Art, memory, and expression: International Holocaust Remembrance Day 1/27/2016

holocaustremembranceJanuary 27th, 2016 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. We spread red flowers to honor those who lived and died in what Roma call, The Hungry Smoke. The Holocaust was an ugly genocide of those from the Jewish faith as well as those who were ethnically “Gypsies,” the racial slur used to describe Romani and Sinti people. The Sinti are a clan (or tribe, as some prefer that word while others argue that ours is not a tribal society) within the Roma, and the word Roma refers to the many different cultures and subcultures that exist within Romani society, all of which are distinct with their own dialects, customs, and beliefs. Many Sinti prefer to be called Sinti and not to be included under the Romani umbrella, but I am comfortable being referred to as Romani, both because my heritage is very ethnically mixed anyway and because I like the inclusiveness that the word “Roma” suggests. My grandmother and many of her family members survived O Porrajmos, or the Great Devouring, by hiding their ethnicity, something that many were not able to do, and others among her friends and family were not so fortunate. The Roma and Sinti are often forgotten alongside the other groups targeted, such as LGBTQ* people, people living with disabilities, Catholics, Communists, and many others. Even though half of the Romani population was obliterated during WWII, because of systemic racism, few organizations or countries recognize our loss for what it was: genocide. This is slowly changing, however. This year the UN is hosting Sinto survivor, Mr. Zoni Weisz, to speak at their event for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, so if you are in NYC or can make the trip, I hope you attend. It’s important for all of us to band together for everyone touched the the dark maw.

I’m re-sharing Drunken Boat‘s Romani Folio, an issue completely dedicated to Romani writing and art, in honor of this day. Much of Romani

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Drunken Boat, Romani Folio cover

literature and art is shaped by The Hungry Smoke, as well as the antigypsyist legislation, sentiment, and violence that still dogs the Roma all over the world. My short story, “Why the Pyres are Unlit,” though fictional, was heavily inspired by my grandmother’s survival, the stories she’s shared, and the mark that violence has left on my family.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about inherited and perpetuated trauma (by lately, I mean since I was a child), and I believe that the only way to change cycles of violence and fear internalized passed down through generations is to acknowledge, feel, discuss, and then release them. Silence, forced or self-imposed, is what breeds violence. Art, writing, expression, discourse, and remembrance– all of this frees us. I will spread flowers, but I will also imbibe Romani and Sinti literature and art, such as the paintings of Ceija Stojka and the words of Rajko Djuric. Pick up a good anthology (I love this one, Roads of the Roma) or browse the web for new discoveries. You can start with Romani writer Qristina Zavačková Cummings and her list of Romani authors, or my list of “20 Gypsy Women You Should Be Reading” for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. May we remember, may we create, and may we journey toward healing and liberation together.

 

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Esmeralda Declines an Interview: why I don’t interview for writers writing Gypsy characters

Sometimes I get requests from people to do interviews because they’re writing a Romani (Gypsy) character and want to use the life of a real live Gypsy girl to write her, and I always feel uncomfortable about the idea of divulging my life story for another writer’s creative gain. My friend, Misha Rai, urged me to turn those feelings into an essay, and because Misha’s advice is always brilliant, I did it. And now I’m honored and stunned to have “Esmeralda Declines an Interview” in The Missouri Review blog.

KickingNo offense intended to anyone who has asked me to interview with them as research for their book. It’s wonderful that you want to write well-rounded Romani characters, and I’m flattered that you thought of me. If you are struggling to include Romani characters in your work, then my advice to you is this: “If you want to be inclusive, then read and support the writers you want to include. Don’t ask to take our lives for your own gain.” I’m sure your intentions aren’t nefarious and I applaud your efforts to write mindfully. Just be mindful in your research too.

A good resource for you to find Romani writers is ‘ list of Romani Authors. I also have a list of “20 Gypsy Women You Should Be Reading” at VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. There are many more places to look, but this is a good start.

Happy reading! And thank you to The Missouri Review and Misha Rai– I love you to bits.

P.S. Check out “Housewives, Mothers” by Misha in The Indiana Review– it’s one of my favorite stories.

May 16th: Romani Resistance Day

“The Forgotten History of Romani Resistance,” Open Society Foundations, by Pierre Chopinaud

“On the evening of May 16, 1944, in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, SS guards armed with machine guns surrounded the area of the camp designated for Roma and Sinti prisoners. Their intent was to round up the nearly 6,000 prisoners there and send them to the gas chambers. But when the guards approached the area, they were met with armed resistance from the inmates.

The prisoners had learned of the planned ‘liquidation’ and fashioned weapons from sheet metal, wood, pipes, rocks, and any other scraps of material they could get their hands on. According to the memories of survivors and witnesses to the incident, the inmates forced the guards into retreat, and though some prisoners were shot that night, the act of resistance allowed the Roma and Sinti prisoners to put off execution for several more months.

