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Paola Toninato

The political use of writing among Romani activists, academics and writers

The political use of writing is a relatively recent phenomenon among Roma that is closely linked to the rise of Romani political organisations. It plays a major role in attempts at creating a Romani national consciousness and establishing a Romani non-territorial nation.

The definition of Romani writing as ‘political’ requires explanation. With regard to Romani political writing, the distinction can be made between political writing per se and the political use of writing. Romani political writing includes texts by Romani activists that form a major part of their political engagement. Romani writing for political purposes in general is a broader phenomenon, which may include writings of Romani activists and academics as well as texts that are traditionally regarded as ‘poetic’ and ‘literary’.

Building the ‘Romani nation’: The political writing of Romani activists

Romani political writing in the official sphere is linked to the rise of a transnational Romani intelligentsia. It covers texts written in Romani as well as other languages and comprises political periodicals, Internet publications, pamphlets, political manifestos and official publications. These texts are instrumental in nature and serve the explicit political purposes of disseminating political ideas and facilitating political mobilisation. At the same time, they fulfil wider purposes for the Romani people and contribute to establishing a sense of common belonging among Romani groups that were previously isolated and underrepresented. To quote Benedict Anderson, they help to create ‘unified fields of exchange and communication’ (Anderson, 1983, 44) that enable members of dispersed multilingual communities to communicate with one another via the written word and to become part of the same ‘imagined community’. In this respect, Romani political writing is linked to a specific political project: the awakening of a Romani national consciousness.

The notion of an Indian homeland – which Romani activists call Romanestan, the ‘country of the Roma’ – dates back to at least the early 20th century and was upheld not only by intellectuals but also by self-proclaimed representatives, such as some members of the Kwiek family. After the Second World War members of the Kwiek family emigrated to France from Eastern Europe, bringing with them the project of an independent Romani state.

The idea of a Romani nation or state based on a common history is supported by a number of international Romani organisations. The main symbols of Romanestan were officially introduced at the first World Romani Congress (see The Beginnings and Growth of Transnational Movements), which took place in London in 1971: a Romani flag consisting of a blue stripe symbolising the sky, a green stripe representing the green Earth and a wheel at the centre and the anthem ‘Djelem, djelem’.

unknown | Romani flag | photography | mus_01302

Another milestone in Romani political activism is the ‘Declaration of Nation’, issued in 2000 by the International Romani Union (IRU). In this declaration, the IRU abandoned the idea of creating a Romani territorial state. Instead, it called for the recognition of the Romani people as a ‘non-territorial nation’ bound together by a common experience of persecution and discrimination but also as a nation with the same history, language and culture.

The common language to which the IRU declaration refers is Romani. Despite being spoken by five million Roma in Europe and by some eight to twelve million Roma scattered worldwide (Bakker et al., 2000, 41), Romani is still not universally recognised as a minority language. The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which grants Romani the status of a non-territorial language, has not yet been ratified by all EU member states. This lack of recognition of Roma’s linguistic rights is closely associated with the lack of recognition of Roma and Sinti as ethnic minorities. The declaration clearly aims at improving the situation in this respect.

Promoting Roma’s cultural autonomy: Romani academic writing

Closely connected to the political use of writing by Romani activists are the writings of Romani academics and intellectuals. Clearly, Romani academic writing is not per se political, but it fulfils a political function in so far as it is aimed at unmasking and deconstructing stereotypical and non-scientific views about so-called ‘Gypsies’ that have hitherto hindered the recognition of the Roma as a group with a distinct cultural and linguistic heritage. Romani academics and intellectuals who have made important contributions include Vania De Gila-Kochanowski, Šaip Jusuf, Andrzej Mirga, Nicolae Gheorghe, Santino Spinell, Ian Hancock and Rajko Djurić.

Ian Hancock, professor of linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin, has published numerous academic books and articles on Romani language and culture. Hancock argues that Romani identity (see "The Struggle for the Control of Identity" by Ian Hancock, external link) has always been at the centre of a power struggle between Roma and non-Roma, and that the latter have so far monopolised the Romani image for their own benefit. He argues that the reappropriation of the Roma image is necessary to restore a sense of reality to this image:

‘It has always been the case that non-“Gypsy” specialists have attempted to control and define Romani identity. [...] In order for things to change, the “Gypsy” image must be deconstructed, and a more accurate one put in its place – in the bureaucratic structures as well as in the textbooks.’

(Hancock, 1997; quoted in Toninato, 2014, 147).

Hancock’s work is devoted to investigating the extent to which antigypsyism permeates European culture and folklore (Hancock, 1987, 1997 and 2002). He analyses how anti-Gypsy stereotypes and attitudes have been instrumental in legitimising the centuries-old persecution of the Roma. In his 2002 book We are the Romani people / Ame sam e Rromane džene, he rejects the misleading appellations (‘Gypsies’, ‘Zigeuner’, ‘Gitanos’, ‘Zingari’, ‘Heiden’, ‘Cigani’, etc.) with which Roma are labelled. He insists on using the term ‘Romani’ (‘Romanies’ in plural) to restore the dignity of the Roma as a people.

Hancock rewrites the Romani past by using a number of scientific approaches involving sociolinguistics, history and genetics. His writings aim ultimately at establishing a unitarian sense of Romani identity. During the 1980s he developed the notion of jekhipè (oneness), the idea that despite their differences, all Roma groups have the same history, similar cultural traditions and a common language (Toninato, 2014, 147). For him, the history of the Romani language provides evidence of the Indian origins of the Roma. He maintains that the Indian traits that characterise Romani populations worldwide – above all, the Romani language – are the most powerful catalysts of a common Romani ethnic identity and should therefore be recognised by the different states where Roma live, especially within their school systems.

