OTW Guest Post: Lilyana/Márta Garai

Every month the OTW hosts guest posts on our OTW News accounts to provide an outside perspective on the OTW or aspects of fandom. These posts express each individual’s personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the OTW or constitute OTW policy.

Lilyana/Márta Garai is 30 and a Production Coordinator in the Water and Water Treatment industry. She is about to finish her BA in Hungarian Language and Literature with a minor in Editorial Studies and a minor in Media and Communication. She is the Lead Administrator of Merengő Fanfiction, the largest Hungarian writing site. Today, Marta talks about Merengő and Hungarian fandom.

How did you first find out about fandom and fanworks?

In the early 2000s, IM (Ifjúsági Magazin) was a Hungarian monthly magazine for teens and young people. (It was kind of like today’s Popcorn or Bravo, but with a bit deeper content; it had, for example poems written by readers and discussions with mental health counsellors.) The magazine was considered very cool, and when internet connectivity became more common, they launched IM-net.hu.

IM-net had a small daily news section, a larger forum and a blogging section, which quickly grew to be huge, because with two clicks anyone could start their own blog. This is where a new fanfiction community started to flourish. At first I was puzzled why people were writing fictional stories about bands on their blogs, because in my mind blogging was connected to reality — but very quickly I became addicted to Busted stories. After a while, I started writing my own Busted fanfiction, the first draft of which was stolen from me after an impromptu reading at a summer camp. Since the story itself was not a big deal, it’s more likely that I must have presented it so enthusiastically that it inspired others to read and write their own fanfic. You can never start early enough. 🙂

Anyway, the fanfiction community on IM-net was mainly limited to writing and sharing stories; I didn’t encounter any real community building, if there was any. In any case, that’s how I first encountered fanfiction.

What opened up the whole fandom & fanfiction universe was when I first discovered that fanfiction was not limited to writing stories about bands and that it was a global phenomenon. That was a few years after IM-net, during the long wait for the fifth Harry Potter volume. After a major hiatus, I re-joined the fanfiction world as a reader of darkarts.hu (Dark Arts was one of the first Hungarian Harry Potter fanfic sites), which then led me to Merengő. (Merengő is the Hungarian translation of the Pensieve, which Dumbledore and Harry use in the fourth book.)

How did Merengõ Fanfiction get started and how did you become involved?

Merengő Fanfiction was founded by Kristie in July 2004. She’s no longer a member of the fandom community, but she was a Severus Snape x Hermione Granger shipper back in the day and got tired of not being able to find Snanger stories in Hungarian. So she learned how to start a website based on the efiction engine and put Merengő together. Kristie has always been very creative and progressive (she still is in her chosen profession), and she had to deal with all the difficulties in the beginning on her own, such as language settings, because at that time there was no UTF-8 encoding and no Hungarian language option in the system, so she had to use the Swedish one.

Unfortunately, in 2004, there was already another writing site running under the domain “merengo.hu” (the word “merengő” also means „pensive” and has many links to Hungarian canonized literature), and Kristie could only buy the domain “fanfic.hu”. So we became Merengő Fanfiction — she tried to avoid any misunderstandings.

But we never gave up on getting the “merengo.hu” domain, and last autumn we got permission from the previous domain holder, so after a public vote, merengo.hu became our main contact.

While Merengő was mainly Harry Potter themed, it was never limited to the Potter fandom, and from the beginning writers had the opportunity to share stories from other fandoms and their own original worlds.

In 2005, we merged with one of the biggest Hungarian Harry Potter news sites at the time, Mézesfalás (=Honeydukes), and they sent their entire fanfiction section to us — and we became the biggest Hungarian fanfiction site. This merger not only meant a leap in size, but also a change in our whole system. After we got a lot more stories uploaded, and their quality dropped very quickly, Kristie set up a moderator team named the Admin Team, whose main task was to moderate uploaded stories. This team now defines the day-to-day running of Merengő, keeps order, and since 2019 we also have a Support Team (ST), who perform additional tasks such as moderating Discord channels, managing social media interfaces, system development, program organisation and graphics. There are currently 9 admins and 9 ST members working for the community of Merengő.

The last big step was in 2006, when we launched our offline fandom and writing-focused programs. Community building was very important from the very beginning, so we always had a separate forum, which saved the community twice during the First and Second Great Merengő Shutdown, when the site was unavailable for months. Nowadays we mostly talk on Discord, but for me personally it’s often the offline encounters that make me the happiest, and I know that I’m not alone with this feeling. We have a lot of laughs (and zero minutes of sleep…), and in addition to the “central” admin-led activities, a poker club, a campfire choir, D&D campaigns, and a drama club were also organized.

