Twenty ‘Gypsy’ Women You Should Be Reading
June is Roma and Traveller History Month, which began as an effort to educate people about these culturally rich, diverse, vibrant, oppressed, underrepresented, and misunderstood ethnic groups most commonly referred to as “Gypsies.” Let’s start with the word. Gypsy: the less-accurate term that gadjé (Rromanes for non-Romani people) use to refer to Roma, an ethnic group originating in India around the 11th century. After leaving India, Roma traveled West and were met by hostile, xenophobic Europeans, and so became nomadic due to persecution. Although many Roma are settled today and live all over the world, discrimination, hate crimes, and apartheid are ever-present. Travellers, sometimes known as “Tinkers,” are also traditionally nomadic and historically and presently suffer the same stigma and oppression that Roma suffer; however, they are of Irish ethnic origin and have their own culture and language and tend to live in Ireland and the U.K.
Over time, Gypsy became a racial slur, especially in the lowercase “gypsy,” and antigypsyist language is normalized in many languages. In American-English, for example, antigypsyist slurs are idiomatic (eg: That shopkeeper gypped me!). Racial slurs for Roma and Travellers include “Gypsy,” Gyppo,” “Gyp,” and for Travellers specifically, “Pikey” and “Knacker.” Despite this, Gypsy is often appropriated by gadjé and misused to describe anything occult, whimsical, sexual, or criminal, which both perpetuates harmful stereotypes and insultingly implies that “being Gypsy” is a lifestyle choice or a state of mind or spirit. This is particularly problematic considering the current global Romani and Traveller human rights crisis. However, some Roma and Travellers choose to reclaim Gypsy as an act of linguistic and identity empowerment, whereas some Roma, especially of the older generations (like my grandmother) just prefer Gypsy. If you aren’t Romani or Traveller, use Roma and Romani or Traveller instead of Gypsy or any other slurs, and if you are Romani or Traveller, you’re free to reclaim or shun the word Gypsy as you see fit.
Many Roma today are assimilated– some because they have the financial ability to hide their ethnicity, and others because the culture was dampened long ago by genocide or political tragedy. Some lose entire veins of Romanipen (The Gypsy Ways), from dress to religion, in an effort to fit in unnoticed, while others quietly preserve their heritage in the privacy of their own homes. Either way, most are secret-keepers, hiding their heritage for fear of losing their jobs, rights, and safety. In the wake of this silence, we are bombarded by Romani and Traveller misrepresentation in the media. Mainly, we get the stereotype archetypes: the Sexy Gypsy, The Magical Gypsy, and the Criminal Gypsy.
More recently, we have reality TV nonsense that, as a friend puts it, “is a cross between The Jersey Shore and My Super Sweet Sixteen” that’s trying to pass itself off as a cultural documentary. When my grandmother saw My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding for the first time, she called me and laughed. “But these aren’t Gypsies! That’s not how we are. Those girls are something else.” Then she grew quiet. “Who are those people?” she asked. Before I could answer, she asked another question that made my breath heavy. “It’s been so long since I’ve had a community. Is that how Gypsies are now?” My grandmother fled post WWII Germany fifty years ago and settled in New Hampshire, without her family, after half of Europe’s Romani population was extinguished in the Holocaust. I shouldn’t have had to reassure her that it was yet another misrepresentation of her culture, but assimilation, exile, and secrecy alienates a person from her own blood, especially when the dominant culture insists on fictionalizing its minorities.
This is why the Romani arts scene is so important. It’s more than cultural enrichment; it’s necessary representation to educate outsiders, to connect the disconnected, and to voice the unheard. The majority of the real Roma and Travellers in the media are in the news. If they aren’t victims of racist reporting, then they are victims of wildly racist politicians or severe poverty. There are images of Roma pushed into slums by the government, living barefoot in cobbled-together shacks with no running water, electricity, or sanitation. These news articles revealing spotlighting poverty and victimization are important, essential even to our fight for human rights world-wide, but the representation is imbalanced. There are no real popular culture touchstones of ‘Gypsyness’ that Roma and Travellers can point to and say, “See, we’re like that. That’s so Gypsy.”
