Some years back, I published a book about a 19th century Romani female slave in Eastern Europe.
At the time it came out, it was, to the best of my knowledge, the only work of historical fiction on this subject published in the English language. Some assumed that I would feel proud for breaking the glass ceiling, but, in actuality, I only wondered, when millions of Romani women, over the course of centuries and in so many different countries, were subjected to slavery…why weren’t other historical fiction writers tackling this issue? Wasn’t it dramatic enough? Heart-breaking enough? Interesting enough? Why were authors continuously ignoring it?
Last week, I came across the recently-published book “The Roma Road: A Gypsy Tale” by Kelli Pizarro and I found that the subject material was finally, at such long last, being addressed by someone else. The time period, country, and circumstances were different in many ways from my own book, but, as I read Pizarro’s work, I found myself continuously thinking that, if my slave character sat down to dinner with hers, the two would likely get on quite well.
Pizarro’s book starts during a largely-ignored period of ethnic cleansing, enforced by royal decree, in the UK. Though I am not Romanichal, as the majority of Romani people in the UK are, I was very familiar with the research used in this book due to the fact that I do have UK roots and also because I have previously written a screenplay specifically about the genocide inflicted upon the Romanichal population. As a result of my own extensive research, while reading, I repeatedly wondered just how much this non-Romani author was going to portray accurately.
I hoped for the best. I admit, after seeing so many other authors portray UK Roma in ridiculous fashions, I expected the worst. I was stunningly and very pleasantly surprised.
I will first mention some obvious sore spots…. There were several things in the book which do fit the “Gypsy” stereotype. There is fortune-telling, theft, spell-casting, and a seductive Romani dancer…. That said, what sets Pizarro’s book very apart from when these things are usually portrayed is that she consistently presents them in the context of force and violence.
As the Romani characters are continually, from the first to the last page, aware that they may be, at any point, grabbed and either killed or shipped overseas if the White population recognizes them for what they ethnically are, they are driven repeatedly to desperate actions which do not appeal to them, but there is no way that they can avoid. Does the Romani man want to steal food? No. He’d rather have a regular job, but that’s not on the docket when you can be hung for coming from the wrong race.
Romani women have never fit into the housewife mold at times like these. In order to put food on the table, an untold multitude have told fortunes. To fundamentalist Europe, fortune-telling was during the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and, even by some people today, considered sacrilege. To our culture, ever since we left India, however it was not regarded as evil—instead, quite harmless. And if this harmless act could feed your children in a time when regular employment was not an option, all the better. How many Romani palm-readers wound up being branded as witches and subsequently murdered by European mobs? Impossible to say, but no doubt the numbers ran into the thousands. Consequently, to this day, while some Romani women in times of financial strain do on the side read a fortune here or there, there remains a great deal of anxiousness when Gadje (non-Romani) authors point this out. But Pizarro handles an authentic trade tastefully—showcasing it accurately a means of survival during bad times.
The spell-casting, to my mind, was the most uncomfortable bit in the book, but even that had to be put into the context of it taking place during the 16th century—the time when tomatoes where considered poisonous and leeches were placed inside a person’s nose to stop it from bleeding. The use of and total belief in magic, at that point, was in no way unique to any ethnic group. Had Pizarro’s book been set in the modern day, with Romani spell-casters, I would indeed agree that she was endorsing a stereotype. But, in all honesty, to have characters living four hundred years ago in your book that lack superstition is hardly realistic.
As to the last issue…the beautiful, sexy, “exotic” Romani dancer…here, I found the stereotype which has plagued Romani women worldwide put in the most truthful light. What is this girl—the one who all the White men are ogling and treating like a whore? She’s a victim of human trafficking—not even a woman, but just a teenage girl. She has no choice but to do what she does. When she tries to fight back, she is threatened with physical and sexual violence. When she continues to fight, those threats are made good on. Again and again, she is manipulated, humiliated, degraded, and violated without any legal recourse for the sole reason that she is Romani. To everyone around her, she is an object; a means for them to earn money. And, on the inside, she is desperately searching for some way to assert her status as a human being; as a child of God.
