I want to talk to you all about something in advance of the next issue of Tales from the Border – which, by the way, is debuting on October 5th at Leamington Comic Con, and will be available online later that week.
On the cover of this new issue, you’ll notice something different – I have changed my professional name, shortening it from my full name to my last name – Sztehlo.
(it’s pronounced stay-low, for those who are interested).
There have been quite a few reasons for this. It’s something I’ve been thinking about doing for a very long time. I only had the wherewithal to actually do it now, as it’s taken a lot of work and thinking and thought to get to the space where I feel I can do this now.
Sztehlo, for me, is more than a name.
It’s a word that contains multitudes.
I’ll tell you now why I want to wear it as a badge of honour.
The name is Hungarian, and was carried (with very little else) by my grandfather Andras (pronounced On-drosh) Sztehlo in the late 50s. He was a refugee from Hungary, fleeing the failed revolution and the violence that followed when Khrushchev sent in the tanks to suppress opposition. The only other things he carried on him were a copy of his favourite book by the legendary Hungarian author Mór Jókai, and a toothbrush.
I never heard him speak of this time in his life. It was one of great emotional trauma. I never pushed, I never asked. I didn’t want to bring him back the pain of separation.
When Andras arrived in the UK, he settled in the Luton area. He had to check in with police once a week. He was an alien in a foreign land, and was treated as such. He was met with much bigotry and racism, the kind of intolerance that only the small-minded can have.
But as more Hungarian refugees arrived in the area, a small community grew, and began to turn back the tides. Not only did the refugees integrate, but they thrived. My grandfather met his wife, my grandmother, and started a new life. He had a family.
Growing up, my last name Sztehlo meant so many things. It meant purpose. It meant drive. It meant belief in oneself when all else was denied. These were characteristics that my grandfather had – that he HAD to have, to survive what he went through.
But, like all children, when I was young I didn’t actually think much more about it than that. Hungary was a place I had never been to. Magyar was a language that I couldn’t speak. England was a country I visited once a year, as I lived abroad for most of my life until I turned eighteen. It was something I was disconnected from.
Growing up abroad was a singular experience. When your setting, your sense of home, changes every three years, you do lose touch with the basics of life in some ways. I lost a way in which I could identify with the landscapes around me. Everything was always so different, so new. My way of coping with this was to identify myself with the things that made me different. I grew up attending international schools with diverse student bodies, so difference became a norm.
Who am I? I’m Andrew Sztehlo.
I’m English. I’m Hungarian.
My difference became my identity. But when you’re so different from everything else around you, you don’t need to be anything more than different. The label was enough. And of the two labels, I associated more and more with the English label than the Hungarian one. I have an English accent. Both my parents have English accents. My father never learned Magyar. For all intents and purposes, we weren’t really Hungarian. That was something that stayed in England with my grandfather.
When I turned eighteen, my family and I moved back to England so I could attend university. I had been so looking forward to this. After years of feeling like an outsider abroad, I looked forward to coming home and for once not being the odd one out. I wouldn’t ever have to deal with people doing shitty English accents at me, asking if I wanted a cup o’ tea guvna, eggs and crumpets and all that ridiculousness. I could be home.
The illusion didn’t last long. As I entered the wider world around me for the first time, I found myself, again, the odd one out. I had spent fifteen years of my life claiming to be English, but the fact is I didn’t know what England was. I didn’t know who it was. I’d missed out on years of cultural influence that all my peers had. They thought it was funny, and to some degree I agreed. But this sense of complete dislocation, of once again being utterly lost in the place that was supposed to be home, caused a crisis of sorts.
I realised I was never English. And I guess, as a result, I was never Hungarian.
The sense of identity that I had been holding on to shattered.
This crisis lasted for a while. When you feel that everyone else is better than you, more intelligent than you, more socially aware, it can compound in you and make you feel even more like an outsider and even more alone.
Eventually, however, I felt like I became English. I caught up on what I had missed. I integrated, not totally unlike my grandfather, into a society that, totally unlike my grandfather’s time, seemed to be wholly accepting of my difference.
Hang on, folks, this is where it gets political.
2016 came. The Brexit referendum happened. Like a lot of idle, armchair liberals, I trotted along to the polling station, voted, and went to sleep knowing that we would stay in the EU. Of course, life had other plans, and now it’s 2019 and the rhetoric around Brexit has become increasingly polarised, divided, and toxic.
Politicians such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage capitalised on Brexit to breed anti-immigrant sentiment. This has extended not only to Muslims but also to Europeans, particularly Polish immigrants. The rhetoric has become poisonous. What started out as Euro-scepticism has turned into a campaign of hate. Hate that tells immigrants that not only is England not their home. It never was. It never will be.
