No dominance: an interview with Rozália Brestyánszki-Boros

Fourteen years ago a tall and slender young woman – with hippy-like long, straight hair that has still remained her distinctive mark – worked at the staging of an international performance of Antigone in Hungary. This young woman had a deep comprehension of the text and, at the same time, undertook all the practical tasks that typically emerge during the production of a play, including keeping count of props and driving a van. Though due to the tight schedule we did not have too much time to talk in those days, we all knew that Rozi Brestyánszki-Boros was a girl who left Serbia with a suitcase during the war, settled down in Hungary and started a whole new life and career. Then, suddenly, she turned back to her hometown, Subotica and walked into the theatre there asking for a job. Now she has become the dramaturge of the same theatre and a playwright whose pieces have been produced in Serbia and Hungary with considerable success. We meet now in Subotica, on the terrace of an iconic restaurant from the seventies and opposite a small museum of contemporary arts in a flamboyant secession building.

How many nations and languages are blended in your nuclear family?

My father was Hungarian and my mother’s family is of German origins. My aunt stayed with us when I was a child and we used to talk in Swabian German dialect to each other. This adds up to three languages that we used in our family: Hungarian, German and Serbian. My husband is Croatian, but he attended a Hungarian school here in Serbia: his stepfather was Hungarian, and his mother Bunjevac (a smaller ethnic community in Serbia). Accordingly, our college-student twin daughters are of Hungarian-German-Croatian ethnicity.

Is there a consensus in your family according to which you consider yourselves part of one or another ethnicity?

Hungarians, of course. We speak Hungarian in the family and my daughters attend college in Szeged, Hungary. But at the same time they come back home really often and keep in touch with a wide and mixed group of friends here.

There is this stupid joke saying that one Hungarian turns all the rest in the society into Hungarians – meaning that the language or the nation is somehow dominant (of course with no sociologic or linguistic proof behind this). Is this something that happened to your family?

Not at all. I do not think that there should be any language or ethnicity in any way more dominant than the other ones; this is simply a matter of identity.

When and how did you embark on your famous immigrant adventure to Hungary?

During the Yugoslav Wars we moved to Hungary for four years – between 1992 and 1996 – with my husband who in spite of being Croatian got a Serbian military call-up notice, and of course, he had no intention at all to get enrolled and fight. So from Subotica we moved to Szeged, where we lived one year, and then we rented out a huge production plant at a farm (near Bordány), and worked there for three years. In the first year I was a laundress, interpreter, waitress, and then we ended up at the farm, my husband grew mushrooms and I was the minivan-driver. At that time we thought that we had moved to Hungary for good, but fortunately we came back later.

Did you move to Hungary or was that more an escape?

Rozália Brestyánszki-Boros (provided by the interviewee)

Rozália Brestyánszki-Boros (copyright Rozália)

In the beginning, when my husband got that call-up notice, we were considering moving, but for some reason or inertia we did not do anything until a very unfortunate evening of May, when we (including six or eight friends) were sitting at a terrace – two of us were girls, the rest boys, and we were talking in Hungarian, but we were a mixed society of Hungarians, Roma, Jewish, Serbian and Croatian. It was late at night when two men approached us: they were provocateurs of those times regularly guarding the neighbourhood. So these guys came to our table telling us that this is Serbia, we should speak in Serbian here. Our Serbian friend answered them saying that we all speak Hungarian, so we do not bother ourselves by switching languages. In no time a troop of guys like these two emerged from each and every dark corner and they beat up our Serbian friend right in front of our eyes and no one dared to make a further step. The next day, my husband and I were sitting on the train to Hungary with two suitcases.

I did not really get who these men were who beat up your friend? Soldiers? Policemen?

They are similar to football fans – some guys brought from another region and paid them to provoke people like us; this was a typical procedure in the Milosevic era. They must have been paid in some way by the regime, but I do not know the details about this.

So the two of you were sitting on the train leaving behind your family, friends and home.

By that time our friends were spread around the world, running away from the war; some left temporarily, some for good. My parents stayed back home, my elder sister was a college student in Budapest and my younger brother a high school student in Subotica. My husband’s mother was taking care of his sister, and this was especially important as my husband did not dare to come home for quite a while as he was afraid of being arrested and sent into the war.

Does this mean that you came back home earlier than him?

No, we were waiting for the time when it was safe to come back home together. It took four years; my twin daughters were born in the meantime.

Let us get back to the moment you got off the train in Szeged. Was there anybody waiting for you or giving you a helping hand?

Nobody was there for us. We just moved into the flat of the first people we met, also refugees from Subotica – there were around ten people living in a two-room flat. I started to job hunt: entering each and every shop and asking them if they needed any assistance, or if anyone knew of some work for me. Finally in a laundry I was told that they needed a laundress. This is how it started. For my husband it was much harder. There were a lot of men at that time in Szeged, all refugees and all hunting for a job and money, and that is why we started to grow mushrooms – that seemed to be the best solution, to start our own entrepreneurship. And as we had no capital at all, we needed some backers. The venture has since gone bankrupt, so this was finally one of the reasons we came back home.

What did you do in Subotica before you left?

Well, first I quit university as a rebel – and I graduated it only ten years later as a teacher. I moved in with this guy who later became my husband and we would tour around the country as salespeople, selling blankets, bedclothes and such things. I was around 20-21 years old then.

How did you start working in the theatre?

I have been writing since I was nine, and I started to make theatre in highschool: I wrote pieces and I directed them. I also got some lines to play but acting has never tempted me. So this all stopped when I left university and moved in with my husband. When we got back from Hungary, I started to work in a bookstore under the theatre and I would continually hang out there. After two years, in 1998 Frigyes Kovács, who was the artistic director of the Hungarian ensemble, advertised the position of the public organizer – PR as we say today –and I got the job for three months, then I became artistic secretary and later dramaturge; so I have been working as a dramaturge and playwright for more than ten years now.

And now your twin daughters live in Szeged. When did they move there?

My daughters started their third year at the university of Szeged: one of them is studying to be a teacher of music and the other will be a cellist.

Do you think they will come back? Or does this question not have the same degree of importance and emotional weight as it used to?

I do not know if they will come back or not. The cellist is a huge patriot: she wants to come back to teach music here, and she really finds a challenge in it. The other one is not bound so much to her homeland, but they both come home each week to hang out with their friends. But I do not think that there is such an emotional weight in such a decision as it was in the times when I visited Subotica during Christmas and I burst into tears just seeing those miserably ugly decorations in the streets.

Are happy now with your decision to come back?

There is this dense and many layered texture of interwoven cultures and language that make me feel at home. But I am able to think, write and dream only in Hungarian. And from this respect, making theatre in Hungarian in Serbia perfectly fits me. From another point of view, I have to admit that even the air is poisoned by anger and fighting: we are out of breath here. But Hungary is not a better place now, either. All in all: I think the decision I took was the best possible. I want to spend all my life here, hoping that I will not get separated from the rest of the world.

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