Countries & Regions

Search

Lorely French and Paola Toninato

Roma literature in USA and Canada

Beginning in the 1880s, Roma arrived in the United States from Serbia, Russia and Austria-Hungary in conjunction with an influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. With the onset of the First World War in 1914, came restrictions on immigration, which stemmed its flow (Salo and Salo, 1986).

Photographs by Carlos de Wendler-Funaro from around 1920 to1975 and now in the ‘Gypsy Research Collection’ of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. document several groups of Roma, including Kalderash from parts of Russia, Machvaya from Serbia, Ludar from northwestern Bosnia, Romanichals from England; ‘Black Dutch’, also referred to as ‘Chikkeners’ (from Pennsylvania German: re. Zigeuner in German), and Roma from Hungary.

Approximately one million people of Romani origins are living in the United States, with Romani communities in the most populous cities – New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Seattle and Portland (Oregon) – as well as in rural Texas and Arkansas.

Romani literature in the US has gained visibility over the past two decades. Writers and poets write and publish mostly in English. Ian Hancock, professor at the University of Texas in Austin, is the creator of the Romani Archives and Documentation Center and remains active in promoting Romani culture. His list of noteworthy Roma in the 2002 book We Are the Romani People / Amen sam e Rromane džene lists famous Americans such as actors Charlie Chaplin, Rita Hayworth and Freddie Prinze, and former President Bill Clinton.

Regarding poetry, the work of Nadia Hava-Robbins is highly original. Born in Prague, Hava-Robbins emigrated to the US and began writing poetry to investigate her people’s origins. In her work as a performing artist and storyteller, she brings together poetry, music and dance in an original manner. She is a member of the International Society of Poets, and her verses have been published as part of the National Library of Poetry anthologies.

US writer Cecilia Woloch, who is of part-Romani descent, wrote Tsigan: The Gypsy Poem (2002), a book of poetry devoted to the exploration of her Romani roots. She has published several collections of poetry, which have been translated into several languages.

Glenda Bailey-Mershon is a poet, essayist, novelist, cultural historian and human rights activist. Her debut novel, Eve’s Garden (2014), is written from the perspectives of three generations of Romani and part-Romani women living in rural Georgia from the 1920s through the 1980s. The youngest character, Eve Gates, pieces together her history from conversations she has overheard as her grandmother and mother tried to protect themselves from local prejudices.

Jessica Reidy is a part-Romani author of poems and short stories, and currently has a novel in progress (see her ‘Why the Pyres are unlit’, ‘Murder and tradition’ and ‘We rise up). She is also an activist and prolific creator of digital literature. Her works portray rich cultural traditions and customs that she learned from her grandmother, who emigrated to the US from Europe to escape persecution under National Socialism. Reidy also depicts confrontations with stereotypes and discrimination in the first-person narrative form and incorporates historical and current events.

American Gypsy is by Oksana Marafioti, a writer, classically trained pianist and cinematographer of Armenian and Russian Romani descent. As a fifteen-year-old, she moved to Los Angeles with her family just before the Soviet Union collapsed. Her humorous, yet reflective coming-of-age account depicts a teenage girl caught between her memories of touring with her musical family through rural areas of the former USSR and her immigrant hopes, dreams and challenges. Without sentimentalising or exoticising, she portrays an American Romani community faced with the dual task of preserving customs and assimilating.

Other American writers of Romani descent include Diana Norma Szokolyai, Caren Gussoff, and Will Stenberg. Szokolyai is a Hungarian-Romani-American writer and performance artist whose MA thesis (2007) is on Romani poets and whose poetry collections Parallel Sparrows (2012) and Roses in the Snow (2008) have won prizes. Gussoff is of Kalderash, Russian and Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, whose book of science fiction, Three Songs for Roxy (2015), tells three inter-related tales that centre on Kizzy, whom aliens have left as a foundling to a Romani family in Seattle. Stenberg is the son of the American Romani activist Anna Marie Stenberg and a poet, songwriter and musician.

Canada

Canada is home to approximately 80,000 Roma. The Toronto Roma Community Centre regularly sponsors cultural celebrations and readings, including the presentation of Cynthia Levine-Rasky’s book (2016) on Romani emigration to Canada.

The Canadian-born Romani academic and writer Ronald Lee has written extensively on Romani history and the Romani language and in 2010 compiled a Romani dictionary. His autobiographical novel Goddam Gypsy, first published in 1971, has been translated into several languages and was reprinted in 2009 as The Living Fire / E Zhivindi Yag.

2017 saw the publication of A Romani Women’s Anthology: Spectrum of the Blue Water, which contains poems, essays, short stories and artworks by a wide range of contributors. Its aim is to highlight diverse Romani women’s voices in Canada.