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. 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 “Gypsy 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.

“Blond Gypsy Angel” essay for Quail Bell Magazine

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“Blond Gypsy Angel” essay for Quail Bell Magazine

I am so thankful to the wonderful Quail Bell Magazine for publishing this essay on the recent “Gypsy child-stealing” hysteria. My grandmother is a “blond angel” too, and the rhetoric surrounding her experiences in WWII and Maria’s in Greece rang eerily similar. I’m grateful for a place to tell her story and to take a close look at the politics and complication of Romani identity. In the essay, I link to a lot of excellent Romani writers like Hancock, Marafioti, Pipopotamus, and others, as well as non-Roma writers, who have a lot of intelligent things to say about the politics and complexity of the Maria case and the Romani human rights crisis– if you want to read the essay, I encourage you to read their perspectives too.

And a big thank you to my fantastic students who consistently have thoughtful, intelligent,and perceptive things…

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