Our words are our prayers and our poems and our songs. The constant admonition by non-Romani scholars that we do not possess a canon, a literary history, or contemporary tradition severs our endeavours before they even begin.
Our stories are dismissed as fairy-tales, voices in the dark, nothing but witches spells and grandmothers tall tales. Our words – round and full and ripe – are dismissed as the mumblings of an illiterate (read: backwards and unintelligent) society. Our lives are dismissed along with our histories, as empty, hollow, and unnecessary.
We’ve been speaking our histories for as long as there has been history to speak. Our stories trace our steps across continents; across cultures; across lives. Before we began to write, we spoke our lives into being. We memorialized births, deaths, marriages in poems, songs, and stories. We gave our children their culture to wear like a dress or a shirt, handed down one stitch, one button, one word at a time. Our voices shaped dragons, witches, and the devil himself out of the rain and the dirt, following in the trickster tradition of coyote and jackdaw.
To say the Romani don’t have a canon or tradition is to say that we have no literature and no literary art. This simply isn’t true. Romani literature has a long and complex history, beginning early in the 19th century in Russia, then later in old Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. At times our lives have been valued and we have become part of the fabric of the literary arts, not just as a muse for romanticism. Authors in our own right.
Yet, we are consistently denied our own history.
At least part of this is because of the violence and upheaval that shook Europe (and still is in many places). Two world wars, the rise and fall of the USSR, the complete collapse of Communism, the creation and subsequent tearing apart of entire countries (Yugoslavia for example). Our lives and our statuses rose and fell with the nations in which we resided. The unspeakable horror of the Holocaust not only robbed us of authors, playwrights, and artists, it stole away our voices on the wind, like smoke. When you’ve watched your entire family die, what is there left to say?
In Russia, even as early as the 18th century, a small cultural elite of Romani had established themselves. After the “February Revolution”, representatives of this influential musical and artistic group, who were known for their close ties and associations with the high society of the former Russian Empire, were some of the first to rush headlong into the arms of “proletarianism” and the new ideologies. Along with this new ideology, came a rise in support for the arts – especially literature. Ivan Rom-Lebedev (1903-1989), Nikolai Pankov (1895-1959), Nina Dudarova (1903-1977), Maxim Besljudsko (1901-1989), and Alexander Germano (1893-1955), were some of the first Romani writers to take advantage of this rise in support and wrote fiction, compiled dictionaries and textbooks, translated Russian literature into Romani, and wrote plays that were published in the years between 1925 and 1938, with the active and plentiful support of the Soviet state. During this time, the “Indo-Romen Theatre” (later simply called “Romen Theatre”) was founded in Moscow, and at first the plays were in exclusively in Romani. The theatre had its premiere on December 21, 1931, with the presentation of the play “Džiiben pre Roty” (“Life on Wheels”). The play had a run of 1200 performances.
However, in the late 1930s, the Russian state policy towards the Romani changed drastically, and the flurry of publications and Romani arts involvement dried up almost overnight. Later works of such pioneering authors as Leksa Manuš (1942-1997) largely remained unpublished, and if available at all are scattered in a multitude of journals. Yet, the pre-war, pre-Stalinist period of colossal literary production in Russia is still unchallenged in the history of Romani literature.
Another site of great literary production is the former Republic of Yugoslavia, which in some ways equaled Russia in provision of favorable social and cultural grounds for Romani literature. In fact, from the 1960s onwards, more and more Romani took advantage of the opportunity they had to access higher education. Although there had been a journal “Romano lil” in Belgrade for three issues in 1935, it took until the early 1970s for a vibrant scene of Romani intellectualism to emerge: Slobodan Berberski (1919-1989), who had been publishing since the 1950s (in Serbian), now devoted his writing to Romani issues, Alija “Ali” Krasnići (1952) started his writing career, Rajko Đurić (1947) published his first collection of poems in 1969, and Jovan Nikolić (1955) began to publish poetry (in the Serbian language) in 1981.
However, with the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the late 1980s due to growing nationalist ideology and economic difficulties, Đurić and Nikolić emigrated to Germany, as did Rahim Burhan (1949) and his Romani theatre group “Pralipe”. Founded in Skopje in 1971, the theatre performed in Romani mainly, its repertoire covering a range from first performances to the classical plays of Shakespeare.
Almost simultaneously, the literature of Romani living in Czechoslovakia emerged, although through different conditions and circumstances. Rather than a politically favorable (or at least less unfavorable) climate, the rapid emergence of Romani literature in the Czech-speaking part of the nation was solely at the hands of Milena Hübschmannová (1933-2005) who served as both an architect and promoter for what would soon become a large circle of authors, writing almost exclusively in Romani. Tera Fabianova (1930-2007), Andrej Giňa (1936), and others wrote for the journal “Románo l’il” (Romani Book), which existed between 1969 and 1973 as the magazine of the “Sväz Cikánů-Romů” (Union of Roma) in Prague.