And how did I get involved with Merengő? It happened around the release of the fifth Harry Potter book. A friend of mine told me that the darksarts.hu site had posted short summaries of the new HP chapters in Hungarian. I read my first HP fanfiction there on DarkArts, and later wanted to reread it, and that’s how I found Merengő.

In autumn 2005 I became a registered reader and then a writer, but I hadn’t been a member of the community for years. I hadn’t been on the forums or to any offline meetings — but I clearly remember the excitement when I saw the news in 2008 that the Admin Team was looking for new admins (which was something that had never been advertised before), because a few days before I had just thought about trying to join the community, because I would have liked to help with something. I sent my cover letter, my CV, profile link, and… I was rejected. Yes. They said I had qualified, but now they had three better candidates, but if I didn’t have any objections to that, they would put my name on the list and next time there was an admin shortage,they would contact me. I was 17 years old, and I bravely wrote back that “of course”, but I was totally devastated.

Then the following year they elected another admin, not me. (She was a j-pop/j-rock specialist, not a generalist like myself, but I didn’t know that at the time…) So I decided to let it all go. By that time I had spent enough time on the forum, participated in some online activities, so I wanted to see the others in their 3D reality in person. But due to previous financial problems the Admin Team didn’t want to organize offline meetings. So I suggested that I’d organize the space and registration and they’d just bring the program. They agreed and everything went according to plan. After that, it was a pretty straight road to the admin role, and then came three very difficult years that tested not only me, but the whole team.

Then, when Kristie decided to leave the fanfic world in 2014, she asked me to continue with the team, to take her place as the owner of the site. And I accepted.

Are there aspects of fanfiction written for Hungarian audiences that tend to be different from works written elsewhere? What about local canon — what are some popular fandoms for Hungarian writers?

Yes, there are differences. One of them is that in the Hungarian language there is no grammatical gender at all, nor gendered pronouns; we have only one word for he/she: “ő”. In addition, the Hungarian language likes to hide, not to repeat and re-clarify things that are obvious to the speakers, so it opens up a whole different playing field in texts. Just to take the simplest example: we can tell a story without revealing anything at all about the subject. Each reading could create a different narrative, giving the reader a great deal of freedom, but for this very reason, the author’s intention could carry much more weight when categorizing their story in the website’s system.

Our written literary language, with a few exceptions, reads like something written fifty years ago. Not only because the Hungarian language changes more slowly than English (we can read a text written in the 1500-1600s with relative ease), but also because most written dialogue is carefully crafted and often doesn’t reflect casual speech, not even in contemporary works, and this is evident in fanfiction as well. This is mainly due to the old-fashioned teaching methods of literature in schools.

The most popular fandom is still clearly Harry Potter, but there are certain popular trends within that fandom as well. Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Twilight, Marvel movies, the Star Wars saga, Teen Wolf, Supernatural, BBC Sherlock — these are also very popular fandoms in which most stories are written. It’s also interesting that sometimes big international hit series leave Hungarian writers completely uninterested, even though a lot of fanfiction is written in other languages and we prepare ourselves for an uptick in uploads.

We have our classics from Hungarian culture, media and literature as well, but only one fandom is particularly popular: Ferenc Molnár’s The Paul Street Boys. The characters are all boys with very different personalities and social backgrounds, the plot has sweeping triumphs and deep tragedy, and explores themes such as courage and friendship, how long loyalty lasts and to what you are allowed to be loyal, but bullying also plays a significant role in the novel, as does the question of what the price of ultimate victory might be.

What do you find to be your biggest challenges in running the site?

Until October this year, I would have said running the site.

As far as I know, we were the last big, active fanfiction site in the world still running onefiction 1.0. We made a lot of changes to the original script, and our database was too big to update normally. We were like a living dinosaur with very strange system problems. But now, after a year and a half of dedicated development work, we’ve finally made the switch, and it’s made our day-to-day life a lot easier.

I would say now, being mentally OK is the hardest thing. On top of all the awful legal and financial stuff, being on the Admin Team is often emotionally exhausting because everyone is so connected to the site and the community that discussing a topic is often an emotional rollercoaster. We are all strong personalities with different opinions, but fortunately we share the same core values, trust each other and have the same main goal: keeping the site alive for the community.

How did you hear about the OTW and what do you see its role as?

I first heard about it when I was planning to write my thesis on fanfiction and was browsing on AO3.

I think the most important role of the OTW is to raise awareness in general and to support fanfic sites, especially if they have legal problems, because there is still little legal precedent with regards to fanfiction. I’m especially grateful for the AO3 project, because we’ve lost a lot of Hungarian stories in recent years when small and specialized fanfic sites and blogs closed. Every story lost in this way is a real loss, and it is good that there is a team working to save them.

Now I have a chance to thank you for your determination to change the public mindset and make fanfiction acceptable, gradually and ever more spectacularly.

