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Connecting Budapest’s Expat Literary Community: Panel Magazine

In Budapest

Masha Kamenetskaya

Photo by Eszter Fruzsina Nagy

These days, when we read so much online that all too often lacks any sense of local identity, it’s a great pleasure to discover Budapest’s Panel literary magazine. It describes itself as “the written record of a generation of artists from everywhere that can live anywhere, their literature and lives, in the language they speak.”

Publisher Masha Kamenetskaya explains, “The magazine’s name came about because we wanted to give a platform for writers, poets and artists who live in Central and Eastern Europe and are often ignored. We were playing about with images that come to mind when you talk about the region and the double meaning of ‘panel’ occurred to us.”

Apart from the idea of “panel discussion,” the editors were also thinking of the prefabricated apartment blocks made from concrete panels that surround many cities in former communist countries. Springing up in the early 1960s, these were initially intended to solve the problem of overcrowding in cities such as Budapest. Today, 31% of the apartment blocks in the Hungarian capital are panel buildings.

Kamenetskaya came to Budapest from St. Petersburg in 2014. She has a background in journalism and has written short fiction for many years. After she met “a vibrant group of both expat and local writers who work in English,” she switched to writing in English herself. Kamenetskaya has been published in various anthologies. Her collection of short stories, “On the Set,” was released in the United States a few years ago.

In 2018, Kamenetskaya met author and editor Duncan Robertson. When she asked if he’d like to be involved in starting an English-language literary magazine, Robertson said, “Sure. You publish, and I can edit.”

“At that time, international writers seemed to be isolated from one another. There was less of community than there is now,” Kamenetskaya says. “From the beginning, we aimed to build a community of like-minded people in Budapest.”

Maternity Issue

After Kamenetskaya met journalist and writer Jennifer Walker and they produced a few readings at the well-known literary café Massolit, it felt natural to invite Walker to join the panel. He, in turn, invited Maria Gyarmati to become art director. Gyarmati was pregnant with her first baby at the time, so the first 35-page issue of Panel was partly designed at the maternity home.

Today, each issue of the magazine usually sells a few hundred copies. “If We’re Talking Budapest,” a book-length collection of short stories released toward the end of 2021, sold a little less than a thousand in its two print runs.

The Panel team, now 12-strong, continues to expand its activities. Since 2022, it has been producing art shows and festivals. Later this year, book publishing might be included in that list. If this happens, “it will be a significant step with plenty of new things to learn.”

Around 90% of what the magazine publishes comes from its slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts, although the editors did ask for pieces for the upcoming “Narratives of Budapest” collection of interviews and essays.

“The selection process is pretty straightforward,” Kamenetskaya tells me. “We read all submissions, choose those worth considering, then revisit them to make final decisions on what to publish. While we don’t always agree, heated debates around specific pieces are rare. We agree on the fundamental things about what we consider to be good prose or poetry, but we do tend to be quite picky. We’re open to working with writers who have a strong voice but might need some additional editing of their work. The editing process typically involves a few rounds.”

“Narratives of Budapest,” which Kamenetskaya hopes will be published in May or early June, features, she says, “some amazing stories and unique people of Budapest.” It will hopefully be followed by a weekend art festival, most likely in September and a “The Best of Panel” issue.

Writing Budapest

Reading Panel and “If We’re Talking Budapest,” one thing that strikes me is the diversity of the response to the city. For Kamenetskaya, this isn’t surprising. “My Budapest would be different from your Budapest, and so on,” she says. “It’s unique, like any other personal relationship.”

“Some people don’t like Budapest at all,” she adds. “Which I personally can’t comprehend.” Neither can I. Apart from the authors published in “If We’re Talking Budapest,” Kamenetskaya’s personal favorites are novelist Magda Szabó and, for non-fiction, András Török’s books about Budapest.

Born in 1954, Török is a former dissident and teacher who served as the Deputy Minister for Culture and president of the National Cultural Fund between 1994-98 and is the founding director of the Hungarian House of Photography. He’s the author of seven non-fiction books, mostly about the history and present urban landscape of Budapest, including “Budapest: A Critical Guide,” first published in 1989 and last updated in 2016.

Variously described as a cult classic, a bildungsroman (a work dealing with one person’s formative years or spiritual education) of the author and, by himself, as “a sort of institution,” the book is published in English and looks well worth getting your hands on.

Not having read it, I don’t know if Török covers where the Budapest literati gather, but Kamenetskaya suggests checking out Írók Boltja, Három Holló, Massolit Books & Café and the Magvető café as venues that regularly host literary events in Hungarian and English. There are less central venues, too, that host events and meetings.

For those who write and wish to connect with like-minded individuals in Budapest, Kamenetskaya recommends checking information about workshops, open mics, and poetry readings on Facebook groups or the Meetup website. It seems the Budapest literary scene has quite a lot to offer.

You can order Panel magazine as a hard copy or download it along with the books from panel.com. The magazine is stocked at bookstores including Massolit, Oxford and Írók Boltja, as well as Kastner Kommunity, ISBN gallery and Ludwig Múzeum.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of April 8, 2024.

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