How can such an epic episode have been lost to history? Who knows about the Sonderkommandos revolt of August 1944? Who knows about Witold Pilecki, who infiltrated Auschwitz to organize its resistance network? Keeping alive the memories of these events could help prevent such crimes from happening again in the future.”

Read the rest of this fascinating article here. If you want to help spread awareness on social media, use these hashtags #RomaniResistanceDay #RomaniResistance #may16. I like to throw in #Gypsy too because that hashtag is (mis)used so much to perpetuate absurd Gypsy stereotypes that it’s helpful when something real comes up under that umbrella.

Image courtesy of ternYpe, the International Roma Youth Network

Image courtesy of ternYpe, the International Roma Youth Network

On being a ‘Gypsy’ Witch

Fox-Frazier Foley, writer and curator of The Infoxicated Corner of The The Poetry Blog, solicited an essay about Romani poetics and language, and immediately I knew I would write about Luminiţa Mihai Cioabă’s poem “The Apparition of Choxani,” from the anthology The Roads of The Roma: a PEN Anthology of Gypsy Writers. Fox has mixed Romani heritage too, so the project felt like a gorgeous act of unity and cultural collaboration.

For me to better understand “The Apparition of Choxani,” and write what became my article, The Magic Word:
‘Gypsy’ Witchcraft, Love, and Breaking Tradition in Luminiţa Mihai Cioabă’s Poem “The Apparition of Choxani,” I had to look at my Romani family’s history as well as our traditions—not those that endured, but rather those that were extinguished.

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With a headband that my lovely Romani friend, writer Norma Szokolyai, gave me when we taught in France together on the CWW Yoga & Writing Retreat

My entire Romani identity is invested in my grandmother and what she taught me, and her identity springs from what her family could pass on to her while simultaneously obscuring their ethnicity and shedding their culture, attempting to avoid the gas chambers or a bullet in a ditch. They had a unique opportunity to do this, namely that some of the Romani family had already married gadjé and assimilated for love, and my beautiful and resourceful great-grandmother decided to re-marry a cruel-but-useful gadjo (non-Roma) and bring her three children with her to his farm in the countryside. There are whispers that her papers were forged and documents were signed by Hitler, but the details were lost a long time ago. This saved our line but left holes in our Romanipen (The Romani Way)—we lost parts of our Roma soul. I never learned Rromanès, because my grandmother wasn’t allowed to speak it—how could they explain to the suspicious Nazi officers who burst-in from time to time why their children spoke Gypsy-tongue? Most Romani families affected by the Holocaust did not break and bury their traditions. Fate tossed my great-grandmother a bone and she took it, but most Roma in WWII Europe knew that they could not assimilate and would not be allowed to. They spoke Rromanès and Romani women wore dikhle (traditional head coverings), even in the concentration camps. In the camps, there are accounts of Roma singing traditional songs and even dancing to keep their spirits and their dignity. What else is there to do in the face of utter hatred and persecution but dance? Recently, a Belgian village hired a DJ tried to try to (illegally) oust Roma from their camps with loud music, and the Roma danced then too.

My grandmother taught me our family trades, dancing and drabaripé (fortune telling, and healing magic), and although I didn’t learn about Choxani until I began researching my more about my cultural heritage as a young woman, she taught me about a different kind of witch— the drabarni, or healer or adviser. Usually the drabarni is a woman in the Romani community who uses prayer, amulets, herbs, and energy work to heal physical, emotional, and spiritual illness. Some of these practices survived in my family because far down the line there was a drabarni in my grandmother’s family. Romani magic is quite real within the culture, but it looks nothing like the “Gypsy Witchcraft” books you can get at B&N. Romani writer and scholar, Qristina Zavačková, has an incredible blog post on Romani magic, titled “Magic and Magpies—Akhaljiben the Kakaraske.” Even though our family assimilated and we lost so much, even though I went to school with gadjé children where I didn’t learn anything about the history of my people, not even the fact that Americans enslaved Roma alongside African Americans in the Old South, I was still different. I was still stoned till I bled on the playground after I leaked the truth about my family roots when I was six years old and too proud of my grandmother for my own good, despite her many warnings to stay quiet. I was still given detention by my fifth grade teacher for being a “witch.” I started wearing the epithet like a mantle. I proudly practiced my family trades when I was a teen, through college, and whenever I was in a tight spot. But it was still nothing like the fantasy Gypsies in story books– it was real, gritty, and sometimes heartbreaking. It was an identity that I claimed with such mixed feelings that, for years at a time, I would refuse to crack open my deck of cards because I couldn’t be a Gypsy freak-show for one more day. And other times, I felt like I was making my ancestors proud, that I was my grandmother’s blood, and I was grateful for my beautiful and complex culture.

