A new anthology presents three generations of Romany writers

It is estimated that some ten million Roma live in Europe – the equivalent of the total population of the Czech Republic. But we hear very little about Romany writing. A new anthology published by the Museum of Romany Culture in Brno and called “Čalo vod’i” (Full Soul) is helping to put that right, bringing together four decades of prose written by Romany authors in the Czech Republic. All the stories were written in the Romany language, and this attractive hardback edition with parallel Romany and Czech texts offers rich insights into Romany life in this country, past and present. The stories span a period from the 1960s to the present day, and although some of the writers are already well known, other names will be quite new even to people familiar with Czech Romany writing. The anthology was compiled by Helena Sadílková, who told me about the process of putting together works by no less than twenty-one Romany writers.

Helena Sadílková
“I had been reading a lot of the Romany literature that was published in the Czech Republic during the last fifty or sixty years, and as I was reading through it I realized that there are a lot of people who have written interesting things. But these are always short stories. Only a few of these authors have managed to write enough to be published as a book. I thought it would be very nice to have an anthology, where all of these ‘small’ authors could actually publish their best pieces.”

Most of the stories are either autobiographical, or they are talking about parents, grandparents or ancestors. Is this very typical for Romany writing in the Czech Republic or Slovakia?

“This is one of the characteristic trends, I would say, because a lot of these writers are actually working in the tradition of oral culture, and in the oral culture, stories about ancestors and about important people in people’s lives and about important events in people’s lives are very popular even today. This means that when people reached a point when they realized they could use writing, which was for many of them almost a revolutionary event or moment, then, I think quite logically, they started writing in the way of the stories they were used to hearing about.”

And some of the stories are also interesting in the way that they go between realism and a really quite fantastic world, where you have figures like the Empress Marie Theresa suddenly turning up in a story. Is this also typical – to have the border between what is true and what is fantasy not necessarily clearly defined?

“I would say that this again is a typical characteristic of narrations, because these narrations always happen between the narrator and the audience, and the line between what is realistic, what is still believable, is very flexible. It depends on the audience how far they let the author or the narrator employ his fantasy.”

Tell me about some of your favourite stories in this anthology.

“One of my most favourite pieces is the piece called ‘O Dilino’, which means ‘Stupid’, by Zlatica Kalejová. It also has an interesting history. It is a story about believing, or about returning to childhood and believing that supernatural things are really possible, that fairytales are actually a reality. It is a story told through the eyes of an adult woman who recollects how, when she was a little girl, they used to tell a fairytale about a pig that miraculously reincarnated into a beautiful princess. She connects it with a story that happened in her village with one of her small friends, who found a little pig and was taking care of it for a long time. And then, when his mother decides that the pig has to be killed so they will have enough to eat, he actually runs away with this pig. Then, after several years, he returns with a beautiful woman. And this little girl actually recognizes that this beautiful woman could be this little pig that he has been taking care of.”

“Idiot has come back!” someone cried. At those words all the Roma came running out of their houses. It’s really him! Idiot! He was still thin, slim, but he had grown up. A handsome young man. Skinny came up from the back, slowly, she was scared it would kill her if it turned out not to be him.

When Idiot saw his mother, he threw himself into her arms. “Mami, don’t be angry.” He kissed her hands. Skinny hugged her son: “My boy has come back! My boy has come back!” She kissed his eyes, his mouth, his hair, and covered him with her tears.

“Mami, this is my wife.”

The Roma couldn’t believe their eyes. Her beauty was more dazzling than the brightest sunshine! That’s what they say in the fairy tales. “Where is she from, my boy? Who are your people, my girl?” “From far away, Mami, far away.”

“You can see this boundary between reality and fantasy, and how fairytale and belief in childhood stories is very strong in this story. And then the history of the story itself is also interesting, because this story was written in the 1960s. In the late 1960s, early 1970s the Roma in the Czech Republic for the first time had the possibility to publish anything in Romany. There was a journal called ‘Románo lil’ and there they could publish short stories and poems. As this journal became established and much better known in the general Romany public, people started to send their stories to the editorial house. This is one of the stories that actually arrived at the journal, but, because in 1973 the journal itself and the political movement was abolished by the communists, this story was never actually published. It remained in the archives of the editorial house, and then it was saved when the building was being moved, but it was never published.”

A lot of these stories are written by older Romany writers. Most of them were also written some time ago. There seems to be surprisingly little more recent writing in Romany. Is this because people are no longer writing?

“Of course it is a minority movement and even though ethnic writing is so popular nowadays, even in the mainstream, the Roma have never made it into this mainstream and to being seen as an ethnic literature. I think it is a question of support and of acceptability perhaps, because Romany music has always been part of the mainstream, so it is not such a miracle that nowadays we have Romany rappers or Romany hip-hoppers or whatever. And they have really made it into the world music scene, whereas literature is so much apart from what is traditional Romany culture, because it has been an oral culture, which means it is still very unnatural for people to write and for people to read, when we look at the Romany public.

“And then, in the mainstream literary culture I think it is also a matter of being capable of accepting different norms, different standards, different canons, because many of these authors have very little institutional education and they are really working with the oral tradition, which in some ways is so different from the mainstream literary canon that it is very difficult for these people to make it into the mainstream.”

All these writers are writing in the Romany language, the ancient language spoken by European Roma for centuries. I’d be interested to know whether there are still many younger Roma who are still in a position to be able to write in the Romany language, because it seems that even with attempts to keep the language alive the drift towards Czech is continuing.

“On the one hand it is absolutely true that many of the older authors have Romany as their mother tongue, and they really do express themselves much better in Romany than they do in Czech. But there are also many people who have actually written their pieces in Czech and have then translated them into Romany. There are also a few people who no longer write or speak Romany, but on the other hand I have to say that with the younger generation nobody really actually knows to what degree the language has been lost. I think there is a very strong passive knowledge of the language even in the younger generation, even though they do not use it as often as they could. It is really a question of little inputs that actually turn them into using Romany again.”

Although most of the writers are of the older generation, there are one or two short pieces written by much younger Romany writers. One of them is Patrik Čonka. I felt that he really writes in a way that is very interesting.

“Yes. This is one of the writers who are a breath of fresh air. His short story reflects the position of the Roma as they are seen by the majority population. It is about a young man, unemployed, left by his woman. And the story is called ‘Morning’. It is about him lying in bed and trying to get up, trying to do something with his life and being unable to do anything with it.”

It’s all been the same, the last couple of years. Grey, reeking of cigarette smoke, a waste of time. I open my eyes and through the fog of sleep, I squint at the cracks in the wall.

I shift, the sound of the bed disturbs a mouse, God knows where it came from, its breakfast is the hard crust of my bread. I stare at the wall and my thoughts drift back to Marika. Bitch. On the table among what’s left of the food, a letter from her is kicking around. It came yesterday. I haven’t opened it yet. Why should I.

A noise in the corridor shakes me from my dreams. The neighbour’s yelling at Fanda. Fanda’s her new guy, she picked him up in some joint.

It’s raining. I get up and go to the toilet. It’s not flushing, hasn’t been for two days. Why bother to mend it. Who for. Outside kids are yelling, on their way to school. Brats. In the mirror some unshaven face looks at me. I run the palm of my hand over my face. I should wash and look for work. What’s the point. Damn it!