If you looked at the map of where the 38 Fulbright Scholars from Hungary are studying in the United States this year, you’d see many dots in the expected big metropolitan areas and one lone dot in Tennessee.
Whether or not she wanted to break away from everyone else, Csenge Zalka didn’t have much choice on where to study, since her program was being offered only at East Tennessee State University.
Growing up in the countryside in Gyor, Hungary, with her mother, father and little sister, Zalka was not exposed to professional storytelling the way East Tennesseans have been. But, when you’ve been learning and telling stories your whole life, it makes little difference.
“I was writing historical fiction in high school and in college, and I was just interested in the stories really,” she said. “I didn’t know you could be a professional storyteller. I didn’t know that profession existed.”
When she enrolled in college, Zalka decided to study archeology at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, thinking it was one way she could learn stories and specialize in an area that interested her.
“It’s more of a hands-on way of dealing with stories, because you can actually go and see where the stories actually happen and get closer to people who lived in those times,” Zalka said. “It helped a lot with writing, and I’m just figuring out it helped out a lot with storytelling before I even knew what storytelling was.”
She caught the storytelling bug while studying abroad for a year in 2007 on a Kellner Scholarship at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.
Having the freedom to take random classes just because they sounded fun to her, Zalka took a variety, which included an independent study on storytelling traditions.
“That was the first time that I could actually take classes that were related to storytelling, because in Hungary, in the Hungarian university, you have a major, like archeology, (and) you only take classes that belong to that major,” she said.
While studying abroad, she also was exposed to the Tennessee area while working as a summer intern with the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough.
Going back to Hungary, Zalka finished up her master of arts degree in archeology with a concentration in Roman archeology and the early middle ages in 2010, and then started researching storytelling, applied for a Fulbright and was accepted for the 2011-12 program that started last August.
“This is the only university (ETSU) where you can get a master’s degree in storytelling,” she said. “That is why I came here.”
Currently, on what she calls a fast track program, Zalka has been working hard to complete the 30 credits needed to receive her master’s degree in reading with a concentration in storytelling and plans to graduate in August.
Along with academics, Zalka has been using her time in the United States to travel, make connections with other storytellers and to learn more about the culture.
“I spent one week in New Orleans. New Orleans was amazing,” she said. “I’m going to the NSN conference, the National Storytelling Networks conference, in Cincinnati in June, which is the biggest storytelling conference in the country.”
When asked whether coming to Tennessee was culture shock for her, she said the biggest culture shock was going back to Hungary.
“This was my first experience of studying storytelling in school and going to storytelling events and I went back to Hungary and I had to build it all up for myself,” Zalka said.
The Holnemvolt Festival, meaning ‘once upon a time’ in Hungarian, is an international storytelling festival founded by Zalka in 2011.
This year’s festival was held in Budapest in April, and Zalka said eight different storytellers from Greece, Italy, the United States and Hungary performed.
“We want to show people in Hungary that there is storytelling in other countries and other cultures,” she said.
She explained that in Hungary, most people view storytelling as children’s stories. So, to show her people differently, she asked the visiting storytellers to prepare material for a mature audience and even set an age limit for the festival at 14 and up.
Coming full circle it seems with her passions for history and Roman and medieval archeology, Zalka pulls from a lot of renaissance, Greek and Roman stories into her storytelling.
“Here in the USA, I mostly tell Hungarian folktales because people don’t know them. It’s kind of funny, because I grew up with them and they are what I think of when I hear the word ‘folktale,’ ” she said. “I tell Hungarian folktales in the USA and it’s all exotic and new to people and I really enjoy that.”
Viewing herself as a traditional storyteller, she said she mostly focuses on folktales, legends and mythology. While at ETSU, her classmates would get together and do story slams at Misty’s Blues and Jazz Bar and would compete by telling personal stories. Zalka found this to be a challenge at first, but has started coming into her own with the new technique and even won one of the slam competitions.
While in the storytelling program, Zalka said she really learned a lot as far as how to be professional, while also giving and performing her highest quality of storytelling.
“I’ve been to a couple of festivals this year and that was a big challenge to stand on an actual big stage, in front of a theater full of people,” she said. “So, I’m getting more practice on how to perform storytelling.”
Another environment where she got to utilize her storytelling talents was at the University School on ETSU’s campus. After talking with the school’s teachers, Zalka prepared and told stories based on their current curriculums, tying in major themes and assimilating those to a legend, a myth or a folktale.
She said she hopes to secure an academic training job, which would allow her to stay in the United States another year.
“Whenever you finish your Fulbright studies, you have to go back to your country of origin, so if I can find a job, I will stay another year,” Zalka said. “I want to stay, not indefinitely, but one other year would be a lot of fun because there are a lot of events coming up like the Jonesborough Festival in October and all kinds of conferences that I would like to go to.”
As for her time in Tennessee, Zalka said she has enjoyed the town, as well as the people she’s met.
“I’ve been to a lot of places within the USA and people are mostly friendly everywhere, especially storytellers because they have something in common,” she said. “But, people here in Tennessee are especially nice and friendly.”