I often meet grown men and women who are shocked that ‘Gypsies’ are not fantasy creatures of the mermaid and unicorn ilk. This is why I’m nervous to tell new people about my heritage lest they think it’s cool to tell me about the one time they went to Europe and were scared out of their wits by their tour guide’s warnings of “Gypsy thieves,” which, as far as the tour guide is concerned, is a redundant phrase. But this is the age of Opre Roma (Roma rising up), and with this surge of Romani professionals, writers, and artists, things are surely changing.
There is a common misconception that Roma and Travellers have no written language, but of course, we do. There are many different Romani clans (Sinti, Manouche, Lovara, Kalderash, etc.) and each clan has its own dialect of Rromanes, but all of the dialects find their roots in Sanskrit. There are also rumors that Rromanes is somehow linguistically impoverished, that we don’t have words for “tomorrow,” “beauty,” “truth,” “possession” and many other essential human concepts. Dr. Ian Hancock, Romani Studies and Linguistic professor at University of Texas—Austin, corrects these rumors in “Duty and Beauty, Possession and Truth: the Claim of Lexical Impoverishment as Control.” Most of these rumors of a fake culture were started by members of The Gypsy Lore Society, Victorian men who fetishized Gypsies to the point that “bedding a Gypsy woman” was a necessary qualification for membership. Language is what allows us to express our humanity, and when a language is degraded, so are the humans it purportedly represents. As a matter of fact, Roma and Travellers have a long and vibrant oral tradition, and storytelling remains an honored and respected trade. Both Rromanes and Cant, the Traveller language, are highly metaphorical. In Rromanes, “I love you” can be directly translated to “I eat your heart” or “I eat your belly.” To say someone overdosed, you would say, “Cocaine ate his head.” Writers and storytellers find the poetic-logic of the language endlessly inspiring, and as such, the mother-tongues lend themselves organically to stories and poems.
Story-telling and autobiography are closely linked in Romani and Traveller literature. Scottish Traveller Betsey Whyte is known for her two volume of autobiography The Yellow on the Broom and Red Rowans and Wild Honey, whereas other storytellers have narrated their life stories for gadjé writers to transcribe for them, such as Irish Traveller Nan Joyce, author of My Life on the Road with Anna Farmar. The book Gypsy Folk Tales, edited by Diane Tong, is an impressive collection of tales gathered from Romani story tellers all over the world. However, the storytelling tradition is dying out, particularly as Roma and Travellers lose their languages. In the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere, governments have made a habit of removing Romani and Traveller children from their parents and transferring them to orphanages where the language is beaten out of them. Historically, legislation across Europe has also prohibited Roma from speaking with their true tongues. Native Americans as well as other indigenous groups oppressed by the colonizers have also been subjected to language-killing. And we know that systemic racism takes its toll on literacy rates too, which are very low among Roma and Travellers world-wide. Many Romani and Traveller children across Europe are automatically segregated into special education to keep them away from the gadjé students and because it’s assumed that they’re mentally challenged. In the U.S., Europe, and other countries, if they are permitted to attend school alongside gadjé children, they are often bullied so badly by both teachers and peers that their parents keep them home. There are also cultural challenges: Romani and Traveller culture is very insular with strict purity laws that gadjé don’t practice, and parents worry about that their children will lose their cultural values and be exposed to harmful ideologies, unclean practices, etc. in school. The combination of exclusion and fear of assimilation has made formal education and literacy a low priority, and so Romani and Traveller communities have met their own literary movements with ambivalence.
