Kapka Kassabova on the untold stories of Bulgaria's haunted borderland

The award-winning writer explores the unspoken stories of the people and places at the edges of Europe.
Kapka Kassabova revisits her experiences and the consequences of living in a world with borders in her latest book. (Marti Friedlander/Graywolf Press )
Listen to the full episode58:20

In her new book, Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, Kapka Kassabova returns to the Bulgaria of her communist childhood to fulfill a desire to cross a forbidden border — between Bulgaria and Turkey and Greece. Along the way, she retraces the history of the region and engages with the mythology of the land and its people. Border is a finalist for this year's National Book Critics Circle Award.  

Born in 1973, Kassabova left Bulgaria as a teenager after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Her family settled in New Zealand, where she published books of poetry and made a career as a travel writer — twice winning New Zealand's Travel Writer of the Year award. In addition to Border, Kassabova is the author of a novel and two memoirs, including Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria.

Growing up in the shadow of a border

"It's fair to say that anyone who grew up behind a hard border, such as the Iron Curtain, would have felt its shadow even from a distance. Of course the border was a no-go zone — it was completely out of reach for ordinary people like my family, so you can never actually set eyes on it. But you knew it was there. This hyper-awareness of borders, especially hard borders, has haunted and attracted me. The desire to know why a border is typically soft for one side, completely benign for one side, but potentially lethal for the other side. That drove the journey for my book, Border."

A history etched into the land

"What remains unspoken has to be retained in some other way and I think the landscape retains it for us. Story hunting in the border zone certainly had its terrifying moments because of the living as much as the dead. There was this kind of hauntedness, this sense of being stalked, this sense of silent screams and mouths full of earth that haunt the landscape. And also the sense that memory may not have a voice, but it's there. It's there in the land, it's there in the ruined houses and in the initials scratched in the trees. It's almost as if the landscape has a memory. You can feel the ghosts of these dispossessed columns of people and animals that passed along the drove roads of the Eastern Balkans. I wanted to capture some of these stories in Border, some of this living memory. If major traumas, like what happened along the Iron Curtain, go undiscussed and unnamed, then we are doomed to repeat these things."

Unbound stories 

"People still want to connect — it's in our nature. Just over 100 years ago, under the Ottoman Empire, there were no boundaries in the Balkan Peninsula. It was a hugely intermingled, cosmopolitan society. And it was with the rise of Balkan nationalisms and the decay of the Ottoman Empire that these new boundaries started being erected and disputed. That was the challenge of writing this book — how to capture this complexity of overlapping waves of civilizations coming and going. I set out looking for border stories expecting stories of great division and dissent. But at the end of this journey and at the end of the book, I felt unexpectedly uplifted. I had a sense of tremendous connectedness against all the odds and across severed roads —  that was given to me by the people of the border and it really gives me hope."

Kapka Kassabova's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast program: "Malka Moma" performed by Neli Andreeva and the Filip Kutev Ensemble.