Kapka Kassabova is a writer of creative non-fiction, poetry, and fiction. Her work explores the alchemy of places and people, geopolitical ‘peripheries’, nexus of cultural confluence or conflict, and geographies both inner and outer. Border (2017) and To The Lake (2020) are immersive journeys into the ancient trans-boundary human geography of the southern Balkans. Her ongoing work continues the narrative enquiry into nature and culture, trauma and transformation, collective ailing and the search for healing.
Kapka was born in November 1973 in Sofia, Bulgaria to scientist parents, and studied at the French Lycée in Sofia. Her family emigrated to New Zealand in 1992, where she studied French and Russian Literature at Otago University (BAHon), and English Literature and Creative Writing at Victoria University of Wellington (MFA). While living in New Zealand, she published the poetry collections All roads lead to the sea and Dismemberment (Auckland University Press), and the novels Reconnaissance and Love in the Land of Midas (Penguin NZ). Reconnaissance won a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first novel in Asia-Pacific. All roads lead to the sea was awarded a NZ Montana Book Award.
In 2005 Kapka moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, and wrote her first book of narrative non-fiction. Street Without a Name (Granta 2008) is a coming-of-age story in the twilight years of totalitarian Communism and an unsentimental journey across modern-day Bulgaria. It was shortlisted for the Stanford-Dolman Travel Book Awards, and appeared in Swedish and Bulgarian. Spanish, French and Turkish editions are forthcoming.
The memoir-history Twelve Minutes of Love (Granta 2011) blends a tale of obsession with a history of the Argentine tango, the music of early-20th century exile. It was shortlisted for the Scottish Mortgage Investment Book Awards and published in Russian, Polish, Bulgarian, and Czech.
Villa Pacifica (Alma Books 2011), a novel with a coastal Ecuadorian setting, came out at the same time. It was published in Spanish and Bulgarian under the same title.
Kassabova continued publishing poetry: Someone else’s life (Bloodaxe/ AUP 2003) and Geography for the Lost (Bloodaxe/ AUP 2007). Her poetry is widely anthologized, most recently in Anthology of Young European Poetry (Carl Hanser Verlag, 2019).
Border: a journey to the edge of Europe (Granta/ Graywolf 2017) is a solo journey through the remote triple borderlands of Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece where two continents meet and where the easternmost stretch of the Iron Curtain ran. Described by the British Academy Prize jury as ‘being about the essence of place and the essence of human encounter’, its stories weave into a polyphonic narrative of the south-east Balkans, told through the prism of the border. It casts light on border culture, and on how borderlines shape human destiny through time.
Border won the British Academy’s Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding, the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year, the Edward Stanford-Dolman Travel Book of the Year, and the inaugural Highlands Book Prize. It was short-listed for the Baillie-Gifford Prize, the Bread and Roses Prize for radical publishing, the Duff Cooper Prize, the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Awards (USA), and the Gordon Burn Prize.
It was published in German as Die Letzte Grenze (Paul Zsolnay Verlag 2018), in Polish as Granica (Czarne 2019), in Spanish as Frontera (Armaenia 2019), in Italian as Confine (EDT 2019), in Danish as Den Sidste Graense (Informations Forlag 2019), in French as Lisière (Marchialy 2020) and in Greek as Sinoro (Brainfood 2020). Chinese, Ukrainian, Serbian and Turkish editions are forthcoming.
Kapka Kassabova is bilingual in English and Bulgarian, and reads French, Spanish, and Russian. Her reviews and essays have appeared in The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, The Sunday Times, The Scottish Review of Books, The Economist 1843 Magazine, The New Statesman, Prospect, The NZ Listener, Granta Magazine, World Literature Today, Tin House, Aeon, Belgium’s De Standaard, The Spectator, and Vogue.
She was a juror for The Neustadt Prize 2019-2020 and the 2019 Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival, and was on the judging panel for The 2017 International Dublin Book Award. In 2020 she is a mentor in the philanthropic project for young Bulgarian artists Cultural Perspectives/ ‘С усилия към звездите’, and mentors writers through the Scottish Book Trust.
Since 2012, Kapka Kassabova has lived in the Highlands of Scotland. Among her interests are Eastern spiritual philosophies, wild foraging and food culture.
Her new book To The Lake: a Balkan journey of war and peace is an intimate exploration of two of the world’s oldest lakes. Joined by underground rivers, Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa are a unique biosphere three million years old, today partitioned among three countries: North Macedonia, Albania and Greece. As the author journeys to her grandmother’s place of origin, she encounters a historic hub once crowned by the Roman Via Egnatia. By exploring the legacies of the Lakes, the journey unfolds to a deeper enquiry: into how geography and politics imprint themselves upon families and nations. The Lakes ultimately confront Kassabova with questions about human suffering and the capacity for change.
author portrait by TD, Scotland 2019