And yet, so many Roma and Travellers have the deep and persistent desire to write, create, and speak, and so they do. Some write in their mother tongue, some in their adopted languages, as most Roma and Travellers are at least bilingual. There are challenges to overcome on the path to mainstream representation: translation, organization, and accessibility. There are practically no Romani or Traveller writers included in “the great literary canon” and too few Romani and Traveller writers are translated into English and other languages or featured in critical theory, so as you can imagine, it’s a burgeoning field with the opportunity for discovery and real ground-breaking scholarship. There are not a lot of presses that champion Romani or Traveller work, but a handful, such as KHER in the Czech Republic, have sprung up across the world. Although Roma and Travellers struggle to unify politically, artistically, or otherwise, the Internet and social media are making it easier for this to happen, and so it happens. Efforts like the Romani Library Project, which sought to translate, publish, and distribute contemporary Romani writing too often suffer from lack of funding and interest, but the work they do is crucial and makes Romani and Traveller literature that bit more accessible.
And while I spend a lot of time on my soap box bellowing that Roma and Travellers are just human, as a storyteller and a poet, I will say that some of the most beautiful, dark, and hauntingly fantastic stories I’ve ever heard or read have been from Gypsies. It’s a world-view that outsiders would never be able to reach on their own, and I feel this poignantly as a not-quite-white looking girl who grew up knowing that, way back, her Gypsy ancestors sailed up and down the Danube from Germany to Hungary, working as dancers and fortune tellers in the riparian towns before the war tore everything to shreds. Their lives were not idyllic, but the stories my grandmother told were beautiful. I would hold them close to my chest when I was stoned at school, or given detention for “witchcraft and the evil eye” in a town where there were no Gypsies, where my mother and grandmother routinely referred to the Gypsy community (some abstract thing I imagined) as “they” instead of “we.” I worried about my “percentage of Gypsy” and whether or not it was enough to claim. The few practices my grandmother kept and passed down to me didn’t make sense until I began to research my own people when I was a teenager and realized that alienation is also inheritance. I found Papusza, the Mother of Romani poetry and an omen of exile and connection. I stepped into the river-mouth of my blood.
Nina Dudarova—(1903-1977), born in Russia, she is among the first Roma to publish her writing. Although there may have been singular earlier attempts, many scholars hold the opinion that Roma literature started in the 1920s in Russia, and it is safe to say that it did so impressively. In Russia, as early as in the 18th century, a cultural elite of Roma had come into existence. After the Revolution, representatives of this former musical and artistic elite, who in the past had been closely associated with high society in the former Russian Empire, were the first to gather under the banners of the new “proletarian” ideology. Ivan Rom-Lebedev (1903-1989), Nikolai Pankov (1895-1959), Nina Dudarova Maxim Besljudsko (1901-1989), Alexander Germano (1893-1955), and others wrote fiction, compiled dictionaries and textbooks, translated Russian literature into Romani, and wrote plays that were published in the years between 1925 and 1938, with active support of the Soviet state.
Olga Pankova— (1911-1983) Russian Romani Pankova wrote one of the first Romani literary works written by a woman, a collection of verses titled Amaré Divesa (Our Days), published in Moscow in 1933. She also wrote for the journal Novyi Put’ and translated Puškin’s prose and poetry into Rromanes.
Papusza—(Bronislawa Wajs, 1908-1987) Papusza (doll) is a Romani poet from Poland and as one of the first women to publish her writing, she is considered the Mother of Romani poetry. She survived the Holocaust by hiding in the forest and much of her poetry reflects on that time, most famously, “Tears of Blood.” Literate gadjé neighbors taught her to read, and though her family and community severely disapproved, she persevered. Jerry Ficowski discovered her in 1949 performing her songs with her husband, a violinist, and encouraged her to write them down. He translated and published her poetry in a magazine that supported the force settlement of Poland’s Roma, and her work became associated with the political movement to ghettoize the Roma. Because of this breach of trust, her community declared her marime and she was exiled. She spent great periods of her life in silence and died disgraced. However, her work lives on, and though only thirty-one of her poems have been recorded, she is one of the most important figures in Romani literature.
Philomena Franz—(1922) A Sinti Holocaust survivor born in Biberach an der Riss. She writes Romani tales and organizes literary events at schools where she lives in Rosrath near Cologne. She was the first Sinti woman to be awarded Germany’s highest prize, the Federal Cross for Merits for her “activities endeavoring after understanding and conciliation.”
