I was scrolling around on Facebook one-day and I encountered the following video:
“Well, well,” I quickly said to myself, “this is a book that I must check out!”
I contacted Dr. Covert and asked if, after I read her book, she would like to do an interview on here. I was glad to hear that she was indeed; found myself even more glad after I read her stellar book.
Leaving it 5 Stars, I described wrote on Goodreads:
“The degree of research which went into this book, along with Dr. Covert’s meticulous and constant sourcing of the material, is truly beyond impressive. Covert’s exploration of how both non-Romani society as well as some Romani traditions are decidedly not beneficial to women sets ‘American Roma: A Modern Investigation of Lived Experiences and Media Portrayals’ apart from many of the books written by fellow Roma rights activists, who often hesitate to touch on the latter issue with a fifty foot pole. How refreshing to see a more accurate view presented, one not concerned so much about the collective saving of face so much as cold hard facts, regarding the struggle for Romani female equality in the modern era. Also noteworthy to me personally is that, even after working in Roma rights for nearly twenty years, I learned several very important legal tidbits from this book pertaining to the history of the Romani people inside the United States that I had never read before in other books on the subject. I look forward to reading more from Dr. Covert in the future and heartily encourage academics with an interest in the Roma people to read this, a non-fiction book actually written by a Roma woman with a PhD.”
1. Hello, Dr. Covert. Could you please introduce yourself, including a brief description of your familial background and your professional resume?
I always cringe at introductions; it feels like the first day of school all over again and I am never quite sure I am giving out the right information. I hope to touch on all the areas your readers are curious about.
I was born and raised in Georgia. I come from a Romanichal family on my mother’s side. My father, who was not Roma, died before I was born and I did not meet his family until my late 20’s (I am 33 now). I have three brothers. My mother raised us primarily on her own. I grew up around my mother’s family probably until my late elementary school years when our frequent moves became even more frequent and I have had intermittent contact with my extended family since that time. I have been married for 13 years to someone who is not Roma; we do not have kids, but we have lots of pets. I started working around the age of 14 and have worked since then. Coming from a single parent home where my mom was without a college education or strong work experience, it was instilled pretty early on that I needed to get an education and make a way for myself. I received my Bachelor’s degree from Kennesaw State University in 2008, in Psychology with a minor in history. In 2011, I graduated with my M.S. in Clinical Counseling Psychology which enabled me to become a Licensed Professional Counselor. And in 2016, I graduated from Georgia State University with my Ph.D. in Sociology, where I focused on race and urban studies. Since junior year of undergrad, I have been working for various universities. I have now been in private practice since 2012 and teaching at the university level since 2012. I am currently an assistant professor of Psychology at Brenau University. Here I teach intro sociology, cultural basis of behavior and other courses that help train future counselors. Lastly, I head up a young adult college and career group at my local church, I play three instruments and am very invested in my Netflix account.
2. Your book’s online price is listed at over $100. When you wrote it, was your principal audience university academics, as the price suggests? If so, how have they and fellow literary professionals reacted to your work?
Sadly, the author has no control over the price or audience. The answer to the question is: yes, the primary intended audience is academics, however that audience was chosen by the publisher. It was my idea to try to bring the text to a more widespread audience because I believe it has the potential to be a useful book for people outside of Academia as well. The cost makes that somewhat prohibitive, sadly, but I believe a paperback is potentially in the works. Also, people can request their local library or college library purchase the book for them. Over 50 universities world-wide have purchased the text for their collections, which is very encouraging! I have gotten some positive feedback from other academics and had a very promising review come out this year in the Journal of Romani Studies. I have also adopted its use in one of the courses on campus and the response from students has been so positive. It’s brand new territory for them in terms of racial and ethnic discourse. Otherwise, I would say the general reception has been… quiet?
3. Your book makes it obvious that, first and foremost, you are a diligent researcher. Exactly how long did it take to compile the data which fleshed out “American Roma: A Modern Investigation of Lived Experiences and Media Portrayals?” What challenges were most difficult regarding organization of the facts that you found?
Thank you for the compliment! I was trained as a scientific, quantitative researcher so this was a shift for me in terms of the type of research but I do feel I brought that training into this work with me. It took about 4-5 years (wow, was it really that long!?) to collect all the information I found. That’s hundreds upon hundreds of hours. What many people outside academia might not realize is that every paragraph in a research paper written can represent days of research, compiling studies and ruling out studies. One sentence I wrote may represent a week’s worth of digging into literature and historical data to come to that one conclusion. The biggest challenge was, of course, availability of data. A lot of data exists on Roma world-wide… but in America? You are looking at texts that are decades old. I was combing archival newspapers at places like the library of congress. I cited unpublished graduate thesis and dissertation buried in various online databases. I watched entire seasons of shows just to analyze a 10 minute scene in which Roma are mentioned or discussed. I wasn’t quite starting from square one but maybe, I don’t know, square 3 in terms of compiling data, especially modern data. Every piece of data I came upon was often only a scrap and I had to piece those scraps together to make a cohesive picture.
