Beloit College Magazine

Spring 2014 (March 18, 2014 at 6:00 am)

A Marriage and a Writers' Workshop, Rolled Into One

March 13, 2014 at 11:39 am

Gyorgy Dragoman and Anna Szabo haven’t co-written any books, poems, or plays yet, but the two critically acclaimed writers have been literary collaborators since they met at age 16. The Hungarian exchange students came to Beloit as a couple in 1994 and married shortly thereafter.

Dragoman Szabo
Photo by Grace Wyche Gockel'16

A poet, children’s author, and playwright, Szabo is always the first to read her husband’s fiction. A respected novelist, Dragoman often titles his wife’s poems and makes her handmade notebooks to capture her thoughts. He even includes a pen, attaching it to the binding to keep it from getting lost.

She titled The White King, Dragoman’s wildly successful 2008 novel, which has been translated into 28 languages. The book, about life in a totalitarian society, is written from the perspective of an 11-year-old boy and drawn from Dragoman’s youth in Romania.

Both writers are instantly recognized in Hungary, says Shawn Gillen, a professor of English who taught them at Beloit and invited them to visit campus last fall. Gillen hopes to rekindle an exchange program with Eötvös Collegium in Budapest, the university that brought them to Beloit.

“I’ve been trying to revitalize our Hungary exchange program, largely because it has led to some great literary work—Anna and Gyorgy being the most prominent,” Gillen says. This spring, Gillen’s Introduction to Creative Writing class plans to travel to Budapest on a short-term exchange, when they’ll meet with Dragoman and Szabo and experience the vibrant literary life of the capital city. 

Twenty years ago, when they arrived on campus, Dragoman and Szabo were high school sweethearts who knew they wanted to be writers. Szabo’s poetry had already been published, but Dragoman says few at home took them seriously. “We were aspiring writers, very ambitious, but we were kids, really,” recalls Dragoman.

They vividly recall the mentoring and academic freedom they found at Beloit. They were inspired by courses outside their majors and discovered new writers while browsing a well-stocked library. Dragoman first encountered the work of Cormac McCarthy after finding The Crossing at random on a Morse Library shelf. Unknown in Hungary at the time, McCarthy became a tremendous influence on Dragoman’s work from that day forward.

Both writers are also literary translators, work they believe is essential to improving the craft of writing. “I think translating really teaches you how to write better than anything else,” says Dragoman, whose name actually means “translator” in Romanian. “You get really close to the text. You take the work apart and put it back together in your own language. You learn how to write short stories by translating short stories and looking at the construction.”

Last fall, Dragoman was translating Samuel Beckett’s play Happy Days into Hungarian, while Szabo was working on translations of selected Shakespeare sonnets. She cites a long tradition of translating in Hungary, a country where the best poets are also translators. “One translator said that translating poetry is like dancing while tied up in ropes,” she says, describing the work’s inherent challenge.

Dragoman and Szabo’s shared past as part of the Romanian diaspora affects them differently as writers. Each left Transylvania for Hungary as a child, when their respective families escaped an oppressive regime and a country headed toward revolution. This transformative experience colors much of Dragoman’s writing, but the memories are too painful for Szabo.

“I really envy my husband because he can write about our past. I cannot,” Szabo explains. Instead, she sometimes dreams the central ideas for entire poems. The experience of becoming a mother to the couple’s two sons shifted her focus away from objective poetry. “I’m influenced by what I see and what I hear, but I’m influenced by what I feel as well,” she says.

Dragoman nods with certainty when she says this.

“Usually you cannot pick your topics,” he says about writing. “They pick you, somehow.”

—Susan Kasten

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