As part of our ongoing author Q&As, Kapka Kassabova drops by Travel Writing World to answer a few questions about her book To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace now out in paperback (Graywolf 2020).
In your new book To the Lake, you return to your ancestral homeland and several lakes, most centrally Lakes Ohrid and Prespa. Can you describe the physical region and the “existential landscape” you describe in the book?
Ohrid and Prespa Lakes, the central characters of this book, are a geographical, cultural, historic, spiritual, and to me epigenetic power point in time. We all have such places where all our roads converge in a way that is both symbolic and very tangible – ancestral places that we need to return to.
This lake district was also, for a long time, a cultural nexus of the Balkans where many roads and destinies met. The lake district is crowned by the Via Egnatia, the main trade and military artery of the Roman world (and subsequent empires) that linked Western Europe to the Bosphorus and Asia.
I explore different aspects of this generational and cultural matrix in each chapter of the book. The chapter ‘Roads’ for instance, is dedicated to the little-known but fascinating, almost millennial presence of Sufism, or mystical Islam, in Europe.
What compelled you to return, investigate, and understand the region and your past?
The lakes are embedded, diamond-like, in several major mountain chains, and the whole region is immensely appealing on both the physical and imaginative level. For me, Lake Ohrid had been present in my life through my grandmother, who was a major figure in my early life, both elusive and formidable, just like these lakes. So it was a matter of time and courage for me to return properly to the lakes and dive in.
I also wanted to explore the power, symbolism, and ambiguity of water as a feminine, life-giving, life-taking element. I’m interested in correspondences, and these lakes turned out to be a perfect hall of mirrors where everything has its reflection or double. The harsh national borders that dissect the lakes drive this home further.
Your writing is agile. You’ve written books of poetry, fiction, history, and lately books that could be classified as “travel.” Your previous book “Border” (and this new one) teaches us how meaningful and meaningless delineations can be. So, what are your thoughts on a delineation of another kind: the “travel book” as a form?
I don’t see myself as a travel writer, but as a writer of geographies inner and outer. My work is part of what may be described as the literature of place – and which includes both fiction and non-fiction.
What challenges did you face while traveling, researching, and writing this book?
How to carry, transmute, and eventually dissolve the pain that I sensed in others and which mirrored my own inherited pain. The inherited pain that we all carry from our ancestors – as individuals, families, and even nations – and that we must own before we can heal it – is a key theme in the book.
How has pandemic life been for you? And what books are helping you during these times?
I have spent the last two months living among mountain communities in southern Bulgaria, where there is very little sense of a pandemic, often with little mobile signal, so for a time I actually forgot about it. Otherwise, I tend to generally avoid cities anyway. I live in the Scottish Highlands where it’s pretty quiet at the best of times, though of course the psychology of fear this pandemic has brought is in the atmosphere we breathe, even when all else seems ‘normal’.
My reading is as ever eclectic and always focused on a sense of place and enchantment, so this year I’ve enjoyed a range of books from Herodotus’s Histories to the searing Gothic fiction of Argentinian writer Mariana Enriquez.
Kapka Kassabova’s book To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace was published in paperback by Graywolf Press on 4 August 2020.