identity / identiteja

Gypsy. That was the word I heard every day of my life growing up. We were Gypsies and sometimes Tinkers, Knackers, Pikeys. I thought we were all the same – all the Irish Travellers (Pavee), Scottish Travellers (Nagin), Kale, Romany, Romanichal, and Romani. My grandmother called the Pavee and Scottish Travellers who lived near us “parne romane” – White Roma and didn’t treat them any differently to her own family. If someone needed something, we all helped each other. It wasn’t only Romani being evicted, it was Travellers too. I remember Kako Tonju’s wagon. When I was a child it seemed huge, though I never had any fear of their horse, Xmara. I recently learned that those relatives were considered Romanichal or Romany and that they had lived in England for more generations than I ever realized. My immediate family on my dad’s side came from Slovakia and Poland only arriving in the UK in the 1900s. On my mother’s, they were Polish too – but they’d been over in the UK since the 1700s at least. They had names like Bacon, Defiance, Patience, Cadalia, Darkiss, and Septimus. I had cousins named Penhelli and Esan. My mother’s name was Trykhaena, though she didn’t use that outside of our family and friends. I never understood the difference between our groups when I was a child. I thought and felt that we were all the same. I had no understanding about state and nation, about race, or ethnicity. As I grew, I came to realize the differences and similarities that marked out our cultures. A lot of the language had crossed over into every day...

Nostalgia as Forgetting

If I asked her, Maami Babka was only Romani (or accordingly, Gypsy). If pushed she refused to identify herself, saying nothing but, “sam Roma, som Romnji!” I used to get angry with her, sometimes, as she seemed to deliberately evade or misunderstand my questions. “Maamija, kaj salas bijandjal?” “Kaj somas?” “Va…?” “Njikhatar” Grandmother, where were you born? Where was I? Yes…? Out of nowhere.  These conversations were always circular, rotating around the belief that Romani people were only Romani (and not Slovak or British or American) and that we came from everywhere and nowhere all at the same time. A favourite story of Papu’s told of our journey out of history, into the present and into the sky, our ancestors becoming the stars that shine above us. This story was a favourite answer to the question of where he belonged. “In the sky,” he’d say simply, shrugging his shoulders wearily, as if I should already have known. In my grandparents eyes, we were not immigrants, we were refugees. Still running from a war-ravaged Europe full of Nazis and hungry smoke. They saw no changes and no reason to change in the world. They didn’t live anywhere. They waited. They waited to be evicted; to be told to move; to be chased by demons of the past. But, the stories they told belied this fear and continued flight. They told cotton-wrapped narratives of life on the road. Their nostalgia for the days before subsumed the fear-tinged memories of the time after. Their lives were split into pre-War and post-War. There was no period they called during-War. Like some wandering W.G. Sebald characters, my family were never able to become fully uprooted, never...

Instituting History

My cousin Penhelli was always outspoken, loud, brash, tough. She’d punch a gadžo boy in the face soon as look at him. I was never that strong. I’d sit and brood, tears welling, after the gadže kids would call me a stinking gyppo, a dirty brown whore, or worse. I’d curl into a ball if anyone hit me or tore at my hair. Penhelli was my hero. Although a year younger than me, she’d wade into the mob, fists swinging, screaming obscenities learned from bitter uncles. “Dordi, you hinditti kuresa, marav te murdarel tut!” Her cries a mixture of dialects and languages and improper grammar. A little over ten days ago someone hacked my blog and my personal computer. I immediately wanted to curl up and give up; tired of fighting the incessant hatred, I let the tears slowly trickle down my face, carrying all my hope and heart with them. I thought about Peni, then. How she’d have just started shouting at the computer, bashing it uselessly with her hands, spitting on it. I wished I could have called her, but she took her long last lonely walk eighteen years ago, smashed to smithereens on the side of the road. I never understood – how the strongest of us died so soon, so violently, taken by drunk drivers, tuberculosis, alcoholism, suffocated by the ghosts of memory. The people who hacked this blog and my personal computer obviously wanted me to stop talking about Romani rights – principally, I imagine the creation of a European Roma Institute (ERI). Well, unfortunately for them, it’s not going to stop me talking about anything, especially not the Institute. If not for...

