Behind the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature, shared by novelists Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke, are translators--one key among them Jennifer CROFT, translator from the Polish, the Ukrainian, and the Spanish. Congratulations!
Kinga Tóth Interview Transcript
I’m Christopher Merrill and you’re listening to Origins.
Origins: The International Writing Program Podcast is an interview series with writers from around the world addressing the origins of their creative works, the literary and social cultures in which they write, and the art of language.
The International Writing Program is the oldest and largest multinational writing residency in the world. Since 1967, over 1,400 writers from more than 150 nations have taken part in the Fall Residency here at the University of Iowa, where writers participate in literary and cultural exchange. Last year, the Program celebrated its fiftieth year anniversary; visit the fiftieth anniversary website at iwp50.grad.uiowa.edu. To learn more about the International Writing Program, visit us online at iwp.uiowa.edu.
This episode of Origins features Hungarian writer Kinga Tóth.
Kinga TÓTH (poet, translator, illustrator, songwriter, performer; Hungary) has published six poetry books, all self-illustrated. Her visual poetry has been exhibited widely; she is the lead singer of the experimental band Tóth Kína Hegyfalu and is working on the visual/sound/poetry projects X and [Moonlight Faces], for which she received the 2017 Hazai Attila award. Ms. Tóth participates courtesy of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.
We are recording from the University of Iowa on Thursday, October 26th, 2017. We had the chance to sit down with Kinga, who is here as a participant of the International Writing Program’s Fall Residency.
MERRILL: First, Kinga, congratulations on receiving the 2017 Hazai Attila Award for Moonlight Faces! Can you tell us a little something about this work?
TÓTH: Thank you very and thank you very much for the invitation and for the opportunity to talk. Moonlight Faces is an ongoing project. Actually, I’m writing the written text in three languages with the help of native speaker lecturers. English, German, and Hungarian. I mean, in Hungarian I don’t need a lecturer, but in English and German, of course. This is a combined book project, I call it like a living text body because it contains written text, visual art, sound art, performative art, and also multilayered documentary arts. Moonlight Faces refers to people who deal with very rare and mostly immune diseases. These diseases are not visible so these are the people who are hiding and who are not able to articulate about their totally not normal conditions or their completely other functions of their body. So my approach or my aim was to document this standard or this lifestyle, I don’t know how to name it differently because these people are people of our society and they have to hide their condition because there are no laws, there are no support from the society. They have to figure out how to communicate this without naming their condition. So I had to find a language out which is based on hospital documentaries, based on diaries, based on my personal experiences, also a lot of interviews and because these standards, these poems contains a lot of dreaming and surrealism and also like coma standards, so being in comatose or being in constant dreaming, I had to find a language for that. So that’s why I used everything, every movement or every method of writing as artists say about contours and the drawing and the visuality of the writing itself, I needed all the tools to recreate these bodies.
MERRILL: In America, we would call these invisible diseases.
TÓTH: Yes, exactly, exactly.
MERRILL: So what comes first, the words or the sounds or the movement? Is it a mixture of these?
TÓTH: It’s a mixture. I see my present as an artistic person or a person who deals with art like a small spy who works in a net. So it’s a spreading thing, it’s a circling thing instead of having a linear narrative. So I never know which tool I need at the moment, it’s always based on the concept. All my programs or all my books are conceptual and the rules of the concept define or give me the next steps, so I never know.
MERRILL: And the rules, I imagine, change for each book, right?
TÓTH: Yeah, exactly. So I always do a plan. All my things are really, really cold-headed conceptual works and then according to my rules, I need specific tools. Sometimes a rule, sometimes a sound of my stomach or my mouth, I never know.
MERRILL: And how do the different mediums connect or link up? Is that something you figured out before hand or in the process of executing the work?
TÓTH: Actually both. So of course there’s a lot of progress and I have to practice a lot also as an extensive vocalist, I need to practice every day to open my body to be able to create these different sounds. But these different sounds are also based on the vowels and the consonants and the knowledge about the language, about the spoken language. So you cannot cut them. It’s one organism all the time.
