Seeking International Romani Female Writers

Romani Flag

Roughly a year and a half ago, I quietly put the word out that I was looking for Romani female authors who would contribute to the first annual Romani Feminist Anthology.

What is the purpose of this anthology?  To give Romani women from across the globe, from different backgrounds, the opportunity to have their struggle for racial and gender equality heard.  But, more than that, to use their literary superpowers to help those in our community who cannot articulate their hardships.

Writers will not be paid for their entries because all the book’s profits–yes, 100%–will be going to a Romani charity.  The authors selected will each have a vote as to which charity will be the recipient of the funding.

Stories must be a minimum of 1000 words and a rough maximum of 6000.

Those currently contributing to the anthology are actress Mihaela Dragan, novelist Glenda Bailey-Mershon, blogger Jessica Reidy, myself, Diana Norma Szokolyai, and Damaris Solis.

With any annual project, the first one is always the hardest to get off the ground and the time has come to cast a wider net.

Romani sisters, will you write to make the world a better place?

Romani brothers and allies, do you know someone who would be interested?

Please message me here on my blog or at:

romanifeministanthology@yandex.com

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Interview with Author Kelli Pizarro

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.

me

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.

Can a White Author Put “Gypsy” in a Book Title? Well….

As NaNoWriMo drew to a close, I began to debate how to get back to into my blog, featuring both a weekly Romani rights article as well as an author interview….  Which person to choose first out of the plethora on my to-read list?

That so-simple question would wind up being answered by an epically nasty bit of online drama, the specifics of which, to a very large degree boil down to one simple question: when portraying a minority main character, do White authors have the same rights as the minority itself?

In this instance, a White author’s main character was Romani.  And, in order to reach out to a broader audience, she used the word “Gypsy” in the book’s title.  I was asked to weigh in on this, book unread, on her author’s page….

For me, this indeed presented a tricky situation.  All who follow my activism at all know well that I have been protesting the use of the word “Gypsy” since long before many of my contemporaries.  How great is my dedication to this cause?  Great enough to nearly be arrested.  Below I include the article detailing the specifics of that incident.

http://dissidentvoice.org/June06/Trefil08.htm

Why am I cemented to this word being put in its proper place?  Because I am a three-time anti-Romani hate crime survivor and, with every incident, “Gypsy” was shoved in my face as a verbal excuse for everything that happened to me.

Rape was okay so long as my assailant called me a “Gypsy Princess” afterwards.

Trying to take my newborn son away was okay, so long as the hospital nurse told me, “Gypsies aren’t people.”

Trying to deny me my degree was okay, so long as the teacher told me that he didn’t know how “letting a Gypsy graduate would reflect on the school.”

I don’t need someone to tell me the gravity of what the slur word “Gypsy” can accomplish.  I see it in my face when I look in the mirror—not because of my ethnicity, but because, when I was nineteen, it earned me a broken nose which, to this day, bends just slightly to one side.  I’ve lived with that misshapen part of my face for so long that, usually, I don’t notice it anymore.  But, at the times that I do, it only furthers my resolve that I will be doing battle with that word until my end.

Back when I started campaigning against the G word, nearly twenty years ago, there was a lot more wiggle-room that the Gadje (non-Roma) community had regarding it.  “Roma” and “Romani” were not terms that most of them had much of a chance to ever hear or read without deliberately looking.

But that’s not the case today.  Too many Romani activists throughout the world have put tremendous effort into getting the mainstream population to acknowledge that we, as a people, have the same linguistic right to self-definition as anyone else.  Point of fact, some have even taken it further than I ever intended.  They don’t want to be identified as “Roma” or “Romani,” but instead by their specific tribal identity within the Romani system, much like some Native Americans prefer to be called Pomo, Lakota, Cherokee; et cetera.

Either way, you can’t put “Gypsy” into Google now without the search engine soon enough spitting back the term “slur word” into your face.

So back to the original question: can a Gadjo/ Gadji author write a good book with a Romani main character?  Sure.  That depends mainly on the personal talent of the writer in question than anything else.  But can they then use “Gypsy” in the title to help them sell copies?  The answer here should be an easy “no.”  Any way you slice it, that person is using a slur word for profit.

And yet…sadly…the answer is not so simple.

