Heart and Understanding: Adopting a Foreign Culture as a Writer

My son Brendan is a missionary in Peru. He and his wife and children live high in the Andes among the Quechua people. He uses the Quechua language daily, as well as Spanish. Brendan and his family eat the foods of the region (including guinea pig) and are observant of Quechua cultural expectations, which may or may not make sense to Americans. He has adjusted to this life out of love and respect for the Quechua people and his calling among them. Although he knows that to some extent he will always be regarded as a foreigner, he also knows that the people trust him.

Hungarian peasant house

Although I am not living in a foreign culture as Brendan is, in my work as a historical fiction writer, I had to learn similar adjustments in my mindset and heart. My novel The Songs We Hide is set in Hungary in 1951. As I wrote the novel, I had to “become” as Hungarian as I could, which was a greater challege than I could have known. It was also a greater reward. Here are some thoughts on both the struggle and the discovery, as described in my author’s statement  for the book:

I didn’t know at the outset how hard it would be to write about a time, place and culture not my own. As I spent endless hours reading, interviewing, listening to Hungarian music, negotiating the streets of Budapest, and especially writing draft after draft, I struggled not only with understanding it all but also with setting aside my modern American assumptions. Whether we recognize it or not, Americans are optimistic and entrepreneurial, counting on opportunity. We take pride in speaking our minds and making our own choices. But what if, as in Cold War Europe, opportunity barely existed? What if speaking up meant endangering not only ourselves but others as well? What if social constraints were so tight that every choice carried a high cost?

As I wrote The Songs We Hide, I had to think with the guardedness, and sometimes bitterness, of post-war Europe.  The mental adjustment wasn’t easy. Still, at some point my frustration turned to understanding. I learned to appreciate dark Hungarian humor. I’ve come to love Hungary’s beautiful folk heritage and especially its rich musical tradition. This culture that is not my own has nonetheless become part of me, and that’s been my greatest reward in this project.

Török Testvérek: A Dynamic Hungarian Trio

While the rest of the U.S. stampedes to mass arenas for rock concerts, I gravitate toward classical and folk music in small places. Some of my favorite musical experiences have happened in venues not much bigger than a classroom. I love the

Török Testvérek

Tilla Török

informal rapport that develops as the musicians relax, talk and even laugh with the audience. If the musicians are foreigners and struggle with English, for me it only adds a sense of cross-cultural sharing.

Two weeks ago I attended a joyful concert of this kind. The performers were Tilla Török, Flóra Török and Ádám Török Dancsó, a sibling trio of Hungarian folk musicians. The concert was sponsored by the Hungarian American Association of Washington (HAAW) and was held in the Phinney Neighborhood Center, where HAAW often gathers for folk dancing.  As I arrived for the concert, a farmers’ market was closing up in the parking lot, and artists were displaying their work in the hallway. What a cultural meet-up!

Török Testvérek (the Török siblings) gathered at the front of the room to perform, wearing clothes embroidered in traditional Hungarian patterns. The trio’s repertoire includes music from Hungary and the larger Balkan region. The various group members play violin, zither, different types of flutes and whistles, lute, drum and the Transylvanian gardon (somewhat similar to a cello). All of them sing.  The leader, Tilla, has a beautiful voice. Their music also incorporates the shouted chanting typical of the region.

Flóra Török

During the concert the musicians introduced each of their songs in Hungarian, and an American translator interpreted their comments. Clearly, the group loves the music and honors its traditional roots. They have been acclaimed for their ethnographic research as well as performance.

Their music exudes a wonderful energy, even in the passionate slower pieces. Because of the whistles and the drum, which is similar to a Celtic bodhran, I was sometimes reminded of Irish folk music.  Yet Hungarian and Balkan music is different, frequently set in a modal pentatonic scale. If you’ve listened to Bartók or Kodály, you get the idea.

I bought their CD, Naphasadás (Birth of the Sun). The music definitely sounds foreign to American ears, but it is vibrant and sensitively

Ádám Török Dancsó

interpreted. My favorite piece on the CD is a deeply compelling Kyrie. This group has done a wonderful job of preserving and adding to the musical heritage of Hungary and the Balkans. Check out their website and Facebook page. 

Photos in this post were taken by Márta Horváth.