The woman I had known for years from a local writing group held out her hand. “You’re Roma? Will you read my palm?”
Confused and a bit daunted, I tried to decipher her expression: Was that a smirk or a smile on her face? Was I mistaking irony for cultural offense? I hesitated, incredulous that she thought this appropriate at a conference social event.
Correcting her misperception would take more time than I wanted to give. And what did she expect me to say? Did she imagine I was immediately going to morph from the poet and novelist she had known for years into a parlor act or a purveyor of mysticism? The slippery slope ahead of me was one I had taken in freefall many times.
From Victor Hugo’s goat-herding, palm-reading street dancer and kidnappers in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, to TLC network’s cat-fighting “Gypsy Sisters,” both literature and popular culture teem with stereotypes of Romani people, of which the common conviction that we romnia (Romani women) are all fortunetellers is only one. To address the world at all, for Romanies, requires a constant choice of self-representation, self-exoticization, or self-denial. For a writer of Romani heritage, the common “knowledge” about “Gypsies” complicates every reading or conference appearance, and even every submission to an editor or agent.
Past experience has taught me that few audiences know much about Romani history, and it is unlikely even that they know that “Gypsy” is a name given to us by confused Europeans, who mistakenly thought we came from Egypt, rather than our native India. For writers, our problem is twofold:
How to write from personal experience without first delivering a lecture on the ten centuries of diaspora that brought our families across the entire expanse of the globe?
And how to point out that what everyone “knows” about us is mostly wrong––without alienating one’s audience?
Few people, I have learned on the book tour trail, even know our real name–– Roma, or Romani––so that in talking about my characters I have to say something like, “They’re Romani. You may say Gypsy, but we would prefer you didn’t.” In North America, very negative connotations for the word “Gypsy” are not so common as in Europe, so audiences are often blasé about my reaction to the word and oblivious to my discomfort at being forced to identify myself by a commonly derogatory term. The responsibility is mine to get both myself and my audience to a place where we can explore together the work I’ve spent years developing. Beyond maintaining a professional demeanor, I cannot control what the editor or the reader thinks about me personally, but I want them to hear my story without pre-judging the characters.
(Some audiences with a bit of knowledge still view us through a very narrow lens. One literary agent to whom I submitted my novel noted that she’d enjoyed it, but she didn’t think my characters seemed very Roma. Did I not jangle the tambourines loudly enough, I wondered?)
Inevitably, with every encounter, one ends by performing a reality check: Where do I fit in the maelstrom of a very complex identity and history, one filled with varied vistas, from windswept mountain passes and searing desert heat to sprawling urban spaces; one enslaving master after another; and a hundred ways of surviving experiences the world thinks far behind us in the march of human history. When Romani survivors of the Holocaust have not yet been widely acknowledged, even as we lose year by year more of their personal stories to the silence beyond the grave––and European governments are still forming ghettoes and permitting pogroms against our people––how do I live contentedly as a writer in the land of milk and honey?
Even that cliché about the ease of American life is a myth. My Romanichal-Romani family came here as slaves and indentured servants after being deported more than two centuries ago from the British Isles. And our Manouche (French) Romani ancestors most likely arrived on board British ships in the days of England’s impressment of every lost soul into naval service. I doubt any of them felt “lucky,” but they thrived, despite the pressure to give up their language and being cut off from others practicing their customs. They mingled with Native Americans and European descendants. In the mix, much was lost, if much was gained, a balance sheet known to most immigrants.
The American cultural response to diaspora is often denial. I am often asked, what difference does it make who were your ancestors? A legacy of grief does not come easily to the American mindset. Even harder to describe the responsibility to respond to present dangers. Being Romani is to be forever both lost and found: phen (sister) to people whose lives may be very different from mine, but who with a few words in a language I barely speak, can bind me to them: Roma san? (Are you Roma?) To be Romani is to bleed, and to celebrate, together. No success or failure, no sense of privilege, no amount of cultural adaptation can trump that. And, in case I forget, there is always someone who can snap me to attention with an outstretched palm, or a hand suddenly clutching their wallet, or a request to dance for them. We rise and fall together on what can happen to any of us.
