Carried Away by the Story: Finding Healing and Empathy in Surrendering to Stories
with Maja Bumberák and Ryan Coleman
Welcome to our eighth Story Kin & Cousin Conversation! We continue the vision of the Story NOW! interviews by exploring the power of storytelling to transcend divisions and create change. We interview an oral storyteller and a cousin storyteller from a kindred art form. Join us for a conversation with storyteller, researcher, and teacher of oral traditions Maja Bumberák and Story Cousin, writer and critic Ryan Coleman
Vel: What is the first story you remember developing a connection with? Who told it to you?
Maja: Well, what I can recall that really had a big impression on me is a story my father used to tell us when we were little children. And it was actually, I could say, a series of episodes of a story that he invented, maybe. I could say it was a tall tale, maybe. It was about the Flying Lion and his adventures in the sky, how he met the Hippopotamus and other friends. And actually, when my daughter was born, he went on and put other episodes to it. And it was one of the very early stories that I met, and stories from the Bible that I heard from a very early age.
Ryan: You know, I’m sure there were lots of pleasant, very nice stories. I had a great relationship with my parents, and I’m sure they told me lots of wonderful stories. For some reason I can’t think of any of them. But the story I do remember, I don’t know about connected to, but it made an impression on me. I grew up on a cul-de-sac, so my street kind of butted up to an elementary school, and I actually walked to the elementary school. It was a very nice way to grow up. Between the second and third house from the end, there was a little brick patio, and all the neighbors at the end of the street used to get together, basically every evening, and they would drink beer and talk and just hang out. And my neighbor, her name was Cheri Brown. She’s passed away, but I vividly remember, I couldn’t have been more than five or six, and she told this story, which now I know is a classic urban legend people tell everywhere, of this young in love couple who went in a car to Lover’s Lane. And they were making out, and then there was a guy with a hook hand who appeared, and they were really scared, and he chased after the car, but they got away from him. But then, when they get back to the house, there was a hook hanging on the door handle. At the time, I remember being petrified. I was like: I’m never going to kiss anyone, I’m never going to drive, I’m never gonna come home. I haven’t thought about that in years, I don’t know how it influences me, but it is very vivid in my memory.
Vel: Do you feel like these are stories you carry with you? Do you think they appear in ways?
Maja: I thought about these stories of the Flying Lion, and they were very special, because they were really improvised stories, and they were improvised to the here and now. They were funny, but there was always an element about us, about a certain day. You know I’m very deeply rooted in the Hungarian oral tradition of storytelling, and one of the many beautiful things about it that I love is: that those old day stories were alive. So there was no story told in the same way, ever. Even if the same story was told by the same storyteller it was different, because it was alive. Never written down for centuries. One of the very important elements that made it work very well was this special bond, connection between the teller and the listeners. The spontaneity of it. That it was so alive. And there was this, it’s like performative adjustment or improvisation, that was always there, always. Maybe making a note for a listener, or answering their comments, or making it up-to-date or relevant according to their own knowledge. So, it’s very much there in my storytelling, and this is a very good model, though I never really thought about it consciously.
Ryan: It’s interesting, you talk about your rootedness in the Hungarian storytelling tradition, and I feel like in America, maybe this is the single issue from which all of our other many, many issues come from, a lot of people who live in America, who were born and raised here, don’t see themselves as rooted into an American tradition–regardless of a storytelling tradition, just any kind of American historical-cultural tradition. But I think, when I reflect on my stories, I do in ways feel connected to various storytelling or cultural traditions. Reflecting on this story, I think, well what is the story that I told ultimately? It’s an urban legend, which is kind of a tall tale, a tall tale is kind of, maybe not all tall tales, but the function of some of them is to impart morals, and it’s the same thing as an urban legend, but they do it in different ways. One is a positive way of imparting a moral and one is a negative, a scary way of imparting a moral. And I think: what is more American than a story which is simultaneously sexually titilating and it’s sort of telling you not to have sex at the same time. That’s what that story does. It’s telling you: don’t go to Lover’s Lane and make out with somebody, but also this story is hot, because it’s about people making out. And there’s also something hot about death. I mean, it’s a libidinal force. My connection to that story, I hadn’t thought about this before now, but a lot of my writing, I look at that connection of sex and death really, but I’m more interested in looking at the ethics. Because I think that’s a really dangerous conjunction, but it’s one that’s always going to be made. Now that I’m a critic, I don’t really tell stories in that way, I look at, kind of, the ethics of people who are telling those stories.
Vel: What do you find makes for a compelling story? How do you work these aspects into your own work?
Ryan: I’m in a one year program at USC, and it’s a journalism program. In no way do I really consider myself a journalist. I’m a critic. I have a lot of personal hang-ups about going into people’s personal lives and asking them to tell me stories that are meaningful to them, or painful times of their lives, just so I can make a story about it that can entertain or educate other people. I know it needs to happen, I just have my own hang ups about that. But I’m in a class, it’s a radio storytelling class. I’ve been a text person my entire life, with all my writing. Reading is a very different process than listening, but of course for the kind of work I do, I interview people all the time, and I’m watching stuff. So I am listening to stories all the time, and sort of parsing that, or packaging that into an interview or a story. I bring up the radio class, because a lot of the other students in my class, where they come from a journalism background, all seem to have this idea of the thing that makes a story, the thing that grabs you. The idea is: if you’re turning on the radio, you’re competing with a lot of other things, and people’s attention spans are short. I don’t think people are that distractible and almost childish, but what they always say is: you need a real, kind of visceral human, you need to hear someone laughing, or you need to hear someone crying, or hear someone arguing. I get how that would grab people, but personally, whatever the medium of the story being told, the thing to me is something you can’t really quantify, and it’s hard to pin down, but I think you can tell when someone is being sincere in the way that they’re telling a story, versus, you can tell if there’s a bit of disconnection between story and storyteller. And if you have a story you are sincerely connected to, if you tell it in an insincere way, it’s not as if you’re being fake or lying. There’s something magical that comes when someone really connects to the story they’re telling, and you can’t always set the stage for that. That’s what can make writing on a deadline so frustrating. Hopefully you can make that connection, and something really genuine can come out. Sometimes you don’t have the time to do that, so you have to lean on the craft. But that’s what I look for when I listen to a story, that sincerity.
