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Kapka Kassabova longlist author interview

27 September 2017

In our longlisted author interview Kapka Kassabova tells us she’s long admired the books associated with the Baillie Gifford Prize and that borders have haunted her all her life.

What does it feel like to be longlisted?

It feels like an honour and a recognition of all that I put into Border. I've long admired the quality of the books associated with this prize every year.

What inspired you to write this book?

My experience of growing up behind an ultra-hard border - that of the Iron Curtain - where people died for trying to cross it. Borders have haunted me all my life. And just as importantly - the people of the border as I started meeting them. They were inspiring because their experiences are important and timeless.

How did you research? 

I travelled solo for extended periods of time in the border regions of the book. I sought out informal encounters and conversations with people, though I later also contacted experts in the field (such as the expert on East German fugitives along this border; an Ottomanist to help me with Turkish and archaic Turkish words). The rest of the research consisted of hunting down books on the many aspects of history and life in the regions I covered. These included subjects that I already knew something about but now had personal accounts of (Islam in the south-east Balkans; the murder of border fugitives along this border during the Cold War). There were also aspects of history and current life that I only learned about during the journey (the Metaxas Line, trade and traffic between border towns).

For anyone who wants to explore the subject further, which book(s) would you recommend?

On Soviet and post-soviet life, told first-hand - all the work of Svetlana Alexievich, Bulgarian Reportages in Absentia (The Truth That Killed) by Georgi Markov. On the south-east Balkans/ Communist and post-communist Bulgaria – East of the West by Miroslav Penkov, Shadowland by Elizabeth Kostova (fiction). Le sourire du chien by Dimana Trankova, just published in France. A richly compulsive novel that takes you on a terrifying and enlightening journey through post-communist Bulgaria, and also a journey through time all the way back to the Thracians.

Did your perception of what ‘border’ means in today’s world change after writing the book?

Yes, in the sense that I began to grasp the complexity of the border spectrum and how quickly the status of a border can change. Wherever a hard border falls, there is a hopefulness about ourselves and others. Wherever a hard border appears, it is cemented with hatred and fear overtime. But its fate is to fall, eventually. That was a revelation: no border lasts forever.

And no - in the sense that it confirmed my intuitive understanding that hard borders of the kind that I'm writing about are fundamentally a stupid and backward invention. Their prolonged existence creates a society (or is the expression of such a society) where the oppressed and the oppressor miserably dwell. Life in the shadow of a hard border is a microcosm of a society turned not only on its neighbours, or perceived enemies or invaders, but most tellingly - on itself.

What are you working on next? 

A book of non-fiction about the people of the two ancient lakes in Macedonia and Albania where my maternal family line originates - and about how we carry the past with us.