Magyarázni was published in 2016 by Coach House Books. This work brings together Hungarian folk-art visual poems with written poems, exploring the experience of growing up with my dad, who came to Canada as a refugee in 1956 after the thwarted Hungarian Revolution. This book is dedicated to my father, Steve (Pisti) Hajnoczky, and was heavily inspired by his own folk-art practice.
Ideas and origins
The word magyarázni means “to explain” in Hungarian, but if you translate it very literally, it means “to make it Hungarian.” The word popped out to me for the first time in my 20s. I’d finished a creative writing class at the university and had gone out wish my classmates for a pint or two, and my dad picked me up when we were ready to call it a night. The pint part is important because I suspect I was feeling a little looser than usual, and when my dad started saying something and used the word “magyarázni,” for the first time it sounded totally weird to me. I pointed out how odd a way to say “explain” it was, and my dad laughed and said it had never occurred to him either, how funny a way that was of saying "let me explain.”
That word, and that moment of realizing it’s strangeness, became the seed of this book.
In addition to being a poetic effort to “explain” what it’s like to be a first-generation Hungarian-Canadian, or to make that come across viscerally in the feeling of the work, I also kept wondering—what does it mean to be a Hungarian-Canadian? How much of my idea of what that means is really just my relationship with my dad, or with a small group of people I grew up with? The book is written entirely in direct address as a way of contemplating this—by constantly telling the reader you do X, you say Y, I hoped to put a fine point on the matter. Is the book a set of instructions for being the child of an immigrant or refugee? Or a first generation Canadian? Or a Hungarian-Canadian? Or a Hungarian-Canadian in Calgary? Or is it just instructions for being me? The “you” of the book slips around too, and I let it. Sometime I’m “you.” Sometimes the reader is “you.” Sometimes my dad is “you.” Sometimes his mother, my nagymama, is “you.” That fluidity was a big part of what I wanted to think about in this book. Where does you end and you begin?
I wrote the book while living in Montreal. Doing this made me realize more and more how much I associate Hungarian-ness not with Hungary at all, but with my hometown where I was taught Hungarian by my dad, where I lived with my family, attended cserkészet (scouts) and church in Hungarian, where we went to folk-dance performances and concerts, and so on. To me, driving down Bow Trail in the evening feels like a Hungarian thing to do, because that’s the route my dad would take when he took us to scouts on Monday nights. To me, camping at Pigeon Lake feels like the most Hungarian activity possible, because that’s where we went camping with scouts.
The visual poems came from a very long term fascination with Hungarian folk-art. My reading skills have improved over the years, but despite Hungarian’s phonetic alphabet, I used to find it totally opaque and nearly impossible to read. Pages of Hungarian text didn’t look like containers for plot or information the way pages of English text did to me. Instead they just looked Hungarian-y, like a beautifully embroidered dance costume or plate of paprikás csirke. The fusion of folk art with the letters seemed so natural to me I started doodling these in the margins of my notebooks long before I knew visual poetry was a thing. Learning about that poetic tradition gave me the drive to build my doodles out into a proper art project. I drew each one by hand, favouring the wobbly edges of my drawings and letters over the crisp lines of a piece design on a computer or the perfection of a proper font, because I wanted to meditate on that idea of the personal, individual relationship I have with my cultural background, that we each have with our cultural backgrounds, and with our history and each other.
Magyarázni - THE MOVIE!
Since I began working on the book, I’d always wanted to make a stop motion animation movie to accompany it. So much of what I think of when I think of Hungarian-Canadian culture is the dance and music, things that could be eluded to in writing but never quite captured, and I wanted to bring those things together with the visual poems of the book. When I was invited by Lisa Murphy-Lamb and Tammy Winterfield to participate in Loft 112’s People's Poetry Festival on 20 October 2018, I knew this was my chance to finally bring this movie to life. Because my father had passed away in July of 2018, I wasn’t sure I was up to doing a reading yet, and making the movie seemed like an ideal way to share my poetry and honour my dad too. However, given the general awesome supportiveness of the Loft 112 folks, I both read from the book and presented the movie that evening. Being in that space, where I shared one of the most wonderful artsy evenings ever with my dad in the form of our art show Popsicle!, made it possible for me to connect with this work in a new way. Losing a parent is a life-altering experience. In losing my sole immigrant parent, one of the things I found altered was my relationship to my cultural identity. Getting the chance to make this cheerful little movie helped me to navigate that experience, and to think positively about the future of my relationship with my culture, and with the book I wrote about it.
Voice acting by me and my sister Julya. Music by MetroFolk, from the recording "Turning Dance and Fast Csardas from Bonchida" available on the Free Music Archive.