The knowledge that our ancestors shared a long migration, first through the cold and windswept Hindu Kush, and then through a war-ravaged Mideast, into Europe and across other continents, in a search for sanctuary that only some of us have found, and none of us trust as permanent, calls me to care about the loss of other Romanies’ children to the thriving sexual slavery trade or to hostile authorities, both very real issues among Roma, especially in Europe.
When Maria, a blonde child, was taken from her adoptive parents in Greece, because she did not look like them, and therefore, the authorities asserted, must have been kidnapped by “those Gypsies,” a shock went through the Romani World Wide Web, through every message board, Twitter, and Facebook connection: Can I lose my blue-eyed son? Will I be taken away from my parents because I am light-haired? Does my part-White blood protect or endanger me? The media attention has died down, but Maria has still not been returned to either her adoptive parents or her birth mother, a poor Bulgarian migrant worker who gave her for safe-keeping to a slightly better-off Romani couple. The shared grief among Roma worldwide was real, immediate, electrifying, and enduring.
I can tell you a story that is wholly American, but it will inevitably be shadowed by what I know of what came before we ever set foot on this land, and by what happened to us because of who we were there. In order to build a literary world that includes us, our culture, our history, and our issues, Romani writers must wear the tricorner hat––part-creator, part-cultural historian, part-activist––in order to negotiate that first, awkward moment in front of audiences. My solution has been to begin every reading with a bit of cultural interpretation, and to include, when invited for a longer talk, a slide show that traces our migration from India, my own family’s trail, and my experience as a writer of mixed heritage.
Given that introduction, I’ve found it fascinating to see non-Romani readers drawn into my novel, which requires them to put themselves in the place of Evangeline, a sixteen-year-old-girl who must save herself from her family’s reluctant abandonment by walking away with a complete stranger from everyone and everything she has ever known. Readers write me notes about this character that make it clear that they can imagine themselves facing the same dilemma. Sexual slavery and arranged marriages are not domains that we Roma own, but part of our information-laden present. And when Evangeline’s granddaughter, Eve, faces later the ostracizing of her sister-friend through the common female experience of sexual assault, nearly every woman recognizes the nature of the hurled insults: Jezebel.
When readers write to ask me, “Why do these things happen?”––and part of being a writer of any ethnic background, I think, is to be expected to answer hard questions–– I find myself explaining stereotypes that make it okay to exploit, to criminalize, and to shame Romani women. Yet in those specific behaviors are buried the seeds of betrayal for every woman.
Let’s consider for a moment what “everybody knows” about “Gypsies.”
Everybody knows we Romani women are hot.
Almost everyone has seen one of the popular films or the Disney animation of Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or both, and many students have read the book, as well. In the person of Hugo’s character, Esmeralda, filmgoers and readers across the world have met a seminal representation of a smoldering “Gypsy” girl, who never meets a man without a sultry flip of the hip. Even when a fleeing Quasimodo tumbles into her tent, Disney’s version of Esmeralda takes the time to dip her robe and reveal a shapely thigh.
The Disney image of the black-haired beauty with the colorful skirt, gold hoop earrings, bare feet with an inevitable golden ankle bracelet, and a low-cut peasant blouse, follows a rather ubiquitous popular image that represents expectations of hyper sexuality for Romani women. Googling “Gypsy woman images” will reveal a plethora of similar pictures, some accompanied by words like “slutty Gypsy.” Popular Hallowe’en costumes are based on this stereotype.
Also in your search will be images of real, rather than romanticized, Romani women, many in long skirts and wearing jewelry. Virtually none of these real women, you may note, are putting their sexuality on display.
