Addendum to fortune telling nostalgia

Since I posted about my great-great grandmother I’ve been thinking about the complicated issue of fortune telling and how, in that sense my family is an anomaly.

The author of the STFU, Gadje! tumblr puts it very succinctly:

“Gypsies – Rroma and real Traveller people – do not have psychic abilities. We are real people, not caricatures. When a Rroma/Walking Person does resort to fortune telling, it is as a person of color being forced to conform to racist stereotypes of their own people in order to survive.

This happens disturbingly often. My own grandmother did tarot readings with gadje for money when times got tough, but she always told me, if she caught me doing anything similar, she would tan my own hide.”

So this is a more common response to the fortune-telling business. It’s usually common-sense advice for money in hard times, done out of necessity under the shadow of oppression.

For my family, it’s a little different. During WWII Germany, my grandmother was not allowed to talk about or practice so many of her heritage’s customs, but every Sunday afternoon, her extended family would come over and read each others’ tea leaves. It became not only a connection with her family during dark times when everything was uncertain and the threat of death and torture was ever-present– it was also one of the few glimmers of her culture that she was allowed to practice. It was discreet, so even if an officer did burst in, they were just drinking tea, right?

Perhaps reading tea leaves, palms, and cards made my relatives feel more in control of their lives, or more aware, during an unspeakably frightening time. It became so important that they practiced it with a seriousness that most other Romanies would balk at. They would meditate before reading, allowing their minds to empty so as to be more receptive. They would stare at the dregs in a cup, the lines of a palm, or a card spread as though it were a mandala and would not speak until the shapes unlocked before their eyes. After my grandmother immigrated to The States, she became notorious for her eerily accurate readings. All that meditation must have paid off, is all I’m sayin’.

My grandmother taught me to read palms when I was five, and then cards and tea leaves when I was sixteen. It was important to her that I knew how to read, really read, that I practiced the art responsibly. She told me it would always be a helpful skill, and she was right. I worked as a fortune teller for years, and enjoyed it, and a lot of my clients felt I was accurate in a helpful way, not in a terrifying carnival-machine way. And as it was for her, fortune telling became one of the most salient cultural practices for me, along with dance and music. It also became one of the most cherished memories I have of her, and it’s something we still do together when I visit. But I understand that what is a “cultural practice” for me is a practice of necessity for others and a source of great sadness, shame, and desperation. It would be irresponsible not to acknowledge that. I’m trying to navigate the complexity and richness of this topic with the main character of the novel, too.

With that said, check out STFU gadje! which is not at all aggressive as the name might suggest. She has some interesting posts and helpful tips about cultural appropriation, misrepresentation, conscious language, etc, for example, why you shouldn’t name your pets “Gypsy.” Funny story though, my grandmother named her horse Gypsy for a laugh when she was younger. She’s a proto-hipster, I’ve decided. So much ironic reappropriation, and then some earnest reappropriation, too. And we all know that the mark of a good hipster is when you are unable to tell the difference.

To be fair, horses are very special creatures in Romani culture. But yeah, don’t name your pets Gypsy, unless, I suppose, you’re a Romani hipster and will enjoy explaining the reappropriation to everyone your pet meets. In that case, go forth and be ironic!

Every culture is made up of individuals.


* Gadje isn’t a derogatory term, it’s just a word for people outside the culture (non-Romani people).

* I know people who have named their pets Gypsy and in no way meant to be hurtful or offensive, they just didn’t know not to. It’s ok. I still love you.


Research in Paris, Day 4: Tzigane Jazz



This is my great-great grandmother Mathilde. She was the last generation of our Romani family to live, though briefly, as a nomad, travelling up and down the Danube from Germany to Hungary, dancing in riparian towns along the way. In the picture, she’s posing in her dancing garb. She’s pretty fabulous.

