Listening to Voices of Romani Women Writers a Way to Challenge the Western Myths about “Gypsies”

This article explores different ways in which Romani people have been misrepresented in the Western literature. To challenge these representations and re-claim voices of Romani people, the article discusses the importance of works by Romani women writers such as Papusza and Hedina Tahirović Sijerčić.

Listening to Voices of Romani Women Writers a Way to Challenge the Western Myths about “Gypsies”

Written by Salome Kokoladze

Dominant power structures are not always working in explicit, violent ways. Sometimes, it is more effective to use subtle tools of oppression that crawl into our everyday lives without us realizing it. In addition to different kinds of oppression that Romani people have been facing, it is also through literature or art that their oppression is perpetuated and systematized. Only in Britain, since the beginning of 20th century, 351 novels, 199 plays, and 133 ballads have been written that represent implicitly or explicitly Romani characters.[1] Unfortunately, most of these presentations are misrepresentations. Romani people are depicted either as liars, thieves, fortune tellers or as having a romanticized nomadic life-style. We not only need to resist and confront the literary tradition, but also listen to voices of Romani people themselves to realize that there is no one homogeneous lifestyle and forms of struggles that these groups face. I want to focus on Romani women writers since their voices need to be heard not only outside of Romani communities, but also within. In addition, their voices need to be re-claimed not only within oppressive structures to resist these structures, but also in the feminist literary tradition, which seems to also under-represent their voices.

Instead of discussing the misrepresentation of Romani people in literature separately from discussing their missing voices in the feminist literary tradition, I will show how even in this tradition Romani people are misrepresented. Virginia Woolf’s writing is one of the most well known even for those who do not know much about feminism or feminist literature. Woolf challenged the traditions that limited women from independent existence, walking alone, writing and from thinking for themselves. However, she is often criticized by modern feminists for a lack of intersectionality in her writing. Woolf wrote from a point of view of an upper-middle class woman, who had access to much more privileges than women of the lower class. Her writing also reflects this neglect of class or racial problems of her society.

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is a book that challenges gender boundaries and exposes how politics is built around gender differences. However, Woolf’s presentation of Romani characters is very problematic in the book. Orlando is a character that lives for 400 hundred years and changes genders. After becoming a female he/she loses his/her property and joins a group of “Gypsies.” Orlando joins the group to escape from the British society of that time of which Woolf is critical. On the one hand, by depicting the nomadic community of “Gypsies”, Virginia Woolf wants to show resistance to British social values that oppress individuals. On the other hand, Woolf presents the community of “Gypsies” without money as happy, and thus she ignores how poverty is a great issue and a source of struggle among Romani communities. In addition, before Orlando leaves the community, we also learn that one of the “Gypsies” was plotting to kill her. This also contributes to strengthening the stereotype of Romani people as dangerous and life-threatening. What I find the most disturbing is that Orlando wants to write poetry, while “Gypsies” want her to do basic chores. This also creates an idea that Romani people do not write poetry, and do not understand the necessity of what Orlando is doing. Romani people are involved with only mundane everyday activities. Woolf writes, “‘She prefers a sunset to a flock of goats,’ said the gipsies. What was to be done, Orlando could not think. To leave the gipsies and become once more an Ambassador seemed to her intolerable. But it was equally impossible to remain forever where there was neither ink nor writing paper, neither reverence for the Talbots nor respect for a multiplicity of bedrooms.”[2] Woolf creates a false dichotomy between being Romani and being English, forgetting that Romani people are a part of the society Woolf writes about and like Orlando they also have a desire to write poetry.

Virginia Woolf was certainly not familiar with Romani writers of her own time. Woolf is not displaying Romani people of her own time, but her image of Romani people is that of romanticized nomadic people, who have no money and no land, but are happy. They do not write or are not educated and thus, can also be dangerous. Of course Woolf wrote a fictional piece, not a historical text and we should not search for historical facts in Orlando. However, it is very problematic to mis-describe a group, whose struggles are invisible and have been ignored. As a result, such works strengthen stereotypes and oppression of already underprivileged communities.

There are much more examples of the misrepresentation of Romani people in the Western literature. However, let us now turn to Romani women’s voices to show why the recognition of their work is important and why their writing needs to be taken more seriously among modern feminists.

Papusza or Bronislawa Wajs was Virginia Woolf’s contemporary woman poet. Many consider Papusza not only the pioneer among Romani women writers, but also she is one of the most well known Romani writers in general. However, Papusza was both neglected by her own community as an “unclean” woman and of course by the outside world because of being Roma. She spent her life in isolation and loneliness. The idea of mobility (or even exile) and a sense of not belonging to a land are seen in her poetry, but it is not a romantic and an unrealistic representation of wandering. Papusza writes,

 

The time of the wandering Gypsies

Has long passed,

But I see them,

They are bright,

Strong and Clear like water.[3]

 

It is true that in the Western literature wandering of Romani people has been put in an ahistorical context. Romani people of the 20th century have a different lifestyle from the Romani people of the 15th century. Papusza is contextualizing this mobility and giving it an historical meaning by emphasizing that the time of the wandering “Gypsies” has long passed. Despite the fact that the wandering belongs to the past, Papusza still recognizes the mobility as a part of her culture or identity. This mobility is not just physical, but has to do with the state of one’s being. In Papusza’s poem, a movement that the water represents involves strength and also it implies displacement and pain.

 

You can hear it wandering

When it wishes to speak.