Elena Lacková— (1921-2003) Slovakian Romani poet, story writer, and playwright born in Velky Šariš region. She has written several plays, novels, and stories about the Romani Holocaust experience. Her plays have been shown in Romani theatres since the 1950s and her short stories “Dead are not Coming Back,” “White Ravens,” and “Life in the Wind” were published in magazines and the Romani newspaper Romano Nevo Lil. She was awarded the Chatam Sofer medal from Pavol Mestan, director of the Museum of Jewish Culture in Bratislava, for her documentation of the consequences of Holocaust on the Romani community.
Hedina Tahirović Sijerčić—(1960) born in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, she is a journalism graduate, a writer, a poet, an educator, and the first Bosnian television and radio presenter and producer of Romani origin. She served as the Editor-in-Chief of the first Canadian-Romani newsletter “Romano Lil” from 1998 till 2001. She is the winner of “The golden pen of Papusza” literary prize, and the author of the prize-winning poetry collections How God made the Roma and Ašun, haćar dukh (Listen, feel pain). She presently lives in Germany.
Cecilia Woloch— (1956) Born in Kentucky, Woloch is an American- Carpathian Romani writer and poet with an MFA from Antioch University in Los Angeles. She is a freelance creative writing teacher, leading workshops for children and youth, for teachers, professional writers, participants in social programs and residents of a shelter for homeless women, as well as writing retreats in Istanbul, Paris, and Los Angeles. Her poetry collection, Tsigan: The Gypsy Poem explores the Romani journey and identity, and the forces that have shaped the Roma people’s fate and fortunes. She is also the author of Carapathia, Late, Narcissus, and Sacrifice. Her honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, Chateau de La Napoule Retreat for Artists, and the Isaac W. Bernheim Foundation. Website: http://ceciliawoloch.squarespace.com/
Louise Doughty—Born in England in the East Midlands, Doughty is the author of seven novels, including the recently published Apple Tree Yard. Her first novel, Crazy Paving (1995), was shortlisted for four awards including the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. Her sixth novel, Whatever You Love (2010) was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Her fourth novel, the internationally acclaimed Fires in the Dark (2003) is based on the history of the Romani people and her own family ancestry. She’s also the author of award-winning radio drama and short stories, as well as the non-fiction book, A Novel in a Year, based on her popular newspaper column. She is a critic and cultural commentator for UK and international newspapers and broadcasts regularly for the BBC and writes for The Guardian, The Independent, the Daily Telegraph, and The Mail on Sunday. She lives in London. Twitter handle: @DoughtyLouise; Website: http://louisedoughty.com/
Mariella Mehr— (1947) Born in Switzerland, Mehr is a poet, novelist, and dramatist belonging to the Yeniche, a nomadic group with Scottish Traveller origins. She identifies with the Romani people and champions the causes of outsiders and oppressed minorities. She was a victim of the government project, Hilfswerk für die Kinder der Landstrasse (“Relief Organisation for Rural Street Children”), which separated Yeniche children from their parents. Mehr was moved between sixteen orphanages and three reformatories as a child. She was committed to a mental institution four times and spent nineteen months in a women’s prison. She is one of the founders of the “International Romani Writer’s Association” (IRWA) in Helsinki which was dissolved in 2008 due to lack of interest by Roma writers and Roma in general. Her debut novel, “Steinzeit” (Stoneage, 1981), was met with high acclaim which, 14 books later, has only grown, and in 1998, her work was recognized with an honorary doctorate from the University of Basel. Her poetry, translated into English, is featured in The Roads of the Roma: a PEN anthology of Gypsy Writers.
Luminiţa Mihai Cioabă—(1957) She is the best-known Romani prose writer and poet in Romania, where she was born. Her poetry has a close kinship with traditional Roma songs, and is featured The Roads of the Roma: a PEN anthology of Gypsy Writers. Her book of short stories, The Lost Country, is a volume of traditional tales more or less as told to her by her grandmother, as she has described it; but fleshed-out, breathed-in, and from a woman’s perspective, told by internal narrators, usually old grannies to young women entering the world. The title story is a fable of why the Gypsies must always be on the road with no home, while others represent other aspects of the Romani experience: violence, magic, music, dance, but through a mythic lens. Cioabă’s poetry collections include Earth’s Root and The Rain Merchant. She has been honored with literary awards in Romania and Italy.