Rajko Djurić, a writer and academic who served as president of the International Romani Union for many years, focuses on the different facets of ‘Gypsy’ stereotypes in European literature and art as well as European popular culture (Djurić, 1993 and 1996; Djurić and Courthiade, 2004). According to Djurić, the prominent role played by fictional characters inspired by Roma testify to the deep fascination the group has had for European society throughout the ages as well as to the legacy of Romani culture within the body of European literary and artistic heritage. However, he also emphasises that these images are too often the result of a distorted representation of Romani identity. Djurić praises writers such as Miguel de Cervantes, Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin, García Lorca and others for having positively contributed to combatting anti-Gypsy views (Djurić, 1993). Nonetheless, he acknowledges that non-Romani authors were largely not immune to the influence of stereotypes, prejudice and inaccuracies about the people from whom they drew inspiration. The roles played by Romani characters are limited and confined to the category of the ‘exotic’. Especially in the works of Romantic authors, Roma are invariably portrayed in a way that reflects the popular image of ‘Gypsies’ as fascinating wanderers of the world, leading a poor but happy life, endowed with extraordinary musical and artistic talent and whose women possess an irresistible, sensual beauty.

Djurić views the Romani theme not just as a literary motif but as a socio-historical and cultural phenomenon. He points out that ‘prejudices expressed in a literary work, regardless of its autonomy, are never neutral from an ethical point of view’ (Djurić, 1996, 58). Once they have been given aesthetic form, stereotypical images may become a vehicle for racist and nationalist ideologies. Despite – or precisely because of – the presence of such dangerous stereotypes, Djurić encourages Roma to become active readers of European literature and to make themselves acquainted with the manner in which their people has been portrayed in literary works with a Romani-inspired theme. As homines lectores, they are in a position to read critically any textual representations of the Roma and the Romani way of life. Such a critical reading not only offers the opportunity to uncover and denounce cases of antigypsyism within the body of European literature; it also enables them to see themselves through the eyes of non-Roma and, in some cases, provides them with an important source of information on how the situation of the Romani people in Europe has evolved through time (Djurić and Courthiade, 2004, 115).

The significance of Hancock’s and Djurić’s works is to be found in their powerful critique of antigypsy stereotypes and in their support of the emerging ethnic self-awareness among their people. Their writings provide the cultural foundations for the development of a political consciousness and encourage Roma to embrace their own history and cultural heritage. Moreover, by publicly challenging deeply engrained antigypsy stereotypes, they are contributing to a revised perception of Romani identity among members of the dominant group, thereby promoting a better understanding between Roma and the majority population.

Talking back at the dominant group: Romani literary writing

The third category of Romani writing analysed here consists of literary texts. Romani literature has emerged amid sustained oppression and social discrimination against the group and attempts by the dominant society to control and assimilate Roma. In literary criticism terms, Romani literature belongs to the type of literature known as ‘minor literature’, which, according to Deleuze and Guattari, has three main features: linguistic deterritorialisation, political immediacy and a form of collective enunciation (Deleuze and Guattari, 2012, 28).

Linguistic deterritorialisation – that is, the appropriation and subversion of a ‘major’ language by an ethnic minority – certainly characterises Romani literature. Many Romani writers are faced with a stark choice: whether to hold on to their original language and culture or to adopt the language of the majority society. Linguistic deterritorialisation operates within Romani literary writing through a number of textual strategies such as code mixing, intertextual bricolage and mimicry. Such strategies are adopted by Romani writers in order to give voice to a counter-hegemonic critique of non-Romani views of Romani society and, more generally, to carry out an act of resistance towards the language of the majority group, which historically has been the main vehicle for these views.

A strong feature of Romani literature is the expression of self-pride of Romani people. From this point of view, Romani literature is comparable to other ‘ethnic’ literatures such as those of Black Americans, Native Americans and Asian American and Chicano/a minorities. The self-pride of Romani writers finds its expression in the celebration of the concept of ‘nomadism’ (which differs vastly from the romanticised image) and of their Indian origins as well as in the emphasis on the importance of family and group ties.

Finally, Romani literature is characterised by its ‘collective value’. Many Romani authors display ‘an active solidarity in spite of scepticism’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 2012, 27) and feel compelled to write because they want to improve the situation of their people. For them, the Romani language is a main repository of collective identity, and they are particularly keen to explore the literary potential of Romani alongside majority languages and literatures.

A major topic in Romani literature is finding ways to create a common sense of belonging based on historical events. Crucial in this endeavour are the literary renditions of the Roma’s forgotten Holocaust.

Conclusions

Romani writing is crucial in the political struggle for the recognition of Roma as an ethnic group. It makes visible and increases public awareness of the conditions in which Roma live. As a result, Romani issues are on the international political agenda; and although in some cases Roma are not yet recognised as a separate ethnic group, human and civil rights violations against them are more readily denounced and sanctioned.

However, much depends on the ability of Romani writers themselves to influence this agenda. Romani writing is still in the hands of a relatively small elite of Romani activists, while most Roma remain unaware of their efforts and some of those who are aware question the authority of those who claim to speak in their name. Moreover, the use of Romani writing for political purposes is mired in conflicts between traditional intellectuals, who still favour spoken Romani and are against linguistic codification, and the new generation of Romani intellectuals, who use writing daily and interact mainly with non-Roma. Given these conflicts, it is promising to see the extent to which Romani writing for political purposes has already influenced the awareness of the lack of political legitimation and democratic participation among Romani people.