Why Suffer If You Can’t Take It? — processing transgenerational trauma through literature

The recently published novel, Minek szenved, aki nem bírja (Why Suffer If You Can’t Take It?), revisits the Western perspective of man, which sees identification with our own traumas as a major source of identity. In a conversation with writer Eszter Rubin, A. Jonatán Megyeri talked about literary therapy, trauma processing and the relationship between physical and psychological balance.

Your work is quite diverse. How would you describe yourself? Pastry chef, writer, blogger, family therapist, soul diver?

I have been thinking about this question a lot in recent years, but now I have managed to identify with something. I feel that after my fourth volume of fiction, I can call myself a writer, although that had already come after the third. My various qualifications and previous activities have all been specific parts of my life journey that has led me, fatefully, to where I am now.

So first and foremost a writer, and secondly?

Gastronomy is also a very important part of my life. The blurbs of my books say that I am a writer and a gastronome.

Writing and gastronomy/cooking are two very extreme things. Writing is primarily a spiritual activity, especially for your books, but cooking is the most physical thing in the world, as eating is one of our most instinctive activities. How has your activity developed in two such different directions?

I don’t think that’s exactly the case. It is true that one is a very tangible activity and the other reaches the recipient on a whole other level. But both are different manifestations of the same creativity. It is also important that in my writings, such as my first two volumes (Ed. note: Barhesz and Bagel), the literary interpretation of gastro-cultural heritage played a very important role. Although we talk about novels, my characters eat, cook, and serve a lot; they are continuously feeding and nourishing Grandmothers, great-grandmothers, Yiddish moms, for whom gastronomy plays a central role, as it does in life.

But the underlying meaning actually goes beyond that. Gastronomy is just a cover story — it is also a manifestation of psychological processes, of overeating, of constant preparation, of compensation for the trauma of the Holocaust, which I’m sure many of us are familiar with, as survivors and their descendants try to somehow compensate for various psychological processes by constantly hoarding and eating.

You deal a lot with the trauma of the Holocaust, as well as second-generation, third-generation Holocaust trauma, or the inheritance of it.

I feel like not much at all, in fact, not enough. In my first volume, my goal was specifically not to talk about the Holocaust at all, but to be a Jewish novel about Jewish life, because I haven’t come across anything like this in contemporary literature; for some reason everyone identifies Judaism with the Holocaust.

Mainly in Hungary.

Writers are fond of this theme. I was determined that the Shoah would not even be mentioned in the book. My first volume dealt with Jewish life itself, experiencing it and its positive identity. But of course, as the years go by, somehow this topic has crept into my mind, and I’ve noticed that my novel, Minek szenved, aki nem bírja, is about processing transgenerational traumas.

These, sooner or later, break out as hidden streams, and we are forced to deal with them. The lives of second- and third-generation Jews, many of us, are really fundamentally determined by this trauma, which can manifest itself in a wide range of anxiety, a wide variety of physical or mental problems, and illnesses. This is a topic that is important to think about. 

In your latest book, Minek szenved, aki nem bírja, this trauma leads to self-destruction. The internal digestion of this trauma does not stay inside but unwittingly destroys the world around the protagonist. But it is precisely that security that could save her from similar injuries. Why is this?

I think many of us may be familiar with the constant self-digestion, self-flagellation, self-destructiveness, negative thoughts that are very difficult to stop because let’s face it, positive thoughts require energy. Negative thoughts come of their own accord, they self-perpetuate and almost hijack our brains as we constantly wonder where did I go wrong, why am I not good enough, why am I always on the outside? But to have a positive attitude to the world, we need awareness.

Does this constant self-flagellation end up acting as a self-fulfilling prophecy?

The constant feeling of being excluded is what appears in my novel. It’s a novel of fatherlessness, a novel of a conflicted mother-daughter relationship passed down through the generations, in which we follow the decisions of a protagonist who finds it very difficult to fit in. So there are many kinds of outsiders, but I have noticed from reader feedback that this seems to be a common experience for almost all of us. As if we are outcasts together.

Is this a Jewish phenomenon?

It’s very common among Jews, but I have many non-Jewish readers who also report the same thing, and many say I wrote the book about them. For some reason, it is very easy to identify with that. I see that we love to cherish our traumas, as if they are the basis of our identity. You don’t see that at all with indigenous peoples [who have retained their original early culture close to nature]; they are more in the present, whereas the Westerner’s perspective is focused on identifying explicitly with their own traumas. His personality incorporates everyday traumas to such an extent that they become essential traits of his thinking and behavior. This is an absolutely typical life strategy for Hungarian Jews.