Does the book have some linguistic and cultural hiccups? Yes, it does. But overall, the fact that it highlights an enslavement and genocide which most Gadje readers will have had no previous knowledge ever took place at all is far more important than these minor errors. The fact that the myth of the hypersexualized Gypsy dancer is shown in reality to be an exploited, terrorized Romani victim of a racist sexual predator…to me, as a Romani woman, leaves me with a feeling of hope that perhaps the time has come when this issue of ethnic gender violence will start finally being portrayed with accuracy in the historical fiction market. The plight of our Romani ancestresses, of Romani women in general, deserves its fair amount of time on the page of modern fiction….
Pizarro’s readers, I doubt very strongly, will walk away from her book without a greater understanding of some of the horror inflicted upon our people.
Perhaps, to some, that is only my hope or naiveté.
Pizarro’s reviews will reveal whether or not I am right.
In the meantime, I will dissolve from review to interview and allow the audience to hear from her, in her own words, what she aimed to achieve by writing about the slavery of a Romani teen.
G: Welcome, Kelli. Please introduce yourself to the readers and give a brief summary of your past writing projects.
K: I am a thirty-something Christian fiction author, homeschooling mother of three, wife, and lover of warm drinks, and good books.
My books have all been set in England, due to the rich history—both the good and the bad—and the fact that both sides of my family come from there several generations back. It helps me to connect to a place, knowing that at the time my stories were set, I had family living in the same area that possibly could have taken part in whatever my books entailed, were they not fictional stories! I hope to one day travel to the places I have written about and see them modern day.
The last book I have completed is the topic of discussion today, The Roma Road: A Gypsy Tale.
G: Now let’s start off with the $64,000 dollar question: you are not Romani and you previously had no contact with the Roma, so what prompted you to write a book dedicated to showcasing the abuse of the UK Romani people?
K: This is an interesting question with a long(ish) answer. After finishing Awaiting the Reign, I was at a pause in my writing. A time of recuperation, if you will. I was up one night doing personal research on the history of the circus when I got the idea for a book. It began as a story of a circus performer who falls in love with the ringleader but is abused and eventually makes her escape. Many hours of research brought me to the question: What was the pre-circus like? Traveling freak shows with grotesque displays were popular in different areas and I decided to start from there. I wanted my protagonist to be a woman who was held against her will and mistreated, but also to be on display for something other than a physical abnormality, setting her apart. I found some sources stating that oftentimes, these freak shows had private tents for gentlemen to enter for a fee. This tent usually held an exotic dancer, and also items such as pickled fetuses and other things that women and children wouldn’t be allowed to look upon. My next question was: Who, during the 16th century in this area, would be a people that would be enslaved without question from the government? I found that slavery was quite popular in that time and location, but my next finding was a shock to me. The “gypsies” were often enslaved, and in many places forced to do manual labor, prostitution, or be shipped off. I, like many others, knew nothing of the history of the Roma people. I’m going to be honest with you—I didn’t even know that “gypsy” was a derogatory term! So there began my research into the history of the Romanichal people. I read countless articles, watched YouTube videos detailing the Romani Holocaust, and read papers written by members of the Roma community. I was heartbroken to learn that not only were these people persecuted terribly, in many ways they still are, and many people have no knowledge about any of this! I began to pray for the Roma community and to ask God to show me how I can craft a story that will expose how evil the freak shows were, how the Roma were lumped into the same category as disfigured people or other enslaved races, and show the gospel finding its way to my characters. My story unfolded from there.
G: The word “Gypsy” barely occurs in your book at all, yet it is in the book’s subtitle. Can you explain why?