Maja: Ryan, something came to my mind, a story I heard in my childhood. Because there are lots of elements that can make a story a good story. I see attempts of: you need a hero, you need an enemy, you need this and that, and then you put them together and you will have a good story. The story that came to my mind was, when you are in love your blood is full of endorphins, but it doesn’t mean, if you inject endorphins into your veins, that you are in love. As a listener, I am usually grasped by the whole story. So, I’m not very much in analyzing mode. There are other times, because I’ve been researching stories for eleven years consciously. What came to my mind is that I am listening like a child. We were talking about how rooted I am in Hungarian oral folklore. It’s true, but it didn’t come naturally. The oral tradition of storytelling in Hungary, by the beginning of the 21st century, has died out. So we are in the last moment where we can meet some old people who were part of it, who can share stories with us. We have a lot of stories transcribed ethnographically, authentically, as they were told. But I knew folktales from edited, rewritten, shortened versions, like the Grimms’. I took part, eleven years ago, in a course, by the Hungarian Heritage House. It was there I met the Hungarian traditional storytelling, where I started to read stories that are not rewritten, not shortened, but presented the way they were told, maybe fifty years ago. They were forty, fifty page fairy tales, told by adults to each other for hours. It’s a totally different way of telling. It’s embedded in the everyday, very informal, oral language, and oral communication situations. This kind of telling I was trying to get in touch with, and learn the naturality of it. I think, Ryan, this is a very wonderful experience: neighbors coming together. I used to live in a village from the age of three to nine, and there was a habit, at the time, that people were sitting in benches in front of the fence of their house, and the neighbors were coming together, sharing stories and gossip. This natural, informal situation, was the natural habitat of stories and storytelling for thousands of years.
Ryan: That’s really interesting to think about, that process, or that scene itself, of people that live in the same community, coming together and sharing stories. You mentioned this earlier Maja, and this is something I find really interesting, the way written stories and oral stories are so different in a lot of ways. But one of the main ways I think they’re different is that the written story is a kind of fixed object, every detail has been pinned down. But the oral story is alive. Like you mentioned, with each telling it morphs, from the person who’s telling it, the time period in which it’s being told, the way that it’s being interpreted, depending on that person’s experiences. And, when I think about the hook story I started with, I wonder if the story Cheri told was maybe even different than the story I remember. Because she was in such a different place in her life than I was back then. I remember it as a story of youth, people who are very young, and they’re scared, maybe that wasn’t it. You also brought up the Bible. I heard an interview with one of my favorite writers, Margaret Atwood, a long time ago, which I have gone back to many times. She did an interview with Bill Moyers. I don’t remember how they got on the subject, but she was talking about the Bible. She made this comment, she said, the minute the Bible was put together, Christianity really fundamentally changed, because there is this split when talking about theology between, they call it the breath and the word. So the things Jesus said versus the things written down in the Bible. And she was saying, perhaps if there was never a Bible that was written down, maybe we wouldn’t have as much violence, division, strife, and warfare that we have. A lot of which has come out of organized religion. Because, if the stories were allowed to be more fluid, to adapt to the times, and suit people’s needs as people’s needs evolved, I mean, this was a document created in year thirty, or before that. That’s the New Testament, and look at where we are now. And of course things do evolve, even texts, they’re interpreted differently. But I reflect on that, the power of oral storytelling. It’s not at all like text.
Maja: You know, I work with adults, I teach storytelling to groups of teachers and other professionals. Here, they are asked to memorize the stories in the teacher training courses, and tell the stories word by word, and we grow up with stories from books, read from books, and there is this idea, that is something to be recited, and the text must be respected. I’m trying to tell them, at a certain point in time, someone went to a village and transcribed a story, and put it into a book. I use this metaphor, of this child playing with a ball, happily, and there comes a photographer and makes a snapshot. So this is a snapshot, and you must make it alive again, you know? It’s alive, it must be moving. And in an oral tradition, a story couldn’t become not relevant, because either it fell out from memory, it was not necessary, it didn’t mean anything, or it was changed in a way that it stayed meaningful. So it was carrying, both in the way of the form or in respect of content, something meaningful, something that was there, but it had to stay alive.
Ryan: That makes me think of something you just brought up, Maja. In the oral tradition, with stories, it’s like the community decides without ever deciding. Some stories fall out of favor when people don’t need them anymore, and some stories endure because people will always need them, or at least for a long time people will need them. I think about that question all the time as a critic when I’m evaluating, especially in a film industry now, in which, at least in America, the dominance of what they call IP, existing intellectual property: retakes, and reboots. So we’re getting these same stories again and again, and not even that, but actual story forms. A story form I always have my eye trained on, and I’m very scrutinous when another version of this story comes out, because it is such an old story, is the Woman in Peril Story. There’s a great writer named Alice Bolin, who wrote a book called Dead Girls. She looks at this spate of television shows that kicked off in 1992 with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, that center around a beautiful, white, middle-class, seemingly perfect girl who shows up dead somehow, and then that event, breaks open the community around her: actually everybody wasn’t perfect. This use of the most unthinkable thing in the world, the death of a beautiful young woman, which Edgar Allen Poe called “the most beautiful thing in the world,” but her death is sort of a sacrifice that needs to be committed for everybody else to come to a catharsis. Alice Bolin calls it “The Oldest Story in the World,” because you go back to even Mesopotamian and Sumerian tragedies, and there’s these stories of either dead or imperiled women being used to move a story or a plot along. When you see a story that basically never died off, and has continued from time immemorial to now, when it comes around again, I think about the person who decided to tell another iteration of this. I always want to ask them, “Do you know what you’re doing?” Because you’re not just telling a story in 2022, you are taking the baggage of two thousand years, and it’s just the latest iteration of this story. Do you know the tradition you’re rooting yourself in? Usually the answer is no. Sometimes they may tell a good story and they don’t need to reckon with that tradition. Often it’s bad, and it’s offensive, and to me, morally repugnant. Because you’re reckoning with so much history and that’s, I think, a grave task.
