Welcome to another Expanded Universe column where I feature essays from authors and editors of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, as well as from established readers and reviewers. My guest today is Jessica Reidy. Reidy attended Florida State University for her MFA in Fiction and holds a B.A. from Hollins University. Her work is Pushcart-nominated and her poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction have appeared in Narrative Magazine as Short Story of the Week, The Los Angeles Review, The Missouri Review, and other journals. She’s Managing Editor for VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, Art Editor for The Southeast Review, Visiting Professor for the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop retreats, Outreach Editor for Quail Bell Magazine. She works as a freelance writer, teacher, consultant, and editor; a yoga instructor specializing in creativity, trauma, and pain management; and works her Romani (Gypsy) family trades, fortune telling, energy healing, and dancing. Jessica is currently writing her first novel set in post-WWII Paris about Coco Charbonneau, the half-Romani burlesque dancer and fortune teller of Zenith Circus, who becomes a Nazi hunter. You can check her out online at her website. Part One of her essay on Romani and Fantasy is featured this week; Part Two will run next week.
In America, I find that, more often than not, the racism I experience is predicated on the idea that my Romani heritage is not a heritage at all, but rather, that we’re lifestyle criminals, or drifters, or storybook creatures akin to vampires or elves. We wield curses, steal children for nefarious purposes, tell the future, cast enchantments, and play tricks of seduction to take innocent white folks for every red cent they have.
Whereas in Europe, the racism I experience has a hard Fascist edge — shops with “No Gypsies Allowed” signs in their windows, political rallies to illegally deport Romani immigrants, hate crimes, segregated classrooms, and other markers of apartheid. Not to say these things don’t happen in the U.S., because they certainly do, but more often than not, in America, I am more likely to be told that my ethnicity is not real, which is all the more problematic considering the presence of anti-Gypsy task forces in American police departments.
Still, the dehumanizing anti-Gypsyism of The U.S. and the vestiges of Fascism Europe come from the same root: the consistent misrepresentation of Roma as non-human in literature, popular culture, and government propaganda. Romani stereotypes have grown beyond literary tropes — they have shaped the way people, including grown men and women, understand or misunderstand us in the real world.
Despite the lack of informed Romani characters in popular culture, the Roma are continuously invoked as colorful, one-dimensional characters in Sci-Fi and Fantasy, more often than not reduced to narrative functions, such as in the work of Philip Pullman, Robert Jordan, and Stephen King. Dr. Ian Hancock, Romani scholar at the University of Texas, Austin, in “The Origin and Function of the Gypsy Image in Children’s Literature” writes:
…Romanies turn up [in literature] with some frequency — never as characters who happen incidentally also to be Gypsies, but because they are Gypsies, and because they serve a specific purpose. This purpose has, broadly speaking, three manifestations: the Gypsy as liar and thief either of property or (especially) of non-Romani children; the Gypsy as witch or caster of spells; and the Gypsy as romantic figure.
I often receive emails from writers either asking me for interviews, not about my writing, but for theirs — they are non-Roma (gadjé) wanting to know what it’s like to be a real Gypsy so they can write their Gypsy characters more authentically. I have reasons why I don’t conduct these interviews, but the route to writing better Romani characters seems self-evident to me: read Romani writers. Be aware of the function of your Romani characters. Are they “incidentally” Gypsies, as Hancock writes? By that I mean, are they colorful scenery or narrative devices that use Romani stereotypes to perpetuate the narrative? Or are they three-dimensional characters in and of themselves whose ethnic identity is incidental, just a facet of their complex personhood? And are you appropriating Romani culture, or are you writing from a place that respectfully acknowledges your role as an outsider? Perhaps you must first honestly ask yourself why you want to write a Romani character. No one can “become” a Gypsy. If you are not a Romani person, then you are not our kindred spirit. I’m sorry, you just aren’t. But we can still be friends and we can all hear each other’s stories.
In the popular podcast The Thrilling Adventure Hour, the supernatural series “Beyond Belief,” tells the story of lovable, drunken high-society couple, Frank and Sadie Doyle, who solve paranormal mysteries. It features thieving, curse-casting Gypsies as one of the many pestilent ghouls they fight off in order to save the day. Complete with bizarre accents, the Gypsies bear the stereotypical trademarks of low-intelligence, amoral behavior, filth, and dangerously magical powers. The narrative hinges on their function — they are not characters, but rather literary devices: the problem to be solved in order to restore peace and normalcy. The functional Gypsies lend an air of mystery and exoticism. They speak of their warring “tribes” (though some anthropologists argue that Romani culture is not tribal but clan-centered), they are passionate and lusty, and their powers are great yet unreasonable.
More disturbingly, the Gypsies’ antics incite the white characters to insult their intelligence and hygiene, pronouncing that the Gypsies “deserve what they get” from the majority community that discriminates against them. Knowing the real context of Romani discrimination, for instance, the present-day, well-supported Fascist Jobbik party in Hungary whose campaign is winning votes with the WWII-reminiscent platform to “eliminate” the country’s Roma, the continuation of these Roma-phobic tropes is particularly damaging. These tropes are no different from, say, the grotesque caricatures of the gold-hoarding Jews or lawn jockey Africans. However, Romani caricatures are still culturally acceptable, whether it’s because of a lack of understanding of who Roma really are or outsiders’ nostalgic attachment to the Fantasy Gypsy in all her functions.
It’s because of this obstinate nostalgia that the contentious word “Gypsy” is still used as romantic shorthand for “exot” or “free-spirit” spanning the genres of pop culture, from fantasy to fashion. It’s as though our ethnicity is just a lovely feeling you can have completely disconnected from our rich culture and our history, both of which are still violently shaped by persecution and our fight for equality. But you won’t be stoned at school and return home with your face bloodied from the playground rocks hurled by your peers because you are a free-spirit. You will not lie about being born a free-spirit, if you can, because you don’t know how even your friends will treat you if they found out. The romance of “the Gypsy life” is something beautiful that outsiders have clung to in order to live out their escapist fantasies — a path to dodge a world that is depressingly real, and one that, frankly, Roma would love to escape too. Perhaps need for escapism is why companies and creators cling to what are inescapably harmful ethnic stereotypes which otherwise seem out-of-step in this age of growing political and cultural awareness. They are defensive of the Gypsy dream and the image it sells.
The very word for us, Gypsy, has become a racial slur (designated by the lowercase gypsy as in the derogatory slang gypped) through these associations. Many Roma prefer the word Roma, which comes from the Sanskrit word for warrior, as our origins in 10th century India were born from the army that, after losing to the invading Muslims, spread West in a diaspora fueled by persecution that continues today. Historically, Roma wander to escape persecution from an oppressive majority that makes our very existence illegal, forcibly sterilizes us, enslaves us, takes away and rehomes our children (solely because of our ethnicity), forms anti-Gypsy police task-forces, ghettoizes us, and commits hate crimes. This persecution is as true in the Americas as it is in Europe.
Herein lies the danger of perpetuating the belief that Roma are not human, not truly people, not truly an ethnic group in the face of the Romani genocide of WWII and our continuing fight for basic human rights. If we are magical creatures, or if being Romani is a “lifestyle choice,” then there is no need to pay reparations to us for the extinguishing of 2 million lives during the Holocaust. There is no need to let us into schools. There is no need to pay any attention to the millions of us below the poverty line, awake at night in dirt-floor huts with no plumbing or clean water, ears pricked for the sounds of drunks lobbing Molotov cocktails into our government mandated Gypsy camps. If we are not real, then there is no need to listen to our stories.