Compared to the output of both the former Yugoslavia and Russian Empire, the output of Czechoslovakia remained severely limited and was almost exclusively restricted to short stories and poetry. This could be largely due to the fact that in Czechoslovakia the flare up of “freedom of opinion” in the late 1960s was instantly scotched by the invasion of Russian troops in 1968. But the concentration on short genres is also a consequence of the Czech author’s writing in Romani, which, in absence of codification or lexical standards, required constant pioneer work in every respect. An anthology has been issued by the Museum of Romany Culture in Brno called “Čalo vod’i” (2008), in which texts of many of the Czech and Slovak authors of this short period are collected.
However, whereas in the East support had, at least perfunctoraly, been given to Romani publications, in the West for a long time there was not even recognition. Early emancipatory moves of Roma remained singular incidents, and it took until the 1970s for more effective methods to be undertaken. Writing in Romani was virtually nonexistent until the 1980s. Thus, even more than in the Eastern and Central European countries, in Western Europe Romani literature remained a domain of single individual achievements. In the year 2002, finally, the “International Romani Writer’s Association” (IRWA) was founded in Helsinki. In 2008, however, the IRWA was dissolved due to obvious lack of interest by Romani writers and Romani in general.
The main genres employed by Romani writers are short story, poetry and biographical accounts. It should also not come as a surprise that many Romani publications belong to the genre of autobiography, since our culture is strongly based on oral tradition and history. Narratives are woven into everyday life, even in Romani communities where education and literacy are at high levels. Generally, however, these life stories are told by Romani and written down and edited by non-Romani. Still, they form an important part of our literature, regardless of the fact that they are only “told” by their authors and not written, since the concepts, themes, style of language, and everything of them except the symbols (writing itself) belongs to the narrators. The genre is still popular and forms the basis for a great many publications in Western European countries, especially in Great Britain, Germany, Sweden, and Austria.
In Central Europe, for obvious reasons, most biographical books by Romani dealt (and to a certain extent still deal) with the personal experience of the Holocaust. For example, the German writer and activist Philomena Franz (1922) published her autobiography “Zwischen Liebe und Hass” (Between Love and Hate) in 1985, and the Austrian writer, painter, and activist Ceija Stojka (1933) her first book “Wir leben im Verborgenen” (We live in secrecy) in 1988, and since then many more have followed.
Although Romani are seen as a homogenous people (clustered tightly under the racial and ethnic slur “Gypsy”) our literature is, in fact, extremely diverse. It is written by authors living in many countries and has been shaped by the diverse political, social, and cultural conditions we find ourselves living in. It is written in many different languages and dialects and utilizing different writing systems. However, the range of themes addressed within these works is fairly homogenous. They generally fall into four categories: the place of the single individual between Roma and non-Roma society; the change from pre-modern (oral) to modern (written) tradition; sharing of traditional and contemporary fairytales and paramisa; and many texts after 1945 deal with the personal experience of the Holocaust and with the collective trauma encountered by Romani society.
Despite the overall difficulties experienced, output of Romani literature has been substantial so far. However, after only eight decades of development, on a historical scale our literature is still at an early state of emergence. Yet, it accurately mirrors the state of Romani societies both in their diversity and their common issues. It is the “national literature” of a nation whose national identity is still in statu nascendi and to whom the term “national identity” itself will always mean something completely different compared to other national and ethnic states.
My grandmother’s stories spoken into the firelight and bitter woodsmoke are just as viable a “literary canon” as Shakespeare’s plays. The problem is not that we lack a history or that we lack words written on pages and stored between covers – no, it’s that we lack the political representation to be regarded as a people worthy of owning such things. We are denied our place in the past (and the present) not because we have not participated in creating and building culture, but rather because such a history flies in the face of the political fear-mongering and hatred designed to keep us locked up in ghettos and mahalas.
In creating my list of Romani authors (here) and Romani women authors (here), I intend to prove that Romani do have canon – our literary history is vast and complex and colourful. It saddens me to see that many works are no longer available or that, it would seem, in many countries the tradition is dying out. Educational support for Romani is still a challenge, as is living from day to day. My family had no interest in gadžikanji ljil – non-Romani books. Our histories were fluid and rolled in and out with the weather and the seasons. I am made from stories and from words. I was born out of clay and wind and flowers.
Until we are accepted as people and not a problem, Romani literature will continue to be dismissed (just as we are) as nothing more than incoherent, magical mumblings of harlots, vagabonds, and witches.