Maja: Wow. It made me think, that person may not know, but there are several ways of knowing: with your head and with your heart. Lots of times we are unconsciously attracted to stories, and to these deep archaic topics, very much. My storytelling work is very much led by this call, that I’m attracted to something. Something calls me. Something I like, I don’t know why, I would love to tell this story. Sometimes, years later, I understand why it was important for me personally. Maybe I don’t. But this intuitive part is a very important part of it. And as listeners, people are attracted, even in the movie form, to these old topics, themes.
Ryan: Definitely. I often see a line people will dash off in criticism in order to discredit a movie they don’t like, “We’ve seen this story before.” To which I always say: is that a problem? Probably, if you were to diagram the form of every story, we maybe have five or six forms. When you really get down to the structure, there’s really not that much, so it’s not an issue. That’s story form, but then we go to topic, and there’s certain types of stories that we tell, I agree with you, sometimes people are conscious of the stories they are attracted to, and sometimes people aren’t conscious of the stories they’re attracted to. Going back to Twin Peaks, I think with a filmmaker like David Lynch, he strikes me as somebody who goes completely off of deep, semi-conscious intuition, and allows himself to be completely motivated by it. He seems to allow himself to be completely motivated by instinct and impulse, and he does it wonderfully. But I think there are other people, who are maybe less, I don’t know, less discerning, less gifted storytellers that allow themselves to be motivated by instinct. There are a lot of human instincts that are ugly, and those are the ones that splash out on the page.
Maja: It just came to my mind, this difference between, for example, genres of folklore, folk traditions, it’s always a communal, creation of the community. It is polished, or retold again and again, in the community, and maybe it’s a safeguard, I don’t know what is a good word, for this kind of safety, for this to remain relevant to many. But of course, it’s another big topic, how the individual is part of this creation, even if it’s a community. The Hungarian tradition of folktale research is very strong, because we have a Budapest School of story, and they really dealt with individuals, and not only collective genres, but really that this particular variation of this story comes from this person. How is this story influenced by his or her biography, or her storytelling talent or art? Because there are, for example, expressions that are his or hers, that are so beautiful, and they are taken forward, but it’s their own innovation, no? And this is very much part of this process.
Vel: Can you recall a situation where you found it necessary to know where a story came from, as well as the ways the story is enjoyed today?
Ryan: In the field that I’m in, or in the market that I’m in, I write film criticism and some cultural criticism, I think we’re kind of in a moment–I don’t know, it’s rough. It would be great if there were a lot less movies coming out, and if the people writing about them were paid more, and had to write less often, and got to write longer. I think it would be better for everybody, because having a faucet that’s basically at 110% gushing out content, and everybody’s standing at the end of it trying to grab a little bit, it feels like the culture is serving nobody. I think, like that phrase, “The past is history and the future is a mystery” in the present, we’re all totally rudderless and directionless. Because I’ve always been so rooted in history. When a movie would come out that was clearly part of a certain historical thrust, whether that’s cinematic history or some other kind of history, if that wasn’t pointed out, I would get frustrated. But now that I’m actually doing it, the constraints that people labor under, sometimes it’s impossible to stay rooted in that history, when there’s so much present material making demands on you. Something I just wrote about, there’s a Chilean director called Pablo Larraín. He’s made a movie called Jackie, about Jacqueline Kennedy. There’s a scene in Jackie, where Natalie Portman who plays Jacqueline Kennedy, she’s talking to a reporter, who’s played by Billy Crudup. And this really happened, I think a Time magazine reporter came to the Kennedy compound, maybe a week or two after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The whole nation wanted to know, the bereaved widow, what does she think, what is she going through? The interviewer, he’s dancing around it, he wants to talk about the assassination itself, and she can tell. She eventually cuts in and says: “I used to be a reporter, and I know what you want. You want me to tell you what it sounded like when the bullet entered my husband’s skull. You shouldn’t want that, and the nation shouldn’t want that. I don’t want to give that to you, but I know that’s what you want.” And in the next scene, Pablo Larraín shows the assassination, and he himself recreates the sound. That, to me, is an example of somebody working within a historical tradition, of representing violence, and representing grief, and not understanding the obligation. Or feigning compassion for his subject, and then betraying her in the next second. I agree with you, Maja, that there’s a mind connection, and there can be a heart connection too. To make a decision like that, I don’t know from where that decision came, but to me it felt really treacherous.