4. There are other non-fiction books about the Romani people available online, a few of which you reference in “American Roma.” To your mind, what sets your book apart from the ones written by your Romani rights colleagues?
There are other books available out there and I believe each serves an important place in the overall discourse. What I believe is unique to my book is that it is what is says it is: a MODERN investigation. 1. It’s current and 2. It’s a modern look at what it means to be Roma. Many of the older texts are a look at specific enclaves of Roma in one part of America. My text covers many places, many people and doesn’t define Roma by one set of practices, DNA, or geographical location. It doesn’t pigeon-hole Roma in to one way of life. We aren’t a stereotype and I believe the book highlights that. Lastly, the book allows these individuals and sources to speak for themselves. The book is a platform for Roma narrative and history to stand on its own.
5. Your book explores many aspects of Romani history—(hate crimes, genocide, segregation, forced sterilization, slavery)—which are very upsetting to read. Many don’t realize that writing about these topics can also have a profound effect upon the author. How did you power through it and how did you decompress from the more stressful moments?
What an insightful question! It was tough to write the text. One of the chapters of the book starts with a news article about a Roma man murdered in front of his own kids by a police officer. That article alone caused me to take a break for a few days. Everything you listed and more left me with, I don’t know… almost an ancestral feeling of pain. It hurt to hear it. The interviews would impact me a lot as well. I make it clear in my introduction that some of the stories shared are about individuals related to me. One of the quotes in the book was about my grandmother, whom I sadly was not able to know for very long. The quote talks about how the way she was treated and the way her parents were run out of town for being fortune tellers was really hard on her because she wanted to assimilate, she wanted to fit in and be accepted in school. That quote would come up while I was sitting in traffic or at my desk. I would often take weeks off from writing when the information got to be too much. The encouragement to go on came from the idea that I was doing what was within my power to positively affect the community; leveraging my position in academia to give a platform for these narratives. It’s not everything but it’s something. The knowledge that these are narratives that deserved to be shared was also a factor that motivated me to continue. Decompression for me means spending time with people while we eat food, laugh, share ideas and stories, and watch tv together. A lot of terrible things exist in the world (I know this first hand from my role as a therapist) but there is good as well. Pausing for a moment to see it was a good way to decompress but even in doing so I had to recognize the privilege of doing so. Being able to “take a break” from being confronted with so much pain is not a privilege that all Roma world-wide have.
6. “American Roma” explores in depth many anti-Romani laws which either passed or were almost passed in the United States. Would you share a few of these with us? In your own words, what impact do these laws have on the psyche of American Roma today?
7. Your book focuses a great deal on the marginalization of Romani women, both within the non-Romani world as well as within the Romani community itself. You seemed to emphasize higher education as one of the most pivotal means to escape this. Would you care to elaborate?
I’m going to come right out and say I am a feminist. That carries a lot of meanings, but for me that means I am committed to lifting up the women around me any way I can. In doing a lot of my initial research, I was seeing many Roma women and Roma women’s needs and causes being pushed out of the bigger discourse. I read many articles by Roma women who were being confronted with the choice to be feminist or Roma but not both. I didn’t like that. My initial research actually started with women only. It wasn’t until the publisher encouraged me to include men that I expanded my study. I only examined a few dozen narratives so we can’t call my findings conclusive but I certainly saw a pattern of higher education as a vehicle for change in the lives of Roma women. Whether it was among my respondents or in other studies I read, higher education not only equipped these women to pursue careers that would otherwise be closed to them, but it also gave them exposure to new ideas, gave them the language and platform to advocate for themselves and exposed them to other Roma women pursuing lives outside of traditional roles. For many of these women, traditional roles, whether it be the freedom to work, expectations for marriage or individual rights, was a marginalizing or limiting place. Those are their words, not mine. Higher education allowed them to leave behind those limitations while, for some, holding on to their Roma identity and, for others, creating new identities for themselves.
8. For “American Roma,” you interviewed nearly two dozen subjects about their life experiences. Was it difficult to find volunteers for this or was it your experience that American Roma want their voices to be heard?