“We do not want you here.”
As all of this was happening, a thought kept scratching me at the back of my mind, disturbing me. That thought was the shame that my grandfather, my refugee, immigrant grandfather, would feel at the toxicity of this dialogue.
People pin their hopes and dreams on coming to the UK. They pin their goals, they come here for job opportunities, to work, to contribute. They often come to escape violence and death in their own homelands. They do not come to live off welfare, to laze about in idolatry like some far-right politicians seem to think.
It was around this time that I started to realise a schism between myself and the rest of the UK. This realisation first hit when I was working at the City Council in York in 2017. My English, white boss walked out with me from work one day to strike up conversation. Up until that point he had been a perfectly pleasant person. I liked him. And then we started chatting about my hometown, and he said something that made me so uncomfortable.
“It’s a nice place, but it’s a shame about the Polish, you go to the town centre and nobody bloody speaks English anymore.”
I froze in distress, nervously laughed, and moved on. I didn’t want to challenge him; he was my boss and I was new and I wanted to work there. But as I continued to work, I realised he was far from the only person in the office who felt like this.
Is this what people said about my grandfather when he arrived in Luton, unable to speak English and, frankly, just glad to have made it out of Hungary alive?
How could my boss have that opinion, but employ someone with my last name? My last name is not Polish, but I don’t think the subtle differences in Polish and Hungarian nomenclatures would mean much to him. I realised then that he didn’t see me as Hungarian. He didn’t see me as European. He saw me as another nice, white, English lad come to the office, someone who he felt comfortable sharing his views with.
And the reason he saw me like that, is because maybe that was how I perceived myself. I did not speak about my Hungarian heritage. It didn’t exist for me beyond my last name. That strange series of letters making up a series of sounds that is alien to the English language.
Once you realise you’re not part of the common majority, you start to see yourself in the ways that other people see you.
I am not English. And I guess I’m not really Hungarian. But maybe I’m something else.
Fast-forward to 2019. I am living in Dundee, studying a degree in Comics & Graphic Novels.
I am working a part-time job at a local bar.
I am talking to someone, and getting on with them. They ask to add me on Facebook.
“I’ll spell my last name for you, it’s a bit difficult.”
(I often say this when I want to avoid the question of how to pronounce my last name, or how is that name spelt. Nothing makes you feel like a freak like your difference being made a conversation of.)
A regular at the bar, who I will call Jim here, chimes up.
“Andrew, that’s a curious spelling. Where does the name come from?”
“From Hungary. My grandfather was a refugee in the 50s and came to England.”
Before this point, Jim had always been amiable, conversational. I got the impression that he liked the sound of his own voice and that he thought he was really clever, but whatever, it’s my job to talk to him. There are worse jobs out there and I was happy with our acquaintance.
But when I said that it was from Hungary, that acquaintance changed. He was distant and aloof for the rest of the night. I approached my boss to ask him what this was about, and to my shock, I found out that Jim was basically a white-supremacist. He hates immigrants, particularly Europeans and Nigerians. He’s been kicked out of this bar before for his views, but is allowed back after a while by the boss (himself the son of an immigrant) in the hopes that his views might change.
I credit my boss in seeing good in the most vile, insidious of places.
However, the interaction made me feel like the onus of telling Jim enough was enough was on me. It was my job to do that. And again, I was new, Jim was a regular who had been going to this bar for years. I didn’t want to cause trouble. I just wanted to work and get paid.
For the rest of my time working at this particular bar, Jim would not ask for service if I was tending bar alone. He would only ask it from other team members. And when we did interact, I could see this glint of disgust in his eye. He would espouse increasingly racist views to me, directed at anyone but Europeans, trying to goad me and make a rise out of me.
All of this made me laugh a little. I mean, I hardly see myself as Hungarian, so how silly is it for someone to make such a fuss over the origins of my last name?
But when someone sees you as less than human, when someone sees you as shit on his heel, when someone sees you as fucking scum that is polluting the racial purity of the country that you live in, you start to see yourself in different ways.
Whenever I interacted with him, I wanted to crawl out of my skin. I felt dirty, disgusting, unclean. I was dirty, I was disgusting, I was so, so, so unclean. His gaze infuriated me. That look in his eye made me feel less than my worth, made me feel like I was the problem.
For a variety of reasons I left the bar not too soon after, and whilst I enjoyed working there with my boss and my teammates, I never went back. I felt guilty, because I had made friends there; but the atmosphere that allowed Jim to drink there every night made me feel very nervous and unwelcome. I would have anxiety at the thought of coming back.
And worst of all, I didn’t necessarily feel like I could talk about this with the people around me. When you second guess yourself and your identity, it becomes really difficult to talk about these issues.