MERRILL: Can you give us a taste of one of those sounds?
TÓTH: There are several sounds, I don’t know. I’ll pick a poem, it’s easier to pick a poem, if I find it. Recently I was working a lot with machines and construction so actually the construction workers next to the hotel were my colleagues, they just don’t know about it. They were very inspiring for me in terms of how to create the sounds of the different tools.
MERRILL: Of the jackhammer?
TÓTH: Yes, like [vocal jackhammer sounds]. These kinds of sounds can be materials. We were together there in Seattle when I tried to present you my three-lingual complete hybrid text called Machina X which is really an ongoing text in German, English, and Hungarian, and there I used a lot of construction sounds because this is the soundtrack on how to construct a new language based on the different languages.
MERRILL: So you are taking, in some senses, found sound and changing them into works of art.
TÓTH: Of course. I did a lot of field recordings here for example because we are here in the never-ending corn fields and it’s also like my hometown or my home village so I recorded a lot how the wind goes through the trees, how the wind goes through the corn itself which is for me like representative of Iowa.
MERRILL: Is that what spurred the work Corn Songs?
TÓTH: Yes, yes.
MERRILL: So would it have begun with the recording or did the recording lead you to conceive new works?
TÓTH: Ooh, if I’m really honest, there’s a very, very strange start. I wanted to do it as a part of my Wall Writing series, but I didn’t know at the time that I would go back to the field. For me it was very interesting, and I did this movement with the help of a metal band who are based in Iowa and their name is Slipknot. Slipknot also made a CD about Iowa. And this person, the leader singer does a lot of guttural sounds just like me and metal sounds and he told a lot about his issues with alcohol problems and alcohol issues and how he lost his sound because of this addiction.
MERRILL: Because it damaged his voice.
TÓTH: Exactly. It was already a vision: the ongoing corn fields, the very natural and sometimes silent place Iowa where there is a metal band who are doing the same things that I am doing and talking about how to cope with the ongoing progress of losing or developing the sound. So that was my start, instead of analyzing a lot of written texts on the wall. I did that too, but for me, the skin, the first layer of Iowa was the corns and the sound of the corn.
MERRILL: It’s remarkable to think of an artist from Hungary making that connection to a metal band here in Iowa. You’ve said several times before that the goal of your creative work is to reach an audience, and to make them think. So you speak three languages you’re comfortable with different artistic mediums: sound, writing, visual art. Do you think that, moving forward, you will need to learn more languages or instruments or genres to express yourself, and if so, what do you anticipate on the horizon? What other languages or sounds or instruments will you need to discover or master?
TÓTH: I think we should, we all should, we writers and creative people have this wonderful possibility to keep the language alive, whatever language means, I mean on the sound and visual and written text level. We must do that. We must be open and learn and try everything out. For example, now I just ordered on eBay a lot of metal straws. When I was at the Trumpet Blossom Café and did a performance I just found out that they had wonderful straws of metal and I could produce sounds of it, so I asked the lady there how to have this object, I need it like now. But when I was in Bratislava about two years ago I also discovered the fujara which is a very special flute. I can play different flutes but not the fujara so I try everything. And here I found the corn and the sound of the corn and also the straw. For me, it’s so natural. You enter a new body, you enter a new country, a new language, you have to grasp it with all your senses and just develop yourself to do be able to that.
MERRILL: And just speaking on the linguistic level, does the experience of working in three languages, does each language end up shaping your understanding of the other two languages? So when you work in English, do you come back into Hungarian slightly changed?
TÓTH: Of course, and also on the backward, because they are just viruses and they are all the time circulating my body and you never know which symptoms they will create.
MERRILL: Well as you mentioned viruses, your work often focuses on the body through illness, diagnoses, medicine. Do you view your writing about the body as a political act?
TÓTH: Of course but I also have to mention that this body thing is also just a concept concerning Moonlight Faces and X. So in my other works like in All Machine or in Party or in Corn Songs there are different issues. But I think all our acts are political acts.