K: There are terms that are “obviously” racial to some people, and to others they are just informal slurs. The term “Gypsy” was one I was guilty of using, and I was surprised to find that it caused quite a stir in the Roma community. Especially since many Roma people use the word themselves. But after researching, I found that the word’s use is similar to calling Native Americans “Indians.” It is a title based on a misconception and ignorance, but should have been dropped after the true origin of the people was recognized. It is a term that has been watered down by those who aren’t Roma and I do feel that most (now day) mean no disrespect when using it. It is used in ignorance. Due to this, many people interested in that culture search for movies, shows, books, and other points of interest using that as the search term. The key word. And if I had just written “The Roma Road” as the title, I guarantee many, many people would have no clue that this was a book about “Gypsies,” and would have passed it by—and missed an opportunity to learn something. The opportunity to hopefully come to the conclusion that they no longer wished to refer to the Roma people in that way. They could use the words “Roma” and “Romani” instead, and feel confident in doing so. I never intended the use of the word in the title to arouse anger from the Roma community. Conversely, I hoped any Roma who might come upon my book would read it and appreciate someone having had the strong desire to shine light on the oppression of the people. Unfortunately, it has been a split crowd. Having had two members of the Roma community read and offer me feedback on the book, I found that one was determined to be opposed to the book because it contained “stereotypes”, while the other had an appreciation for my delicate telling of the culture at the time, and my disclaimers stating that the people do not all thieve, work witchcraft, or live godless lives.
G: Given that you are portraying a culture not your own, I found the degree of authenticity quite striking. How long did it take you to research the material to achieve this and, afterward the studying process, how long did the book actually take to write?
K: Had I known I was to be asked this, I would have paid closer attention, but sadly, I have no sure answer for you. As for the research, it was a process of long (up to 8 hour) nights of study, five days a week, over a period of several months. When I say it was a full time job that did not pay, I am being truthful. Of course, the reward of knowledge was all the pay I desired.
The first few months of this work were strictly research. The other months were study done in between chapters, my aim being to take each scene written and dissect it for historical accuracy as much as possible. This is just the way I write. I research before, during, and after a book. I have an author friend aid me in my studies and research, then have her pick my books apart for errors.
G: “The Roma Road: A Gypsy Tale” centers on a 16th century Romani girl being subjected to human trafficking. Some readers unfamiliar with modern Romani history likely have the impression that the topics you portrayed are long-dead issues. However, in many countries throughout Europe, the rates of human trafficking are quite disproportionately in favor of Roma, rather than Whites, being forced into modern slavery. Did this current-day problem have anything to do with your decision to write a book on Romani slavery’s history?
K: No, it did not. I had no knowledge of these facts until I was well into writing my story. It was something that I was saddened to learn and hoped that many would read my book, learn of this history, then take up my suggestion to further their own research and find that many of these issues are still current.
G: Generally, when Romani slavery is discussed, those who are aware that it took place at all focus on Eastern Europe—Romania, in particular. What made you decide to highlight the history of persecution, ethnic cleansing, and enslavement of the Roma in the UK instead?
K: My book started out as a story with the background stage as the pre-circus. Much of that originated in the UK. A few years ago I traced my ancestry back to England and found that, on both sides of my family, my relatives lived for many generations in certain areas. I became fascinated with the culture and history, and like writing books that are set in the times when my family may have lived there. All of these are reasons that I chose the Roma of the UK for my story.
G: Often, when UK slavery is referenced, it is through euphemisms such as “indentured servitude.” At no point in the book do you once use any of these regular watered-down terms. You say, every time, “slave.” Was it especially important to you, as an author, to ensure that the audience understood that there really is no other way to adequately describe the situation?
K: Indentured servitude is a glamorous way of saying, “a person with no freedom who did unpaid labor”. That is a slave, plain and simple. As in every time in history where there have been oppressed people, there have been those who wished they were not treated so, but those were not the majority and the result was catastrophic for the Roma people. It was very important to me that my readers grasp what it meant to be a Roma slave, and that they don’t have any qualms about calling it for what it was after reading this book.