Oksana Marafioti— (1974) Oksana Marafioti is an American writer, classically trained pianist, and cinematographer born in the USSR of Greek, Armenian, and Russian Romani descent. Her fiction and non-fiction has appeared in The Perpetual Engine of Hope, an anthology featuring stories written by seven Las Vegas writers, Fairy Tale Review, Slate, NPR, and other publications. Her critically acclaimed memoir, American Gypsy, follows her experiences in the former Soviet Union and her emigration to the United States as a fifteen-year-old just before the breakup of the USSR.
Paola Schöpf— (1953), also called Kiriassa (Cherry), was born in Bolzano, Italy. At age eleven, as a result of family tragedy, she was given shelter at a college in Verona where she was meant to study to become a teacher. Before she completed her exams, however, she left to return to her family in the South Tyrol in Northern Italy. She belongs to a group of musically talented Sinti Estekharja from Austria. Her poems, written in Italian, have appeared in the anthology edited by Alexian Santino Spinello, published each year to represent the best submissions to the international Amico Rom competition.
Margita Reiznerová—(1945) is a writer who publishes in the Romani language. She was born in Slovakia, but moved to Prague, where she writes primarily poetry and prose fairy tales. Along with a group of fellow authors, she was inspired to work for an early Roma periodical, Romano Lived (Romany List) in 1970. In 1989, she cofounded the Association of Roma Authors and contributed several poems to Kale Rose along with a prose tale, Le Gendalos Names of Roma (Mirror Roma). In 1992 she wrote a fairy tale,“Kali.”She also wrote a collection of poems entitled Suno (Dreams). From 1991-1994, she worked as the editor of the Romany Mirror and published additional poems in Amaro Lav and Romano Dzaniben. She worked as a nurse for many years and currently resides in Belgium.
Sterna Weltz-Zigler— was born in Avignon, France and grew up in a caravan in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. As a young woman, she made a living selling dolls of wickerwork in the marketplace. She moved to Paris and found a second home in Montmartre, where she felt she could be at once settled and free. She has been writing poems since 14 and has never lost the need to write. Her publications include the collection Romanes, from which the poem featured in Roads of the Roma: a PEN Anthology of Gypsy Writers is taken, and a memoir entitled My Gypsy Secrets. She is also the founder of a music group called Rumberos, where she recites her poems accompanied by four Gypsy guitarists. She lives in Paris with her husband Torino Zigler, a Romani painter, with whom she has collaborated on many projects.
Diana Norma Szokolyai—is a young Hungarian-American writer/performance artist of Hungarian and Romani descent. She is Executive Artistic Director of Cambridge Writers’ Workshop, where she teaches and organizes Writing and Yoga retreats in France for adult writers. Her writing on literary communities was recently the subject of a monthly feature on HER KIND by VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts and Quail Bell Magazine. She author of the poetry collections Parallel Sparrows (honorable mention for Best Poetry Book in the 2014 Paris Book Festival) and Roses in the Snow (first runner-up Best Poetry Book at the 2009 DIY Book Festival). In 2011, The Brooklyn Art House Co-op digitized her handwritten chapbook, Blue Beard Remixed & Poems, written for The Fiction Project. Her writing has also been published in Lyre Lyre, the front page of The Boston Globe, Dr. Hurley’s Snake Oil Cure, Teachers as Writers, Polarity, Up the Staircase, Belltower & the Beach, Human Rights News, and Area Zinc Art Magazine, among others. She has released recordings of audio poetry in collaboration with musicians Dennis Shafer, Sebastian Wesman, David Krebs, Peter James, Howl Quartet, and Project 5 a.m. She also co-curates a poetry-music series, performs in CHAGALL PAC and is an interdisciplinary performance artist with the Brooklyn Soundpainting Ensemble. Her interdisciplinary work has been called “avant-garde” by The Boston Globe. She lives in Brooklyn, NY and was educated at Harvard, UConn, AMI, La Sorbonne Paris III and IV, and in her grandmother’s kitchen in Hungary. Website: http://diananorma.com/; Twitter handle: @DNSWrites
Nadia Hava-Robbins—born in Czechoslovakia, is a Romani writer/performer and holds a Master’s degree. She has studied dance (classical, modern, ethnic, folk, historical, and ballroom) since the age of four, culminating in her acceptance to the National Ballet Theater of Prague, and continuing in the USA after emigrating in 1968. She has performed dance, poetry, storytelling, puppetry, and magic (and integrated combinations of these) in major cities and festivals across the USA and Canada, and appeared in a documentary produced by the National Film Board of Canada. She is founder and artistic director of the Traveling Bohemians, originally in Honolulu, HI, and now in Redding, CA for over 10 years, creating and presenting eclectic performances of music, dance, spoken word, and art. She teaches, dances in, and directs Eclectica Dance Company in Redding, devoted to interpretive, sacred, folk, ethnic, and period dance, and also teaches Meditative Movement. She is a nationally and internationally published poet, and founder and editor of the Bohemian Press.
