ESSAY: What is Romany literature? by Karolína Ryvolová

What is Romany literature?
by Karolína Ryvolová

The emergence of Romany literature can now be discerned in a number of European countries. In the Czech Republic, we are experiencing a boom in Romany writing, facilitated by an unprecedented effort in Romany intellectual circles to promote it by throwing impressive book launches and readings, thereby accumulating widespread media coverage. The number of titles appearing each year seems negligible in comparison with any other literature, but we should bear in mind that the very first attempts to write by Roma were seen in the 1920s and 1930s in Rumania and The Soviet Union. In Czechoslovakia, the first Roma literature was published between 1969 and 1973 during the existence of the Gypsy-Roma Union in a journal entitled Romano lil. These Roma were encouraged to write in Romany by Milena Hübschmannová, who managed to persuade them that Romany is a language equal to others – it can be written down, and it may convey the stories they so enjoyed telling each other but did not consider literature.

As a primarily peripatetic people, the Roma have always had a rich oral tradition comprising songs, fairy tales, myths of origin, proverbs and riddles, in which they managed to safeguard the set of values and beliefs we now find linking all the different groups of people gathered under the umbrella term ‘Roma’. The lack of any written canon is the reason why their current writing must be regarded as a literature in development, self-taught in many respects, meeting and grappling with many challenges and as yet striving towards literariness. It serves as a platform where a previously scorned, humiliated and shunned people speak for themselves in an attempt to disabuse themselves of myths and false accusations. It has great potential, comparable to that of Afro-American writing, of the massive suppressed energy of a wronged people with multiple traumas they have not yet been able to address.

These works show striking similarities regardless of the country of origin and must be perceived as one of the manifestations of the international consciousness-raising of the Roma – also known as the ethno-emancipation movement – currently sweeping the world. Romany writing conveys the Romany people’s tradition of strong community bonds and reflects the disintegration and/or loss of these; they speak of age-old traumas such as persecution, both civil and during wars; they mourn the disappearance of traditional lifestyle and values, call for a stronger adherence to the concept of romanipen (‘being a Rom’), and simultaneously celebrate the vast opportunities of today, stressing the utmost importance of education. The quest for a clear-cut identity and respectable status in the world and the effort to save knowledge of the ‘good old times’ for future generations constitute a very specific discourse.

While this discourse seems to be easily identified, however, the term Romany literature is quite vague. It would seem that it can mean an entirely different thing to different readers in different contexts. ‘What is Romany literature and who are its authors?’ is therefore a question that inevitably poses itself.

Some writers have a flawless Romany pedigree and speak and write in Romany; others were Roma-born but raised among non-Roma and have returned, so to speak, to their origins, writing in Romany or majority languages; a large group of authors come from mixed backgrounds, where the degree of Roma ethnicity is impossible to ascertain and there are even some whose link to Romany origin skips a few generations or is missing altogether, shrinking to a sphere of adopted identities.

Is it the content, then, which qualifies a writer of uncertain ancestry to the title ‘Romany author’? I would say not, even though it seems to be a clearer criterion than background. There are numerous non-Romany writers whose portrayals of Roma and their lifestyle have had lasting effects on their readers, and who are, in fact, considered Roma by some, despite their non-Roma origin. The English writer George Borrow (1803–1881) achieved classic status in his lifetime with several Roma-oriented books, especially Lavengro. The same applies to a much more recent author, Louise Doughty, and her historical novel Fires in the Dark (2003). Unlike Borrow, Doughty does have a tenuous claim to Roma heritage on her father's side, but she was raised and educated as a non-Roma and her account of the plight of the Roma during the holocaust years is a politically correct, yet rather romantic, sterile and emotionally frigid picture of a people viewed by a favourably-inclined outsider. On the other hand, Dominic Reeve, the author of No Place Like Home (1961), came of mixed origin: his family settled when he was still very young, but he returned to travelling life as an adult, citing it his lifestyle of choice. In his books, he comes across as rather prejudiced at times: for example, he criticizes his fellow travellers from a non-Roma view as unkempt, slovenly and work-shy. Can he be disqualified from the community of ‘Romany authors’ because he doesn’t seem to serve his people’s cause?

I daresay that the author’s declaration of identity cannot be, and must not be, ignored, whatever the actual extent of Romany origin, but can a non-Romany person who spent some time in a Romany community be pronounced a Romany author? I do not believe the Belgian writer and artist Jan Yoors, author of The Gypsies (1965), who used to spend his summers with Belgian Lovara, should be in the canon, although this memoir is frequently listed.

Defining ‘Romany literature’, then, is a highly complex matter. It would seem that at least two identifying factors should ideally combine to help us decide who is, and who is not, a Romany author, if such a thing exists at all. Which factors these should be is yet to be resolved.

In my view, most of the Romany prose mentioned above aspires to be ‘literature’, but has not as yet reached its goal. The authors usually choose the most straightforward path towards revealing the story in full without using literary devices to hold the reader’s attention and keep him/her in suspense. Their primary function is to record and inform, not to enlighten spiritually, which we would probably expect from ‘literary literature’. The autobiographical aspect is still overwhelming, allowing little space for hyperbole, the drawing of conclusions, a more systematic approach or a complete withdrawal from typically Romany themes. But will there be any such thing as Romany literature if authors give up on dealing with the situation of the Roma, both historically and in contemporary times? Perhaps as soon as Roma writing departs from its specific modes and subject-matter this uncertain category will disappear entirely. Let us hope this is nothing but speculation.

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