The fact of it is that, as the market currently stands, many authors know that their books will not find the audience that they are targeting and that they will not make money off the hard work that they have put into their book unless they do put the G word in the title.  No, the authors that I’m referring to here aren’t Gadje.  I’m talking about the majority of the authors who are considered some of the top dogs in Romani literary activism in the world….

So when the Romani author “elite” is consistently doing it, what position do they put those of us in who are trying to tell Whites to stop using this slur for profit?

Sure, sure, some people will inevitably pop up here and say, “Hey, we’re Roma, so it’s okay for us to make money off the slur.  It’s horrible and racist for Gadje, but it’s okay for us.”

I’m sorry, folks, but this argument has a pretty huge flaw in that slur-embracing benefits only an extremely small number of Roma and the rest of us wind up getting screwed.  It also leaves Gadje—especially Gadje authors—with a very mixed message.  And so long as that message continues to be mixed, the status of “Gypsy” as a slur word will continue to be in question among many people who do not necessarily mean it to be harmful; people who do not realize the harm that it has historically caused and will continue to cause.

To my Romani brothers and sisters, I can only point out what a change it was when, in a courtroom, there could be consequences for employers to call their African-American employees by the N word.  Now that victory didn’t come about easily.  That happened specifically through the decades of hard work, organized activism, and consistency on the part of the African-American people.

Roma people will get there.  We have made leaps and bounds in the last few decades towards improvement in social justice.  So is the degree of compromise where “Gypsy” is put in a book title still necessary for Romani-Americans today to get their readers?  The argument could be made for both yay and nay.  But such compromise definitely would not be necessary if the Romani community took a firm stand and said “no” to the slur word unanimously; said “no” we will not use this word to make money.

We are worth more than a title with “Gypsy” in it.  Our culture and our history are worth more than “Gypsy” will ever provide us with.

We deserve to be known for what we are.  We deserve for our ancestral origins to not be inaccurately attributed to a different country than India.  We deserve for our people to not be mistaken for other ethnic groups simply because they may share a few cultural traits with some of us.

To Gadje authors, I’ll say this: yours is a decision that is very largely based on personal morals.  Is it fair?  No.  Not by a long shot.  You’ve worked hard on a book.  You want to get paid for that.  But it’s a cold, hard fact that you won’t get nearly the paycheck for the job you’ve done if you don’t use the slur.  However, if you use the slur, there will be a backlash for your doing so.  If you don’t, there won’t be…yet likely neither the Gadje or Romani community will even notice your book exists.  Welcome to the wonderful world of writing about the Romani experience.  Either way, you can’t win.

To Roma, I say that if it offends you that a White author uses “Gypsy” in a book title, the best way that you can take a stand against this is to stop acting in a way which enables it.  That means a lot more than ganging up on that particular author online without reading their book.  It means that the people who you associate with yourself, your friends and family, who use “Gypsy” to make money, need to start being called out on the damage they are causing.  Because, make no mistake about it, they are providing Gadje with the shining example of why the use of this word is actually “okay.”

The thought of Roma holding Roma accountable for their actions regarding this is not as radical as many might like to claim.  There’s plenty of other ethnic minorities that have been in precisely the same shoes as us regarding this issue.  Many have managed to pull themselves up by the bootstraps.  We’re still not quite there.  But tick tok, tick tok, we will get there….

Lastly, to the ones on both sides who claim this word is not as bad as I make out, I leave you with the 1828 Webster Dictionary’s definition of its meaning.  How can you defend this?  How can you “take it back” and turn it into a positive term?  If the answer to that leaves you uncomfortable or you hesitate, you know very well whether or not you should be using it to promote your business.

“GIP’SEY, n. The Gipseys are a race of vagabonds which infest Europe, Africa and Asia, strolling about and subsisting mostly by theft, robbery and fortune-telling. The name is supposed to be corrupted from Egyptian, as they were thought to have come from Egypt. But their language indicates that they originated in Hindoostan.

  1. A reproachful name for a dark complexion.
  2. A name of slight reproach to a woman; sometimes implying artifice or cunning.

A slave I am to Clara’s eyes:

The gipsey knows her power and flies.