Tera Fabianova—(1930-2007) born in a Romani village in Slovakia. She’s been described as a “born poet,” despite the fact that she left school at eleven, she was fluent in four languages, and her poetry and stories celebrated for their lyrical qualities. She wrote in Rromanes, Czech, and Hungarian. She wrote for Románo l’il (Romani Letter), which ran from 1969 and 1973 as the magazine of the Sväz Cikánů-Romů (Union of Gypsy-Roma) in Prague.
Katarina Taikon-Langhammer— (1932-1995) was a Swedish Romani writer and actress, from the Kalderash caste. She was best known for writing the series of books Katitzi, partly autobiographical; in 1979, a TV series based on the books was produced). She died of brain damage after falling into a coma following an accident.
Caren Gussoff— Romani-American sci-fi and fantasy writer, she is the author of the short story collection, Sight Unseen, which maps the tangled webs of love, dependency and identity among a cast of fragile, bruised characters: dying recluse is torn between her mother and the pursuit of pain and a younger sister unleashes a terrible revenge when her virginity is traded for drugs. Kirkus Reviews writes,”Gussoff has a good eye for detail…A tautly written, haunting tale of loneliness, alienation, and lost hopes and dreams.” Scotland on Sunday writes that she “deals insightfully and unsentimentally with the issues the Jerry Springer show frequently airs, showing how seemingly normal families nourish the impulse for self-destruction.” She currently lives in Seattle. Twitter handle: @spitkitten
Irena Eliášová—The poet, playwright and novelist Irena Eliášová spent her early childhood in a Romany village in south-western Slovakia. The memory of this time has become the defining experience in her writing. She writes about the lost world of her childhood in the 1950s and 60s and the life of Roma in the Czech Republic today. Her work is permeated with a sense of family and community that also draws us back to an older world of Roma tradition, and her childhood days in Slovakia are the subject of her short novel, Naše osada (Our Settlement) published in 2008.
Jessica Reidy earned her MFA in Fiction at Florida State University and a B.A. from Hollins University. Her work has appeared in Narrative Magazine as Short Story of the Week, The Los Angeles Review, Arsenic Lobster, and other journals. She’s a Pushcart nominee, staff-writer for Quail Bell Magazine, the Social Media Outreach Assistant for VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, Art Editor for The Southeast Review, and visiting professor for The Cambridge Writers’ Workshop Yoga & Writing Retreat at the Château de Verderonne, France (Aug 7-20, 2014). She teaches creative writing and yoga, and runs GypsyRepresent, a blog dedicated to Romani culture, representation, and activism. She’s a mixed-heritage Gypsy-American and used to work her family’s trades, fortune-telling and dancing, through school. Reidy is currently working on her first novel set in post-WWII Paris about Coco Charbonneau, a half-Romani burlesque dancer and fortune teller of Zenith Circus, who becomes a Nazi hunter. For more, visit jessicareidy.com