Maja: It’s another big topic, but stories are misused, sometimes unconsciously, for many reasons. For money, for success, for popularity. But when I think of stories, old and new, I think on the whole, it’s good for me to be in connection with oral traditions. Because I know where stories come from, I know a lot about stories, or the natural way of creating and recreating stories. By natural I mean how it’s flowing spontaneously, like a river for example. I think it’s good to be grounded in there. And when I work with a story, it’s very good to work with variations. For example, I can go to the Hungarian Folktale Catalog, and I find a story type–ok this belongs here–and I can find some variations. I look them up, I know this sounds very dry, but it can be useful, because you can get access to variations more easily, and find, for example: this particular person in a village told this story this way, and another one this way, maybe a woman. I think this is a very wonderful background for your own retelling. And when you talk about being spontaneous and alive, that doesn’t mean that you can do anything. You know it very well, Ryan, I’m sure, that there are these implicit or explicit rules of what is a good story: how you paint images with words, or, with oral storytelling, with your whole being, with your whole body and soul, and presence. It’s a great thing. Of course, there are variations, from other cultures, and it’s also a great thing. Because same plot, you know, but dressed in such a different way, where cultural, other aspects, become explicit and very interesting. From this, what came to my mind: stories have always traveled, between people, it is so natural. And a story came to my mind, it happened, I read it in a book, it’s recounted or recorded. It happened in the 1850’s. There was a law student. You know, in the 1850’s there was this great romanticism. After the Grimm brothers people started to collect the folk traditions, pieces from folk tradition, to renew what is real, and to try to keep alive in the books, because it’s told, and it will be lost, and they’re trying to find their own myths. And they were collecting many, many stories. So this law student went into the country. It was harvest time, and in the evening people were gathering around, and they were telling stories, and they were collecting stories, and they were giving the words to each other, as they say in Hungary, I’m not sure what they say in English, and then they turned to him and they said, “And what kind of a folktale do you know?” And he was thinking and thinking, and he realized, well none. But he had a good classic education, and he thought, but I know Homer, I know the Iliad, I can recite, I can tell. And he told them the Iliad, the whole story, and they loved it, and asked him to tell it again, and he, you know, told them in detail. And then for two days he couldn’t go there. And when he came back, the people were sharing stories, and he heard the Iliad being told, except there were Hungarian hussars battling the Turkish warriors, you know we were under Turkish empire for one hundred and fifty years, so this was an issue, and they were fighting the greatest Turkish warrior, Hector, and in this telling, actually the name was Ág Illés (Pronounce: agh illesh), which was the transformation of Iliad into a name which made sense in Hungarian. So, I think this tells a lot about how stories are old and new, and culturally different, but also very much similar.
Vel: There are many concerning situations in the world on our minds, not least the war in Ukraine. What do you find is the relationship between stories we tell and the world we live in?
Maja: When there is a certain situation, which there always is, but now, especially for us here in Hungary, it is very tough, this war having broken out. And there’s always the question, “What stories now, which stories now, which story would suit?” I have a story about this, because two days ago, I participated in a Folktale Forum, it was an online event, organized by the Hungarian Heritage House and it was led by folklorists, about the role of revival storytelling in present day Hungarian-speaking areas, and the standards of stories, and suddenly there was a woman, and she started talking, and she lives in Ukrania, and you must know, that we have about 150,000 Hungarians living in the Western part of Ukrania that used to belong to Hungary, that part, so she was a Hungarian-speaking, Hungarian woman. And she said that when the war broke out, some weeks ago, she is a storyteller for three groups in a kindergarten. She’s not a kindergarten teacher, she’s a regular storyteller. And the kindergarten, some weeks ago, closed, and they will reopen tomorrow. It’s actually now tomorrow, Monday. And she said that she had a lot of swirling thoughts and fears, because the first thing the kindergarten teacher will have to show and teach these children is how to escape, if there is a war siren going on, and how to go to the shelter. And the teachers are afraid, and mixed up. So what kind of stories should she come up with, and how will it be? She was trying to ask for help from us. There were many comments, good things, and one of the folklorist storytellers, Ildikó Sándor, who is also my mentor, in the academic program, she said something I loved very much, which is, she said: “There are probably many, many stories that they love that you have probably told them many, many times, and why not tell those stories, which they love, which they find shelter in, or peace, or shalom, a kind of shelter, a kind of calmness, or safety in this moving world.” So, many good things can be said, but this is one of them: tell stories that you love, that they love, that mean something to you. So it’s not necessarily a change of a story needed, but something that, we are together, we are present, we share all the joys that stories can bring us.
Ryan: That’s really beautiful, and I was thinking similar things. I was going to say, I look at criticism, and, for instance, I’m in a class in my grad program right now: it’s a film reviewing class, so every week we have to see a movie, then we have to write a review of it, simple. And the one, I just saw last night is the new Batman movie, and while I was watching it, I feel as though a ton of people in my class are going to try to say, “Well it looks this way because it’s reflecting this social anxiety, and it is this plot, because it’s looking at this social anxiety, and this trending topic.” I think there’s maybe too much of that in my profession of criticism, of trying to make things a one to one analogue of things that are happening, and you make a really beautiful point, Maja, which is: sometimes the things that resonate most deeply, and people turn to–like, if I’m having a really bad day, I don’t want to watch a movie about someone having a really bad day, I want to come home and watch the thing that’s really nice, that makes me feel good, and that actually has a lot to do with my bad day. Maybe a story in that movie, that has nothing to do with a person having a bad day, that’s what resonates for me, and so later, when I have another bad day, I think of that, and of that movie, and there’s no ostensible connection between it. So, I would say the exact same thing, which is, there doesn’t need to be, “There is a war, so let’s talk about war, let’s read the Iliad.” It doesn’t have to be one to one, and often, the brain, I think, is a lot more sophisticated and complex and intuitive, and we seek things out that are maybe not evident on the surface of a story, that we actually need, that are not evident in it.