GIP’SEY, n. The language of the gipseys.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Slavery and the Holocaust: Two Points for Non-Romani Authors to Not Forget

A question that has frequently been posed to me by Gadje (non-Romani) authors is how to write Romani characters into their books.  This question in itself merits an entire article to it, but, for the moment, I will share one aspect of Romani culture that tends to be overlooked by horror and fantasy writers, (whose genres tend to be the main ones portraying Roma in them.)

There are two major events that, to grasp the modern Romani mindset and thereby effectively write Romani characters, cannot be ignored—slavery and the Holocaust.

Europe has a documented history of using Roma as slaves almost from the time that they arrived there.  I was once asked to list which countries did this.  I replied that, to be perfectly honest, it would take less time to list which countries did not do it.  Of course, slaves weren’t always titled as “slaves.”  Euphemisms may occasionally be employed to make the slave-owners (and their descendants) feel more comfortable about said cruelty, but, in the end, if there is a sum of money exchanged for the bondage of a human being, the term is not as relevant as the attached agony.

As I am myself a Romani-American, I will enlighten audiences a bit on the subject of the origins of so many of my brothers and sisters on this continent today.

Contrary to the beliefs of many, the first slaves to be brought from to the “New World,” were not African.  Instead, they were Gitanos (Spanish Roma) carried over by none other than Christopher Columbus himself on his second voyage in 1498.  King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella’s infamous Christian Reconquista had, years earlier, labeled the Roma, along with the Jews and the Moors, as undesirables that would no longer be welcome in Spain.  By royal decree, all Roma were ordered to choose a master.  For those that refused, this was the beginning of a long and bloody history of Gitano persecution.  During upcoming centuries, not only would their Hindu-based religion be banned, but their traditional clothing and language as well.  They would, on pain of death, be bred with non-Roma in efforts to dilute their bloodlines and make them “more Spanish.”  Those who not unpredictably preferred the nomadic route, and sometimes even those who had settled, could be rounded up and shipped to both the Americas and to Africa.

In the 17th century, under Oliver Cromwell, the UK was no better in this regard.  People even mistaken for being Romani could be shipped off to the American colonies, Jamaica, and Barbados under the title of “indentured servant.”  A pretty myth about this status is that, after serving the length of your proclaimed sentence, you would simply be set free.  Oh no.  Much to the contrary, in fact.  It took precious little to have the sentence extended, such as the allegation by one’s master that the servant had been too lazy for the master to get their money’s worth.  This grim reality was particularly true for women, who, if impregnated during their sentence, would have their sentences extended for many years.  The children born during the “indenture” were, in turn, the property of the owner, sometimes for decades, even if the owner had himself fathered them.  Romani women, who, from one end of Europe to the other, had a history of being used like cattle for breeding purposes, could therefore be held legally in perpetuity, so long as their masters ensured that, through rape, they produced enough children.  This was, by no means, a brief historical horror.  The UK was still shipping the Roma off to Caribbean plantations to be slaves a century later.

Similar laws and practices abounded throughout Europe, but there was nowhere where the Roma endured slavery quite in the same fashion as they did modern-day Romania.  A common misconception is that Romani and Romanian are the same ethnic group.  No.  One is of Indian origin, (mainly from Rajasthan, Punjab, Sindh, and Haryana;) the other is Balkan European.  Nonetheless, the Romani have been part of Romanian society since roughly the 12th century.  There are different theories as to how they became slaves in the ancient kingdoms of Moldavia, Transylvania, and Wallachia.  The only thing that does remain very clear is that the slavery took hold extremely quickly after this particular branch of Europeans met with the Roma.  It was soon fully institutionalized and no less brutal than the one in the United States.  It continued for five hundred years until, after much effort from Romanian abolitionists, it was finally snuffed out in 1864.  At its end, a large portion of the freed slaves fled the country and, today, many Romani-Americans are the descendants of this particular exodus.

Romani Slaves 1862

(Above, a Romanian Romani family two years prior to the end of slavery.  Many slaves lived their lives in tents, as portrayed above.)

A Prime Lot of Gypsies to Be Sold

(Above, a notice advertising an upcoming auction of enslaved Romani men, women, and children.)

Suffice to say, in fact, whether it be from the UK or from Romania, slavery and escape from slavery were the two main driving forces beyond the majority of Romani-American families being here in the USA at all.  These concepts would be followed by a constant drive to escape the other persecutions of Europe—from which Romani immigrants are still fleeing to the US and Canada today….