Obviously I’ve never met her, but I love the idea I have of her from my grandmother’s stories. Her stories about Mathilde are the reason I became a dancer and a fortune teller when I was younger– I set myself the task of reviving old family trades that otherwise would have died out with Mathilde and the Holocaust. Now, being a writer lets me revive all manner of things, some I’ve seen and some I haven’t, so I can only hope this novel breathes good life into something.

On day four, Len, Sean, and Jen and I went to Monmartre and explored the windy streets, the vendors, the cafes and drank pastisse in the sun at a table on the cobblestone street, and chocolate chaud in The Two Windmills. That’s what you do there. Tourists and pigeons dotted the grass below the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur.

Later that night we ventured to L’atlier Charonne for some Manouche or Tzigane (Gypsy) Jazz. They have performances every night from 9-12 and oh holy chickadees it was incredible. We saw the Moreno orkestra tzigane quartet, and the performers, though in their later years, had more energy than most of the young-ones I’ve see on stage. Two men played steel string guitars with the ghost of Django Reinhardt in their fingers. At one point, they both played the same guitar, occasionally holding each other’s hands to show that yes, they really can play that quickly, and yes, they really are that good. And for a few songs, a woman sang with a voice as powerful as a sob, but she was laughing almost continuously. She brought the microphone around the crowd, a happy mix of Parisians, tourists, and Romanies, and good-naturedly teased some audience members into singing the chorus. She wore a magenta and violet ankle-length skirt with ruffles that my grandmother would have gone mad for, and she snapped her fingers above her head and swayed her hips as she warbled her laugh-cry songs. 

That evening, I noticed that as the Romani flower sellers came along, the majority of the audience who adored the performers reviled the sellers with icy sneers and without so much as a non, merci. The only person the flower seller could coax into buying a rose was the guitarist, who seemed to give into his “help a brother out” appeal. He gifted it then to the singer, who twirled it in her left hand as she smoked with her right.

This is the evening that I realized I had come to the right place to research Tzigane Jazz and recreate what these performances might have been like from 1920’s-1950’s. Romani culture changes, of course, like any other, but some things, like music and dance, change very little. They simply enrich. I also realized that I’m going to need a hell of a lot more than a week to get what I need to write this novel.

Did I mention that the Tzigane Cultural Center is closed in August? It is, I discovered that day. Another reason that the research trip, while fruitful, didn’t quite fill me up. I’m currently seeking grants that might allow Len and I to live in Paris next summer, preferably funded, so I can continue my research. So, if you hear of anything, help a sister out, will you? 😉


Research in Paris, Day 3: notebook recovered!

So this didn’t exactly follow the “every day I post a thing” format I wanted, mostly because I was too busy doing the things (museums! cafes! gardens! things!) to post about them. I have a feeling this will be easier when I get an internet magic phone.

Anyway! I got my notebook back! Len spent many hours (really), scouring the city looking for it, and he found it at a creperie we had visited in Monmartre. They kept it safe and so faith in humanity is refreshed.

More friends from Ireland came on day three, and after our happy reunion, they frolicked in the Latin Quarter and Len and I headed over to the Louvre.

I have a sense that hearing someone else’s Louvre experience is almost as pointless as trying to sum up one’s own Louvre experience. There is simply too much. I read once that even if you went to the Louvre every day for a year and only looked at each artwork for 30 seconds, you still wouldn’t have seen everything. And that’s without factoring in the magic store in the basement! So we took the opportunity to experience France’s artistic heritage and I took notes on what was inspiring for whatever reason.

Major hitters: The ancient Egypt wing. No spoilers, but my novel draws a lot on mythology, though primarily Romani folklore and mythology and ancient Indian mythology (India being the origin of Romani or “Gypsy” people). But I am consistently amazed by the amount of cross-over there is between different cultures and religions… and enough justifying, I really love ancient Egypt. Who doesn’t? FOOLS! THAT’S WHO!

French sculpture: There were so many Dianas, so many hounds and bows and quivers,– I was ecstatic. I used to pray to her when I was a kid. It’s unsurprising that she’s helpful to me now, too.