Maja: And from what you said, I thought of also, the richness, the complexity, the depth of a story, is something that is so valuable, because it’s not one to one, and it’s not simplified into one thing, it has the richness to give you the opportunity to connect with it, where it is best for you, on the level that is best for you, and it doesn’t have to be a conscious level, and from this, I’d like to share a story with you, about one of the storytelling events we did for adults. For six years in downtown cafes, in Budapest, with a colleague of mine, we did monthly folktale events for adults. And one of the events, you know we have these big dragon-slaying stories in Hungarian folklore, there come the seven-headed dragon, and the fourteen-headed dragon, and the twenty-four headed dragon, don’t ask why twenty-four, sometimes twenty-one, and there is, in this particular version, of a beautiful old master, János Cifra, that I,retold, the dragons, come on horseback, and before they fight with the hero they roar, and they say, “Before you were as big as a one thousandth part of a millet in your mother’s womb, I knew we would have to fight one day. Come out from under the ridge, let’s fight.” And they say it three times, and after the event, a woman came to me, and she had tears in her eyes, and she said this particular sentence in the story was so meaningful to her, because it was about mercy. And I love that. I am a vessel, and I can’t control– I have thoughts about the story, and feelings, but it is much bigger than I can ever imagine. And I just offer it, and it’s so beautiful, and I trust it.
Ryan: Because of the writing I do, I’m in so many conversations all the time about stories, and about what they meant, and you’ll have people sometimes say, “No, that’s not what it meant, it was supposed to be happy.” There are occasional times where someone watches Schindler’s List, and they’re like, “Oh, what a romantic thing.” And it’s like, “No, no it’s supposed to be sad.” But there are other times, like that thing about the dragons, someone could hear lines like that, and hear something maybe a little bit offbeat. I don’t know the whole story, but that’s not the word that I would go to, hearing that. But, I know with myself, I’ve seen things, and read things, and read a certain line, and it will make me think of my mother, or it will make me think of a childhood memory, and that adds an emotional note that’s maybe not there in the story. There’s a proverb I read, I believe it was at the beginning of a Mavis Gallant story, a Canadian writer. I think it’s a Sufi proverb, but it’s always stuck with me, and I always get the wording wrong, but it’s something like: “When you are journeying into the desert, you are riding a camel, and once you are in the desert the camel is walking on its own.” The idea behind it is when you’re telling a story, it is for you, it’s going in a certain direction. The second the last word leaves your lips, it’s for other people, and they can take it any direction they want to. It’s not your story anymore. If someone hears, “This is about my parents’ divorce,” then it is.
Vel: What do you think, or hope, a story or a storyteller can offer listeners in challenging times?
Maja: Well, I think it’s true for any situation, but, any kind of story you share, beside any kind of technique, and tricks, or maybe below everything, it’s you the storyteller, who you are, what your intention is, and whether you connect, whether you can bring love and acceptance, or treasuring and holding the space, that is of utmost importance. So, this is what comes to my mind, to offer this vulnerability of yours, this presence. Jan Blake’s TED Talk comes to my mind. She speaks about, if I can recall, “We are here, and you are fine the way you are.” With all our frailties, we laugh at ourselves, we grieve, we go on a journey together, but it’s a shared space, of treasuring and acceptance. It’s very important.
Ryan: The phrase you just used Maja, is of utmost importance. There’s a line from a book I love, by maybe one of the greatest American storytellers who ever lived, Toni Morrison. She has a book called Song of Solomon, and there’s a lot of storytelling in that book itself, and there’s a line in that book, where two characters, they’re looking for this ancestral town of the main character, his name is Milkman, which may or may not exist. And there’s this rhyme from this town called “The Song of Solomon.” And it’s really important to him, and he needs to find it. There’s a line, these two men, they’re in this weird sort of struggle together in the forest, and one of them has a line that basically says: “When you tell someone’s story you take their life into your hands.” To tell the story of someone else’s life, is to take their life. And to put their life on paper, is literally to recreate them in a story. I think Toni Morrison totally understood that. I thought the more I would do this, and the older I got, I would relax a little more, but if anything I’m getting more critical. The more I think about storytelling, the stakes get higher and higher. I really do think, it’s one thing, if it’s a folktale, and it’s meant to be aphoristic, and it’s meant–I mean all stories are meant for people to engage with. But if you are literally telling, not only someone’s whole life story, but a chapter in their life, you are literally taking their life in your hands, and you are representing it somewhere else, for other people to learn from, to enjoy, to resonate with, to connect with. I don’t think there’s any way you can literally translate the totally disconnected and chaotic events in somebody’s life. I don’t think it’s anyone’s goal to recreate everything exactly as it happened. It’s maybe actually truer to the experience of life to be creative, and make strange intuitive connections, because that is actually how life feels. Life doesn’t feel linear, or narrative, it feels weird, and intuitive. But I would say, especially when you’re telling stories of violence, trauma, strife, grief, the really meaningful, shadow side of the human spectrum of experience. It is the gravest responsibility in the world to take someone’s darkest moments and convert them into a story. Think and feel as deeply, and as hard as possible, and go to the very bottom. And make sure that it’s worth doing. Because sometimes stories don’t need to be repeated.
Maja: Absolutely, and this word “responsibility” resonates with me very much. I was invited to be faculty in maggid Jim Brulé’s Transformational Storytelling School, together with Native American storyteller Crow Hearscrow and Mexican storyteller Valentina Ortiz, and this is also a very important issue, we are trying to explore together with the class members: how I as a storyteller, I am responsible in opening up people, or sharing a story with them, how I am in it, and what are my responsibilities? And the words of Deepa Kiran, another wonderful storyteller, from India, come to mind: “We take the people on a journey, and we need to take them back safely.” It’s a very important thing. And I agree, not all stories are worth telling, and the horrors can be presented in a way that doesn’t do good to anybody, it just destroys and gives despair. It’s not enough to talk about topics or techniques, there’s a lot more to it…May I ask you something? What do you most love about your work?
