Feature Image Photograph by Alex Lucas | ohtheraven.com
Before I met Csenge Virág Zalka in person, I knew about her from her Twitter account, @TarkabarkaHolgy, where she tweets about the folk and fairy tales she has come across in her research as a professional storyteller. From her tweets, I learned about stories, holidays, and customs I’d never heard of from all over the world. It was delightful to finally meet her at a café in Budapest, where she lives, although her work takes her all over the world, researching and telling stories. We had excellent Hungarian coffee and cake, and I learned so much about what a professional storyteller does in our modern world. Although I can’t share the coffee and cake we had in Budapest that day, I can introduce you to my friend Csenge and her fascinating work.
Csenge grew up in Hungary, where she studied archaeology, and continued her graduate studies in the United States, where she received an M.A. in storytelling at East Tennessee State University and a Ph.D. in culture studies at Bowling Green State University. She performs at storytelling festivals internationally in English, Spanish, and Hungarian, and she has published nine collections of folk and fairy tales, including two in English: Tales of Superhuman Powers: 55 Traditional Stories from Around the World and Dancing on Blades: Rare and Exquisite Folktales from the Carpathian Mountains. She also works with children who have been through a variety of traumatic situations, telling stories as a way of helping them cope and thrive. If you want to get some cookies or make yourself hot chocolate before reading this interview, to reproduce our experience in the café, I’ll wait . . . Ready? Okay, let’s get started!
Theodora Goss: Csenge, how did you become a professional storyteller? And what does a professional storyteller do, exactly?
Csenge Virág Zalka: Professional storytellers are spoken word artists. We tell stories live, without reading or reciting them. For us, they are narrative, not text. Many of us carry old traditions, stories that have been passed down to us through generations, but there are also quite a few storytellers who specialize in other genres—personal stories, literary fairy tales, history, for example, or a mix of all of these. At the core of storytelling is the personal, in-the-moment connection with the audience. Their reactions shape how I tell a story, and we all go on a narrative journey together.
I wanted to be a storyteller even since I was a kid, but I never had the word for it or the knowledge that it is an existing profession. I was very lucky that my grandparents and my parents told me a lot of stories. My paternal grandfather, who sadly passed away this month, was a natural storyteller: He knew all the local legends, anecdotes, and trickster tales, and he told them as if they happened to him or someone in the village. I grew up hearing things like the Munchhausen tales from him, and when I encountered them in books, I was appalled that someone had stolen my grandpa’s stories. With a family background like this, storytelling was a natural way of expressing myself.
I was already in college when I discovered that storytelling is also a profession, something you can make a living from—and that storytellers around the globe are a very strong community. We have conferences, festivals, workshops, guilds, and networks, and even degree programs. I traveled to the U.S. on a Fulbright scholarship and got my master’s degree in storytelling, and then a Ph.D. I don’t think anyone necessarily needs a degree at all to be a good storyteller, but I loved the experience and I learned a lot from it. I got to visit festivals, attend conferences, and make many lovely storyteller friends! I have been living life as a professional teller ever since.
TG: You’ve also edited a number of folk and fairy tale collections. Can you tell us a little about them? How do you select the tales to include?
CVZ: I like to assemble themed collections. I enjoy digging and hunting for old stories that fit a concept. My first master’s degree was in archaeology, so it kind of makes sense. Tales of Superhuman Powers was the first one: There I made a list of superpowers that appear in comics and movies and then tried to find a folktale or myth that matches each one of them. I wanted to show people how long humanity has been dreaming about flight, or super strength, or invisibility.
When I moved back to Hungary, I started collecting “feminist folktales”—old stories that have feminist values, such as strong woman heroes, caring fathers, all kinds of diverse protagonists. I wanted to disprove the idea many people have that folktales are inherently conservative and outdated. From that sprang my Hungarian book series of three volumes: Ribizli a világ végén (feminist Hungarian folktales), A kalóz királylány (feminist folktales from other cultures), and A Varjúherceg (rare variants of well-known fairy tales). I have also written folktale collections that support the Világszép Foundation, my primary workplace where I tell stories to children in the foster system. The Világszép Books series aims to offer stories for educating people about social topics. The first one was “traditional tales about non-traditional families,” such as folktales about kind stepmothers, single parents, adoption, and same-sex marriage, to prove that loving, supportive families like that have always existed in tradition. The second one is a trickster tale collection, to introduce Hungarian audiences to the concept of tricksters—smaller, weaker but brilliant and determined, just like the at-risk children we work with.
