Kher publishing house, a ‘home’ for Romani writing

Photo: Kher publishing

The publishing house Kher was established by students of Romani language and culture at Charles University some eight years ago. The aim was to support and promote not just literature but use of the minority language itself. The latest book from Kher, which means “home” in Romani, is a collection of short stories about the spirits of the dead – an anthology published in large part thanks to a crowdfunding campaign.

The title of that anthology – ‘O Mulo!’ – Povídky o duchách zemřelých’ – is a mix of Romani and Czech, and indeed half of the twenty stories within it about the spirits of the dead, while all written by contemporary Romani authors, are in Czech or its linguistic first cousin, Slovak. It came together through an “open call”, a search for fresh voices, says Kher editor Lenka Jandáková.

Photo: Kher publishing

“Open literary challenges have proven quite valuable. One led to a collection of fairy tales and two collections of short stories by Romani authors. Recently, thanks to crowdfunding, we published this collection of ghost stories. The people who put together the book who convinced us that readers would really be interested also in print books (not just online) by Romani authors. So, in the end, we simply had to republish the book due to the strong interest.

“We were surprised to find that even in the short stories which we thought had come from an author’s imagination, there is a real core. Tales of experiences with ghosts are passed from generation to generation, as a family member’s authentic encounter with the supernatural.

“Only a few of the stories in ‘O Mulo!’ are solely their invention, and the Romani storytelling tradition is still an unexhausted wellspring of ideas. Roma who have interesting family stories to tell should sit down and write them as, unfortunately, the tradition is disappearing.

“The themes change along with the generations telling them. On one hand, there are those who experienced storytelling gatherings first-hand in Slovakia. Others spent their childhoods in the Czech Republic, their families adapted to urban life, and who read books by Czech and world authors growing up. They have an overview of the genre in which they write, but draw on their unique Romani experience, which can be an interesting combination for their readers.”

Oral traditions, the Prague Spring and World Romani Congress

Milena Hübschmannová,  photo: Jana Šustová

In socialist-era Czechoslovakia, few even thought to write in the Romani language, the use of which authorities considered a barrier to assimilating the minority group, once known as Gypsies, who often lived on the literal margins of society. At the same time, many Roma thought of their mother tongue as a language reserved for family and friends – for speech, song and oral storytelling rather than for the written word.

That started to change, slowly, in Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s with the liberalisation reforms known as the Prague Spring. The trend picked up after the first World Romani Congress of 1971 held outside London, which was attended by representatives from nine nations, including Czechoslovakia, and promoted the idea of a Diaspora.

Leading the effort to codify the language and document Romani traditions in the Czech lands was the late Milena Hübschmannová, the first professor of Romani studies at Charles University of Prague. It was she founded the academic study programme from which, decades later, Kher’s own founders would graduate. Among them was the publishing house’s first editor, Lukáš Houdek.

“Already in the sixties and seventies, Milena Hübschmannová supported Roma writers. She was a very brave lady, who always supported Roma people in general. But her passion was always, I would say, Romani literature and language. She fought for their rights during communism and she was persecuted.

Lukáš Houdek | Photo: Veronika Ruppert,  Czech Radio

“After 1989, she set up the Romani Studies at Charles University and led it until her death [in 2005]. So, for many Roma writers and other Roma she was like a mother, a supporter. When she passed away, for many writers the engine disappeared. They didn’t have anyone to write for, who would support them. And that’s why we decided to do something. We saw that writers want to write, want to publish, but didn’t have the possibility. They need some kind of assistance.”

Prof. Hübschmannová, who was not of Romani origin herself, not only collected many of the stories of the Roma, translating them into Czech for posterity, she compiled a definitive bilingual dictionary. In an interview a couple of years before she died, recalled how the Prague Spring allowed her to openly work on studies related to Romani culture – and help found and edit a Romani language journal.

“In 1968, the so-called Prague Spring, there was an attempt to make society more democratic. That was suppressed very soon. The Soviet troops came here. But in that time, Roma were permitted to form their own organisation. It was called the Union of Gypsy-Roma. And they also started to publish a bulletin.

“For the first time in the history of Roma, I would say, it was the Roma themselves who started to write, who wanted to write, who wanted to express their ideas in the Romani language.”

‘We weren’t used to the written word’

Ilona Ferková,  photo: Jana Šustová

Among the best-known Czech authors writing in Romani today is Ilona Ferková. She credits a book by Andrej Gina, a Slovak-born writer of Romani origin, with awakening a desire to tell stories – and is grateful to Prof. Hübschmannová, for encouraging her to put pen to paper.

“I saw the first thing that Andrej Gina had written. It was the first time that I’d seen written Romani. The book was there in the shop and the title was in Romani. It really puzzled me. I couldn’t believe it.

“But I didn’t really start thinking about it until I founded a music group with some other women. There was one song in Romani we sang. Milena Hübschmannová really liked it. It was real. She asked me who had written it, and I said – me. Milena encouraged me to write. But I’d never written anything. It was strange, very strange, to write in Romani.

“It was strange to be putting down what I said. It was even a slightly unpleasant feeling. When I read it back, I said, ‘It sounds odd’. We weren’t used to the written word. But I read it again and again – and thought – ‘this is really nice’.”

Ilona Ferková’s novel De Mek Jekh, Lido! (Same Again, Lída!) came out two years ago. Set in Rokycany, the western Bohemian city where Andrej Gina had moved with his family during the war to escape fascism in Slovakia.

Photo: Kher publishing

Her book centres around a down-and-out Romani man who lives on the streets and tells stories in exchange for beer and spare change at the gaming bar on the main square. Editor Lenka Jandáková says the novel is among the titles the Kher publishing house has now reissued.

“Since the 1990s, Ilona Ferková has been drawn mainly to social issues. However, in the book of short stories connected by the character Kaštánek, a homeless Romani man, she also used traditional storytelling, which she knew thanks to her father, and interweaves her childhood memories from Rokycany and real people from there.

“In this way, she captures a certain colour of the town and an empathic insight into the lives of people on the margins of society, such as homeless people and gamblers, breaking down old stereotypes about them. ‘‘Same again, Lída!’ is truly a unique kind of book and definitely worth reading.”

Apart from publishing new authors and stories, the Kher publishing house has compiled a reader and teachers’ guide called Rozummění (Reason), which aims to address the absence of Romani literary works in Czech curriculum and draw attention to possibilities for greater inclusion. While that initiative is aimed at the youth, among other things, Kher is now looking to preserve the voices of those in the autumn years, says Lenka Jandáková.

“We want to bring the rather neglected topic of the Romani Holocaust and resistance, so stories from the Second World War that should not fade into oblivion. We will also continue to publish so-called women’s prose because we think that literature has a wonderful ability to convey the human experience, regardless of ethnicity.”

(with interviews by Rena Horvátová and David Vaughan)