Romany writers at home on Facebook

Renáta Berkyová, Lukáš Houdek, photo: Jana Šustová

In a recent edition of Czech Books, we spoke to the Romany writer, Irena Eliášová. She mentioned that her novel, November, had been published earlier this year by an internet publisher. This inspired David Vaughan to find out more about Romany writing in the digital age, and he discovered that Czech Roma have embraced the social media in a big way.

Lukáš Houdek,  photo: David Vaughan
The website has become a platform for publishing current Romany writing. Working with an almost non-existent budget, it offers background information about Romany writers, news about various literary activities – readings and workshops involving Romany writers, and above all, it publishes contemporary Romany writing in Czech, Slovak and Romany, the traditional language of Roma. If you search the site you will find poems, short stories and extracts, and even entire books, which can be downloaded free of charge. The driving force behind the initiative is Lukáš Houdek, who got the idea when he was working on a literary project for the Romany website Romea. He picks up the story.

“Every week some work by a Roma writer was published and I was coordinating that. When we finished, we decided to do something on our own to support Roma writers who don’t have so many opportunities to publish their work. We wanted to use or abuse the possibilities of internet, because many Roma these days are online. Even in ghettoes you will find an internet connection, and we wanted to support the Roma identity of the people and their access to the Romany language.”

I’ve noticed before that many Roma use the internet, especially Facebook. It’s all about networks, isn’t it? When you think of the Roma diaspora, I think the popularity of the social media among Roma makes sense.

“Exactly. I think Facebook is very important in the life of Roma, because part of their families live abroad: in England, Canada or the US. That’s how they keep in touch and how they get information as well. It’s very interesting that thanks to Facebook many Roma started to write in Romany, because until then there were not so many possibilities to write Romany. It was always a language of verbal communication and now they have to communicate in writing. That’s how they get more used to writing and reading Romany.”

Another thing that is interesting is that on the internet there are no international borders and Romany, in its many different dialects, is basically understandable by Romany speakers all over the world.

“That’s what happened now to some of our writers when they had a reading. Some Roma from Macedonia came and there was a discussion in Romany. The authors had a really good feeling, that they could speak their own language and be understood by somebody from a different part of Europe.”

Renáta Berkyová,  Lukáš Houdek,  photo: Jana Šustová
Who were the Czech Romany writers on that occasion?

“One was Renáta Berkyová, who is a very young, very good poet, but she is originally from Slovakia, so she represents the Czech Republic and Slovakia at the same time. Another was Eva Danešová, who is from Česká Třebová. She is a fifty-year-old lady, who started to write five years ago. I would say she is one of the stars of Czech Romany literature.”

You say that she is around fifty and has only recently started writing. Is this a new phenomenon – that Roma writers are discovering that they can write and that there is a potential readership?

“I think it is something that appeared already in the sixties and seventies, when 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, Romany literature and language. She fought for their rights during communism and she was persecuted. After 1989 she set up Romany Studies at the Charles University and she 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 they don’t have the possibility. They need some kind of assistance.”

We should mention that Milena Hübschmannová, who herself was not Romany, was incredibly charismatic and she devoted all her energy to encouraging and supporting Romany writers. I remember visiting several Romany writers with her and I was struck by the degree of empathy between Milena and the writers she supported. I’m delighted to hear that you are – in a sense – taking over that role, because there were many fears when Milena Hübschmannová died that Romany studies would fade generally in the Czech Republic.

“I was afraid as well, but it didn’t happen. I mean, it changed.”

To what extent is the Romany language surviving? Twenty years ago, when I was talking to people like Milena Hübschmannová, there was a lot of optimism about the future of Romany, but I have the feeling that most Romany teenagers in the Czech Republic today may know a lot of individual words in the language, but can’t speak it any more.

Milena Hübschmannová,  photo: Jana Šustová
“I would say it’s really a big problem. I’m afraid that Romany could disappear one day, but luckily it’s now kind of a fashion for Roma to speak Romany, as some of the Roma – because there are huge negative feelings against Roma these days – feel that they should somehow get together and the language is part of their identity. So I think that many Roma want to speak the language.”

