An essay written for the Writing About Immigration edition of the June 2019 Sozopol Fiction Seminars of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation
Writers often find their true material through the subconscious mind. The obsession that has guided me to my truest writing always emerged more intuitively than consciously. A writer develops, over time, this ability to tap into a reservoir of knowledge, imagination, memory, and feeling that exists both at the individual level and the collective. You go into a dark, place full of buried treasure, where anything is possible, and begin your quest for your true story. You are fuelled, all along, by the particular energy of your subject.
My imagination is fuelled by the spirit of a particular place. It is a strong sense for a place that hooks me first, before I even know what the principal enquiry will be. For a story-teller, the best places are like a narcotic – you enter the circle and become addicted enough to give that place years of your life, to take risks, to merge with its essential spirit, to tune into its voices and listen – really listen. To drop your preconceptions and encounter as equals the living and the dead who inhabit that place. And to emerge with something worth giving form to. The energy and intent which fuel a writer's work will be directly received by the reader. This is why art should affect us physically and emotionally, not just intellectually.
Sometimes you lose yourself in the process – a side effect of total immersion – and this becomes part of the journey. Although the archetypal Hero's Journey that forms the basis of most human narratives, is circular, you can never return to the same place, because all true journeys must transform us – inner or outer, literary or geographical, physical or spiritual, or all of the above. For my four books of creative non-fiction, I undertook just such labyrinthine journeys through time and space. This includes my most urban book, Twelve Minutes of Love: A Tango Story, which traces the story of the Argentine tango, the mongrel music of immigrants. The tango became the creative confluence of European emigrants to the New World, African music imported by sub-Saharan slaves into Latin America, and the urban working class of immigrants and dispossessed gauchos in Uruguay and Argentina. Border and To the Lake (2020) explore Balkan narratives and geographies. Despite their cultural and geographic specificity, these narratives tap into universal human experience.
It was only recently that I clearly saw the recurring thread in all my writing: journeying and migration. Migration and its accompanying themes of loss, reinvention, and how memory and emotion is held by people and places affected by it. Especially when there is no memorialisation on a collective level, when there has been no consistent process of truth and reconciliation, no communal "coming to terms with the past," and therefore – no societal healing for the deep wounds sustained by millions of people and their descendants. This is the case with Bulgaria, and with all other Balkan nations. That's us. We are all survivors of history. But survival is not enough. If the definition of trauma is repetition, in the words of the American child psychiatrist Selma Freiberg ("Trauma demands repetition, repetition, repetition," she wrote), we must bring the light of understanding and self-knowledge to the process, if we are to break the repetitive cycle.
I am the fourth generation in a female line to emigrate. A hundred years ago, my great-grandmother from Ohrid emigrated from the Kingdom of Yugoslavia to the Kingdom of Bulgaria. That country later became the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and most recently – North Macedonia. Her only daughter, my grandmother, emigrated from the Federative People's Republic of Yugoslavia to the People's Republic of Bulgaria. My mother, an only child, emigrated with her family from Bulgaria to New Zealand, and I emigrated from New Zealand to Scotland, which may yet break away from the United Kingdom. We became serial emigrants. Restlessness, along with political upheaval, became an inherited condition. As the changing names of these countries suggest, the uprootings in our family and numberless others were triggered by cataclysmic geo-political forces: the fall of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, decolonisation, and the rise of Balkan nation-states; then the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913 and the two world wars that followed on from that; the Cold War, its end, and globalisation. Yet our family is not an exception. Today, over twenty per cent of Bulgarians live outside the country. Mass diasporas, nations within nations, have become a cross-generational phenomenon in many world cities. The pattern of displacement in our family is typical of the collective destiny of the people of the Balkans in the 20th and early 21st century, and representative of the constantly shifting currents and counter-currents of trans-continental human migration.
In childhood, my favourite book was an illustrated Ancient Greek Myths and Legends. The fascination of those archetypal narratives lay in the fact that there was always a journey. It was rarely pleasant and often ended in disaster, but it was always of great consequence and eventfulness. Shape-shifting and transformation was inevitable once you were on the road or on the open sea.
Once upon a time in what is now Lebanon, a Phoenician princess called Europa had a dream: two continents in the shape of women wrestled over her. They were Asia and a smaller continent to the west, linked by a strait over the Pontus Euxinos – the Black Sea with the Bosphorus. Though it was Asia that had raised the princess, it was the other continent that won the wrestling match. Soon after Europa's dream, a bull with golden horns appeared. She straddled him and off they sailed to Crete. The bull was of course an avatar of that primordial lecher Zeus. Europa gave birth to Minos. Minos's wife fell for a bull and gave birth to the Minotaur – a prisoner in the labyrinth of the collective unconscious. The Minotaur, a freak of nature and a child of nature, is a compelling figure. An embodiment of the "physics of sorrow", in Georgi Gospodinov's novel. Seemingly the ultimate "other," he reflects back at us our humanity and our bestiality.
The European origin myth is Eastern, pastoralist, pagan. It is rooted in migration and metamorphosis, and the two are related. The Pontic region and south-east Balkans were home to Europe's earliest civilisations – no wonder the Balkan peninsula carries the memory of ancient events and peoples. But also of extraordinary, unsung, unreported odysseys in the last one hundred years, during which people were forced to become the "other" by crossing a border. It is not a coincidence that I, the child of immigrants, have intuitively followed these grooves of migration, with the desire to memorialise those – like us – who were absent from official history accounts. But in the telling of the stories that make up Border and To The Lake, two things became clear. One, we are all without exception children of immigrants and survivors; it's just a question of time-scale. Two, so are the unborn of today. They are the immigrants of tomorrow. The borders erected by the fathers will come back to haunt the children – just like in a Greek tragedy, where it was all preventable until the last moment.
Kapka Kassabova is a cross-genre writer with an interest in human geographies. She is the author of three books of creative non-fiction: Street Without a Name (2008), Twelve Minutes of Love (2011) and Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe (Granta/ Greywolf, 2017) which won the British Academy Al-Rodhan Prize, Saltire Book of the Year, Stanford-Dolman Book of the Year, the Highland Book Prize, and was shortlisted for the National Circle of Critics Award in the United States. The essay Border Ghosts was shortlisted for the Pushcart Prize. Her work has been translated into 15 languages. Kapka lives in Scotland.
THE ELIZABETH KOSTOVA FOUNDATION and VAGABOND, Bulgaria's English Monthly, cooperate in order to enrich the English language with translations of contemporary Bulgarian writers. Every year we give you the chance to read the work of a dozen young and sometimes not-so-young Bulgarian writers that the EKF considers original, refreshing and valuable. Some of them have been translated in English for the first time. The EKF has decided to make the selection of authors' work and to ensure they get first-class English translation, and we at VAGABOND are only too happy to get them published in a quality magazine. Enjoy our fiction pages.