Without Words

I sometimes wish I couldn’t read. I wish all these foreign letters and words didn’t make sense to me and that I could spit them back out, undigested. I wish, like my grandmother, I could cast aside the gadžikanji čhib and wade unknowing through the world around me. I wish, like Papu, I could spend afternoons sitting on the back step, puffing clouds of smoke into the pale blue sky, words like my breath, quiet and unhurried. Maami rarely wrote, even her name, and if she did, she’d ask me to write it for her first, so she could trace the cumbersome letters in her own unsteady hand. I remember my father sitting practicing writing his name and a few sentences over and over like a child, willing his arm, his hand to acquiesce to the sweep and curve set out before him. We had no books, just mouths and hearts full of stories and remembrances. Baba Edita collected newspapers and sat staring at them blankly. Days and weeks of people’s lives heaped up before her, each word a vast effort to call into being. “Large,” she said slowly. Her tongue cracked and bent out of shape. “Fire,” she managed on her third attempt, the “f” lost somewhere in the folds of her skirts. As assimilated as she was, she’d never managed reading well. Papo always laughed at her as he sat shaking his head. “Don’t know what you bother with that for,” he always admonished. “Those words are a waste of your breath!” Those words were crammed into me as I sat, uncomfortable and unwilling, in a too-big classroom. I fought...

The Day of Forgetting

There were no dates that we remembered our dead, at least not those who faded away, smothered by the hungry smoke, devoured by the Holocaust. Not even my grandmother’s lost children who lived such short and hungry lives, their names whispered in nightmares and memories too sharp to hold. The heat of summer, of August, brought fruit and vegetable picking, visits to long-distant relatives throughout Europe for weddings and last-goodbyes – France, Germany, Poland, Slovakia. I had no idea of the atrocities committed at Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka, Lety, Dachau, and hundreds of other Concentration Camps. I had no idea of the mass-murder of thousands of Romani on August 2 in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. As I stained my hands red with the juice of August strawberries and red currants, I thought of nothing but the joy of eating the punnet or two we received in return for our labour. The War had sewn shut the lips of my relatives. Stories they told skirted the truth, hiding their tears like jewels in the dark. The hungry smoke was as real to me as čohanja, benginji, šerdženja, or any other fairy-tale character. I saw it like a fantastical bird, all feathers, beak, and claws. I had no understanding that the hungry smoke was a very real and very frightening part of our past – no one taught me anything but their own versions of history – school and college textbooks that left out my people, our footsteps, and the thousands upon thousands of us murdered in the war. The day my grandmother explained the horrific truth of the hungry smoke, I didn’t believe her. The more she told me of...

Passing Definition

I was raised to code switch admirably, to play the part, to step out of one world and into the next seamlessly. It wasn’t a conscious decision on the part of my parents – it wasn’t even their decision at all. Baba Edita prided herself on her good English and her ability to pass. She knew all the ladies on her morning walk into town and would ask after Mrs. Robinson’s children, or Mrs. Williams’ husband. There were lots of other, similarly passing Romani on her walk too – the Bucklands, Fowlers, and the Coopers down on Hope House Lane – and they would stop and chat about the weather or hundreds of other beautifully British banalities. Maami Babka, on the other hand, was stoic in her refusal to be anything other than a Gypsy. According to academic, literary, and political rhetoric, a restless wander, sixth-finger, loafer, stroller, con-man, charlatan, conjurer, wanderlust, mendicant, floater, rover, prostitute, flunkey, vagrant, peripatetic, itinerant, vagabond, fugitive, listless, indolent, nomad. An unproductive, socially undesirable, non-being who belonged to the strange spaces of abjection and the fourth world. She clung to tradition like I clung to her skirts as a child. She’d light her cigarette, cast her eyes at her feet, and shuffle down the street, a poor and lonely old hawker. She held tight to the chords of our language, fastening them about herself and stopping up her mouth with their roundness. I knew she could speak English, but she refused and made me do her asking. Although we had no country to call our own, it became clear the older (and more educated) I became that my family and my...