The neglected wealth of Roma writing in the Czech Republic

Bernie Higgins and Milena Hubschmannova (right)

Once again a very warm welcome to Czech Books. Now if somebody asks you about Romany or "Gypsy" culture in Central Europe you'll most probably think first and foremost of music. But in the Czech Republic and Slovakia today there is also a growing tradition of Romany writing. That's the subject of today's Czech Books. A few days ago, my colleague Bernie Higgins went to meet Milena Hubschmannova, who teaches Romany studies at Prague's Charles University and the Romani language, still spoken by many of Central Europe's Roma. Dr Hubschmannova has been instrumental in fostering an awareness of Romany literature both in the Czech Republic and abroad. She began their conversation by telling Bernie a little about the short history of Roma writing in this country.

Bernie Higgins and Milena Hubschmannova  (right)
"Well, Romany literature is very young. It started to be created about thirty years ago in 1969/1970 when the first Union of Roma was founded. They published a journal, Romano Lil, and I would say that for the first time in history the Roma started to write in Romani, and also their things were published in this journal. And then again this "normalizace" ["normalization" - the period that followed the Soviet-led invasion of 1968] came back and a policy of assimilation. Again Romani was not allowed to be publicly spoken, published, used, and so again it stopped. But these people who started to write, they didn't forget. They knew that something like that is possible. So immediately after 1989 - in 1990 - they started again to write. The first authors were not at all educated, for instance Tera Fabianova, who is really an excellent writer - she was born in 1930, and when she was attending school, the war came, and she was allowed to go to school only two years. So in fact, Tera Fabianova, who is one of the best and one of the oldest, attended only two classes of elementary school."

She won an award earlier this year, the European Roma Literary Award - a special distinction in fiction - but I know her as a great poet. I wonder if we could concentrate on one poem of hers, and I'd like to ask you to read it in Romani.


E bacht ke mande avel

ca perdal le chavorengere vastora.

O coripen ke mande khere,

so man uzarel?

Dinom le Devleske, so leskero hin.

Mek kamav le bengeske vareso?

Upral mro sero o chmari denasen,

me ke phuv kijaphandli som

sar bango kast...

Tho bango kast del uchaj.

I'd like to give a very loose English translation now: 'Happiness comes to me/ only through the hands of my children./ At home there's only unhappiness - / what more is waiting for me?/ I've given to God what I owe./ Do I still owe something to the devil?/ High above my head the clouds race/ and I am connected to the earth like a twisted tree.../ Even a twisted tree casts shade.'

"All the poems which Tera wrote - and there are not many of them - she was shouting them into the universe. For instance, you know, she was washing the dishes once. I came to her because she is my very close friend, and she was washing the dishes. All at once she started to recite - no not recite - but simply to say how she got married. So I said: Tera, immediately sit down and immediately put it down. She couldn't because she had hands from the dishes, so I told her to repeat it again and I put it down [laughs]."

I'd like to mention now a book by Ilona Lackova, which I know you had a great part in bringing to birth.

Ilona Lackova and her granddaughter,  photo: CTK
"Well, I must say that Ilona Lackova was a little exception in the beginning because she was writing herself and it was her dream to write. She was writing very often in Slovak language, because it was not possible under communism to publish anything in Romani. A girl who was born in the Gypsy settlement with six hundred Gypsies - or I should say Roma - and all of whom were illiterate, she was the only one who went to school because her father was a "cibal" that means a head of the settlement and he was a little exceptional. She became famous by writing a first play - but of course again in Slovak, not in Romani - about what she went through during the Second World War. And she staged and rehearsed it with her relatives. Most of them were illiterate, so she was telling them the text and they were repeating it after her. And what Ilona was telling me about her life was a hundred times more interesting than what she was writing, unfortunately, because there was no Romany literature existing, so she had no model, she had no pattern. So she was trying to copy what she read in Slovak literature, and unfortunately she was reading what in Czech is called "cervena knihovna" [romantic fiction], because that was the only thing which she got in the Gypsy settlement. And the other source of her inspiration in Slovak was Marxist literature - so you combine these two! But what she was telling was something completely different. It was so fascinating. So we were sitting, and she was a fantastic narrator, as most Roma are, so I was recording and recording and recording. And then, after eight years of recording, I put it together. You know, we arranged it and this book was born. But it's all her own narratives which I only edited - recorded and edited."

And the English translation of this book is "A False Dawn - my life as a Gypsy woman in Slovakia." [Narodila jsem se pod stastnou hvezdou]. I'd like to read a short piece now from the English translation, and this is about how she started to write the play that you've just mentioned.

I was writing in Slovak. It didn't occur to me that I could write differently. But in my head my characters' lines came out in Romani. Whoever heard of a Romany woman getting angry in Slovak because her little daughter had grown up and fallen in love not with a fellow with some steady job, but with some swell of a musician. Those beautiful verbal skirmishes of ours, full of peace and good feeling that I wanted to start my play with couldn't even be translated into Slovak. My husband was starting to get irritated with my efforts, getting angry and saying: 'Give it a rest girl. You can see it's too hard for you, so what are you working yourself up for?' [...]

I thought that I would quit, but then the devil got into me and I finished the play in one session. I called Josef and said: 'Please come and sit down for a while and listen.' I called the play "The Burning Gypsy Camp". It was the story of how they took our men off to work camps, how they moved us out of the village, how the mayor of the Romany settlement stood up to the gendarmes and how they shot him, and how his beautiful daughter Angela cried out: 'Dear Father, don't die,' but then together with her kindhearted "gadzo" engineer, who loved her to death, incited a rebellion by the Roma against the gendarmes and the Hlinka Guards. Josef was curious and really did settle in, and I began to read. I read with fire, getting into every character, and I had quite a time of it to keep from crying. I finished reading and I was afraid to look at Josef. He was quiet. He stayed quiet for a long time, until finally I carefully, slowly lifted up my eyes and I saw tears as big as beads of glass rolling down his face. He said nothing, and then he asked straight out: 'Who are we going to rehearse it with, girl?' 'With our own people, who else.'

I'd like to ask you now about the younger generation of writers and whether you've noticed any changes - what the state is today with Romany literature.

Milena Hubschmannova
"You know, that's very interesting. Now there's a difference between the Roma, who live in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In the Czech Republic the assimilation process is going more quickly than in Slovakia. So in Slovakia you can find young Roma who are trying to write and they write in Romani. Here in the Czech Republic you can also find young writers, but they are divided. Some of them still write in Romani and some of them write already in Czech because though passively they may know Romani, it's not their language of communication any more. And what is very interesting, for instance, is that we have one writer called Samko - he is about thirty years old - and he is trying to trace Romany history, and writing invented historical legends about Roma, which is a very specific genre and very interesting. What is also very interesting is the high school in Kolin - the Romany school in Kolin - and there also, for a third of these young kids, Romani is still their mother tongue. And some of them write. One of them writes fascinatingly, very nicely. So there are Roma writers."

Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.