Kapka Kassabova was raised in Communist Bulgaria, university-educated in New Zealand, and now resides in Scotland. She is the author of two novels, four poetry collections and two celebrated travel memoirs, including ‘Street Without a Name: Childhood and other Misadventures in Bulgaria’, which Jan Morris described as “at once evocative, disturbing, and chock-a-block full of charm.” She participated in the Conference in Edinburgh and will give a keynote speech on A National Literature? this Thursday in Brussels.
EWWC: You’re participating in the EWWC Brussels event next week, on a panel of 6 writers from all the regions of the UK and Belgium. Have you any thoughts on the position of Brussels in the world as the seat of the EU, given your mixed nationality background? Do you have any experience of or fondness for Belgium more widely?
KK: The writer Luc Sante comes to mind, with his wonderful memoir about Belgium and living between cultures, The Factory of Facts. I wanted to write a novella once set in Brussels and involving a puppeteer, so I spent a few days in Brussels and had a memorable evening at the Théatre Royal de Toone where I saw The marvellous life and death of the famous doctor Johannes Faustus.
And I remember a graffito I saw: ‘Welcome to Europe’s heart of darkness’. I had difficulty believing it, but you never know.
EWWC: Thinking back to the five days of Conference events in Edinburgh, you were there everyday, very engaged, often vocal. What kind of import or otherwise did the Conference have for you? Have your views on it developed since?
KK: It is only now that I’ve had time to digest it all that I can appreciate the lasting value of that gathering in Edinburgh. Despite the stress of public exposure, the informal and private time spent with other writers brought me a feeling of belonging and richness. It’s precisely because writers spend so much time alone that it’s vital to know that we’re not alone. There is discussion of ‘national literature’ – which is, in my view, a kind of stately mausoleum – but the Conference felt like a living nation of writers, readers and kindred spirits. All the more precious, this sense of belonging, since it matters to us as individuals and artists, not just as participants in a public event.
I felt very engaged by all the topics that were debated. I look forward to Brussels, and to Edinburgh again.
EWWC: You are delivering a keynote address on the subject of A National Literature in Brussels. In Edinburgh, during that same debate, in response to Irvine Welsh’s address, you received a round of applause for urging a joyful reclamation of the notions of cosmopolitanism and transnationalism. You spoke of the great gathering of writers there as just one product of the opening of paths created by these notions. In terms of your own writing, what might have been different had you not left Bulgaria as a teenager?
KK: Every departure and arrival change us, and emigration/immigration is a big one, so it’s difficult to play the ‘what if’ game. Except in fiction where it’s the main game.
But certainly I’d be writing in my mother tongue Bulgarian, which might have been wonderful. Switching languages, for a writer, involves a psychic hiatus during which you are in neither language and you feel like death. Eva Hoffman (Lost in Translation) and Aleksandar Hemon (The Question of Bruno) are brilliant on this.
As to big words like trans-nationalism, globalism, etc. – For me, and many of my background (i.e. the last children of Communism), the cold war remains a defining thing. I think that the experience of those who lived behind the iron curtain and practiced ‘internal emigration’ in order not to go nuts, is hard to grasp for those who have always lived in a liberal democracy and enjoyed human rights and freedoms on tap. With that comes the sweet untested luxury of holding on to dogmas – these dogmas, meanwhile, were being tested on real people on the other side of the divide. They still are. Ask the North Koreans. They don’t have Starbucks, but they have Kim Jong Un. I know which I’d prefer.
In the liberal democracies, we tend to demonise globalisation and equate it with cultural homogenisation and capitalist oppression – which is indeed part of it, and a real threat to human civilisation, no doubt about it. But we forget that another part of it has been a hugely increased freedom of movement, immeasurable cultural enrichment, and an exciting human diversity in many countries, including Britain. When I go to my local Co-op in Beauly, Inverness-shire, I never know who I’m going to run into. That’s the opposite of homogenisation, the opposite of oppression.
Twenty years ago, you knew exactly who you were going to run into.
Perhaps cosmopolitan humanism is the only viable ideology – because it isn’t one.
EWWC: What questions do you think a World Writers’ Conference in 50 years’ time might address?
KK: Why So Many Writers and No Readers?
EWWC: If you had to be exiled permanently to one of the EWWC cities – Edinburgh, Berlin, Cape Town, Toronto, Krasnoyarsk, Cairo, Jaipur, Beijing, Izmir, Brussels, Lisbon, Port of Spain (Trinidad), St Malo, Kuala Lumpur & Melbourne – which would you choose and why?
KK: Can I be exiled temporarily in all these places? No. Then Edinburgh – because it’s the opposite of exile (home) and because it’s a perfect city. Or Berlin, because it’s the ultimate city of exile, where the past keeps tugging at you, and because there I can go to clubs where they sing Gypsy flamenco and dance Argentinean tango and I can smoke and cry in some corner – which would give me great pleasure.