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 Two of her essay on Romani and Fantasy is featured this week; Part One ran last week.
The need for complex and true to life representations of the Roma is dire in the face of our continuous struggle for basic human rights world-wide. As an integral part of the Romani rights movement, Opre Roma! (Roma, rise up!), we need to actively redefine ourselves, and there are plenty of Romani writers doing just that. In fact, the Romani arts movement is an integral part of our activism. The Romani activist slogan, “Nothing about us, without us,” ranges from policy making and educational programs to pop culture representation. And while there are anomalous works of fantasy and sci-fi with informed and well-drawn Romani characters written by gadjé (non-Romani), for example, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, it is even more pressing that we look at Sci-Fi and Fantasy written by Roma themselves.
Genre, however, is where the waters get rough. I would argue, and I am not alone, that the distinctions between realism and magical realism are completely arbitrary and colored entirely by culture perspective. As a Romani writer who regularly uses elements of the Fantastic in my work, I can comfortably say that I do not write magical realism. The Fantastic is real Romani life. One of my all-time favorite stories, “A Wedding in Aushwitz” by Rajko Ðjurić, from an outsider’s perspective, may read as a terrifying fever-dream populated by goddesses and shape-shifters which are simply the last figments of a Romani boy’s imagination while he dies slowly in a concentration camp. But Roma, like many cultures, have a rich folkloric history full of mysticism and ritual that shapes the way we understand our often incomprehensibly horrifying reality. In “A Wedding in Auschwitz,” the narrator speaks of Kali, his dead, omniscient mother who appears to him in dreams. The Hindu Goddess triptych of Kali-Durga-Parvati is very likely the origin of the Romani Goddess of Fate and Chaos, Sara Kali, (aka: Kali Sara, Sara la Kali, Sati-Sara, or if you’re a Catholic Gypsy, St. Sarah). She runs time, the universe’s and ours, and while we have free-will (which is perhaps the element of Chaos) she also dips her hand in the web (the hand of Fate or Fortune). The Hindu Kali is also known as The Terrible Mother because she is a blood-thirsty warrior Goddess, a death Goddess, a ferocious protector, and a liberator of the soul (via Tantric practices). She kills the children she protects, she relieves and causes suffering, she destroys to create. But we trust that she has her reasons and we go to the graveyard (or cremation grounds) at midnight to give up our egos for her to devour (or else, if we arrive and are unwilling to let go, she will devour us). Sara Kali retains some of these traits. She is not gruesome like Kali can be, but she is the mother protector of a violently oppressed people who still suffer monumental atrocities and have done for centuries, since the early Roma’s arrival in Europe. She is the beautiful woman who brought you into the world and will take you out again. What kind of protection is that? Our Wonderful/Terrible Mother is very real to us, and her presence in our lives is no fantasy.
Likewise, shape-shifting spirits (that is, otherworldly entities that can transform themselves or humans into other people, elements, animals, or objects) are very real to us, and reality, as we know, has varying degrees of meaning. I can only speak for myself, but the stories of shape-shifting spirits who roam the earth looking to punish Roma who have strayed from the old ways are a metaphor to understand a world that often (violently) misunderstands me. But I leave offerings to the spirits and recite polite greetings to appease them. I participate in my metaphors. I leave food for the house spirits and my ancestors. I burn white candles. When a wind blows through a sealed room, I am not alarmed, because I have an idea already of who that may be. When Sara Kali comes to me in dreams, I listen. None of this prevents me from participating in reality. It is reality. These themes appear time and time again in Romani writing, and I argue that it would be a mistake to call it Fantasy. That, of course, doesn’t mean that Fantasy enthusiasts can’t enjoy it — instead it means that they can enjoy it with an added dimension of depth. They can learn about the culture that the stories grow out of and trace their diasporic roots.
The Romani writer Caren Gussof-Sumption, featured in VIDA’s “20 ‘Gypsy’ Women you should Be Reading,” writes fiction that comfortably slips into the Sci-Fi/Fantasy realm, but what I love about her work is exactly what outsiders may miss about it. Although little of her work deals directly with race and ethnicity, her stories have everything to do with the experiences of marginalized and exploited people, and the folklore of her own marginalization appears as a vehicle to explore these themes. In Gussof-Sumption’s story, “Black Friday” in Fiction Vortex, the speaker, Tillie, has a shape-shifting condition which she shares with a small percentage of the population. While science struggles to find an explanation or a cure, she struggles through the day-to-day challenges of a young woman who, at moments of stress, involuntarily transforms into an over-large animal, the type of which she is unable to control or predict. The reader follows the line of her despair when she discovers brothels springing up across the country, trading exclusively in her people who find it impossible to lead “normal” assimilated lives. While the speaker’s ethnicity is never mentioned, this theme deepens and darkens when you consider the fact that Romani women are statistically much more vulnerable to human trafficking because of their marginalized position in society, their likelihood to be victims of extreme poverty, and the popular fetishization of Romani women which has roots in the Roma’s history of slavery both in The U.S. and Europe. In light of Roma’s strict taboos surrounding purity, modesty, and sexuality, this terrifying fate is particularly torturous. Tillie obsesses over these brothels, as well as police reports of other shape shifters arrested after disastrous transformations — an enormous hippo crashing through gates, a whale lolling violently and suddenly on dry land. Her college studies are interrupted, and she becomes more and more insular.
Many Roma struggle to walk the line between culture and assimilation, and Tillie’s insularity is a barricade against a dangerous world that literally has no room for her. Roma find this phenomenon too — in order to succeed in whichever home country a Romani person may find herself, she is inevitably required to assimilate. This is particularly difficult when, like other persecuted diasporic cultures, the Roma define themselves and their customs by their separateness from the majority culture. Romani culture is sometimes even insular from the various clans that comprise the Roma as a whole, each with their own distinct traditions and dialect of Rromanès. Because it is dangerous to be among a group that resolutely does not want you, Romani folklore is full of these spirits that use shape-shifting to frighten and punish Roma who have tried to assimilate — they serve as warnings, only pain lies beyond your culture’s boundaries. But in an effort to fight for their people’s rights and to empower themselves, Roma, particularly Romani women, strike uneasy balances between the two worlds that don’t accept each other: the Romani world and the gadjé world. In fact, Roma believe that if you leave the Romani community for too long, your soul sullies and, in some cases, disappears. This feels like an apt description of the effects of trauma, whether from hate crimes ranging from physical violence to sexual assault and trafficking, to other types of discrimination in school, the workplace, and the streets. Often Roma who live and work in the gadjé world feel as though they’ve assumed a shape not their own and forsaken all that they are for an attempt at a better life which is still curtailed by oppression. Both Tillie and the modern Roma are left asking themselves at the end of the day, “But why? Why does this keep happening to us? And how can I possibly make it a strength?”
Imagine all that the reader might miss in this story if she were to overlook real Romani culture and literature, and if she were to listen to the tropes that insist that there is no such thing. If Romani people have a power, it is our story telling: that is how we’ve preserved our ancient and fragile culture, and that is how we will continue to represent our multi-faceted selves to those who may still have cause to misunderstand us.
Thanks, Jessica! Readers, we’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. One commenter will win a book from our Stacks.