Ronald Lee is a Romani Canadian writer and activist born in Montreal in 1934. He spent his formative years in Great Britain and later moved back to Canada, where he married and, together with Lynn Hutchinson Lee, became a founding member and director of the Roma Community Centre in Toronto. They devoted themselves not only to assisting Roma but also to fostering intercultural dialogue.
Lee’s main publications include the autobiographical novel Goddam Gypsy, in which the author explores the world of Roma living in Canada in the 1960s, highlighting cultural conflicts between Canadian ethnic minorities and the majority population. He has also published Learn Romani, a Kalderash-Romani dictionary, and numerous academic essays on Romani language, culture and history.
Goddam Gypsy (first published in 1971 and reprinted in 2009 as The Living Fire / E Zhivindi Yag) is a fictional account of the writer’s life in Canada during the years 1958–67, a period in which official multiculturalism policies had not yet been put in place in that country. The main character, Yanko, raised by a non-Romani foster family and educated at university level, attempts to integrate into Canadian majority society. When those attempts prove unsuccessful, he decides to go and live among Roma. He intends to support his growing family by working in the tin-plating industry alongside his Romani friend Kolja. However, owing to the worsening economic situation, he realises that he will never succeed in obtaining respectable work unless he ‘shut[s his] mouth and pass[es] as a Gazho’, which he is no longer prepared to do.
Throughout the book, the author succeeds in deconstructing some of the most enduring anti-Romani stereotypes: the alleged ‘propensity’ of Roma to steal, their lack of literacy skills, their ‘magic’ abilities and their ‘changeless’, ‘timeless’ nature. Urged to look beyond the stereotypes, the reader appreciates the reality of the harsh living conditions that force Romani families to live on the margins, leaving them with no prospects for the future. In many respects, the fate of Roma resembles that of other minority groups living in Canada, especially Native Americans. Towards the end of the book, Yanko predicts that ‘Gypsies will assimilate eventually, like any other minority, by way of the slums, vice, the destruction of their culture and self-respect’ (p. 116). That prediction seems to be confirmed by the death of the old patriarch Dimitro, which symbolises the end of a culture that stands in dramatic contrast with mainstream society, where everything is ‘based on power and capital instead of on intellect and wisdom’ (p. 72).
Despite the pessimistic thread that runs through the novel, Yanko believes that Roma are or will be the ‘last people to be dehumanized’ (p. 89). All the hardship, prejudice and discrimination notwithstanding, the key aspects of Romani culture – Romani languages and traditions, the central role of family ties and intra-group solidarity –remain alive. The book has an open ending, as Yanko’s struggle ‘to find recognition and equality’ (p. 8) continues in another country.
Lee, Ronald. 1971. Goddam Gypsy: An Autobiographical Novel. Montreal: Tundra.
Lee, Ronald. 1987. Verdammter Zigeuner. Übersetzt von Irmela Brender, München: dtv.
Lee, Ronald. 2005. Learn Romani: Das-duma Rromanes. Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press.
Lee, Ronald. 2010. Romani dictionary: Kalderash-English. Magoria Books.