MERRILL: So in a way, if you’re writing about invisible diseases, you’re making them visible. And also something you can hear and interact with.
TÓTH: Also in this Party book which is going to be published hopefully this year or next year-
MERRILL: This is the Birds LLC?
TÓTH: There’s also a lot of taboos, domestic violence, power taking in a micro-cosmos like in families, language of children, the written texts of the children who are not able to write because they are too small and they just use contours to talk. There’s another issue, there I’m leading with political issues like child care, like domestic violence or LGBTQ topics. So there’s always a social background of each, my work is just hidden.
MERRILL: When the book comes out, how will readers be able to buy the book and what can they expect to take away from the experience of the entire body of work?
TÓTH: It’s going to be published by LLC Birds and it will look like a CD shaped book. The Hungarian and German version look like CD shaped books. And sorry to say, they are very nasty, fake children rhymes.
MERRILL: Such as?
TÓTH: I think I have something here. There’s a lot about animals, I’m vegan, so I write a lot about animals and what we can do about animals. Like “Long-tailed piggy, short-tailed piggy. Curly-tailed. What about without?” Or there’s another one about “Peter, Peter pumpkin eater had a wife, could not keep her, so he closed her in the pumpkin skin only so she stayed with him”. So yes, these are the things. I used German, English, and Hungarian children rhymes. I’m coming also from the pedagogic background. I have been teaching for eight years very small children and adults and university and secondary schools, so almost everything. And when I worked with small children I had to analyze and I also have a psychology background in terms of childcare. And I just found out how horrible these children rhymes are, how violent and aggressive and how they cope with the problems of our society.
MERRILL: The folktales collected by the Brothers Grimm, in the original form are actually pretty dark.
TÓTH: Yeah, it’s pure horror.
MERRILL: Which is why kids love them! I know you’re also presently working on your WALLWRITING project where you analyze and capture the walls of cities that you have visited. So I wonder what the walls of Iowa City and surrounding areas, Seattle, have added to your project? Any surprises?
TÓTH: there were a lot of warnings, to be honest. What to do, what not to do, because we live now at a university area. Of course we always have to take care for something, and this ongoing taking care of being warned that was very interesting for me in terms of linguistic, using the imperative. So how to deal with the imperative, what is the imperative actually? Is it a care, is it like a rule, is it something aggressive towards me, or towards us or concerning us? So yeah, these were the most important or the most interesting things, next to the field and also the visual art in Chicago or also in Seattle or Pittsburgh, there were a lot of paintings on the wall. For example in Pittsburgh in the City of Asylum and there I could also touch different languages and mostly Asian languages which I really don’t know too much about so I used them more in my visual projects, because I saw them as calligraphs.
MERRILL: We have introduced you to our audience as a Hungarian poet, but in an interview with Hungarian Literature Online you said that you have “complete schizophrenia” about your identity as a Hungarian. Indeed, whenever you go abroad, there is immediately the label of Hungarian added to your name. Do you believe that your work is ‘Hungarian’? If so, what are the benefits or challenges of being affiliated, or perhaps tied down, to a country, especially a country that is now going through some interesting changes.
TÓTH: We can say now that it’s a spicy paprika country, in terms of politics also. Of course so all I said in that interview is true. I have a huge problem with my national identity. I think my mother tongue the most wonderful language in the whole world, so in these terms I am a patriot. But I also should mention that whenever I’m in Hungary, I meet a different language. People are forcing this language; people use the language of the propaganda. This language is, at the moment, quite poisoned. Also everything which touches the language is nowadays quite poisoned I mean also friendships, family issues, microstructures, school, institutional language, which makes me also very angry, also very worried and incredibly sad. So also in these terms I have a schizophrenia because my Hungarian-ism is more about being colorful, being very wide and welcoming and warm, this is what I learned, this is my tradition, and I don’t see these things when I go back home.
