I sometimes wish I couldn’t read. I wish all these foreign letters and words didn’t make sense to me and that I could spit them back out, undigested. I wish, like my grandmother, I could cast aside the gadžikanji čhib and wade unknowing through the world around me. I wish, like Papu, I could spend afternoons sitting on the back step, puffing clouds of smoke into the pale blue sky, words like my breath, quiet and unhurried.
Maami rarely wrote, even her name, and if she did, she’d ask me to write it for her first, so she could trace the cumbersome letters in her own unsteady hand. I remember my father sitting practicing writing his name and a few sentences over and over like a child, willing his arm, his hand to acquiesce to the sweep and curve set out before him. We had no books, just mouths and hearts full of stories and remembrances.
Baba Edita collected newspapers and sat staring at them blankly. Days and weeks of people’s lives heaped up before her, each word a vast effort to call into being.
“Large,” she said slowly. Her tongue cracked and bent out of shape. “Fire,” she managed on her third attempt, the “f” lost somewhere in the folds of her skirts. As assimilated as she was, she’d never managed reading well. Papo always laughed at her as he sat shaking his head. “Don’t know what you bother with that for,” he always admonished. “Those words are a waste of your breath!”
Those words were crammed into me as I sat, uncomfortable and unwilling, in a too-big classroom. I fought their learning, even though I played the game well. Words always intrigued me – the differences between languages, between “love” and love. Now, I sit here with two degrees. A bachelor’s and a master’s. Each wrought painfully out of a struggle to understand academia and the words that fill it; words like discourse, metanarrative, thesis, phenomenology – each one hiding a much simpler truth – I never belonged.
I have come to feel that my elders were right. I should have listened to them. I should have remained without words, without the trauma of a learning so colonized and sanitized that it holds no space for others. I let them down, chose to embrace the demons they’d fought their whole lives against. Maami was a vocal supporter of my education until I turned eighteen. “It’s enough now,” she told me the day before I sat my final A-level exams. “You’ve proved your points. You’ve had your life out there. Now it’s time to come back to us.”
I should have listened.
Days like today, when the sun is bright and my heart is heavy with regret, with loss, with the ache of a cultural trauma so deep it defies words (in any language, written or not), I wish I couldn’t read, couldn’t write. I wish that my life was simpler, less crowded with letters and memories. I wish I could hold all the people I’ve lost, forever. Maami Babka, Baba Edita, Bibja Lemija, Avjerie, Devina… all of them. Instead of just writing their names over and over again.
So many others have said to me, “you are nothing to us now, you aren’t a real Romnji, you aren’t a good mother or woman because you are too educated. You are one of them. A gori, a gorikani. You have no business here.”
And it’s true;
I didn’t gain a degree.
I lost an entire culture.