Did the book have a specific muse you modeled your character on, or did you draw from several acquaintances, or ad absurdum from yourself?

Literature always draws on reality. Of course, my own life and anxieties are the main inspiration for the book. But it shouldn’t be taken to mean that I think of everything in this way, or that every twist and turn in the novel happened in this way. There is a lot of everyone in the characters and the story that is put together, but the feelings are deeply familiar to me.

In addition to experiencing and projecting anxiety and trauma, lies in all of their varieties appear. Reading your previous books, this is a recurring motif. Are you so disgusted with lies, silence, self-deception, manipulation?

The most striking example of this is my novel Árnyékkert  (“The Shadow Garden”), in which almost all the characters perfect their life falsehoods and build an alternative reality. The protagonists are the Starks, a couple who keeps rolling out the heavy, endlessly long carpet of their hopeless marriage before them, sweeping everything underneath. As one character notes, some things belong under the rug. The story explores the question of how one’s personality can be distorted by a serious secret, and whether it is possible to keep a secret for a lifetime. How does one get caught up in a vortex that starts with the first bad decision, which leads to a chain of bad decisions, which leads to a point of no return, which drags one down with it, and which drags everyone down with it. It is the web of trust within the family that is presented in the novel since it is this web that constitutes the family itself. How to live with and abuse trust. The different levels of this are revealed in the text, very slowly, step by step, gradually unraveling deeper and deeper layers.

Do you want to draw attention to the danger of internal mental problems becoming physical problems?

Yes, this is a very important issue. If we make identification with our traumas an integral part of our lives, even if they are just simple everyday traumas, it is extremely destructive. Literature is good if you read something that makes you understand something about your life in retrospect. Maybe it makes you realize something, it triggers some healing thought in you. It asks questions about the reader’s own life. I do not wish to give answers to anyone. Especially because I do not have the answers myself. It is the asking of questions that is important.

Literary therapy is a relatively new method, similar to a literature class, but the more focused the therapist is in guiding the reader through a literary work so that the psychological processes are brought to the fore. But it doesn’t necessarily need a therapist, reading itself can have a healing function. When you are so absorbed in reading a book that you don’t want to leave that world. This focus alone is very helpful in not dwelling on the past and fearing the future, but being in the present, even if it is in another world.

Perhaps we can draw a parallel between your fiction and your cookbooks: Some of your cookbooks are for people with histamine intolerance. Here, too, there is a trace of a healing intention.

Yes, my diet and lifestyle books are entirely based on my own experience. I have been through a major health crisis in the last three years, which has not been easy to come out of. I owe a lot to my family and much less to the healthcare system, or nothing at all. It took perseverance and determination to recover, rather than a doctor

Was there no similar cookbook for people with histamine intolerance on the market?

I got to a point where I became intolerant of almost everything in the world. There was no food that I could eat without symptoms. And somehow I had to find a solution. There was no literature in Hungarian on this. I felt that I had to write it myself, and precisely because I am not a health professional, I had to gather much knowledge from my own personal experience on the one hand, and from foreign literature on the other.

What knowledge have you gained?

I have culinary skills and training, and a level of personal experience that allows me to write this book, and subsequent books, which have been a salvation for many of my fellow sufferers, according to the feedback. Tangible help and support. Anyone with such a problem is very much alone at the beginning in the desperate situation of not knowing what to eat to keep from starving or what to do to keep from feeling sick.

What’s more, from the book it seems you can even eat well.

It’s not just a cookbook, it’s also a lifestyle book, helping you to get your body in a state where it can break down histamine and digest food again through gut regeneration. So, the road to recovery and its main pillars are the subject of these three books I have written on the subject, in close collaboration, of course, with a competent nutritionist.

How are your books doing on the bestseller lists?

I am very happy that my new novel is well placed on the contemporary bestseller list. And my books Hisztaminintolerancia (“Histamine Intolerance”) and Gyulladáscsökkentő étrend és életmód (“Anti-Inflammatory Diet and Lifestyle”) have been at the top of the healthy eating charts for over a year now.

And finally, what are you working on now?

I am now working on a literary cookbook. I’m writing a book that readers of my first novel, Barhesz, have often asked for: a Jewish cookbook with precise recipes for the dishes in my novels. The time for that is now. Moreover, this book will be more than that. It will be a volume that weaves together my fiction and my gastronomy, and will probably be published on the tenth anniversary of my first volume.

What can a convinced communist do about their Judaism? 

In his second novel, Márk Mezei has once again touched on a Jewish theme.