MERRILL: You’ve been in America at a moment where an American writer might say that our national discourse has become rather poisoned. Can you imagine that working its way into your work, what you’ve observed or what you have heard during your time while in Iowa?
TÓTH: Of course. Unfortunately I saw a lot of parallels in terms of our politics. But what made me a bit happy that on a personal level, I didn’t meet these kinds of people that much. So we’ve been working together, we were at the university campus and we also met a lot of artists and writers who have a completely different opinion and language. And I also know in my country there’s a lot of movement. I’m also a member of many literature organizations and we are absolutely against the current government. This is also very important to mention and probably even more important to mention than the other things we already know from the media, that there are people, there are institutions who are really working to keep the language, and everything conserved, the language open as it should be.
MERRILL: So just to move in a slightly different direction, in a presentation you gave at the Iowa City Public Library on the topic of translation, you said, “Translation is a blood-test ensuring the body is functioning-the checking of vital signs, substantives, and blood cell count just as nouns, adjectives, and verbs are constituent elements of a text.” So what might happen to translation when the body, or the body politic, isn’t functioning very well? And if that’s the case, what is the responsibility of the translator in such circumstances?
TÓTH: That’s a very good question in terms of what function is a good function and what function is a not good function. I think we should take the functions as they are and just create the other language which can code and respond to that. It’s a very big responsibility. This week I had a workshop with Spanish writers and translators, that’s the first time ever that my work is going to be translated in Spanish and it was a brutal work. Because of that, because they are working on Moonlight Faces where the language itself has also an EMS, the language itself is the EMS. And how to do it not to have this background idea, oh yes, that’s an Eastern European or whatever language based writer here who is probably not able to formulate or articulate her message in this foreign language and how to keep the taste of that, the constant asking, without the judgement that it’s not a failure, that everything is planned like that.
MERRILL: Does it inspire you to want to learn Spanish?
TÓTH: I wanted to learn, actually. I was many times in Spain as an experimental artist and a noise musician, also in Bilbao and everybody thought that I’m Spanish also because of my accent and my look, so yeah. Who knows?
MERRILL: Something we can look and listen forward to. I know you are also a copy editor for an art magazine and a cultural program organizer. And I wondered how these more administrative roles play into your creative work, besides taking away time from the vital activity of making something new.
TÓTH: Unfortunately I can keep this quite short because I’m not working now as an editor anymore. From this year I just couldn’t, it’s too much.
MERRILL: Enough is enough.
TÓTH: Yeah, but I’m still working in my literature organization called József Attila Circle
for young literature and I’m doing the program organizing together with Akademie Schloss Solitude and Crowd in Germany, in Stuttgart. I’m the responsible one for welcoming and organizing programs for German artists in Hungary. As you can see, we are sitting here in Iowa City, which is not really Hungary, but the next artist is already in Budapest and I’m organizing her shows and her collaborations. And I have wonderful colleagues, I have to mention that, I have wonderful colleagues in the organization and the Internet is a wonderful tool. I also don’t know how I’m doing it, I’m just doing it.
MERRILL: I think maybe you don’t sleep.
TÓTH: No, not too much. As you too. Yeah, here people do not really sleep I think.
MERRILL: Well if you’re making something new, who needs to sleep. So somewhere else you mentioned that you always need a Batman because it’s hard to stomach all the high science and literature. So I wonder what kind of art is your Batman? Maybe the Batman is also how you keep the administrative piece together.
TÓTH: I made a list. Batman we can also keep like, really, like it’s always a Batman in my bag. I cannot live without that. Also because of the visuality also because of the narrative and I’m a really big fan of how the characters are. Batman is not just Marvel and DC, there are parallel Batman stories. The shape of Batman is always a different one. His connections and relationships towards the other characters are always changing, so you can choose your own Batman and create your own Batman, and if you are bored you can go for another Batman, which is crazy. I love the parallelity, I cannot think otherwise, so next to high level literature or philosophy, I need something more…creative? Oops?
MERRILL: Does that include Robin?