For the Romani who stayed in Romania after slavery ended, life was predictably bleak.  During slavery, a Romanian term for a runaway slave translates in English to “incomplete one,” meaning that only a Romani person who was of inferior intellect would not wish to be a slave.  This deeply-ingrained belief in the mental inferiority of freed Romani people continued the economic and scholastic crippling of upcoming generations.  In a country which had previous allowed any White man, whether he owned her or not, to rape any Romani woman that he encountered, the myth of the hypersexual Romani seductress continued as well.  And, to this day, Romani women are more likely in certain areas—(Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia,)—to be targeted for human trafficking than White women, partially because of this.

So, to authors seeking to write Romani characters, that’s a huge chunk of history that is still, however much mainstream European society has sought to sweep it under the rug, very much part of the Romani mindset.  Most Roma you encounter are not only quite aware that we have a significant past as slaves in Europe and the Americas, but that, if we were to ask people on the street about it, ninety-nine percent of them would have no idea that it had ever even happened at all.  We are also aware that, once educated, a huge portion of listeners would be of the “get over it” belief system.  According to mainstream society, our history has profoundly little value.  It is not unusual, when we highlight what happened to our ancestors, for us to simply be called liars.  Yet again, that erases the culpability of the oppressors and, especially in Eastern European countries where, to this day, Romani poverty and lack of education are very major problems, people do not want to understand the true process as to how these conditions came to be.  Yet it is undeniable that post-slavery mistreatment, based on the mindset of slave ownership, remains a key factor to this day.

Another simple fact that I like to point out to people is this: those from Romania who were born in slavery lived to see the Nazis take power.  And any Romani person from Romania that was under the age of seventy-five or so, who that was murdered in the concentration camps was the child, grandchild, or great-grandchild of human beings that had been born with the label of being White people’s “property.”

Those who question today, “Why can’t the Roma just pick themselves back up and integrate with mainstream society?” have to understand that, after slavery occurred, there was very little opportunity for the community to organize itself.  Massive PTSD from the tortures of enslavement aside, the general population went out of its way to ensure that Roma people did not have equal job opportunity.  Even now, throughout Eastern Europe, Romani children are frequently kept in segregated schools for the mentally handicapped.  Based on their skin color, they are denied a fair chance at life’s opportunity’s from essentially day one as part of government policy.

And what Romani-led organization to lift the community up there was, in many areas, was then obliterated by the Holocaust.  Psychologically and economically speaking, there was just not enough of a gap between slavery and the mass murder of our people to get ourselves firmly on our feet.

Maria Bihari

(Above, a Romani victim of the Holocaust.)

And about that Romani Holocaust, which most outsiders know next to nothing about, exactly how bad was it?  Most articles that do reference it are badly researched and place the estimate of our dead at a mere few thousand.  The reality is that it might be as high as one and a half million.  Deaths of Roma were not always recorded and, when they were, they were not always recorded as being Roma; rather than as Jews.  As a Romani woman myself, I lean far towards believing the one and a half million figure for the simple reason that every Romani person that I’ve ever met whose family was in Europe, (short of the UK,) during that time period has the same story that I do: their people were almost entirely, if not completely, obliterated.

Romani women from Lublin Ghetto

(Above, Romani Holocaust victims in the Lublin Ghetto.)

 

Romani Holocaust Victims

(Romani Holocaust victims.)

In all my life, I have never once had a Romani friend from my own tribal background.  My ancestors were slaves in Romania that escaped to what is today’s Czech Republic.  During the Holocaust, it is said that only around six hundred Roma from the entire Czech region survived the war.  That equates to ninety to ninety-five percent of the entire country’s known Romani population being murdered.  Consequently, my tribe, in books, has been called “extinct.”  Many Roma that I encounter have not even heard of our tribe before, as the Roma that currently live in Czech Republic mainly immigrated from other countries after World War II.

I recently published a story, “Shades of Equality,” in UnBound Emagazine.