Insiders know that such display is unlikely day-to-day behavior in many Romani households. This is not due to an excess of prudishness, but is part of the cultural heritage from India, as well as the caution practiced by families whose long, forced wanderings across every continent, and lives as outsiders in many countries, left them vulnerable to the kind of sexual exploitation that we see today in some parts of Europe. Romani girls and women are exceptionally vulnerable to sexual trafficking, and their families, to deportations and repeated nuisance arrests. In a report prepared in 2011, the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) makes it clear that Romani women are far more likely to be the targets of traffickers from outside the community than to be “sold” by their family members. Nevertheless, some Western countries, including Canada, France, and Italy, insist that deporting Romani immigrants is necessary to curb human trafficking.
The prejudice behind these actions is as old as the thirteenth century, when Roma displaced by Middle Eastern and South Asian wars, plagues, and slave markets, made their way into Europe. But for modern audiences, it’s the popular culture and news feeds that form most opinions.
Disney made some tortuous changes to Hugo’s classic tale in order to update their libretto. The fact that the animated Esmeralda is sassy, smart, and athletic is much appreciated, as is Disney’s care to present the injustices perpetrated by the animated film’s Frollo, the French King’s minister, who opines on “Gypsy vermin” with all the passion of a modern-day European politician. Indeed, when Esmeralda in Disney’s feature mournfully prays for God to save the Gypsies and other “outcasts,” she might be thinking of former French President Francois Sarkozy’s stigmatization of Gypsies as enemies of “public order,” or current French Interior Minister Manuel Valls’ insistence that Roma can never be assimilated.
But the editors and animators left plenty of time for Esmeralda to shimmy her way into the heart of the crowd, to read Quasimodo’s palm, and to entice every man she encounters. Perhaps the Disney version is preferable, though, to Hugo’s original, in which Esmeralda is passed around as a virtual sex slave between Phoebus and Frollo, tortured, and, eventually, hung for a witch, as a despondent Quasimodo looks on. The message in each case is clear, though: “Gypsy” women are sexy, but dangerous, a commodity to be controlled.
This feeds neatly into the insistence of many European governments on passing the Roma from one precarious settlement to another. Far easier to overcome public objections to the wholesale rounding up and deporting of entire Romani communities, if one depicts them as either trafficked or traffickers––or, perhaps, thieves––all equally undesirable residents. Thus, Europe avoids its migrant employment problems.
Everybody knows that Gypsy women have magical powers.
Need a love potion? Call on “that Gypsy with the gold-capped tooth” in the lyrics to the popular song, “Love Potion #9.” Wondering what creature makes the horrid howls that echo through the beginning of many a werewolf film? Stop by the hut of the toothless Gypsy witch, who will set you straight with foreboding warnings. And, of course, we will happily share with you what we can read from your palms or Tarot cards, without revealing that this is a job, like any other, that may mean the difference between starvation and plenitude for our families. It’s not the work, but the preconceptions that are the problems.
Everybody knows that Gypsies are criminals.
Esmeralda’s eventual burning (in the Disney version) or hanging (in the Hugo text) as a witch, and her street dancing for coin tosses, rubberstamps what many American tourists “know” of Gypsies. (Note that the Disney version has a happy ending when Esmeralda is saved by Quasimodo; not so in Hugo’s original text.)
“What you say may be true,” the well-dressed lawyer said to me, “but I had my wallet stolen by some Gypsy kids in St. Mark’s Square.” (Or make him a minister, or a car mechanic, and let’s say it happened in front of the Louvre, or along Barcelona’s Ramblas.) This conversation happens often, and my answer is always the same:
“How many Romani professors, lawyers, business people, passed by while you were reporting the theft to the police?” We are primed by stereotypes to see what we expect. The impact on the targets of such skewed images is huge.
Europe has a huge discrimination problem against Roma and Sinti going back to the thirteenth century, which was followed quickly by discriminatory laws and practices, which continue until today. It should be no surprise that Roma are Europe’s largest, and poorest, minority. In many places they are not hired, or served in restaurants or bars, nor will landlords rent to them in better parts of town.