TÓTH: Yeah, of course. But I made a list about Phillip Glass which is very important, also the tape art, also the experimental music and theatre and visual arts, also the movies. For example, the Witching Hour Festival which happened here, I was at Gabe’s and I also had my performance in the Trumpet Blossom café and there were a lot of experimentalists and voice artists, which is really my field, this is probably my home or my country if we have to talk about identity. So I highly recommend it to all the writers because we really need to be inspired on the visual and also the sound level otherwise we are not able to work on the language anymore or keep the language alive.
MERRILL: So before we wrap up our conversation, I wonder, could you tell us about what else you are working on now and what are you reading? Any recommendations for our listeners, besides Phillip Glass and sound musicians.
TÓTH: Oh, I also have to Esther Dischereit’s work in Davenport which also I was very, very touched by.
MERRILL: Who is our German writer.
TÓTH: And we had a lot of filmmakers also like Santiago Giralt or Kristian Sendon Cordero or Dilman Dila, so next to literature, all my classmates or fellows, colleagues made wonderful works and it’s also a huge inspiration to read each other and it’s quite important, I guess. I’m working on several project parallels. One is the Corn Songs. The other one is the Wir bauen eine Stadt, which is my German book which has been published last year and now we work on the English version. I just have an exhibition recently in Jena, in East Germany concerning Heiner Müller's Hamlet Maschine, and it’s a multilayered montage, text montage, iron and different tapes montage piece. I have different collaborations like the Night Thought, The Identity 0.0, it’s a video project. Night Thought is a performance with Anthony Reijekov and it’s live coded and programmed performance concerning human body, human voice, digital voice, digital writing and digital drawing and the whole thing is live. So live programming and live contact with the machine itself. It’s a crazy thing. And I also have Wasserproben, this I’m doing with a French visual artist called Dorothe Billard and it’s also a performative, visual writing act. The Identity 0.0 I’m doing with my partner, who is my collaborative partner in Tóth Kinga Hegyfalu
band, Gergely Normal, he’s a visual and sound artist and our video is just going to be screened on the Brooklyn Bridge on the second of November, so people from the States can also check it by the Leo Kuelb's collection. And yeah. I made my list because I think I have quite interesting books. So there’s the Virginia Woolf-book, the Roland Barthes one which I had to reread because of the work, there’s the Han Kang The Vegetarian which I finally could buy in English language. And it’s very interesting, because in Hungarian the title is Plant Eater instead of The Vegetarian. And I’m interested because those things are very, very far from each other.
MERRILL: And there’s great controversy over the nature of the translations that perhaps that change in the Hungarian and English titles points to some of those disparities.
TÓTH: Already the titles. What I also reread is Ernest Von Alpan The Gestures of Drawing; how to write when you don’t write and how to draw when you write but actually draw, so it’s an amazing thing and it’s full of philosophic things and also from Barthes and Artaud everyone is there. So if anyone is interested in how to draw when you write. And then the other one, Boris Giros books about concerning the illnesses and viruses about how the language is a virus, attacks the original language in terms of translation, so these are important, I think. And all my fellows from IWP autumn programs because they all wrote amazing words.
MERRILL: Well it does seem in your presence that the entire world can become inspiration for your work, every piece of it and that it’s very thrilling. Kinga Tóth, thank you for making time for us today.
TÓTH: Thank you and thank you very much for being here.
The International Writing Program is a nonprofit organization supported by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. To donate to the IWP or to support a writer, please visit us online at iwp.uiowa.edu.
Origins is edited and produced by Kathleen Maris Paltrineri, with research and editing by Ashley Chong, design by Donna Brooks, and production by Todd Johnson; music composition is by Noel Nissen with pianist Trevor Polk and music production with Brandon Darner and Micah Natera. I’m your host Christopher Merrill. For a transcript and more information about this episode, please visit us online. Stay tuned to our next podcast available May 15, 2018 on ApplePodcasts and SoundCloud where guest host Kathleen Maris Paltrineri talks with Zimbabwean and South African writer Panashe Chigumadzi.