G: Repeatedly throughout the book, you reference how, when Roma are caught, if they are not killed, they are frequently put on ships and sent away. Was this data included to help American audiences understand that a significant portion of modern Romani-Americans, particularly in Southern States like your native Texas, descend from these brutal UK slave raids?
K: Yes. If the readers learned that the Roma people were shipped off, they would conclude on their own that they began lives in other places. This included the US, and the population here today came from much of this slave trafficking. The land of the free has not always been free for all and that is important to know as well.
G: Most mainstream individuals consider Queen Elizabeth I a great monarch, but you highlight very clearly that it was during her reign, on her personal orders, that anti-Romani ethnic cleansing was going on throughout the county she ruled. How important is it, do you think, that this fact regarding her time in power be brought to light for modern audiences, given that today’s UK Roma still endure a great deal of bigotry?
K: History belongs to no one in particular, which means it is shared. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the foundation that said bigotry was built on, and such policies at the time poured quite a firm foundation. What a pity, too. The opportunity to glean from a beautiful culture was missed, and was a loss for the UK. They stole what they wished from the Roma people, yet accused them of being the thieves. But just as I have stated previously, it is not the entire UK population that feels so strongly against the Roma people, and if one is to be fair, and careful not to mislead, they must offer disclaimers. Here is mine: I am in no position to speak for anyone but myself. I have seen injustice served, and have attempted to shine a light on it. Those who wish to search out truths should do so.
G: You deal with the topic of racially-based ongoing rape very poignantly, yet at the same time, with tremendous subtlety. Was this subtlety on your part designed to conform to the standards of the book’s genre, (Christian historical fiction,) or out of respect to Romani culture’s traditions regarding modesty as pertains to both sex and sexual violence?
K: Both. The Christian fiction genre in general is one that I find is best written with a careful pen. I find that my own writing of sexual sins is more blunt and detailed than many Christian authors, so for you to say that it is subtly and poignantly written, I take that as both compliment and a great relief. I have done my best to, while exposing wrongs, not do further harm to the hearts of the Roma people, and have attempted to keep my readers from shutting the book and saying, “This is too much! I can’t go on!”
G: For centuries untold, many Romani children, like your main character, Nadya, have been lied to by their family members, who deny Romani ethnic origins as a means of survival. These children, who faced the choice of being forced to be “White” or die, grow up with a loss of Romanes language, cultural traditions, and are frequently subjected to varying degrees of ostrazation by those traditionally raised. How do you hope that books like yours might influence this unfortunate vicious cycle, both for the non-Romani and Romani communities alike?
K: Until you have some level of love for a person, it is difficult to have a sympathy deep enough to provoke change. Books like mine make the non-Romani people form a bond with Romani characters. They see them as who they are—people, with strengths, weaknesses, and souls. They grow to love them, to feel for them. Then, they can no longer turn a blind eye when they see such things still happening. These books are not the entire fire with which you burn up racial profiling and injustices. However, they very well can be the tinder.
G: People of mixed Romani-Gadje origin often face double discrimination from both ethnicities, eventually are pressured by both to choose only one heritage which they will acknowledge. What made you decide that your main character should be of mixed origin, rather than full-blood?
K: Honestly, it just fit. My character needed to see both sides. She had a white father who loved Roma. She had a white grandfather who kidnapped and enslaved Roma. She was raised around Roma who loved her white father and her. She also saw the conflict between her anti-Roma stepmother and the Roma that lived on her land. She saw every facet of this conflict before she was ten years old and enslaved, and then suffered the trauma of being discriminated against herself. How could she not be open-minded and open-hearted to both sides? I believe this is the way to eliminate discrimination against any ethnicity: to learn why they feel the way they do and do offer healing to any who need it. But then also to not place blame on the parties who do not condone the discrimination. Many people are descendants of slave owners and are hated for their heritage. They didn’t ask to descend from such people. It is their own values and choices that should be judged.
Nadya experienced it all, and by the time she was an adult, she desperately needed healing.
