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Katharina Janoska

‘But all of this has nothing to do with us’ Experiences with literature by and about Roma

In my family, there was little talk about our ancestry. Not that anybody felt ashamed or tried to hide anything, it was simply not a matter of importance for us.

When I grew older and started to come to grips with myself and my own history, I turned to books to find out more about Roma, this unfamiliar people. I was appalled when I read the first sections of various works.

A well-known example can be found in Theodor Tetzner’s Geschichte der Zigeuner; ihre Herkunft, Natur und Art [roughly, “History of the Gypsies: Their Origin, Nature, and Manner”] from 1835, in which Roma are portrayed as follows (p. 94):

‘But when we speak about the trades of the Gypsies, we must not think of our craftsmen, who eat their bread by the sweat of their brows. No, whatever requires effort and endurance is no business for these scruffy ne’er-do-wells, who like to laze around and only get down to anything if it leaves them plenty of time to do nothing.’

Particularly striking is the book’s organisation. There are, for example, chapters about Romani diet, clothing, appearance, physical constitution and character. An ethnic group is essentially described as a group of some sort of mythical creatures that have nothing to do with real human beings.

Writings of this kind often try to unravel and document the ‘nature of the Gypsies’. It seems as if an ethnic group is almost being trifled with. ‘But all of this has nothing to do with us’ – that was the thought that kept circling in my head as I read on.

The deeper I delved into the topic of Roma in literature, the more my anger, my desperation, my desire to change something grew. My father said to me back then,

‘Bear in mind: if you’re open about your ancestry, you’ll have to work twice as hard as the others.’

It was only many years later that I would understand his words, and they came back to my mind when I was sitting with my professor to discuss my Diplomarbeit. ‘Literatur von und über Roma. Unterschiede und Gemeinsamkeiten’ [Literature by and about Roma: Differences and Similarities] was the title of the thesis that I would later, in 2012, submit for a degree in Comparative Literature at the University of Vienna.

During the conversation I was asked if I was really sure that I could work in a scholarly and objective manner in spite of my ancestry. Naturally I answered in the affirmative. Little did I know that this very circumstance would push me almost to the limits of neutrality when I was writing my thesis: as a human being, as a Romni, as a woman.

One type of portrayal frequently found in non-Roma literature about Roma is the ‘Gypsy woman as temptress’ (see Fine Arts section and Film section). It is usually a (supposed) Roma girl, who is young and pretty and puts a non-Rom under her spell. One of the best-known examples is Esmeralda in Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The ‘Gypsy woman’ occupies an ambivalent position in such contexts. On the one hand, she is the temptress, the exotic stranger, and thus the symbol of the secret erotic desires of the bourgeoisie. On the other hand, precisely by being different and foreign, she also represents a danger to everyone’s own morals and religious beliefs.

People feel equally threatened and attracted by the mysterious. The figure symbolises the forbidden, which appears all the more enticing because it is forbidden.

This is why such female protagonists are often subjected to severe sanctions – the aim is not only to punish the stranger, but also to attempt to suppress one’s own attraction to her, thus nipping in the bud any danger of sinning.

While this stereotype still places Roma on the margin of society, it also casts them as mystical seducers, able to put anybody under their spell. They become an expression of society’s secret longings and desires. Just a moment ago scholarly texts had described them as ugly, but now there is no man who can resist the beauty of the ‘mysterious Gypsy woman’.

This, of course, conveys a false image, and one feels compelled to explain oneself – and this is precisely the point: for centuries, before the advent of radio, TV, or the Internet, literature was one of the most important media to influence people’s thoughts and views.

The racist descriptions of Roma in literature encouraged exclusion, persecution and hatred of the minority; they created prejudices that have partly survived until today.

These factors, in turn, had a major impact on Roma’s lives and development, and, in turn, on their own literature. A larger nexus, a literary and sociological cycle – which I tried to retrace in my thesis – can thus be identified.

This can be analysed particularly well in Romani literature: coming to terms with a history of persecution and murder, coping with past and present discrimination, just being a Rom or Romni are frequently recurring issues. The works of Ceija Stojka, Mongo Stojka, Stefan Horvath, Ilija Jovanović, Tamás Jónás, Bert Pertrup, Nedjo Osman (see also the Romani Theater ‘Pralipe’) and many others bear witness to this.

My thesis is also a result of all this. If I had not read so many appalling things in the literature about Roma, I would not have written a thesis where Roma themselves get a chance to speak and where it is not others, as is so often the case, who speak about ‘us’. Thus I am the best proof of the cycle described above.

The images created by fiction and fantasy tend to linger in people’s minds even today. The coining of the term ‘gypsy’ has produced something like a term of art, which is, for example, reflected in the names of various foods and dishes. ‘Gypsy’ has been turned into a product.

Roma have never had a chance to be anything but those mythical creatures that sprang from the imagination of poets and society at large. It remains to be seen when Roma will finally be viewed, respected and accepted as human beings – and nothing else.