Saturday, May 8, 2010

Adventures in Editing: Omara

In the third issue of Pilvax, I had a chance to work with one of Hungary’s most esteemed Gypsy painters, Mara Olah—known more commonly as Omara. Originally, Omara was supposed to supply the occasional line drawings that we use to break up the text of the stories and poetry. Due to a printer’s error, two of her drawings came out faded and blotchy. Because we deal with such a limited print run, I was able to convince Omara to hand-draw the original illustrations directly into the magazine, making a unique work of art out of each copy. So, on a summer day, with two plastic Spar bags filled with magazines, Pilvax co-founder Aaron and I set out for Omara’s small country house, a few hours outside of Budapest.

With no street name or address, the house would have been difficult to find but for the fact that she was well known around the village. Omara greeted us by the gate of a trailer-sized abode, a woman approaching old-age, with a few missing teeth, trailed by a flurry of black hair. She led us into the house, warning us to avoid the well-sized pit in the front room. Before we had time to get comfortable, Omara insisted that she needed a shower. That was fine with us, though it turned out that Omara’s shower was a cold-water pump in the open air, out back. Aaron and I waited, avoiding looking out the window. Omara returned, wearing a towel, hair loose, looking refreshed if not a bit wild. Now it is your turn, she insisted. Our turn? For what? For a shower. Not for the last time, I would pretend not to understand Hungarian.

Still in her towel, Omara gave us a tour of the small house that she was building herself, by hand. The pit in the center of the floor? That would be the swimming pool. With almost anybody else, you would think they were joking. But one thing was clear to us early on: if Omara wanted to dig herself a swimming pool that took up half a room in a two-room house, that is what she was going to do.

Before we discussed work, Omara proudly showed us her press clippings: pictures of her with visiting foreign dignitaries, Hungarian celebrities and politicians, an article in Népszabadság, that emphasized her great love of taxicabs (Omara only traveled in taxis, not by train, never by bus). Then she told us it was time to go to work: but not at home. Only in a restaurant. Not to worry, she had already called a taxi.

Before arriving the inn, Omara had the cab stop at a green-grocer’s to pick up a watermelon. She loved watermelon, and chose the largest one. Now, you would think that an old gypsy woman walking into a restaurant with her own watermelon in tow would be an unwelcome surprise to most Hungarian waiters. But, no, the unflappable country waiters dutifully brought out plates and sliced up Omara’s melon for her, free of charge. Being one Hungary’s most illustrious painters has its benefits.

So, with colored pencils, we began to illustrate our 200 Pilvax’s, each of us contributing to the final result. Not much conversation transpired during the work; Aaron and I sipped beer, Omara slurped watermelon.

In her dealings with the waiters, and with us, one thing became clear: Omara was very conscious of the fact that she was Roma—playing it up for her audience, and using it to excuse herself from the mundane constraints of decorum. It seemed to be as much a tool as a part of her identity. Or, perhaps it wasn’t her ethnicity, which somebody like me – white, foreign – is so prepared, even eager, to experience. Mabye Omara was just an authentic artist, living by inner, constantly changing dictates.

Either way, there was obviously a lot more to Omara than a cartoonish, eccentric Gypsy woman. Early on in our visit, Omara had given me a painting. It was a deep-blue portrait of a beach-side house, dedicated to her daughter. The child-like subjects appear to inhabit a ghost world, indistinct and elegiac. Like her illustrations, it is a bit disturbing, and full of sorrow. It hangs on my wall, but it is not pleasurable to look at. But still, like any good painting, it seems to convey some truth or feeling that cannot be articulated with words.

The illustration job took longer than we had anticipated, and after the sun had fallen Omara announced she was too tired to continue. We had only made it through half the magazines, but editorial concerns had been set aside early on. It was obvious that we were indebted to the sloppy printing job—I think Aaron and I both fell a little in love with Omara that day.

Aaron and I took a room in the inn, and somehow Omara would make her way home. She had already refused money (though it was clear she didn’t have any of her own) and we were miles from her house.

Omara, how will you get back? I asked.

However God wills it
, she said, gazing up at the sky. Then, after a deep breath, looking sage and oddly alluring, she intoned: call me a cab.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.