Ryan: That’s a very deep question, but I actually was thinking about this recently, I was just explaining this to my boyfriend, actually. I think human personality is so complex, and the things that happen to us on a daily basis, there is so much that happens to us, that truly makes us, all such specific, unique people. We all have personalities, and internal drives, and motivations, that are contradictory. People are motivated in multiple directions, they make decisions that they’re not even conscious of why they’re making the decision, but they’re motivated to make it from a convergence of impulses they’re only partially aware of. And the thing that frustrates me the most, because it is so compulsory and so widespread, is the flattening of human personality, the flattening of human decision-making. This has always been so important to me. As a young kid, I remember a specific time there was a news story of a woman who was at a Zoo and she went up to, I think it was a tiger, and was leaning over to take a picture of it or something, and she fell in and she got attacked. I remember sitting there with my whole family, and all of them, my father, my mother, my brother, were like, “Oh ,what an idiot. Well, she deserved it.” I remember, in that moment, being so frustrated, and saying: “We don’t know anything that happened. We don’t know why she was doing that, we don’t know where the tiger was, we don’t know how she was feeling that day. Also, any of us could do that. That is an accident.” I think people so often, the way they interpret stories, is that they are motivated by an instinct. “That could happen to me,” is the first thought, and their first instinct is to find the way in which: “But I would never do that, and it wouldn’t happen to me.” I totally get that human instinct, but the consequence of that is a callusing on human empathy and compassion. What I like to do, if I can do it, the most, is to approach a work, a movie, a book, a cultural phenomenon, and find all the oppositional, contradictory bits of it, and say: None of them collapse the other one. They all exist at the same time. Somebody can be good and bad. They can be a victim, they can be a perpetrator, they can be sympathetic, they can be nonsympathetic, they can be smart, they can be dumb, most of us are all of those things at once. I try and do that, because I want more of that in the culture, and I want more of that in people’s minds. What motivates you?
Maja: Well, I love a lot of things about what I do, but one very important thing that I’m in the process of realizing and embracing, is that storytelling is like meditation for me. It’s a moment where I am just present so much, and I just let myself be carried away by the story, but in the sense that there is this double consciousness. I am still present with the people, but a place where your beliefs are suspended for the time of the story, and you indulge and believe, and I feel this is a very deeply healing mode of being, I realized not only for the listeners but for me, as well. And it’s also a space where a lot of magical things can happen, because it touches us on so many levels, on such deep levels I cannot get access to in other ways, but through the story I can. So this magic is really great. That’s one thing. It came to my mind, my husband, lots of times, laughs at me, but not in a negative way. For example, my daughter is sixteen, and she sometimes still watches cartoons, some stories, on tv. And I’m doing the washing up, and then I stop. And I’m just staring at the screen. And he says, it never happens when it’s the news on. So I have this childlike ability to forget about myself, but maybe it’s useful, when I’m sharing a story.
Ryan: I feel like my analogue to that, my childlike ability I try and maintain, sort of the core of my spirit, and not to have it affected by how difficult and arduous life can be. There’s one story, that epitomizes that for me, that when I encountered, I thought: this is it, I’ve never seen this on a page before. This is from my favorite writer, Mary Gaitskill. She’s American, she’s written a lot of nonfiction and criticism, and there’s nobody better at it to me. My boyfriend and I, he really likes her too, we have a joke that you could find anything, any kind of horrible, repugnant, unbelievable thing, and she could say, “I could see why they did that.” I’m shocked and upset by things all the time, but usually if I think for a second, I can always go, “But I can see how maybe something happened to them.” She has a great essay, called “Icon.” It’s about Linda Lovelace. Mary tells this story, in the opening of that essay. She and her boyfriend, twenty years after Deep Throat came out, they went to a screening of it. It didn’t really have a big impression on her. But the guy she went with was so upset. And she said: “What’s so upsetting to you?” And he starts to unspool all these contradictions. And he goes: “Well, she liked being in the film so much, and then she came out afterwards, and said she didn’t like it.” And Mary said: “Well, people change their minds. I’ve had sexual experiences that were great in the moment, and then next day it feel like shit, and I realized maybe I was taken advantage of, and didn’t even realize it.” And he goes: “But then she posed for Playboy, and she made money off of it.” And she says: “Well, she was probably broke, movies like that don’t pay you. It’s a job, she probably needed money.” And he goes: “But then, she went against that, and joined Women Against Pornography.” And she said: “Well, she’s probably not happy with the lifestyle that she’s leading. I mean, nobody wants to be the face of sex and controversy in America.” And he goes: “But then she defected from that.” And she said: “Well, those women are crazy, she probably didn’t want to hang out with them.” I just hope with my writing, I can help people make those connections, and relax. Just let people be hypocrites. Because we all are. We all are.
Maja: That resonates with me. How you help people see the world in complexities, and people in their complexity, and with all their contradictions. What I love about folktales is that they speak about what happens, like a film, if you see these traditional texts, the text part of it that’s written, it’s like shooting a film, they tell what happened, who said what. They don’t say: “He was a greedy king.” They don’t explain, they don’t analyze, they tell you what happened. And you, for yourself, you interpret it in your own way, and I love that.