What fandom things have inspired you the most?

Maybe it’s a cliché, but encountering slash. While slash was blossoming into a genre of its own, it opened my eyes — because when I first got into the fanfic world, I was living in a sheltered little bubble. As a reader and a writer, it was incredibly exciting to discover something new and then unusual, and I was very proud of myself for being so forward-thinking to read something like that. 😀 (It’s quite funny to think back on it now.)

Thinking from a fandom perspective opened up a whole new world for me. I’ve been watching series differently since then, for example, I can’t watch a Star Trek TOS episode without thinking of AU plotlines.

By the way, fanart is absolutely inspiring as well; there are fantastically talented creators. Not to mention the musicians.

We encourage suggestions from fans for future guest posts, which can be left as a comment here or by contacting us directly. Visit our Pinboard account to catch up on earlier guest posts.

Guest Post
  1. Alex commented:

    This is a nice article about Hungarian fandom history, and I don’t want to get too negative, but I do have a question. What is the reasoning behind requiring any kind of slash content on Merengő (“same-sex attracted”) to have a 12+ rating still in 2022 when equivalent het content is allowed to be “all ages”? Can’t be because of the new law, since I remember it being a rule when I first started out posting Merengő over ten years ago, and afaik it has been a rule ever since. Also, does this rule extend to trans people existing in a story?

    I also would have expected one of the recent struggles/challenges to be related to that disclaimer about the anti-pedophile law that you have to click through before you can read anything on the site. I don’t expect you to make the whole interview about it obviously, but it feels a bit… lacking without mentioning something so significant.

  2. Alex commented:

    Rereading my comment a day later and I feel like I might have been a bit harsh. I can imagine that running the largest/only fanfic site in Hungary must be incredibly hard, and I respect the work you do. You also can’t do anything about the government. But it’s still the truth that I never felt welcome on Merengő. As a beginner writer (when I was 13) I got made fun of for my grammar on a public forum by one of the admins, in a forum thread dedicated to sharing “weird” or “bad” fic – I don’t know if this is still a thing in 2022 and I hope it isn’t. As a queer writer writing queer stories, Merengő used to have a rule where “slash” was the only mandatory warning. As far as I could see this isn’t a rule anymore, but the double standard regarding who/what is allowed to be “all ages” is still in the rules as of yesterday. And being reminded of the law conflating LGBT people with pedophilia on the front page is definitely something that affects the atmosphere on your site. So it makes me feel a bit resentful to read an interview without addressing any of that, especially contrasted with Ao3’s much less restrictive content rules. That being said, I wish you luck with running the site. (And a positive fun fact: a few days ago I found Pál utcai fiúk fanfic on Ao3 by a Czech writer, which was a nice surprise :))

  3. PM commented:

    I am commenting under the initials of my old Merengő username. This article was a blast from the past – in multiple different ways. While Merengő wasn’t my first fanfic site (I think that honor goes to fanfiction.hu and some smaller sites I can’t recall anymore. Although Dark Arts was one of them. I do remember IM-net, but I didn’t read fic there), and for that, it will always have a soft place in my heart. But I could never get invested in the community. I do vividly remember the things Alex mentioned above. The rule that the only mandatory warning was for SLASH. The public forum where admins made fun of writers which ranged from amusing typos (I remember várfarkas yes), but sometimes outright just being outright cruel to writers who were clearly beginners. And I find it amusing how Lilyana says she opened up her mind thanks to slash fic, and apparently sees nothing wrong with the obvious double-standards people have to face if they want to publish queer fic. Just saying.

  4. Rekush commented:

    I think you guys might be a little bit harsh here. We need to recognise the social climate in Hungary when Merengő was first created – almost two decades ago now. Just you look at the attitudes towards us, LGBTQ folks in Hungary in 2022; and it used to be a lot worse before. Putting a warning tag and an age restriction on slash stories seemed to me a small price to pay to even have them on the site back then. And I am guessing Lilyana didn’t make those rules all alone. (I also kept expecting her to talk on the new anti-LGBTQ laws affecting the site, but I guess she didn’t want to bring up politics. Still, that was a bit disappointing.)

    About the ‘Fénypont’ forum, I did think it was some harmless fun and found the posts very amusing. But I do understand your point on it could be discouraging for young, beginner writers. Perhaps these are topics you could raise in the forum? I am sure the admins would be open to a discussion, see how everyone feels about these issues.

    Now, about the article itself: I personally really enjoyed the bits about Hungarian language and the differences in preferred fandoms.

    In my readings, I personally found that time travel is a really popular trope in English fanfics while it’s not that common in Hungarian ones for some reason. However, Hungarian fics seem to have more original characters, especially self inserts.