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Julia Blandfort

The Literature of the Sinti and Roma in France: On ‘Nomadic’ Identities

Around twenty writers who identify themselves as Roma have published prose and poetry in France. The first such publication, Les Ursitory by Matéo Maximoff, dates back to 1938 and appeared in print in 1946. Up to the present, some thirty prose works and around twenty volumes of poetry have been published. Despite this relatively long time span, the works reveal thematic and stylistic parallels that chart the development of a diaspora discourse. Here, the term ‘diaspora’ is understood in the sense of Rogers Brubaker (2005, 12) – as a language and attitude that serves, above all, to construct a world view. Within this process of identity construction, literature is playing a decisive role: the writers are expressing their individual points of view, albeit within a decidedly collective approach. (For further reading on the use of the term ‘diaspora’ in relation to Roma, see Blandfort, 2015.)

Mozes F. Heinschink | Matéo Maximoff, 1990 | photograph | Austria | 1990-05 - 1990-06 | lit_00061 Rights held by: Mozes Friedrich Heinschink | Licensed by: Mozes Friedrich Heinschink | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Mozes Friedrich Heinschink – Private Archive

This can be seen, for example, in the widespread use of the motif of the ‘nomad’. In this context, it should be emphasized that the use of the term ‘nomadic’ does not refer primarily to a way of life as a wandering community – one that is stereotypically linked to the lives of Sinti and Roma. Rather, ‘nomadic’ is understood in the sense of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1980), as an identifying feature.

In their works, writers of Romani descent are drawing on a history of actual migration that they are reinterpreting metaphorically: here it functions as a mind-set. Consequently, when the identification as ‘nomad’ is regarded as a unifying feature, applicable to all the different Romani groups, it is rendered as important and significant to the political discourse itself. It is from this perspective that the title of this essay has been chosen.

French writers of Romani descent have developed a predominantly ‘nomadic’ self-image in their works.

French writers of Romani descent have developed a predominantly ‘nomadic’ self-image in their works. In both poetry and prose, figures are constructed as spatially independent wanderers, an image that generally corresponds to the stereotype that prevails among the majority. This goes against other trends, for example in Germany and the Czech Republic, where such an image is vehemently rejected in favour of sedentariness. Beyond the socio-cultural and historical reality, the figure of the ‘nomad’ is widely used by writers as a literary tool to express their individual self-conception.

This is not to be confused with non-belonging. On the contrary: Sinti and Roma authors in France, just like in other countries, lay claim to their participation in the majority society. But because they are concerned primarily with reflecting upon the cultural characterisation of their own ethnicity, this common image offers a base from which to negotiate cultural identity.

This scheme also applies to other characteristic images in prose and poetry that writers have taken up and increasingly condensed; they have become ‘figures of memory’ (Assmann, 2007) of Sinti and Roma. In addition to ‘life as a wanderer’, the pilgrimage site Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, the swing guitarist Django Reinhardt, we should mention the Holocaust and the revenant mulo.

The latter is a popular figure in fairy tales and anecdotes, which highlights another characteristic of the literature discussed: the writings are often rooted in oral tradition, but the authors are not limiting themselves to merely putting folklore down on paper. Rather, their texts are inspired by orality and creatively act upon this inspiration.

The addressees of this literature are, above all, readers from the majority society, who prefer the written expressions of Sinti and Roma. At the same time, the community itself is often critical of their in-group literary creation. For this reason, the writers are frequently marginalised and sometimes even accused of being traitors to their own culture.

The ‘nomadic’ existence turns into a metaphor of dynamics and change.

But even within the majority society, the writings of Sinti and Roma are rarely recognised. In his prose poem titled ‘Les nomades’ (2005), the writer Jean-Marie Kerwich uses this situation as an opportunity to reflect on being a writer, providing an example of how the mental figure of the ‘nomad’ is used as a source of inspiration as well as of identification. The poem begins as follows: ‘Comme c'est étrange, une page blanche. Elle est vide de vie, et soudain les nomades de la pensée passent et ils allument un feu de phrases. Sont-ils poètes?’ (‘How strange, a white page. It is lifeless and suddenly the nomads of thought are passing across it and ignite a fire of sentences. Are they poets?’).

In this poem, the ‘nomadic’ existence turns into a metaphor of dynamics and change, one that is transferred to the artistic level. The writer is connecting a traditional mode of life with a contemporary artistic form of expression, which he is questioning at the same time. The artistic migration therein expressed replaces a wandering that, in reality, no longer exists. Thus, an attempt is made to turn the literary work, which tends to have a negative connotation, into a work that has a positive connotation, via the use of a familiar image. The literary appropriation of the motif of wandering can be found in numerous other texts and demonstrates how literature is used as a place of identity formation (for examples and a detailed analysis, see Blandfort, 2015, 140–70).

This applies to other French-language works as well. The author Sandra Jayat includes the programmatic image of wandering in the title of her autobiographical novel La longue route d'une zingarina (1978). Thereby, she closely ties her life path to a ‘nomadic’ identity. As in the case of Kerwich, the author does not refer to real wandering but to the figure of migration as the source of creative power in the arts.

Other texts display characteristics tending towards the documentary, with the nomadic life in its real (historical) dimensions as a central theme. Such are the family chronicles of Lick Dubois – Scènes de la vie manouche. Sur les routes de Provence avec les Sinti piémontais 1935–45 (1998), Il était une fois les bohémiens 1945–2000 (2003), Enfances tsiganes. Merles des bois, merles des parcs (2007) – and Joseph Doerr’s Où vas-tu manouches? (1982). Similar to these works, Matéo Maximoff constructs an itinerant life as a desirable state and cultural particularity of Sinti and Roma – in stark contrast with the lifestyle of the majority population.

This shows that for French writers of Romani descent, travelling as a mode of life is constitutive to form identity. Consequently, the abandoning of travelling is seen as a loss of such. The literature of Sinti and Roma in France thus reflects the attempt either to establish travelling as a way of life or to reinterpret it metaphorically.

Jean-Marie Kerwich had raised the question of the right to call oneself a poet. With respect to Romani writers in France, this question can clearly be answered in the affirmative: their works are multifaceted and offer readers of the majority society not only intimate insights into a way of life unknown to them but also thought-provoking impulses. The image of ‘nomadic identity’ can thus be regarded as pioneering for ways of living together in multicultural societies.