In short, it matters when the word “Gypsy” is appropriated and redefined by outsiders. It’s our heritage, it’s our genocide, it’s our right to reclaim the ethnic slur used against us. If we are witches, it is because we have not been understood by outsiders–we are not magical, but we have a powerful culture. So be it.

“How to eat like a real Gypsy” in the Daily Meal for Roma & Traveller History Month. Learn to cook like my Gypsy grandmother taught me, plus, tea leaf reading!

Ok, so I’m really excited about this because I love The Daily Meal and I’m psyched that my recipes/article “How to eat like a real Gypsy” appeared in it just in time for Roma & Traveller History Month! The best part about writing this was talking food with grandma. I’ve been living far away for a while and it’s been too long since we had her breakfast blini and read each other’s tea leaves. Fortune telling, by the way, is something that most Roma almost never do for each other but my family is weird. Find out the history and the family tale (plus a crash-course in my grandma’s method) in the article. http://www.thedailymeal.com/how-eat-real-gypsy

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Unite and Celebrate: A Band of Roma. A Roma Day lyric essay in Quail Bell Magazine

 
Papusza suffered for the song of her people, but what if we all sang at once?

Today we celebrate the Roma. We celebrate the plates of food we leave for our ancestors to keep them loved and fed even in death. We cover mirrors, TV and computer screens, and bowls of water after someone dies, just long enough so that they are not trapped by their own reflection as they pass through the veils. We keep our homes and our bodies meticulously clean because the world is split into that which is pure and impure. The spirit is pure; that’s what we want to be. We believe in kintala, or karma, because what we do matters and we mean to do good. We love The Goddess of Fate and her many names and forms, Sati-Sara, Sara Kali, St. Sarah, The Black Madonna; and we believe in free will.  

We remind you that “Roma” is our preferred term, not “Gypsy,” a name that has been turned against us, warped into “gypped,” gyppo,” and the lowercase “gypsy,” the one that doesn’t recognize us as a proper noun, never mind a proper ethnic group. We celebrate that some of us chose to reclaim the word as we wish. We remind you that we, as a culture, are fractured by distance, persecution, and illegal deportation, and we are working to unify, to overcome discord and fight for our basic human rights. We celebrate that we are not homogenous and yet, we are united by our origin. We came from India, migrated in the 11th century, and the Rromanes (Romani language) root is Sanskrit. We are different clans—Kale, Kalderash, Lovara, Sinti, Manouche, Vlach, and many more, all with unique customs, dialects, and worldviews. We are individuals: rich, poor, artists, lawyers, blacksmiths, fortune tellers, musicians, doctors, dancers, mechanics, horse dealers, car dealers, janitors, politicians, activists, writers, professors, actors, executives, beggars, volunteers, producers, landlords, and linguists. Opre Roma: we rise up. We are loving friends, partners, parents, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters. To say “I love you” we say, “I eat your heart” or “I eat your belly” because love is voracious and can never be close enough. 

My grandmother survived WWII Germany as a Romani woman. Now she likes to say, “I am a weed. No one wanted me, they tried to destroy me, but I grew. I am a weed and I’m proud. And I’ve always liked weeds best, anyway. Wild, strong, and very pretty.”

Today we raise awareness that half of Europe’s Romani population died in the Holocaust, what we call O Porrajmos (The Great Devouring), and 2 million Romani lives lost is a modest estimation.  We are rarely invited to or acknowledged in Holocaust remembrances or memorials. Sometimes we are not even allowed in the gates. We remind you that Roma were slaves alongside African Americans in the United States, and in the Balkans for four centuries. We are forcibly sterilized in Europe and the U.S., alongside Native Americans and African-Americans. We remind you that the government takes Romani children in the United States and Europe from their families because it is assumed that Roma cannot be decent, loving parents. We remind you that America has “Gypsy Crime” task forces that decide Romani fortune tellers are scammers and white fortune tellers are not. America, the country that swears to the flag not to indulge in racial profiling, blatantly profiles its Roma, just like Europe. We remind you that skinheads set Romani encampments on fire across Europe with Molotov cocktails, burning men, women, and children in their beds. We remind you of the Jobbik Party. Roma are forced into camps with no running water, waste management, electricity, or shelterRoma are denied a right to education, or forced into special education classes because it is assumed we are mentally deficient. Amnesty calls the Romani human rights crisis “Europe’s shame,” and Roma endure hate crimes, are not allowed in shops, and are kicked out of countries because the politicians believe we cannot assimilate, that we are vermin, that Hitler didn’t kill enough of us. We remind you that Roma say, “Fuck you, Fascists. We rise up.” You learned none of this in school.

