Borders, both physical and metaphoric, are reductive; you can be on one side of a boundary or the other, under this jurisdiction or that. The Balkan Peninsula has seen it’s fair share of imposed binaries; since antiquity, lines have been drawn and redrawn, separating Latin from Greek, East from West, and Communist from Capitalist.
In her new book, Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, Kapka Kassabova is less concerned about which side of the border her subjects fall than she is with how they fall. Beginning on a Black Sea beach, Kassabova travels westward to small villages along the triple border of Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece, meeting lonely shepherds, forest rangers, former border guards, refugees, and human traffickers. The places she visits have been tragic and busy in recent decades—and all have deep ancient histories. Border features a myriad of characters and locations, but the situations stack up and echo, like a Greek chorus, into an unflinching portrait of those who exist in the liminal spaces between cultures, identities, and epochs.
Our conversation took place over Skype; Kassabova was in a beautiful, lakeside town in Macedonia, researching her next book, and I was sitting on the floor in the hallway outside The Paris Review’s office. Kassabova was eager to answer questions but hesitant to pass judgment, which put me, a poor student of Balkan history, at ease.
What did you have in mind when you started Border?
As I started on this pilgrimage, I didn’t know what I was going to find. I started from a position of relative emptiness and ignorance, with a gut sense that there was something rich to tell. As soon as I started hearing people’s stories, it became obvious to me that this book was also going to be about how people narrate their lives, about how we all narrate our lives. In a place like that border, where extreme things have happened and there’s a great saturation of human experience, it’s particularly interesting to see how people survive their story. Read More