Am I just a random white guy crying racism when no racism exists?
Was Jim racist to me, or was he just bigoted and intolerant?
Am I making this all up in my head?
I struggle with these thoughts continuously, even now. I struggle with how I perceive myself. Writing this essay is incredibly difficult. I know some people will read this and hear the moanings of a privileged twenty-something white git. I know others will read it and perhaps see something akin to their own experience.
It was at this time that I began to engage more directly with my Hungarian heritage. I began reading about the social and political conditions of Hungary in the twentieth century, the environment that my grandfather grew up in.
I began listening to Hungarian music, watching Hungarian films.
I began to be proud of my heritage. I began to talk about it much more openly. Jim’s gaze had awoken a new awareness inside of me, an awareness that came way too late in my life. I’m not English, and I don’t think I ever particularly will be. I will never feel comfortable in a country that has given credence to such disgusting views as Jim’s.
But my Hungarian heritage opened up before me in ways I had never felt.
One moment in particular stands out. I was in class at my comics course, talking about the acclaimed Holocaust memoir Maus by Art Speigelman. We started to discuss a particular scene about Hungarian Jews and their experience in Auschwitz. The guest lecturer that day was clearly nervous and uncomfortable talking about the topic, and against better judgement made one or two quips to lighten the mood.
Quips made whilst images of murdered Hungarian Jews, so painfully realised by the penmanship of Art Spiegelman, were displayed on the screen.
I felt like I was about to start sobbing. People make fun of the word “trigger”, of the word “triggering,” but with this newfound sensitivity to the dialogue about immigrants and Europeans and my place in the discourse, I couldn’t quite handle this. I was left in a very, very black mood for a long time afterwards. I couldn’t speak for about an hour after because I knew I would break down.
That image of murdered Hungarians is seared in my mind. I’m not Jewish, but part of me is Hungarian.
It was at this point that my wonderful module director, Golnar Nabizadeh, started speaking about Hungarian graphic novels about the Holocaust.
I perked up, hearing something I hadn’t even considered before.
She spoke about the particular work of an artist called Miriam Katin.
I felt like a well had broken in me and this flood of emotion was spreading out.
I spent weeks afterwards researching Miriam Katin’s work, reading her comics. Reading about her life story. I can’t quite describe the feeling that knowing that she existed, let alone had found success as a graphic artist, left in me.
I felt seen.
I felt like there was now a precedent for what I wanted to accomplish.
Hungarian artists before me had contributed to the medium of comics. How could I not have realised this?! Of course they would have. But in an American dominated medium, the thought had never occurred.
In Katin I saw someone who lived through what my grandfather had. She emigrated to Israel in 1957, a date so conspicuous that she could only have done so to get away from the violence that my grandfather also fled from.
I have been working on a letter to send to Katin, but I am not sure what to say or how to say it. How to write how she has made me feel, how she has made me think. How her existence alone has given me hope that maybe I can do what I want to do with my life, if I work hard enough.
I didn’t feel quite so alone anymore.
On further research, I found so many more Hungarian comics artists.
I was shocked to learn that such historic creators as Joseph Pulitzer and Paul Gulacy, known for their works in American comics, had Hungarian heritage.
I was beyond myself when I learnt that famed American comic artist Alex Toth, one of the greatest artists the medium has ever seen, and a source of so much inspiration to me across many years of reading comics, was the son of Hungarian immigrants.
The truth is, Hungarian artists have not only contributed to the medium, but have been an essential part of its birth and proliferation. Comics would not be what they are today without the input of these essential artists.
It was like all these signs aligned. Like I saw my heritage for the first time, laid out before me. Not just a family heritage, not just an ancestral heritage, but a cultural heritage.
I felt like a person who had no voice.
I felt like I had suddenly been given that voice.
Given a voice, and a guide.
A candle to light my way.
As this happened, I felt like I identified less and less with my first name, Andrew (itself an anglicised version of my grandfather’s name, Andras, after whom I am named). I felt more identity, more history, in my last name.
For this reason, I am professionally dropping my first name.
I will be publishing all future comics under my new mononymous professional identity.
And this is for you, Grandad. I wish you were alive so we could talk about this. I wish you were alive so I could call you Andras. So you could call me Andras. So we could watch these films together. And read these books together. And I can tell you about Hungarian comics, and how essential they have been in the construction of my favourite medium. You’re not here anymore, but I hope that you are looking down on me with an emotion not entirely unlike pride. I hope I can carry forward your courage, your bravery. I hope I can continue the journey you started when you got on a train in Hungary, with only a book, a toothbrush, and the weight of all the culture and history that you carried with you in your name. I hope that I can give a voice to you once more. I hope that I can hear you calling me by your own name, Andras, in my dreams.