TG: You research folk and fairy tales from all over the world. Where do you look for them? What sorts of sources do you use?
CVZ: I primarily work with written sources. I have gotten very good at digging into archives for unpublished folktales, or finding sources that have been half forgotten. I translate a lot of stories to or from Hungarian, and also English and Spanish. I’m learning German, which runs in my family. What I love to do is to find several variants of a folktale—since traditional stories always exist in many versions, depending on who told them, when, and where—and compare them. This helps me see what the constant points of the story are, and what changes from teller to teller. It helps me find the most exciting, most interesting versions. Sometimes I merge more than one of those together, but I leave the actual plot intact. I always cite my sources, so if people want to go back to the older texts, they know where to look.
TG: Do you have a favorite fairy tale, or maybe a few favorites? And does it depend on whether you’re reading a tale or telling it?
CVZ: I get this question a lot, and I have finally worked out an answer! Favorite for me is not a single story, it’s a tier. I have a collection of them. In terms of classic fairy tales, “Twelve Dancing Princesses” has always been a big favorite of mine in all its many variants. In terms of storytellers, I love all the folktales collected from a Transcarpathian woman named Pályuk Anna, whose telling of old stories was filled with color and empathy and beauty. I published a selection of her folktales in English, titled Dancing on Blades. My favorite literary fairy tales are Mr. Death and the Redheaded Woman by Helen Eustis, and The Faun and the Woodcutter’s Daughter by Barbara Leonie Picard. And as for all-time favorites, I can’t get enough of Fionn mac Cumhaill stories, from the Irish and Scottish tradition. I started storytelling with those, back when I was a teenager and wanted to be an Irish bard—go figure—and they have been with me ever since.
TG: Why do you think it’s important for us to keep reading these ancient stories? What can we learn or gain from them?
CVZ: Part of the fun in telling folktales, for me, is to know that I am the latest link in a long chain of storytellers, playing a kind of telephone game across the ages. I like it that these stories come from centuries or maybe millennia ago, and I enjoy tracing them back whenever I can. It is a sign that these stories or images or plots resonate with people even today, and they have something to tell us that we might not even consciously understand. This is why story psychology and story therapy are very popular fields within our profession today. But the other thing is, it is a constant reminder that people are … people. They always have been. We get excited about shiny things,
we are scared of dying, we want to find love, we ask questions about things, and we have a weird sense of humor. Sometimes you read or hear an ancient story, and you can just tell that our ancestors were having fun with it. Folktales speak to the experience of being human. And they show how much we share across cultures and across history.
TG: Is there anything you wish people knew about traditional tales, particularly in this day and age, when we are so influenced by mass media?
CVZ: I recently did a TEDx talk titled “What shall we do with folktales in the 21st century?” A lot of people tend to see folktales as relics of the past, some kind of archaic thing set in stone that you pass on so it is not forgotten. But I believe it is important that people realize that they are a part of a living tradition. Everyone is. Their creativity, their values and worldviews, are a natural part of shaping stories for the next generations. They are allowed to play with folklore and tell stories the way they like them and pass them on more beautiful than they found them. It is not sacrilege to retell a folktale in your own style. Stories only live if we tell them, not recite them. Of course, there are cultural differences in how tradition works, and we need to respect those. But the more stories you know, the more aware you are of how folklore works, the easier it gets to add your own voice to it.
TG: What are you working on now? Are there any new books or storytelling events we should know about?
CVZ: Right now, I am working on my next book, which is a bit different from the ones before in that this one will contain stories that I made up. They are inspired by folktales, of course, and they often were folktales, before I retold and reimagined and tailored them until they became my own. I can’t call them “folk” anymore, but they still very much have the motifs and the structure. It has been a very exciting new process for me to put them into writing. I am hoping I can add them to the living tradition, and if people enjoy them, maybe they will become folktales in time. I am also working on an English translation of my feminist Hungarian folktales collection, hoping I will have a chance to show them to a wider readership.