Kapka Kassabova is one of the few multi-genre authors who give Bulgarian literature a recognizable face, with the unusual distinction of writing all her books in English. Her works have been translated into twenty languages, but she gets actively involved only in their Bulgarian rewrites, working alongside the translators.
Over the years her name has been associated with poetry, journalistic articles and commentary on various topics, as well as narrative non-fiction like “Street Without a Name” (2008) and “Twelve Minutes of Love” (2011). Thus far, however, she is best known for her Balkan tetralogy, which began with 2017’s “Border” – winner of a number of prestigious international awards – and continued with “To the Lake” (2020), earning the author further acclaim and recognition.
This year saw the release of the third book, “Elixir: In the Valley at the End of Time”, soon to come out in Bulgarian (translation by Maria Zmiicharova) via the “Janet 45” publishing house. Kassabova, meanwhile, is already working on the final, fourth book, titled “Anima”. The plan is for it to come out next year and take its readers on a journey along the trails of disappearing mountain communities and their stories. When Kapka Kassabova isn’t out in the wild collecting them, she’s at home with her dog Bella in a small riverside town in Northern Scotland, which is where we find her.
Photos: Personal archive "To Bezbog and back"
Your books always come out in English first, before being translated into your mother tongue, even though they tell stories from your native land. What does the distance between characters and language give you as a writer?
The distance gives me a chance to refine the essence and not get lost in the details. In the end, it’s the details that matter of course, in the small narrative of the big things. Distance is vital because proximity sometimes kills. That’s because my books are experiences shared with many and different people, in places initially unfamiliar to me that end up becoming part of my life. Actually in the end there’s no distance because the text returns to its original form in Bulgarian. Meaning that my journey between language and characters is multi-layered.
What do you find most difficult from a linguistic standpoint when recreating something typically Bulgarian which has no analogue as a word or expression in English?
This happens all the time. Right now I’m almost done working on Maria Zmiicharova’s translation of “Elixir”, which took me several weeks. Even with a good translation, I’m practically rewriting the whole thing. There are so many layers. Every small community is a universe in itself. All the villages have their own language peculiarities, even neighbouring villages. The way they pronounce certain words, the way they use tenses. The syntax is lost in other languages. However a lot of concepts transcend that and as a result of this linguistic mix that I use in my writing, through my books some of them have permeated other languages, signifying places and people that my European readers now use as their own – “Ohridians”, “lake man”, The Pain (form “To the Lake”) The Way (of the pilgrim).
"To Bezbog and back". Kamenishki Lakes
You say that the issue of language is not only linguistic but also cultural and emotional. In that line of thought, what could the Bulgarian language say about us as people and as a society?
Yes, language is a living entity - it breathes, grows, remembers and travels. Since I began my Balkan tetralogy, the Bulgarian language has revealed itself to me as one of limitless opportunities. It stands out with its vast and magical array of expressions stemming from a bond with nature – from centuries of interacting with the land, plants, mountains, animals, because our essence as a people is intertwined with the landscape. I recently found out that in Bansko they have this word “bile”, meaning strange man. The deepest plunge I take into the depths of the Bulgarian language is when I set out on a journey through Bulgaria and Macedonia, over the hills and far away as they say. That’s when I discover that the Bulgarian language cannot be contained within the mere shell of standard speech used by an educated city person, but that it is a universe of various forgotten constellations. In "Elixir", for example, there are at least three different dialects - from Yakorud and Babech, Razlog, Brezno-Cornish in Eastern Pirin, and Dabrashki in the Western Rhodopes.
Cover of "Elixir", Waterstones publishing
Your previous two books - "Border" and "To the Lake" are predominantly stories about the Balkan trails. But what are the literary trails of the Balkans? What makes their literature different and how do you think it finds its way to the outside world?
Balkan literature is a majestic polyphony, but is itself unaware of it. Which is why it acts like a cacophony. What I mean is that in reality we, the people of this region, have been separated for so long by borders that we don’t know each other well, nor are we aware of the wealth we or our neighbours possess. However, I think things are changing and there is a process of rapprochement and mutual curiosity taking place. Unlike, say, “Scandinavian literature”, the concept of Balkan literature has until now been largely alien to the outside world, precisely because of this internal Balkan fragmentation and short-sightedness of ours. I’ve noticed, however, that my Balkan tetralogy, which began with “Border” and “To the Lake” is doing its part in helping the notion of “Balkan literature” or “literature of the Balkans” if you like, establish itself as part of the norm. There are a lot of strong writers of and for the Balkans, regardless of whether they’re writing in Bulgarian, Serbian, English, Albanian or Italian and where they live. Currently one of the most original European authors is the Kosovar Pajtim Statovci who writes in Finnish because he grew up in Helsinki, in a family of Kosovo War refugees. I think this dynamic landscape is precisely the reason that Balkan literature and the Balkans as a unique human-ecological universe are becoming part of world consciousness. And this is somehow seeping back into the Balkans too! Like a couple of lakes connected via underground rivers.
Covers of the book “To the Lake”
In your opinion, is there a change in attitude towards literature originating from Bulgaria and if so, is this due more to a better quality of translation or good command of other languages by the authors themselves?
Yes, fortunately the last few years have seen the dominant and until recently self-sufficient cultures (the English speaking etc) open up to literature written in the lesser known and more peripheral languages, as well as works by authors from all over the world, irrespective of the language they write in. That includes us. I don’t think it’s down to the translations or the multilingual authors – us smaller nations, we’ve always had that. I also don’t think it matters whether or not the authors maintain an active presence on social media. It’s due to a natural historical opening up of the world to the different and diverse, plus a desire to intermingle despite the borders. It’s an unstoppable and exciting process. The “centre” is turning towards the “periphery”. The periphery, it turns out, is a kind of centre. Of course, the next most important thing is the quality of the translation. The translator is like a co-author and it is the translator who enables a book to transcend borders.
You’ve worked with both foreign and Bulgarian publishers. What’s the difference?
Everywhere is different. Every publishing culture has its own peculiarities and it also depends on the publishing house. But publishers everywhere are fighting to stay afloat, because most of their authors sell next to nothing – there are too many writers and not enough readers, because people are too busy being on their phones. The great struggle worldwide is to cultivate a reading culture, especially among the younger generation.
The last people of tobacco, East Pirin
Which border would you like to see removed permanently and which one would you like to remain intact?
I like this question because it draws attention to how delicate some borders and boundaries are. One such delicate boundary that we are yet to recognize as sacred is that between the organic and inorganic world. Or the living and the inanimate. I hope that artificial intelligence and the digital addiction to social media that many people suffer from, won’t completely rob us of our sanity and we’ll be able to retain our human essence. And the latter is organic, bio-spiritual.
Herb and mushroom pickers, Dabrash
What kind of elixir do people need nowadays?
The elixir of love. This love lies in close encounters with the living that is within us and all around us. In living nature and other living beings, not necessarily human. This loving contact is the source of creative living – every child knows it. That’s the secret to “eternal life” – learning every day how to love what we are in touch with and in learning, to choose more wisely what to be in touch with and every time we reach out - to give instead of taking.
Where will your next book take us?
In the western part of Pirin, among the last true pastoralists in Europe, following the footsteps of the Karakachan people.
Kapka Kassabova’s new book “Elixir” is out in Bulgarian this October by “Janet 45”.
Translated by Nasso Ruskov