Of course, we have Romani thieves. But why after all this time are even American police officers still referring to “Gypsy crime” as if the taint is in our genes?
What is a young romni to do with the popular singer, Shakira, and her lyrics:
‘Cause I’m a gypsy
Are you coming with me?
I might steal your clothes
And wear them if they fit me
I don’t make agreements
Just like a gypsy
Let’s not get started on the assembled company of Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves.” My GED students tell me these songs follow them down school hallways.
Only a few months ago, I was approached after a workshop presentation by a woman who asked whether or not I knew the “Gypsies” in her hometown, whom local police had assured her were born to be criminals. I took a deep breath and spent precious minutes explaining to her that she had suggested that I, the person whose knowledge of writing she had happily plumbed, was a criminal by definition. As a high school teacher, perhaps she could spot the fallacy in that argument?
Everybody knows that Gypsies are good business.
Usage of Gypsy stereotypes in popular culture could keep an activist busy, from the cultural appropriation of various (non-Romani) “Gypsy” string bands, to the rather shockingly amusing non-Roma woman who recently told me on Facebook that there could be nothing wrong with her use of the name “Dead Gypsy Tours” for her excursions with gullible tourists to the grave of the Gypsy “queen,” because the “queen’s” relatives had given her permission. Does your tour link with Indian Princess excursions, I wanted to ask? And, why pray tell, are the only Gypsies you find interesting, dead?
Daily, on the Internet, and in real life, Romanies skirmish with business owners who are sure that the word “Gypsy,” with all its cachet of the free, the careless, and the mystical, is fair game for their get-rich schemes: Gypsy Rose, Gypsy Moon, “Gypster” tee shirts combining “Gypsy” with hipster. Those “sexy Gypsy,” Hallowe’en costumes, a la Esmeralda, are big business.
I could spend days, week after week, trying to counter such cultural misappropriations. Apparently, a concept too complicated for some is the idea that it is the height of privilege, as well as blatantly insensitive, to borrow the name of an oppressed ethnic group, whose ancestors were driven from their homeland by war, famine, and plagues, and, subsequently, from place to place by prejudice, and then use that name as an exaltation of a “nomadic noble savage” lifestyle. Which leads me to the one point that I think lies at the core of most prejudicial stereotypes against Romani people.
Everybody knows that Gypsies are not an ethnic group, but a lifestyle.
Again and again, this is the explanation given to me by three groups whose prejudice-slip shows so obviously: entrepreneurs, misguided artists, and writers of popular fiction. Do an Amazon search. You will be amazed at the “Gypsy” industry purveyed by non-Roma.
“I wasn’t aware that ‘Gypsy’ referred to an ethnic group,” a very popular mystery writer said about her latest villain. This excuse represents in its essence the concept that whole groups of people are fair game for exploitation.
Esmeralda as an archetype is similar to the racist African-American archetypes of Sapphire and Jezebel combined. She’s mouthy, she’s tough, and men are powerless before her beauty and sex appeal. Nice absolution for depravity! But behind the persistent view of Romani women as temptresses and soothsayers, I’m convinced there’s a convenient wink at the reality of the Romani struggle for a place to be. Why bathe in a long, complicated history when you can take a quick, refreshing dip in a starry-eyed platitude or in a time-worn prejudice that sells?
Even as fake-reality TV holds up supposedly (but often not) Romani women dressing in outfits once suitable only for burlesque, the consequences of female sexuality are grave still in many parts of the world. For Romani women, though, as for many women of color, the consequences are all too often accepted by the general populace as no more than they can expect, up to and including forced sterilization. Our only defense, in reality, as for my fictional characters, is a bond of sisterhood so tight that it survives beyond the grave and beyond the law.
Despite all these moments of sheer despair at pervasive stereotypes, I am heartened by the readers and the audiences who ask “Why?” We lose real Romani women every day to human greed and apathy, as we do many people of diverse backgrounds. My answer is that the least we can do is to build for them, through shared symbolism and our common language, a literary home that broadens and deepens known human experience.