Ryan: Right, and, without that direction, I’ve seen people in criticism get upset: “Did the director mean to say this person was bad? Because they are bad. But if they don’t think this person is bad, then the director is bad.” You’ve got to just go with it, figure it out for yourself. And, you know what, if the director is endorsing a bad person, oh no, you don’t have to do that too. There are bad people who make bad decisions, look at what’s going on in the world, there’s a lot of strife and ugliness. But I also don’t blame people, in the kind of culture we live in now, for feeling so, at least in my country I know a lot of people feel this way, basically abandoned by their government. Which resonates with people on a personal level, it feels like being abandoned by your family, by your father. If you go through a medical crisis, and the healthcare industry chews you up and spits you out, it feels like a rejection: my country didn’t take care of me. My generation, I’m a millennial, I think we’re the first generation to grow up, where the thing that a country is supposed to do for you, that a government is supposed to do for you, it was not guaranteed for us. I mean, for a long time, it’s not been guaranteed for many groups, but now it’s a free-for-all for everyone, except for the very rich. I think that has something to do with people approaching art and saying: I need signposts, I need black-and-white, I need to be told. I think people feel so abandoned and rudderless in their own lives, that to see that reflected in art is terrifying. So it frustrates me, but I do get that.
Maja: What is great about oral storytelling, is that you are there, in person, and lots of times adults don’t even know what to expect, because we are just bringing it back to the community, and they are so surprised. The greatest thing, Ryan, they can’t explain what is happening, they just feel: “Oh, I was like a child, I was laughing so much.” So they are just speaking about their experiences, and they don’t even realize how much it transformed them or brought nice moments. And I have seen audiences that are very resistant. In an old people’s home once, they were really frowning, very tough faces, and then as they began to open up, I saw a woman start to smile so suddenly I thought she had forty-five teeth. By the end, we are in a way, a community, a forum, and it is a shared journey. A favorite story of mine, I have a girlfriend who is blind, we studied together at university, she has four children, and she invited me to tell a story for her fortieth birthday. It was a big, big, big party, and I told a story about a princess who lost her crown. It fell into the pond. And it’s a story about the power of storytelling, actually. Everyone is panicking and looking for, and they don’t find the crown. And the soldiers come, and the fishermen come, and no one can find it. And then there comes the jester of the king, and says:“Why don’t I tell a story?” “Oh, you fool! No wonder you’re called a fool! A story’s not needed now. Just come and help look for the crown.” And he’s a wise jester, so he pretends he didn’t hear what the king said, and just finds a big rock, and sits down, and starts telling: “Once upon a time…” And the princess starts listening, sits down. And then what to do? The king starts, listening, the soldiers, the fishermen, everyone starts listening. And as the story’s going on, everyone’s starting to breathe more slowly, and they are opening their eyes, and listening. And the princess, in the end, she starts smiling. And all the mud in the river that was stirred up, it’s also settling down. And after the story, she smiles and jumps to the pond, and she finds the crown. “Oh, I don’t know how we couldn’t see.” And everybody’s happy, to put it in a very, very little nutshell. And my girlfriend was laughing, she was crying from laughing. And then, at the end, she came up to me, and she told me how she herself was the princess, and how she saw her hysterical self, and it was a very healing thing for her. And I just enjoy these moments so much, because I didn’t expect it to be like that for her. I just loved the story, and she found herself in the story, in this way.
Ryan: That’s really beautiful. My boyfriend was visiting and there’s a movie that both of us, he in particular, really loves, called All that Heaven Allows. It’s a beautiful 1950’s technicolor melodrama. It’s a very simple story about a woman who has this perfect 1950’s American suburban life. But then the husband dies, and the kids are out of the house. So, what happens in the movie, the man who trims the trees on their property, he’s played by Rock Hudson, he’s beautiful. She starts talking with this tree trimmer, because he’s so different from everyone else, and he listens to her, and they talk, and he’s a lot younger than her, he’s a lot more working class. And now, that wouldn’t be that scandalous. Back then, extremely scandalous. The husband was a pillar of the community. He drives a truck that has a logo on it, and he wears cardigans, you know. Even to see them talking, it’s shocking to people. Her daughter says, “Oh, Mother, talk to whoever you want. In ancient Egypt there was a custom that after the husband died, a mother was actually entombed. But thankfully, in our culture, we don’t do that.” And the mother, really casually, goes: “Don’t we?” They buy her a tv. They say: “Just stay at home and watch the tv. What else do you need? You’re our mom.” And we brought two of our friends who don’t watch many older movies, and it’s old, it’s a slow movie. At one point they go to his house in the country. He needs to renovate this house, and there’s this Wedgwood tea set in pieces, and he repairs it for her, and it’s a symbol of their relationship. And there’s a moment, she relents to society, and she says, “You’re right, I can’t be with him.” And they have this horrible moment where they’re kind of breaking up, and she accidentally knocks the tea set off the counter and it breaks. And people in the audience gasped. And she’s kind of freaking out. And he goes: “Whatever, it doesn’t matter anymore.” And he picks up the pieces and throws them in the fire. And our friends, they almost screamed, and I heard one of them say to the other, “This is so crazy.” And I thought it was so interesting, because my boyfriend and I have one particular attachment to the story, but others can see it as a story of motherhood. Across culture, across time, it’s that power of a story evocatively told, about a subject everyone can relate to. We all saw it in a different way, but it really affected all of us.
Maja: Thank you for sharing this. How you shared their reactions was also such a great story.
Ryan: This is for a whole other time, but I have been to Budapest. I don’t know if this is a well known thing or not, but do you remember, there was a really crazy snowstorm in the Spring of 2013, were you living in Budapest then? It would’ve been March or April.
Maja: Oh, okay…It was not a snowstorm, it was like, the whole country broke down. I remember, because I was caught up in a train. The train trip would have lasted for two and half hours between Debrecen and Budapest. And it was thirteen and a half hours. I even wrote a poem about it. And I was the lucky one, I was wearing winter coats, good warm boots, I had water and sandwiches. Because everything was broken down. So you were there then?