When my grandmother saw My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding for the first time she called me asking, “Who are these people on TV? They can’t be Gypsies. Who are those girls in the small clothes? I’ve never seen Gypsy girls like that. Why are they so loud?” and I laughed, but she didn’t. She fell quiet and then asked, “Is that how Gypsy girls are now?” And I realized she really didn’t know. She hasn’t been near a Romani community in 50 years, not since she fled Germany alone. Her decision to pass down what remains of her family’s culture, the culture they hid and the language they lost to survive, was not an easy one. When I was a child, she warned me that even knowing my roots was dangerous. She told me, “I was lucky to come to America where no one knew me and I could keep hiding.”  She said, “It was hard enough being German. I couldn’t be a Gypsy too.” I had to explain this reality TV farce to the woman who had risked so much to conceal and preserve her heritage and who believed so fiercely that I should learn it that she splits open her wartime wounds again and again to tell me what she remembers. I told her, No, they aren’t real Roma on that show, and don’t worry, that’s not how Gypsy girls are now, and yes, this show is bullshit. She sighed, “Like we need more bullshit.” 

You see why I cannot be quiet when we are misrepresented and mistreated. She is my community and I am hers, and I am ill-equipped. So I write about fashion, take pictures, and tell stories I cannot show her because they make her too sad. I talk with my friends. I teach a class. I get angry on social media. I worry that none of it means anything but I keep talking, keep writing.

Today we celebrate Romani writers, activists, artists, and professionals who show the world who the Real Gypsy Warriors are: Dr. Ian Hancock, Oksana Marafioti, Morgan Ahern, Rajko Ðjurić, Ronald Lee, Lita Cabellut, Papusza, Mariella Mehr, Romani Rose… to count them would be reductive. Please, discover. We celebrate the language that’s been beaten out of so many Roma that it threatens to disappear. Please, revive.

We celebrate that we are not slutty Halloween costumes or tambourine vamps. We are not spell casters, scapegoats, child-stealers, criminals, or exotic props for stories.  We remind you that you cannot decide to be a Gypsy. It is not a lifestyle choice. It is not whimsy. Nomadism was born from persecution, not some lighthearted folly. We are not a brand like Gypsy Warrior, Junk Gypsy, Band of Gypsies, and Spell and the Gypsy Collective make us out to be. We are not fantasies to be appropriated and exploited—we don’t care that retailers think it’s beautiful to perpetuate harmful stereotypes and diminish the human rights crisis. We don’t care that they didn’t know better. We’d appreciate it if you remind them of that via letters, email, Twitter, and Facebook . Respond to articles and writers who slander us. Be a voice of reason and education. The silence of the privileged is a choice whereas the silence of the oppressed is a shackle. We appreciate our allies—they speak from a place that we cannot, just as we speak from a place that they cannot. We need both parts. 

To be a Gypsy is blood, cultural and traumatic inheritance, and the gorgeous ache you cannot forget. It is Esma Redzepova singing the Romani anthem, “Dzelem, Dzelem” and the fiddle that bows up your bones. It is grilled lamb feast 40 days after the spring equinox for “Ederlezi” and throwing flowers in the river. It is your patient struggle to teach yourself Rromanes by learning that folksong after work, the pleasure of your voice finding words for mommydaddy, and sacrifice. It is the paprika soup that warms the winter. It’s the fear of others’ reactions. It’s despair when Lady GagaHalle BerryMiley CyrusShakira, and people of influence use the slur “Gypsy.” Even if they don’t realize what they’re saying, it degrades and diminishes, and you can bet that they don’t use the opportunity to discuss Romani oppression. That’s not sexy. You’re angry that you care that much about Miley Cyrus. But really you’re angry because she reminds you how much work there is to be done, that antigypsyism has become idiomatic, and so many gadjé still think cultural appropriation is their right, and the more they do it, the worse it gets.

We remind you that we are people with dignity still fighting for our rights and it shouldn’t be taking this long. We invite you to join us. Celebrate: drink in today like “the water that wanders.” 

International Roma Day hashtag activism: #nohatespeech #romarights #RealGypsyWarrior #RomaDay

Suggested Resources for Romani culture and rights:

 ROMBASE  

Patrin

RADOC

The Gypsy Chronicles

Romedia Foundation

Amnesty International

Romea

Romfacts

Kopachi

Lolo Diklo

We are the Romani people by Ian Hancock

The Pariah Syndrome: an account of Gypsy Slavery and Persecution by Ian Hancock

Roads of the Roma: a PEN anthology of Gypsy Writers (Threatened Literature Series) Edited by Ian Hancock, Siobhan Dowd, and Rajko Ðjurić

GypsyRepresent

 
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