G: I found your principal villain to be very well written. In particular, the emotional complexity he deals with regarding his status as a master was refreshing. Books typically portray the slave masters as having no belief whatsoever that their actions are immoral, but your villain seems to understand that the system, however beneficial to him personally, is ethically flawed. What was your inspiration for his internal conundrum?
K: We are born with a conscience. We can’t deny that. Some villains are able to numb theirs completely, and others just deal with it by putting it off. For this character to be as emotionally unstable as he was, he needed to have a conflict within him. He needed to struggle and to attempt to gain control of his situations by pride and power. And it just worked best that he refused to allow himself to feel remorse though he knew it was due.
G: As befits the 16th century setting, your book features some very old-school Romani traditions and beliefs which many modern Roma do not practice/ believe. Was it difficult to portray time period-accurate things, like the casting of love spells, while knowing that many non-Roma believe this is still par for the course among Roma people today?
K: It was not difficult because, like I said, history is shared. If I can, being no expert on the people, take some time in study and come to the conclusion that things have changed in most cultures over the last 500 years, then anyone can. If someone wants to believe that the Roma people are tarot-card reading, pick-pocketing, traveling musicians, they will. There is nothing that can be done for willful ignorance. The only way I can think to change the minds of people who won’t do their own research is to lure them in with a nicely-woven tale, include the things they “think a Gypsy” is, but show them that these stereotypes were era-specific, family-specific, and even specific to the individual. Disclaimers and clarifying statements then attempt to hit the mark and clear up any confusion that may still remain. The problem isn’t so much that the non-Romani community will read it and say, “See! There’s a palm reader!” or, “See! He stole a duck from a farmer!” Any character can do those things. It is that, after reading the book they will say, “I would have stolen to feed my family, too…” or “The white people who were bold enough to ask for one, seemed to enjoy a good fortune telling…” Even, “I hate that they were oppressed for being so different, when their culture was truly beautiful.” Those are the things that the non-Romani will walk away with. Sadly, due to the subject matter being sensitive, the Roma community may have difficulty seeing it as a “good book” that “does their people any good service.” But the book’s audience wasn’t specific to the Roma community. Instead, it was aimed at those who aren’t familiar with the culture. Each historical fiction book tends to have a message it wishes to convey, and an audience it is speaking to. This books audience is the non-Roma crowd, and the message is, “Do you know of Gypsies, or of the Roma people?”
G: The biggest flaw that I found in the book was that your racist characters referenced “dirty Roma,” “filthy Roma,” et cetera. To my mind the more accurate phrasing from a racist would be “dirty Gypsy,” “filthy Gyppo,” and other established anti-Romani slurs. How do you react to this particular criticism of your villains being too educated and politically correct?
K: When given permission by a Roma to use such phrases, I was more confident in going back and using them more freely from the lips of the discriminating characters. I was attempting to be extra sensitive to the Roma community, but after a better understanding, I believe it was better for me to use the slurs in order to have the full effect: showing how hurtful such racist phrases are.
G: Your book’s genre is Christian historical fiction. Across Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, there were religious institutions from many different sects which exploited, kidnapped, discriminated against, enslaved, or even killed Roma. The main non-Romani religious figure that you portray does not partake in such behavior as, certainly, many decent clergy did not. What did you do to attempt to find literary balance and middle ground so that your main character, Nadya, can find peace and healing through genuine love of faith, while your book does not deny a history of church abuse which Christ would certainly not have endorsed to be perpetrated against any race?
K: Research, research, research. The stories of abuse within and without the church are horrifying, and Christ would not have us sweep such sins under a rug. There are evil people everywhere, just as there are good. Like in my other books, I go for a lesson learned. That is one of the key things I hope to convey in this story.
G: As pertains to the previous question, I will give one example that struck me. You wrote a scene involving one Romani girl covertly reading a cherry vendor’s palm in a market. Were the pains the characters took to not be noticed a reflection of the Catholic ruling that individuals whose fortunes were read by Roma would be forever excommunicate according to Papal law?