Ryan: So, I studied abroad in the Czech Republic, I was in Prague. With three of my friends, we got on a bus and we went South, we were going into Budapest. That part of the country, it’s extremely flat, but then the highway comes up a little bit, so it almost creates a wind tunnel. So it was so eerie, because you looked to the sides, and you could see the almost like dead grass. So, we were on this bus for I think, for forty-eight to sixty hours. Eventually we got out of the bus, and we were walking over cars that had been snowed in. We made friends with a woman who was Hungarian, she was coming back to Budapest where she lived. And she said, and you will know exactly what this is Maja, they had to call in the Austrian military to bring in like humvees, we got on the back of like an Austrian Humvee that drove us down the street to this McDonald’s, and she said that day is a day to commemorate the time Budapest had overthrown the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Maja: It was. It was actually the fifteenth of March. A national Holiday. 1948, on this day, a revolution broke out.. The fifteenth of March against the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, or the Austrian rule.
Ryan: But I loved being there. I loved the city, and I loved the people. It’s a wonderful place.
Maja: I would never have thought that, Ryan, when I was invited to this interview. I never would have thought you were in the same storm.
Ryan: I had the impression it was this one highway, so I don’t know about the rest of the country, but his one highway, we were stuck there for multiple days, but the thing that’s pretty amazing about that story, is nobody died, but there was a child born in a car during the snowstorm.There were no casualties, but a life actually came out of it.
Maja: I didn’t remember that! But there were a lot of people stuck on the highways, and I don’t know how they managed, but they needed help, and there were a lot of people helping.
Vel: It’s wonderful, hearing you tell stories of people getting together in spite of the elements. Maja: Or because of the elements, really.
Vel: Any upcoming projects or performances you’d like to share?
Ryan: I’m in this one year long program, and the first semester and the first half of this semester I was publishing more than I usually do. If you’d asked me a couple weeks ago, I would have said, “Yeah.” But right now I’m really focused on what’s coming next. But the piece that I talked about, about the Chilean director who made the pieces on Jackie and Diana, that should be coming out soon. So I guess I would say look out for that. I also have a review about this movie about the moon crashing into the earth, a big, stupid sci-fi movie, I loved it, but it’s pretty dumb, that’s coming out tomorrow, actually, in a campus magazine I help run. What about you Maja?
Maja: I was thinking about the fact that I’m in labor! As a scholarship holder of the Hungarian Academy of Arts, I’m writing a book on oral storytelling, aiming to highlight its significance of the oral tradition, and helping people who want to start storytelling here and now, but this is a solitary labor. But as I said, I’ve been invited to be faculty with Jim Brulé at the Transformational Storytelling School. But we are planning to do other things with Jim. For instance, a tandem coaching program, for people to explore our connection with stories and work on them, but we don’t have a specific date for it yet. I also have my groups here, in Hungary, I have a four-day course, on oral storytelling for teachers and other professionals, accredited by the Hungarian education authority, I decided I would love to bring it to people in English as well, because it’s very much about storytelling here and now, but also rooted in wisdom of oral tradition, and what we can share, even if we want to tell not folktales but personal stories, or fiction, we can gain a lot of knowledge from the old masters. And I would be happy to do workshops, three or four hour workshops, were people interested. I have many plans, but these are the ones that come to my mind now. We will also do storytelling events,with Jim, with tandem storytelling, and music, singing and bringing instruments as well. So we will have storytelling events, but there are no specific dates yet.
Vel: What is one thing you would like readers to take away from this conversation?
Maja: Well, I would like to ask them to close their eyes, and when thinking about this conversation, just let it come for them. Let something come up, and take it away. What touches them, even without their control. A sentence, an image, whatever.
Ryan: I was actually going to say something very similar, which is: you have to let the story take you. And even if you know the beginning and the middle and the end, and you have an idea of what it all means, and both of us have done that in the course of this conversation, you used stories to illustrate concepts and ideas. But if you want to look at this whole conversation itself as a story, I think the most engrossing and, to use one of your words Maja, the most healing stories are: you forget about the past and you forget your idea of the future, and you truly just let it take you. You have to totally surrender. Which again, in a society that’s constantly telling us to be so in control and so decisive and make all our decisions and be so agile–you’ve got to totally let go sometimes or else you’re going to go crazy.
Maja: So very true. And you also need to know all the time. This is a place we are exploring in the Transformational School, a place of not knowing. So, Hungarian Story Type Nemtudomka, the hero’s name means “I don’t know,” and these are wonderful moments in life, where lots of good things can happen, where you don’t know, you are not in control. You really don’t know, you are puzzled. And this is a great place for something potentially wonderful coming.
Maja Bumberák is a storyteller based in Budapest. She has been touring the world for 11 years, sharing stories and songs at many dif erent venues with all kinds of age groups. As a scholarship holder of the Hungarian Academy of Arts she researches the oral tradition of storytelling and teaches oral storytelling to teachers, student teachers and other experts of education. She believes: Stories can heal a community in a way nothing else can. For more from Maja, look for her upcoming coaching course (dates TBD): Tandem Coaching: Using a unique approach of having two coaches in each session, Tandem Coaching is designed for storytellers who want to open-heartedly explore the deeper roots and meanings of the stories that call to them.
You can find Maja at her website https://majamesel.wordpress.com/ or blog: https://majamesel.wordpress.com/blog/ (the blog has articles in English too, about researching stories, the Hungarian oral tradition of storytelling, the revival storytelling scene today in Hungary and some interesting applied-story events), or reach her by email at .
Ryan Coleman is a writer from the San Gabriel Valley. His film and cultural criticism can be found in the LA Review of Books, Little White Lies, Rue Morgue, and more. An essay on Chilean director Pablo Larrain coming out soon, looking into his fixation on beautiful, rich, inaccessible, traumatized female public figures. For more from Ryan, explore his portfolio at https://ryanccoleman.com or find him on social media. He is on Twitter: @repulsivecream and on Instagram: @thelastangrywoman