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Paola Toninato

Romani literature in Britain and Australia: An overview

The first written records of the Romani presence in Britain date back to the beginning of the sixteenth century (Fraser, 1992). From here, Romani groups later migrated to North America and Australia as part of a worldwide Romani diaspora. Today there are different ethnic minority groups in the UK commonly referred to as ‘Travellers’ or ‘Romany Gypsies’: English Romanichals, Welsh Kale, Scottish Travellers and Irish Travellers as well as a small number of more recently arrived Roma from Central and Eastern Europe. Some groups speak distinct varieties of Romani but the predominant language among Roma in the UK is what is known as Anglo-Romani (Matras, 2010).

Romani literature in the UK

Historically, Romanies and Travellers have a strong and rich oral tradition (Groome, 1899; Sampson, 1930; Briggs, 1970). The rise of Romani written literature in the UK is more recent and is characterised by a variety of genres, particularly memoirs, transcriptions of oral narratives, autobiographical novels, short stories and poetry collections.

Over the past few decades, several autobiographies and memoirs of English and Welsh Romanies, as well as Scottish and Irish Travellers, have been published. They include works by Sylvester Gordon Boswell (1970), Nan Joyce (1985), Nan Donohoe (1986), Betsy Whyte (1992 and 2004), Jess Smith (2002) and Maggie Smith-Bendell (2009).

Among the Romani poets and writers in Britain are Ray Smith, author of One Hand Clapping (1995), the poet and civil rights activist Eli Frankham (1928–2000, see also Seven Ages of the Roma Civil Rights Movement in Great Britain), Josie Townley, Lucy Ann Adams, Tom Odley and Hester Hedges.

Kathleen Cunningham (1939–2008) published two collections of poetry, A Moving Way of Life (1997) and Jel Akai Chavvies [Children, come here] 2004), as well as the The Great Romany Showman (2007), which recounts her family’s history.

Charlie Smith (1956–2005, see also Roma Civil Rights Movement in Great Britain) was a Romani writer and activist born in Rochford, Essex. His literary efforts are known and recognised at the international level – he was a member of the International Romani Writers’ Association:

He began writing in the early 1980s and published his first poems in the anthology Gavvered All Around in 1986. Later he published two poetry collections: The Spirit of the Flame (1990) and Not all Wagons and Lanes (1995). A leading Romani activist, Smith joined the National Gypsy Education Council (of which he became chair), an organisation committed to improving the provision of schooling for Romani children in England, and became the first Romani member of the Commission for Racial Equality in 2004.

Damian James Le Bas, son of the well-known British artists Damian and Delaine Le Bas, graduated from Oxford University in 2006. He is a dramatist, film-maker and editor of the Travellers’ Times. He has published a number of academic essays and co-edited, together with Thomas Acton, All Change: Romani Studies through Romani Eyes (2010).

Louise Doughty is the author of the internationally acclaimed Fires in the Dark (2003), a historical novel about the Nazi persecution in the former Czechoslovakia, and Stone Cradle (2006). These books were followed by Whatever you love in 2010, the best-seller Apple Tree Yard in 2013 and Black Water in 2016. Apple Tree Yard was adapted into a film by the BBC that featured Emma Watson in the title role.

David Morley, a poet, critic and academic, is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Warwick. His publications include several collections of poetry, such as Clearing a Name (1998), Enchantment (2010), The Gypsy and the Poet (2013), The Invisible Gift: Selected Poems (2015), The Death of Wisdom Smith, Prince of Gypsies (2016) and The Magic of What's There (2017).

Romani literature in Australia

Among Australia’s leading Romani writers are Jimmy Storey, Marie Olaussen, Lee Fuhler and Norman Talbot. The latter’s poems have been translated into Italian.

Born in England, Jimmy Storey has published a number of articles and is the author of the poetry collection Over There (1983). His writings aim to counter the widespread ‘Gypsy’ myths and stereotypes about Roma and help to establish an attitude of respect towards the Roma and their culture. Besides his literary activities, he is active in representing Romani groups in Australia: he was the first president of the Romani Association of Australia, which was established in 1990 and is affiliated to the International Romani Union (IRU).

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