Migration – like Tango – is a Paradoxical ‘Dance’ of Both Loss and Adventure
by Cristina Tanase
She has travelled to tango and tangoed to live: from her birth place, Bulgaria, to what she calls the antipodes, New Zealand, always taking as a reference point Buenos Aires. Writer Kapka Kassabova (Sofía, 1970) now lives to tango and share with the readers of her latest memoir Twelve minutes of love. A Tango Story her enthrallment with this dance which so much speaks of home and loneliness, self-discovery and beauty, deceive and relationships. Just as in a migrant´s world. The author of the “Street without a Name” (2008), and Villa Pacifica (2011), received twice the NZ Cathay Pacific Travel Writer of the Year award for her travel essays. Now, Kakpa Kassabova tangoes in Edinburgh; and she has learned that anyone can be a perfect tango dancer.
• Your memoir strikes a special chord as it resonates with aspects of personal migrant experiences, and feelings about universal themes: identity, happiness, life itself. Have you heard from migrants who somehow felt your novel touched their experiences and feelings?
Yes – although I don’t think in terms of migrants versus non-migrants, but rather people who have lost something (which is almost everyone) versus people who are still innocent in that sense. But yes, I am receiving interesting and emotional emails from readers all over the world who live away from their home-country and who feel that 12 Minutes of Love has touched a nerve with their wider life quest. This is fitting, because tango as a music form was the product of crisis – a crisis not only of migration (Europeans migrating to Argentina), but cultural displacement too (gauchos forced to live in the new metropolis of Buenos Aires). It was also the first existential music in terms of its lyrics, and the first emancipated couple dance – in short, the dance of modern times. That is why tango music continues to speak to cosmopolitan souls a century later.
• For the general reader who has not migrated but maybe only travelled as a tourist to a new country, what are the lessons of migrations in today´s world?
You cannot gain anything in life without first losing something that is precious to you. Migration – like tango – is a paradoxical ‘dance’ of both loss and adventure. It creates new illusions as it destroys the old ones. Who wants to sit on the same illusions all their lives anyway?
• The end of your memoir leaves unanswered the following question: why is Kapka Kassabova dancing tango now, after a long geographical and personal journey?
Tango used to be my quest for everything in life: belonging, love, friendship, beauty, identity, adventure. That’s a lot to ask from a dance. No wonder I lost all my illusions over ten years of dancing. What I have gained however, is knowledge – and self-knowledge. Some of it is sublime, some of it is sad, but one thing is sure: I would have been a lesser being had I not made the journey. Now, thank god, I just dance for pleasure.
• Most pieces of writing on migration focus on the economic and/or social impact of emigrant people on the adoption country/territory. Yours, however, is a singular journey which makes us feel how migration feels like. Did you write “Twelve minutes of love” with some sort of intention to fill in a certain gap on migration-focused literature?
The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges said ‘The lasting aim of literature is to display our destinies’. In that sense, when I write I don’t think in terms of filling any gaps, except those in my own head and heart. That is the nature of all honest art. I wrote Twelve Minutes of Love because I wanted to tell my own story – of displacement and search for belonging, freedom and love – through the story of tango. In the process, I have tried to see the pattern in my own destiny – and perhaps in the destinies of those I have encountered on my journey. They are many, and they begin with the people who wrote the first tango lyrics and chords, and end with those of us today who – for our own reasons – can listen to Astor Piazzolla and feel as if we are watching the film of our lives.
• In the words of one of your tango friends, tango is about being in touch with the past, but not living in it. When dancing tango, what have you been in touch with from your own past, that before living in New Zealand?
There is one word for what I am in touch with when I listen to tango or dance: ‘tanguidad’. Tanguidad is when you listen to beautiful music, and know that time and chance have passed not just for others, but for you. When you are happy, yet sad. When you are in a port city at dusk. When you see the movie of your life inside your head. When the past is like a poem and therefore not unbearable anymore.
• What would you recommend as a way of uniting the before and after moments in a migrant´s life?
Art. Because to be immersed in art is to be saved from fragmentation, anger and extreme melancholy. Art heals us like nothing else. It makes sense of all the befores and afters. Tango does that for the tango dancer/ listener. Books do it for readers (and of course writers). All you have to do is choose your art, and immerse yourself in it – alone or with others.
• According to Argentine friends, the lack of “indigenous roots” in their history leads to a constant search of something undefined and longed for. How do you feel about having roots in today´s world?
I think the problem with roots is that they can become chains. In that sense, migration and movement is liberating. But the dangers there are obvious: you may become quite lost.
The German writer Christian Morgenstern said ‘Home is not where you live, but where they understand you’, so finding people who understand you is one way of putting down ‘roots’. I think that’s why tango attracts so many people internationally: because it’s a virtual home of sorts, a wonderful hub for the uprooted. It’s where you feel understood. Better yet than people are books – they demand nothing but time, and they are always there. My library is my roots.
• The return is always hard, and you´ve experienced many kinds of returns: several to New Zealand, Bulgaria, Edinburgh… Which of them was the most difficult for you and why?
Going back to Bulgaria where I grew up is always emotionally complicated in a way that other places never will be. That mixture of sorrow and attachment you feel in the place where you were innocent, where history has ridden rough-shod and people you love are gone… It’s a bit like time-travel on a one-way ticket.
• One of the hardships of migration is that it makes its followers feel dispossessed. What would you advice people who (have to) migrate today in order to deal with this lack of tangible possession?
Not to indulge in sentimentality, first of all. Sentimentality is a very bad advisor. Loss colours everything with the attractive hue of nostalgia. It’s the same with places we leave. The world is a rich and surprising place. So what if you’ve lost your home village – you might have gained the world. Migration is an opportunity to become more, not less. Read some Buddhist teachings and discover that loss is just the beginning. I do that whenever I feel sorry for myself.
• You have tango friends who “put their lives on hold in exchange for a dream” which was tango and everything it implied. Compared to the times you and your family left Bulgaria, what type of dreams do you think emigrants today are ready to follow?
I can’t speak for others, but we all need dreams. As long as we understand it’s up to us to fulfill those dreams – not up to tango, another person, another country, another marriage, another this and that. As Albert Camus said, ‘Have the courage to know what you want and to stick with it.’
• In a New Zealand Television show you said that “we are not necessarily the place we come from”, geographically speaking. After many years of travelling and living in different places, what would you say that you have borrowed from (any of) these places?
I think it would be arrogant of me to assume that I’ve successfully borrowed anything that I find admirable in a culture, so let me just say what I cherish in each place where I’ve lived.
Bulgaria: the rich music tradition and the black humour. New Zealand: the refreshing can-do attitude and the sense of open Pacific horizons. France: the literature. Germany: the openness and the capacity for renewal. Argentina: the tango which is a universe in itself. Britain, where I live now: the sense of fair play and tolerance, the spirit of enquiry and excellence; and the fact that I have never felt like a stranger here.
• Is “Oblivion” by Astor Piazzolla still the soundtrack to your life?
Lives change and so do soundtracks – thank god for that! Oblivion is far too sad. ‘Libertango’ by Piazzolla might be better. Best interpretation: Yo-Yo Ma.
Cristina Tanasé is a writer living in Malaga, Spain
For more on Kapka Kassabova and this book, visit the book’s website: www.twelveminutesoflove.com