K: The scene was a picture of how careful both sides had to be in order to not find themselves on the wrong side of the law. English law did their part in keeping the cultures very separate. The pains taken to not be seen on both parts are best viewed separately. Papin, the Roma girl, has learned through experience which persons she can approach with her skills and attempt to trade said skills for goods. She risks exposure in order to gain food for her people. The cherry vendor is taken immediately by her good looks and cannot bring himself to step away from the opportunity to see what the Roma can tell him about his life by a quick glimpse at his hand. He risks being punished by church and law for doing such a thing, but calculates the risk and come to the personal conclusion that it was worth it.
G: Texas has a large Christian Romani population. Do you plan to promote your book to them?
K: Given the opportunity to have the Christian Romani population in Texas support my book would be an honor, and I certainly hope that it will be approved by many. As I stated, my target audience is non-Roma, as it is meant to educate those who have no knowledge of the Roma’s history. The Romani population, I think, needs no education on such things from a book written by a non-Romani from the perspective of a Roma girl. It may even seem ridiculous to them to read such a thing, as they may feel they could write a more accurate portrayal of the time themselves. This was the opinion of one Roma I had review my book. And I have no doubt that most could offer details that I am still not knowledgeable of. But this book is about more than just the Roma’s oppression, though that is the biggest part of the story. It is about the Protestant church being oppressed as well. It is about a trafficking victim’s struggle. It is about the abuse those with disfigurements suffered when put on display in the traveling shows. It is about love and loss. So these things woven together will reach an audience who wants to learn about those particular years in that certain area of the UK, and hear a moving story as well. If any in the Christian Romani population have those things in mind while searching for a read, they may find my book enjoyable. I certainly hope they do! But to answer your question specifically, I intend to promote my book to any who would enjoy historical fiction hitting on those key things, regardless of ethnicity. I just predict that those most interested would be non-Roma.
G: After the story has ended, you encourage non-Romani Christians at the back of the book to reach out and support their Romani brethren. What steps do you think churches today could take to make this happen? Have you considered speaking at churches in your state regarding this issue of greater racial tolerance and understanding on the basis of true Christian doctrine?
K: I think Christians as individuals, not just churches, should first educate themselves on the plight of the Roma people and then ask God specifically to show them what He would have them to do. Whether that would be financially supporting the ministries that aid Roma children in getting a proper education, or forming/aiding other outreaches that extend love and the gospel to the Roma community, there are plenty of ways to get involved. Speaking on any platform, be it social media or a stage at church, can result in having a great influence. I do not consider myself a speaker, nor do I look for opportunities to speak publically. I am a writer and feel my voice is best read, not heard from a platform. However, given the opportunity to speak to a group in the past, I have not declined and if the chance to speak came, I can’t stay that I would automatically decline it due to my stage fright. I do feel that this is an area in which more non-Roma people should speak, especially those with public speaking skills.
G: When I encountered the advertisement for your book, the tag line referenced something to the effect of, “What is a Gypsy soul?” When pointed out to you that this phrasing is a trigger for the Romani community and carries, for many of us, the implication of non-Roma being able to appropriate our culture/ become “Gypsies,” you changed your tag line to something else. You also expressed your desire to speak to actual people from the Romani community, halting publication of your book, until it could be scrutinized by them in order to weed out cultural inaccuracies and linguistic glitches. Why did you make this extreme gesture to wait for the approval of the minority that you are portraying?
K: Because my work was meant to help, not harm. I am not so naïve as to think that I will gain the approval of most Roma in writing this book. The majority is impossible to please in any crowd. My intent was to ensure that I got the facts as straight as possible, to make friends in the community, and to get insight into their hearts. I found that in doing so I bettered my book, but also expanded my own understanding of the modern Roma community. There is so much to be learned from them, and I hope to continue to learn how to better love and pray for them as a people.
All of my books are available at Amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle form.