Keynote address given by Kapka Kassabova
First presented at The Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, Brussels
Kapka Kassabova keynote text: “A National Literature?”
Last year at the Olympic event Poetry Parnassus, I represented Bulgaria. I accepted
the invitation because it was an honour, but felt like a fraud – our family emigrated
from Bulgaria twenty years ago, and I write in English. In the past, because I was
living and publishing in New Zealand, I attended festivals as a New Zealand writer
– and again, I felt like a fraud. Today, I’m honoured to be here as a writer from
Scotland, a country I love and feel at home in, and I’m still struggling with that
In short, the idea of National Literature gives me a headache. The headache escorts
me to public events where you must appear not just with your name and your book,
but with your nation too. You must be escorted, as if you can’t be trusted on your
The headache comes from a clash between the private and the public. Between my
instinct, shared by many writers, to unsubscribe from the collective, and the collective
claim which is what all things ‘national’ do, they claim – national literature, national
identity, national sport, national pride, national shame, national history… The list is
long and to me, as someone from the Balkans, depressing. The 19th century was in
love with nationhood. And the 20th demonstrated in detail just how nationality, like
ethnicity and religion, is an accident – sometimes a lucky escape, sometimes fatal. An
unnamed child during the 1990s wars in Yugoslavia, clearly a born poet, had the last
word on this: ‘I love my country, because it is small and I feel sorry for it.’
When we say ‘national literature’, we are uttering an anguished cry. The very
construct ‘national literature’ is an expression of a nostalgic desire for a home that
can be written in terms of nation. It’s a desire for innocence. Nation as family, mother
tongue as home. How lovely. And how dangerous.
We understand a place through the art that comes out of it. Books, pictures, music,
this is what endures when other things go – political fashions, golden ages, nature
itself. I live in the Highlands, an area of sublime natural beauty, and every day I see
another forest come down, and a pylon replacing it. When the forests are gone, what
is left are the stories of the forests. Sooner or later, a place becomes its literature.
So the real question we’re asking when we say ‘national literature’ is Where is my
home? What is this place? Who are my people?
We might say that in the global era, this is an irrelevant question, and I think it is
privately irrelevant to most people. But it acquires momentum in public. I’ve seen it
discussed in Bulgaria and Britain among others, each country like a family carrying
its ancestral baggage and looking for somewhere to lay it down.
So here’s a suggestion. What if, in this young century where we are simultaneously
victims and beneficiaries of globalisation, there are already two meanings of the word
nation: the traditional and the spiritual. We are familiar with the traditional nation-
state. It has a capital and a periphery (the Diaspora), it’s attached to an approved
language in which it writes its Literature, and it’s in love with its own myths and
monuments. The Roma make other Europeans nervous because they are a nation
without a state – you can’t even tell them, in the international language of the thug –
to ‘go home’. They don’t have one, except in music. From Rajasthan to Andalusia,
via the Balkans and Eastern Europe, the Romany Gypsies are a nation of Music. This
is not to say their plight is romantic – being the underdog is not romantic. It is to say
that Gypsy music distils all human exile. Not unlike jazz, the blues, and the tango,
created in Argentina and Uruguay by immigrants and the dispossessed, and now
consecrated by UNESCO as intangible human heritage.
Back at Poetry Parnassus, I discovered that the poet from Turkmenistan Ak Welsapar
lives in Sweden, and Nikola Madzirov, the poet from Macedonia lives, in his own
words, out of a suitcase. The poet from Australia, John Kinsella, is so opposed to
nationhood that he once asked for a Red Cross passport (he was denied it). When I
asked Christodoulos Makris, the poet from Cyprus who lives in Ireland, how he felt
about the Olympic thing, he said: Well, I could equally be representing Ireland, or
Britain. Many poets of course lived in their original homelands and wrote in their first
language. The point is, this Parnassian gathering was a mini-nation in itself: a nation
of Poetry. I was among my people – those for whom poetry is more important than
other things. I felt at home, because home, as the poet Christian Morgenstern said, is
where they understand you.