Esmeralda is dead. Let’s look for her before it’s too late.
Your history is in your eyes:
Reflections of the grandfather
who marched across steppes
on a freezing night,
evading lions, drawing stealth
like a cloak of mirrors.
Here on your hand the line
your grandmother dreamed for you:
long life. The curl of your ear lobe––
fat pip of skin––echoes your mother
stroking it while she sang to you
on a winter eve when the heat went out.
That scar on your knee, from running
with bigger kids. The recital
you gutted through at nine,
even though you realized with true pain
you would never dance it really well.
The chip in your tooth proclaims
escape from a jealous lover.
You can’t hide the way your eyes skim
over people and things,
looking for home, how rich food
sends a shiver of delight,
recalling a day long ago in Paris.
Your fingers long and acquisitive,
gentle enough when the right note is struck.
I see the great blooming heart of you:
How you walked past before you turned
to face the beggar and placed
your last five dollars and a card
in his upturned palm.
Another moment looking out at a lake
gone gray as fog. You knew he had
left for good and you should care.
That other time in the doctor’s office
when she said no and you saw seed
spilling from your open palm.
How your eyes still crinkle
in laughter like the breath of saints.
Despite all this and that,
the way you turn with expectation
and the sun shining full
on the long lovely line of you.
Ande ke yakha, dikhav ki históriya:
Rrazumi katar kyo papo
phirdyas inkyal le kimpurya
yekh ryat morrozimaski
katar le liyondarya,
sar raxami kerdo glindánsa.
Kathe an kyo wast, e liniya
kai tuke orisardyas ki mami
lungo trayo, ando kretso
le kaneska morkyako –
thulo kotor morki –
kai mothol sar ki dey azbalas
kana gilabalas tute
pe ivendeski ryat
kana muli e yag.
Kodo samno po chang
kai avel katar kyo nashimos
le mai bare raklensa
o khelimos tu kheldyan
kana sas inya-bershengo
nitala zhanglan, dukhasa,
ke chi mai khelelas mishto.
E rrabosh an ki dand
sikavel ki fuga
katar xolyariko kamado.
Nashti garaves ke yakha
kai chi dikhena konikas
kana rodes pala kiri vatra
worka sar losharel tu, o barvalo xabe
kai anel palpale ande gogi
ekh ges do-multano ando Paridji.
Ke nai, lundji thai xutulimáske
pitomi dosta kana gilabal
e chachi muzika.
Dikhav kyo baro yilo
kai baryol sar lulugi:
Thai kana nakhadyan lo korrovetsos
mai anglal ke amboldyan-tut
hai thodyas pansch tileri thai ekh karta
ande peski anzuli pálma.
Aver momento, dikhelas po reko
kai sas sivo sar e magla.
Tu zhanglan ke golotar
thai chi mai avela palpale
hai musai sas tuke
te nekazhis-tu anda leste.
Kolaver data ande ofisa le doftoroski
kana phendyas “Na” hai dikhlan bambitsi
kai perenas katar ki palma phuterdi.
Sar ke yakha burchon-pe vi akana
kana asas, sar o haburo le swuntonengo
avri de sa kakale bukyandar
sar amboldes-tu loshasa
kana phabarel o kham
po kyo shukar stato.
“Breaking the Silence: A Report by the European Roma Rights Centre and People in Need,” ERRC, March, 2011, Budapest, Hungary.
“Bulgarian mother of the little Roma girl wants her daughter back,”
by Karl Penhaul, CNN, updated 6:29 PM ET, Mon October 28, 2013: http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/28/world/europe/bulgaria-roma-parents/index.html
“Gypsy Sisters,” TLC Network, 2013–Present.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo, Gosselin, 1831.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Walt Disney Classics, Disney DVD, 1996.
Tattooed on my tongue
Words in torrents:
The great wave from India
washed through Asia Minor,
Eastern, then Western Europe,
splashed ashore in Virginia,
vanished into frontier.