It is something that people feel empowers them…

“Exactly, and that’s what Facebook really helps with. It’s a place where they can speak and write in Romany and they can see the positives. So I hope that it will again improve, but the Roma writers write more and more in Czech. It’s partly a question of topics, I think, because when they started to write it was mostly memories of childhood or they were writing about life in the Roma settlements in Slovakia, but these days they are moving to more individual topics and Romany doesn’t really fit in that. That’s what Roma writers say sometimes. If they write about their grandmother, they write it in Romany, because it connects with the grandmother, but if they write about their loves, or about some modern topics, they always write it in Czech, because in Romany it doesn’t go well for them.”

And so, what sort of things are the younger generation of Romany writers writing about?

“Some of them, or I would say all of them, start with these memories – childhood or a grandmother. It’s something that really connects all the writers. But after a time they want to become a writer and not only a Romany writer, and that’s why they try to find different topics. For example, Renáta Berkyová writes in her poems about love problems and other very individual things that are not that common in traditional Romany literature.

Dnes nepôjdem spať Nie, nepôjdem spať./ Nechám naďalej dupotať kone/ v našej izbe./ A koláž zo strún gitary,/ rannej omelety a lístkov na bus/ vyvesím cez okno/ ako vlajku/zošitú z dotykov,/ povievajúcu v dnešnom bezvetrí. I shall not sleep tonight. No, I shall not sleep./ I let the horses gallop onwards/ in our room./ And hang a collage of guitar strings,/ morning omelette and bus tickets/ across the window/ like a flag/ sewn of touches,/ fluttering gently in today’s still air. [Renáta Berkyová, trans. David Vaughan]

Irena Eliášová,  photo: David Vaughan
“Others, like Eva Danešová, also write about problems in relationships and social problems. Irena Eliášová is the same. She writes about injustice in society. And even though we can find that there are some meeting points, where you can see that the author is Roma, it’s not in the first place as it was before.”

You mention social problems. Is there a greater political engagement or political anger, given some of the recent quite shocking outbursts of anti-Roma racist sentiment that we have encountered here in the Czech Republic?

“I don’t think that the young authors now want to fight for the rights of Roma. They want to be themselves. They want to tell people what they feel, but they don’t want to tell them: ‘I am Roma and I want to speak Romany.’ It’s not important any more for them.”

I’d like to ask as well about music, because music and song have always been such a central part of Romany life. You’ve spoken a little about poetry, but I’d be interested to know to what extent music for younger Roma writers is a form of poetic expression. For example there are several Romany rappers.

“It’s true that there is a very close connection between music and poems, but it’s interesting that these days there are not many Romany poets. I don’t know why. Maybe it is because there is no longer such a connection between Roma and music, as it was before. So, for many writers in the 1960s, like Tera Fabiánová and later Emil Cina, who was also a poet, it was the first step for them to write poetry, because it was something they felt. But these authors are not like that. The first think they write is usually some short story.“

You mentioned Emil Cina, who was one of the older generation of Roma writers in the Czech Republic. He died just a few weeks ago, which was a very sad loss to Roma literature. You knew him personally. Can you tell us a little about him and his work?

“He was always a very enthusiastic and very positive person in public. Even though he had many fears and many problems, he was always positive and he always tried very hard to improve the situation of Romany language. Even when he was already very ill, he was still going round Czech schools, speaking with non-Roma children and Roma children about the language and promoting the language. This is something that nobody does any more. It was his passion to promote the language and I think that we shall really miss him.”

And finally, your website is very much a case of work in progress. What can we look forward to in the near future?

Emil Cina,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
“So far we have published two e-books, because we specialize in electronic books. What we discovered is that it’s a very good way of promoting Romany literature, because both books have been downloaded three thousand times. If you printed it, you would never sell such an amount. So they will really get to many readers. What we are preparing now are three books next year. One is a book by a former male prostitute, who wrote his autobiography. It’s very rough. And we are also hoping to publish a book of Emil Cina’s work, because he never published his own book, which is quite a pity. And we are about to publish a textbook for teachers who work with Roma children, where the Roma children can learn the Czech language and other abilities from texts by Roma authors, so they will get some positive examples and will see that Roma language and Roma topics fit into school.”