On the question of home, here is a haiku by the 17th century poet Basho:
‘Even when I am in Kyoto
When I hear the call of the cuckoo
I miss Kyoto.’
I’ve never been to Kyoto, but I miss Kyoto too, because this haiku is not a patriot’s
song, it’s a spiritual incantation. A yearning for the union of the material – which is
not enough – with the imagined. Kyoto chiming with the idea of Kyoto.
I spent my childhood in Bulgaria in the company of books and languages, as if
they were passports that would lead me out into the world. Like many kids, I was
homesick for the world. Home ceases to be home when the door is removed, and
the Berlin Wall was the opposite of a door. Reading was my ‘internal emigration’,
my cure for homesickness. Even though I was in Sofia, when I heard the tinkling of
the trams, I missed Sofia. Which is why I wrote the memoir Street Without a Name
twenty years later. When we leave our families or homelands to become more fully
ourselves, they haunt us, doubly real with the call of the cuckoo.
Joyce Carol Oates says that for most writers, ‘the art of writing is the use to which
we put our homesickness.’ It makes sense: exile is our essential condition. We are all
exiled – from a landscape, from an original homeland, from our own unlived lives. In
German, it’s Weltschmerz. In Portuguese, saudade. In Spanish, tanguidad, a state of
I am yet to hear a writer say they write to be included in a canon of national literature.
How could you? People move countries. Countries move people. The literature of
a nation is a mirage because the concept of nation is a mirage. Stories, however,
The Scottish-born Robert Louis Stevenson, one of the world’s most translated authors
who died in Samoa and is buried there with his American wife, is to world readers
simply a favourite writer. And so with favourite books: Treasure Island, Peter Pan,
Sherlock Holmes, Alice in Wonderland, The Little Prince, these are books we grow up
with, before we even learn the word nation. The novels of Ismail Kadare are read by
people who know nothing about Albania. I first discovered Morocco – and Moroccan
writers – through the fiction of Paul Bowles, an American-born writer. One of my
favourite books about Argentina is written by the Polish-born Witold Gombrowicz
who went on a ‘casual’ visit to Buenos Aires and ended up staying for twenty four
years. Kafka is almost his own noun, synonymous not with a country or a language,
but with the 20th century – that lover of ideas, that enemy of life.
These writers’ worlds are cosmopolitan, yet pungently rooted in specific reality, with
all the quirks of place and personality. Cosmopolitanism mustn’t be confused with
Coca-Cola. It doesn’t have to breed cultural homogeneity. It is the freedom to come
and go, or indeed stay, without the urge to wave a flag. We Europeans, especially,
can’t afford to snub that freedom – if we are to have a future.
We are surrounded by what Nabokov described with the Russian word poshlust, ‘the
falsely important, the falsely beautiful’, a form of public kitsch. It’s what advertising
gurus and tribal rhetoricians specialize in. Tribal allegiances, like shopping, give us
the illusion of a self, the sugar-pill of familiarity, but it’s never enough if the spirit
centre is missing. The real task in all our lives is to find a true spiritual home.
This is the point Diogenes was making when he walked around Athens with a lantern,
looking ‘for an honest man’. When asked where he was from, he said kosmopolites
– a citizen of the universe. In defiance to the city-state which demanded citizenly
obedience, his allegiance was to common humanity. He lived in an empty tin and he
was a free man.
I’m not suggesting we all get ourselves an empty tin. I’m making a humanist call,
in the spirit of the Scottish Enlightenment. Instead of going on a state-visit to the
mausoleum of National Literature, let’s inhabit the living cosmopolis of books, art,
and music. There are no borders and no one will ask the purpose of your visit or tell
you to ‘go home’.
Copyright: Kapka Kassabova, 2013