I chase you down the pages:
census, property records, Bible
entries, until I find you
where I expect, hope you will not be:
Antigua, the massive plantation,
slave schedules miraculously listing
your name. I stop breathing,
trace it with my finger. Of course,
you spoke their language.
Why not keep your name?
I want to tear the page, shred
this horror out of existence.
But I know, I know
if I erase the pain
I will also erase your sacrifice.
Tonight I light a candle,
breath your name into its flame.
It gutters, but does not go out.
Puridaj, I say your name.
Ramome pe murri ship
sar ekh tetovazha
preya but swaturya
baro telazo katar e Indiya
tasulo inkyal e Anatoliya
ka Ivropa, estikano thai westikano,
areslo po brego la mariyako
xasailo ando buflo them.
Ande arxivurya rodem tu
ando ginimos le zhenengo
ande rikordurya propertiyange
ande Bibliyi familyange
zhi ka arakhlem tut
kai gindisailem kai sas
numa sas-ma nyedazgdya
ke chi mai kothe kamas-avesa:
Antigua, bari plantatsiya
ande hertiyi rroburyange
arakhlem kyo nav
azbav les murre naiyensa
Va, tu dyan duma lengi ship
sostar chi nikerdyan kyo chacho nav?
Mangav te shinav e patrin
ande but tsine kotora
te shinav kakya djungali buki
te kerav la, te chi mai sas
numa zhanav. zhanav
te kovlyarav murri dukh
akushav ki zhertva.
Aryat, dav yag ekh momeli
phurdav kyo nav pe parra
tsinyol e parra numa chi merel-pe
“Phuri Dey,” phenga me
Phenav kyo nav.
The elms have lost their leaves.
Silence encircles sound. No child
keens along the road. Then––hear!––
music seeping from stained walls.
can devour people
who inhabit wind.
Peren le patrya katar le yelmelina
miro ankolil o hango
chi yekh tsinorro zhalowil-pe po drom-
Ashta! Ashun! –
muzika avel katar le zudurya
kodole zudurya amrandine.
Khanchi, khanchi, khanchi
shai xala le zhene
kai trayin ande balwal.
The blank-walled prison stutters
through my windshield,
makes me think of butterflies.
How most do no lasting harm, but some
are carnivorous to their kind.
How what they are thinking probably
bears no relation to what we’re thinking
about them. How, when the sun slants
just right, filtered through a cloud,
we can see inside their wings,
yellow light green purple bleeding
colors into our everyday world.
How, when young, they dance
through garbage and garden alike.
How, when old, their wings fade and tear.
How the saddest thing imaginable
is a butterfly smashed on your windshield
after a long, exhausting journey.
How they dance through bars.
How, when I am fiercely honest,
I cannot tell if I belong in, or out.
How I am sure some belong in.
How a butterfly just knows.
Nai khanchi pe l’ zudurya kai limbutsin-pe
ando mobili, dikhav avri katar e filastra
thai thov murri gogi ande l’ paparudji
sar le mai but lendar chi keren bari nasul,
Numa wuni lendar xan le avryan.
Ambori so won gindin-pe si aver fyal
katar so gindis-ame anda lende.
Kana phabarel o kham katar o nuvaro
shai dikhas andre lenge phaka
galbeno, zeleno. chednila vyedyarya
kai shorrel fetsi ande amari geseski lumiya.
Sar khelen-pe le terne paparudji
ando gunoi thai ando sado.
Thai sar, kana phuryon
lenge phaka parnyon hai shindyon.
E mai tristo buki ka shai dikhas
si ekh paparuga muli
likyardili pe filastra le mobileski
mai palorral katar o lungo drom
Sar khelen-pe mashkar le reltsi.
Kana sim chaches pakivali
chi zhanav te sim andre worka avri
numa sim siguro
ke wuni zhene si andre
Sar ferdi zhanel e paparuga.