It was very challenging to get participants most often because people stated that talking about their identity or lives as Roma was not something that was done. Some that turned me down have since come back and said they wished they had participated because if the older Roma aren’t willing to tell their stories then there will be a lot that is lost. Even those willing to participate were leery about speaking out about their experiences. I had to go through a vetting process with each one, talk about my background and family before they would agree to participate. Many confirmed multiple times that they would remain anonymous because they were afraid of how they would be perceived within and outside the Roma community. I believe Roma do want their voices to be heard but they want control over how its heard. Given a history of misrepresentation, this is understandable but I also think there is an air of mistrust that could discourage some Roma from joining the larger discourse for fear of repercussion. Just since last year I’ve become aware of many more rising scholars in the US who are focusing on Roma and my hope is that more and more Roma will engage with researchers. The more participants, the more power, that’s a statistical fact but I think it’s a practical reality. We need more scholarship on American Roma to raise Roma visibility in American academic circles. This cannot be done without Roma participation.
9. There has been some backlash from reviewers regarding your book, including the allegation that you are lying about being Romani and that the Roma you interviewed are similarly lying about their heritage. What effect has this had on you? Do you believe that the naysayers are sincere, actually believing what they claim, or do you interpret this is a tactic used to silence Roma women who speak out on issue of gender inequality?
This absolutely had a significant impact on me. On one hand, as I have already said, I get the mistrust. On the other, at a personal level, this was like a gut punch. I was very clear in my book’s preface my background and connection with the Roma community. I made it clear that I was not trying to claim to be more connected or informed than I was but I also made it clear that this is a part of my identity genetically, ethnically and, to a very minor degree, culturally. I had some fears even before the book came out that there would be this type of criticism. My research brought me face to face with a significant amount of gatekeeping. In fact, I talk about the lack of a singular definition of being “Roma” in the book. It’s hard to know where you stand when there is no standard measuring stick, but everyone claims there is. But I certainly was not ready for the tone of my critics and it made me retreat for a time as I processed feeling rejected by the community that I was seeking to reconnect with. The criticism took a very personal tone from the color of my hair to accusations about my motivations etc. After a few short weeks of that, I retreated from public discourse about the book because the focus was on me and not the text. It’s a good piece of scholarship and a book that any writer would be proud of. I am proud that it is among the books out there that may inform someone outside the community about Roma or allow someone like me to learn more about their history and heritage.
I can’t judge the sincerity of the naysayers. I can say that those I interviewed are very sincere in their commitment to the community and have done much to advocate on its behalf. I guess it never occurred to me that someone would want to silence a Roma woman speaking about equality and yet I know this does occur within the community and certainly in policy and academic circles. I think I may be very naive in that regard.
I still don’t understand why anyone would lie about being Roma. Historically, many people have lied to protect themselves against discrimination by saying they are NOT Roma. Where is the benefit in saying you ARE when you aren’t? I don’t get it. Since processing this backlash, I have spoken with a few Roma scholars and they have all had the same thing to tell me. They can’t control how people see them so they choose to focus on the important work they are doing, speaking out on marginalization rather than wasting time engaging with the naysayers. Their names and work are way more well known than mine so it was encouraging to know they had dealt with similar criticisms but they persist.
10. What future do you foresee for other Romani authors, such as yourself, regarding self-defining non-fiction literature, as opposed to how Romani culture and history has traditionally mainly been written by outsiders about us?
I hope a very bright future. I hope more and more books come out and that it becomes a widely recognized genre of its own. I hope people within the community will encourage authors and other creative producers to get their work out there. As more representation comes from within the community, I believe those who have been disconnected from their roots will be able to connect with it in a meaningful way and I believe the picture of Roma that is perceived by those on the outside will become more and more accurate. The goal is representation controlled by Roma but, as I discuss in my book, Roma are made up of a very diverse group of people and I hope to see that diversity celebrated, accepted and become a recognized part of what it means to be Roma.
11. What’s next on your literary horizon? Do you intend to write more books on the subjects of Romani racial inequality, gender inequality, and general history?
I am actually currently working on a new book. While in the same vein, I will be shifting my focus to looking at housing, education, poverty and their connection to things like health and mental health. I will be collecting interviews again and my goal is to hopefully have some Roma representation in the book by including Roma authors and studies in my discussion and hopefully have some Roma participants but it will not be my primary focus as it was in my first book. My goal is to continue to make Roma representation a normative part of academic inquiry. We’re out here so let’s make Roma representation more than a niche thing; bring it in to mainstream attention as much as possible.
Dr. Covert can be reached at:
Brenau University – Department of Psychology
3139 Campus Drive, 212, Norcross GA