailsford, and Rebecca West, who documented her trip in the well-known Balkan travelogue Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. The Bulgarian novelist, Dimitar Talev, created a famous literary matriarch called Sultana who is closely associated with the lakes. She is central to his quartet of novels set in the national revival period. The 19th century illustrator and poet Edward Lear travelled on horseback through the region as a landscape painter. He wrote a diary of his travels and produced a wealth of exquisite drawings and paintings. The landscape, with its mountainous peaks and troughs, its wild cherry and apple gardens, caves and monasteries, seems like an artist’s ideal dreamscape. “In his Ohrid watercolours men loiter at corners, dressed in long woollen capes, fezzes, baggy Turkish shalvar trousers, or traditional white Macedonian or Albanian kilt-like fustanellas over trousers.”

Lear found the lakes surrounded by a colourful blend of civilisations. The area has a rich classical history. Since the Medieval Bulgarian and Byzantine era it has been known as “the Balkan Jerusalem.” A melting pot, it has always been a multi-lingual place. At one time, there were allegedly 365 churches on the shores of Ohrid. The Egnatian Way, a major Roman road, runs past the lakes on its way from “Dyrrachium on the Adriatic to Constantinople on the Bosphorus. Later, Orthodox hermitages and churches were hewn into the limestone, later still, Islamic caravanserais and dervish monasteries appeared.”

Despite the erasure of much of this cultural tapestry, Lake Ohrid “is a repository of everything that has gone on, and so with the collective psyche. It holds and conserves, but it also hides. It is glittery on the surface but if you go deeper there is this black water of depth and secrets, illusion and nightmares and pain.” Kassabova visited the last remaining Dervish tekke, or lodge house, of Ohrid town. The caretaker, “Slavche, one of the local matriarchs, immediately not only remembered Tatjana – my dead aunt – but entire scenes from her funeral and from her life and her mother’s life emerged and shared them with me on the spot, almost as if she had been expecting me. I think that is a quality of the lake. The lake affects people’s psyches.” Slavche relates her conversion to Islam after falling in love and the consequences this had for her family life, and through this we learn about the Balkan Sufi tradition and its wider unorthodox history in the story of Islam.

Like concentric circles, the stories Kassabova collects spread out over wider and wider historical waters. But each storyteller who has brought their voice to the region, has also brought their own prejudices to bear on it. Only Edward Lear, concerned as he was with imagery and landscape, is the possible exception. Writers like West, Durham and Brailsford “had one thing in common: the knowledge that they were from the ruling race…that their people ran half the world, that the governments in their great capitals called the shots even here.” I mention the Scottish travel writer John Foster Fraser, who travelled to the lakes at the turn of the twentieth century for his book Pictures from The Balkans (1906). He compared the Albanian mountains to those of Scotland, which Kassabova thinks was “a Byronic projection on his part.” Nevertheless, does Kassabova see any parallels between the region and her home?

“He [Foster Fraser] actually travelled along the same road that I travelled with my cousin into Albania…For me, there are no straightforward parallels. But I have always felt there is something Balkan about the Scottish Highlands, and perhaps that’s one of the reasons why I love living here so much. I’m not just talking about the physical similarity and wilderness. But also, marginality and the relationship between the centre of power and what’s perceived as a political or cultural periphery. I think the Highlands obviously at one point were a romanticised topos and are now - culturally - getting away from that. I feel that very few who don’t live in The Highlands actually understand the place. There is a lot of projection going on. Projection is one of the themes of my book. The old project on to the young all their neuroses and fears. The great powers project on to the smaller ones.”

This all circles back to Kassabova’s central quest at the start of To the Lake: to find the source of that “identifiable sorrow” in her matrilineal line. As it turns out, it concerns the subtle interplay of the personal and political. After World War One, the “great powers” parcelled up - Balkanised - the Balkans into mutually hostile territories. A region of no borders was suddenly full of sharp dividing lines and nation states with populations claiming a unique identity and language, then came the Cold War and Communism, and with each new reality, “the psyche of the people had taken a hit…the cumulative loss ran so deep that the prospect of any further loss, no matter how small, had become intolerable.”

“We were colonised rather than colonisers. I think that puts you in a very different paradigm. You are forever trying to recover from having been the colonised, at least in your own mind. This is one of the complexes of the Balkans. Its people think themselves victims long after they are no longer anything of the sort. The victim mentality, this competition of suffering, remains. I ended up calling it a cult of suffering. A cult of war.” Of course, the post-war construction of nations also saw the rise of a strange form of nativism - ethno-nationalism - which infected all the Balkans. It is still alive today and is a reminder that dangerous forms of nationalism are on the rise throughout Europe. No country is immune: a vapid form of nationalism precipitated Britain’s exit from the European Union, for example.

Yet, there is hope that through art we can maintain a true understanding of European life and identity. One way to look at Kassabova’s book is that its very structure - a matrix of stories - resists the idea that one overarching narrative of history can take precedence over another. Does she agree with this perspective? “Yeah, again, this happened organically. As with Border, the structure, the form and the different registers of the book had to reflect aspects of the place as I experienced them. I was aware of the balance I wanted to keep between the family story – which is a portal into the wider story – and the polyphonic reality of the lakes and their true history. Their true history and present are polyphonic. Even when you are wading through miles and miles of subsidised beans in northern Greece, it is never truly a monoculture. There are always other species. The other is coming through, woven among the bean plantations, and among an ethnically devasted population there are still remnants of the old tapestry.”

The Naum Springs, which Kassabova visits at the end of the book, are an example of one of these remnants: a site of worship from early paganism to the present day. “Communion with clean water is humanity’s precious link with eternity – even when all else is lost.” Back in Scotland, Kassabova has been surprised “to discover how many healing wells there used to be in Britain. It is about what survives. There is no question that water worship was practised across Europe, it was just part of how people lived. In Scotland, in the Highlands, a lot of it has been erased. The healing springs have closed up; they have retracted back into the earth because there is no human story any more. The lakes and mountains of my book have been through the devastation of war, but many of these beliefs and the interactions between human and non-human still go on, and there’s something rich and precious about that.”

Since I first read Border, two years ago, one line in particular has stayed with me; it seems to capture something of Kassabova’s writing. “Perhaps the story of all our lives is the story of what’s lost and how we go about looking for it.” What’s lost can be a healing well, a monastery, a landscape, a memory, an idea, a people, a way of life. With Border, To the Lake and her other books of narrative non-fiction that are her preferred form, Kassabova has found a perfect way to search for what is lost, and to unearth the real stories of history, in all their multifariousness.