UnBound 4

https://www.kalaage.net/issue/67/issue_1505143424105

The story deals with the current treatment of the Romani people in Slovakia; how they endure hate crimes, neo-Nazism, school segregation, forced sterilization, poverty, arranged marriage, and so-called “Roma walls,” which are built to keep Romani and White communities separate.  As UnBound Emagazine is now being promoted by the publishing platform, Kalaage, I was soon contacted by Kalaage with an offer to put one of my thousand-word short stories in September’s edition of Ink Drift Magazine—another of their featured literary enterprises.

https://www.kalaage.net/

This was quite a thrill, as this particular issue also showcased an article on writing horror novels by my very good friend, Aindrila Roy, the best-selling author of “I See You,” as well as an interview with the well-known Romani author-activist, Oksana Marafioti.  Several other prominent writers–some I knew; some I didn’t–were making appearances and giving feedback on our craft.  And it’s definitely when you are in such good company that you know you have the most to lose by turning in something below par.

Cast

Ultimately, I was determined to write something about the Holocaust’s legacy—mainly because the readership from UnBound Emagazine has been incredibly receptive to authentic Romani portrayals, our true history, and not expected any of the usual “Gypsy” stereotypes that plague us.  As they are published out of Mumbai, I can even occasionally throw in a word or two from our language, Romanes, and feel quite confident that the majority of those reading will know what I’m saying—something that I certainly could not expect from a European or American publication.

But how to talk about the Holocaust in one thousand words?  In a short story format, no less?

Romani Holocaust Victim

(Another Romani Holocaust victim.)

Well, I thought first that I would discuss Lety—the concentration camp for Bohemian Roma, which has long been the center of the spotlight as activists have had to wage their own war to bring an end to its usage as a pig farm.

Lety

(Lety Concentration Camp for Bohemian Roma.)

Those Roma who did not die in Lety were shipped directly to Auschwitz.  Did I have relatives in Lety?  Through my paternal g-grandmother’s side, probably.  There was never contact with a single one of them after World War II.  One could argue that the silence speaks for itself.

But, as I sat to type, I had to note that there was another concentration camp—Hodonin—which was, like Lety, run by Czechs, not Germans, and had set itself to the task of either personally killing or sending its thousands of surviving victims on to Auschwitz.  As with Lety, Hodonin is another probable place for my family to have died or been transferred from.

Hodonin

(Hodonin Concentration Camp for Moravian Roma.)

So what was the unheard story of Hodonin?  In the average Holocaust film, one sees some semblance of the Nazis being brought down in the end.  This was far from the case for the camps designed for Romani extermination though.  Their guards were not prosecuted.  They did not even have to hide their identities.  They lived in the same communities that they grew up in, with all their neighbors fully knowing them for the murdering bastards they were…and choosing to overlook it because, after all, the dead were “just Gypsies.”

Rather than being turned into a memorial, Hodonin received a reaction from the local populace every bit as disrespectful to the dead as Lety’s pig farm—arguably, more-so.  Its site became a recreational center.  One of the former barracks of the Romani prisoners was turned into a restaurant.  A swimming pool for White tourists to play in was erected where people, only decades earlier, because of the color of their skin fought to not succumb to starvation, complications from Czech-enforced slave labor, and typhoid.

https://www.inkdrift.com/issues/

To be perfectly honest, when I submitted the story, “The Fountain of Youth,” about Hodonin, I very well would not have been surprised if it had been refused acceptance by Ink Drift simply because the details that I was having to squeeze into the tiny word count were almost too inhumane to believe—not because the Holocaust had happened, but because of the government’s reaction after the war was over.  That so many locals could, without being able to use the excuse of the Nazis being in power, treat the genocide of their country’s ethnic minority so cavalierly that you could literally walk into a place and order lunch where people died….it simply raised the question, “How could they live with themselves?”

But this is the reality of being Romani.  However much it has been romanticized in literature, ours is, while a proud culture, in many ways not one possessing a history to be envied.  What most Romani worldwide today long for is when that history—the truth of it—will no longer be ignored.

So, writers, the next time that you ask a Romani person for advice on how to include a Romani character in your books, here’s what I would say: do your research first.  Learn what we’ve been through.  Learn what we are still going through.  And, after you’ve done that, then ask the question, do you really want to be the kind of person to portray a caricature or a human being with genuine depth, who just happens to come from a different racial background?  The one is easy and may indeed earn you readers.  But the books that stand the test of time are forged from quality, not clichés.  And, when you ask your questions, a Romani person’s response may very well be, “Are you writing a pot-boiler or actual literature?”