Orientalism: It’s important to see how Romani and “Eastern” people are Romanticized, to remember what not to do, and also to swoon over the gorgeousness.

The evening kicked off with a lovely vegetarian/vegan restaurant near Notre Dame and many toasts to our friends, who, as it happens, are planning their wedding. Yay!

Researching in Paris, Day 2

Today was a mixed-bag. The wonderful news is that a dear friend from Ireland came to visit for the day and we had lunch and a drink later and caught up after 2 years. The bad news is, later in the day, a kerfuffle of sorts broke out, and in the mess I lost my notebook full of novel-notes, rough drafts of novel scenes, writing exercises, insights from the retreat, and a lot of the research I’ve done in the past couple months… so… that happened. But I have my name and address in it, so I hope some kind-hearted chickadee who’s chanced upon it in Paris might mail it back to me. That happens sometimes, right?

I feel like there’s not much more I can say at this point. Bonsoir, Paris. Bonsoir, notebook. Bonsoir, moon.

Researching in Paris, Day One

Sometimes research is practical: where is my train? how do I find myself on the map of Montparnasse? How do I say, do you sell comfort shoe-inserts for my 16-year-old combat boots? in French? These things I learned, except the last one. Instead I discovered how many pharmacies are in a 2 km radius from the hotel (Answer: 6).

It’s been nice to map things out for a change: I’m not nearly as organized as most put-together tweens as I’d like to be. Len and I fell in love circling each other for a few weeks, then circling Italy, then Croatia, too giddy to concentrate on maps, too polite to make an actual suggestion. Circling is fun, let’s not kid ourselves. Who hasn’t gone an extra time around a roundabout at least once? Metaphorically or otherwise. Yet now, seven years later, I’m learning the joys of having a plan. Maybe it’s because I (finally) made myself full outline my novel during the Cambridge Writers Workshop writing and yoga retreat in Verderonne, France for the past two weeks. Such relief! Such clarity! Circling the novel became exhausting and much less inspiring, but saying what, when, where, and how was so powerful, like architecture and alchemy together. And sure, Len and I circled and it was whimsical and romantic, but then I locked that down with paperwork and wedding rings in a Roanoke, VA courthouse. So, plans are nice, too. Balance, right?

For instance, to research Romani culture in France between 1920 and circa 1952, I will go here:
Centre des études Tsiganes
Médiathèque Fnasat-Gens du voyage-Etudes Tsiganes
59 rue de l’Ourcq
75019 PARIS
01 40 35 12 17

and I will be very happy. I am already.This novel takes up about 70% of my brain. Sometimes that’s agonizing (I will admit this), but lately, especially when I’m in a community of writers like my MFA program, or the Writing and Yoga retreat that I just adored and finished, the novel-brain phenomenon is delightful and fulfilling .

So, some sample plans: to learn more about jazz, I could to go Le Petite Journal, and for Romani/Manouche jazz I could check out these gems compiled by Jane Parry of Paris Voice. I will go to catacombs and odd museums, cafes and gardens, I will try to catch some burlesque culture, I will go to Spoken Word Paris to met the wonderful expat writers and listen to their wonderful word-magics, and maybe read something myself. I will probably deviate from my raw-vegan lifestyle and eat a crepe. For research. The point is, I have about 6 maps of Paris, I understand the metro system, I found my comfy inserts, and I’ve had these combat boots since I was 11. I’ve got a plan.

Photo by: KareemaBee

Photo by: KareemaBee


“We Rise Up” is Narrative Magazine’s Story of the Week

“We Rise Up” is Narrative Magazine’s Story of the Week

I am overjoyed and honored that my short story “We Rise Up” is Story of the Week in Narrative Magazine. This story is especially important to me– I’m grateful to be able to share it in one of my favorite magazines. So much love.

ETA: I feel like I should add that the Rromanes title, Opre Roma, translates to “we rise up.” Also, Narrative asks you to make an account to read it, but it’s free, and you aren’t obligated to sign up for any of their awesome emails.