But poor thing, it has no speech.

Apart from silver splashing and sighing.

Only the horse, grazing the grass,

Listens and understands that sighing.

 

The impossibility of speaking that is substituted with sighing shows how she and her people are deprived of existence and forms of expression beyond the pain they experience. But we can indeed understand and communicate through sounds such as sighing to make others understand that one is in pain. However, it is only the horse that hears these sounds. The absence of people from this communication emphasizes the impossibility of speaking and also a refusal by others to hear these sounds that express suffering.

Papusza is not only accentuating the situation of Romani people, but she also writes about her own state as a poet and as a woman who is searching for ways to express herself. She ends the poem in a way that reflects her own life, which was spend in loneliness and isolation,

 

But the water does not look behind

It flees, runs away further,

Where the eyes will not see her,

The water that wanders.

 

Papusza defied the rules of different oppressive worlds; that is why she, as a woman has a mind of a wanderer. The water that runs away fast represents a courageous woman like Papusza, whose destiny is to be in exile. However, it is by exposing these experiences through poetry that resists this very destiny.

Another poet who shows a great resistance through her work is Hedina Tahirović Sijerčić. Sijerčić also exposes struggles connected to mobility, opposing the stereotype of happy wandering. Her poems, CV I and CV II, emphasize how fast the environment around her changes and how she, as a woman, experiences those changes. Sijerčić is more explicitly political in her writing. For example, she points to the unemployment issues not as a form of one’s personal misfortune, but as a problem of the system Romani people live in. Sijerčić writes:

 

I ask for job: they didn’t give me a job.

I don’t have papers!

I don’t have children without identity papers.

I don’t have job without papers.

I don’t have bread without papers.

I have to go far away.[4]

 

The movement of a Romani person in this case is not voluntary, but rather one is pushed around from a country to country because of the denial to be an active subject within a land. Settling down does not mean being immobile. It means to act and move in a socio-political sphere and if one has no access to such mobility, then he/she needs to leave in order to survive. The absence of documents reflects how Romani people can be alienated and deprived of legal rights and thus, of normal everyday existence. The impossibility to move within a certain country pushes one to move away elsewhere. Sijerčić expresses through repetition how “moving away” itself can become mundane and systematized,

 

I was born in Russia.

I went to school in Poland.

I worked as an apprentice in Romania.

I married in Serbia.

I got a job in Bosnia.

 

The first child I got in Croatia.

The second child in France, the third

in Spain, the fourth in Germany,

The fifth in Belgium.

 

I returned to Serbia…[5]

 

We can see how everyday life events are becoming parts of the mobility. Moving around is not characterized by happy traveling, but it is repetitive and even mundane since the mobility is systematic rather than voluntary. The emphasis on mobility or the lack of it and limitations put on certain bodies are important themes that feminist writers and literary theorists are especially interested in. It is true that the more freely a person moves within a space, the more opportunities she has to shape the course of her own life. Many women writers such as Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Iva Pekárková, Gloria Anzaldúa and others wrote about mobility and struggles of displacement. As mentioned before, nomadism in general has been idealized and seen as a way to escape oppressive structures like Woolf’s Orlando. However, the importance of mobility should not be decontextualized and aestheticized. Caren Kaplan in her, Questions of Travel, criticizes this widespread practice of idealizing nomadism and emphasizes the importance of understanding struggles involved in it. She writes, “the paradigms of exile constructed in these modernist critical practices assume that all ages and figures participate in the same concept in the same way and that the history of the concept of exile within and without the development of aesthetic categories in the West is unidimensional (if it exists at all)—in short, exile is completely dehistoricized. Normalizing exile, aestheticizing homelessness, the critical mythologization of the ‘artist in exile’ moves from a commentary on cultural production based on historically grounded experiences of displacement to the production of a style that emulates exile’s effects”(40). [6] 

Taking Kaplan’s criticism into account, it is important to appreciate forms of literary writing that are artistic expressions of different kinds of exiles. Authors who are writing about exile from a privileged perspective tend to de-historicize it. On the other hand, Romani poets such as Papusza or Sijerčić write about these topics from a certain political or historical perspective, which not only enriches our literary knowledge and experiences, but also help us bring to surface subtle ways of oppression that power structures like patriarchy, colonialism, racism and etc. perpetuate. Exposing these struggles implies strength and is the first step to resist unjust systems. I want to end with Sijerčić’s poem, “Hear, Feel”, where she talks not only about Romani people, but also about those who need to hear Romani people’s voices as well. She writes,

Do you hear the steps on the road,

The speech of people and the laugh of children,

Do you hear it? Do you feel it?

If you hear it, if you feel it: they didn’t

kill the man within you.[7]

 

[1] Ian Hancock. “The Origin and Function of the Gypsy Image in Children’s Literature.” The Lion and the Unicorn: A Critical Journal of Children’s Literature 11, no. 1, 47-59.

[2] Virginia Woolf. Orlando. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973. 86.

[3] Hedina Tahirović Sijerčić. Like Water/Sar o Paj: A collection of Peoms by Romani Women. Brisbane: Amber Press, 2010. 4.

[4] Ibid., 10.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Caren Kaplan. Questions of Travel: Postmodern Discourses of Displacement. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996. 40.

[7] Hedina Tahirović Sijerčić. Like Water/Sar o Paj: A collection of Peoms by Romani Women. Brisbane: Amber Press, 2010. 9.

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