I am 50% Hungarian. I have heard this from my grandmother, my mother, and her sisters. I have tasted it in the paprika dishes and intricate pastries my grandmother creates. I have seen the round features of my ancestors in the mirror and seen a flicker of far off recognition as other Eastern Europeans try to determine whether I am one of them. My cousins and I can spit out faintly Slavic words that would make my mother’s eyes narrow, but cannot understand as our elders’ gossip, rapid-fire, behind our backs. Far away there is a river called the Danube and a small town that sits on its bank known as Estergöm, a village that my grandmother left behind on foot at sixteen to escape communism. I know all of this but am much more familiar with a river named The Hudson and a small town that sits forty-five minutes off its coast. The taste of a New York pizza is fresher on my tongue and I am definitely much more accustomed to the sloppy kisses of the English language.
In seventh grade I memorized a Hungarian poem for heritage day. It was a silly nursery rhyme that my grandmother had learned in grade school about a kitten rolling down a hill. It was supposed to help me learn the sounds of the Hungarian alphabet. I giggled as we practiced saying kitty cat, cica macska, and wondered why the characters Pati and Kati had let him roll down the hill in the first place. The words felt fluffy and friendly in my mouth; I promptly forgot the poem after I presented it in class.
I recently attended a poetry reading for the release of Sean Forbes’ book Providencia. The Director of UConn’s Creative Writing Program, Professor Forbes’ poetry was gorgeous and melded his Afro-Caribbean culture with his Queens, NY upbringing, and his pull to identify and resolve the tension between his heritage and reality. His words were stunning but left me confused.
To some extent, I have always felt like a window shopper when it comes to multicultural and ethnic literature, forever admiring and never making a purchase. The whimsical cat rhyme was no great work of literary history, but it was a part of my grandmother’s and therefore mine. Even though I have since learned phrases, wives tales, and prayers in Hungarian I have still never felt connected enough to write about it. How can I write about something that I know so little about? If I research my own culture for writing is it genuine or am I an outsider speculating? Do I have any right to stake a claim to something so pure when I have been tainted like the turned-green copper of lady liberty?
My creative writing professor, Bruce Cohen, has said (something along the lines of): “why would I want to write what I know? I write to explore, to escape, so why would I write about things that are already apparent to me?” Conversely, the greatest part of reading (for me at least) is recognizing yourself in someone else’s words. Reading The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock was worth it, because I was able to see that even people in the 1920’s were just as angsty/alone/miserable as I. The same goes for Harry Potter, The Clique, Twilight or the trending teen novels that I’m kind of embarrassed I just admitted to reading. But I have seen a piece of myself in every single one of these books. Reading lets me know that I am not alone and teaches me new things about myself. So how do I get out of my own way enough to explore, but still integrate genuine emotions?
Thus far most of my writing has showcased my immediate family. It has either been dramas or exaggerated interpretations that take place so after-the-fact that I have been able to make conclusions or crown them with significance. Now I am left wondering, is there a solution to the write what you know/ resonance paradox? Is writing about my culture the right place to start? Do I even have the right to claim to be Eastern European? Am I allowed to write about it, with such little knowledge? Does my research or second-hand accounts make my message less genuine? Do I even want to write about it? Has my/our American upbringings ruined our respect and interest in our heritage?