Today I’m very pleased to present a guest post by Penny Blake. Regular readers of my novels will know I like a diverse crowd of characters. Penny, with her particular life experiences, here tells us about the Rromani people.
Representing Rromani People In Fiction, by Penny Blake
Rromani people have been a very visible part of some periods of history, particularly the steam era, and many steampunk and fantasy writers want to work a ‘Gypsy’ character into their worlds. Sadly the easily available information about who Rromani people were and are, why they did not always live in houses and what their beliefs, lifestyle and occupations were is largely incorrect.
Sources drawn on by modern writers are often works of fiction from the Georgian / Victorian period or ‘research’ published by the elite gentleman’s club known as the ‘Gypsy Law Society.’ These works dehumanised Rromani people into mythical ‘Gypsy Creatures’ – lawless, nomadic, romantic and magical beings far removed from the reality of Rromani people’s lives.
It is even the case that more modern publications (books / blogs / websites etc) which claim to be authentic sources of information on Rromani beliefs, lifestyle, language and history are often based purely on these earlier works.
Both historically and recently there have been books and articles published by people who have paid money to ‘live amongst’ Rromani people and then written about their experiences. This is obviously a deeply and complexly problematic scenario and any material derived from such ‘research’ cannot be considered reliable.
So what can we, as writers, do if we want to include the experiences of Rromani people in our worlds in a realistic and respectful way?
Fortunately, there are lots of Rromani writers, artists, scholars, activists and researchers working to chip away at this false image of the mythical ‘Gypsy Creature’ and reveal the true historical and modern faces of Rromani people across the globe and I will list a few of them at the end of this post.
The first, and most respectful, place we can start is by exploring their works before we embark on our own. It is always going to be more valid and insightful to read the work of an indigenous writer than to read an outsider’s impression of another culture. If we read a wide range of autobiographies as well as fiction and historical non-fiction by Rromani writers we will eventually begin to build a picture of what life was like for Rromani people living in different parts of the world and in different time periods and we can then begin to decide whether and how it might be appropriate to write about the experiences of a Rromani person in our own fictional world.
Too often, a Rromani character is added to a story as either a plot device or a splash of colour. If something needs stealing, a child goes missing, our main character needs their fortune telling or an exotic romantic interest is needed, many writers seem to think that this is justification for dropping in a Gypsy or two with no personality, backstory, character development or future other than ‘they are a Gypsy.’ It is heartening that writers seem to be steadily moving away from using other People Of Colour as plot devices; it would be wonderful if the same could soon be said of Rromani people as well. If we make the important decision to include a character of any actual race or culture in our writing, we should have a clear purpose in doing so and ensure that we act with respect and integrity.
It is far beyond the scope of one short blog post to provide all the information a writer would need or desire to aid them in making such a huge decision, but what I can offer are some quick myth-busting points which will hopefully start us down the road of critical thinking around this subject (if we weren’t already on it).
1. The Gypsy myth
The word Gypsy is a pejorative racist slur. It is a shortened slang form of the word Egyptian and has been used to dehumanise and persecute Rromani people since their arrival in Europe as refugees from the invasion of their lands in India. Hitler used the word to brand Rromani people as a type of animal rather than human and to justify murdering hundreds of thousands of them during the Samudaripen (the Rromani word for Holocaust). To most Rromani people today the word is akin to the N word, although some have decided to reclaim and repurpose it as a symbol of pride, it should not be used by any non-Rromani person without an appropriate reason (for example in a historic context or affectionately amongst Rom friends where the term is being used and accepted as one of camaraderie).
2. The magic myth
The original religion of Rromani people was Hinduism. However, because of their forced migration from India and the need to adopt the religious beliefs of the new countries they settled in, Rromani religion today world wide is mostly Christian and Muslim. As such, the majority of Rromani people consider the practice of magic, fortune telling, witchcraft and all forms of Paganism to be against their religion. As with all cultures and races, there are a significant number of Rromani people who do follow a spiritual path that involves the practise of magic, divination or earth based religion but these are a minority and always have been. It would be a rare thing indeed to find a Rromani family casting spells, slinging curses or owning a crystal ball.
3. The nomadic myth
Since leaving India as refugees, Rromani people have strived endlessly to find a place to settle down and be accepted into a new society. This has sadly never been easy as their skin colour and language initially made people suspicious and mistrusting; laws were quickly put in place to prevent ‘Gypsies’ from entering towns, buying and selling goods, owning property or even having children. In Eastern Europe they were enslaved for hundreds of years, they certainly did not travel around in brightly painted caravans. In Western Europe many managed to convince people they were Greek or Italian and so were able to settle and integrate into mainstream society. Those who couldn’t, mostly joined the already mobile communities of travelling farm workers who moved in a set and steady circuit of seasonal work – sowing, harvesting and ploughing – around a small area the size of one or two counties.
4. The pretty painted caravan myth
Most Rromani people, both historically and today, live in houses. They have jobs, pay taxes, send their children to school, etc. Although historically some Rromani families did own painted wooden wagons known as Vardos, these expensive commissioned caravans were rare and only existed during a very brief period of history. Instead, those who did travel slept in Bender Tents.
5. The thieving myth
There are many folk stories / sayings which suggest that Rromani people believe the world belongs to everyone and so does everything in it – therefore they have no concept of stealing. I am certain than any educated person would not be persuaded by such a myth but sadly for some reason many fiction writers love this romantic concept and can’t resist writing Rromani characters as ‘lovable rogues’ whose innate innocence or mischievousness means they can’t keep their sticky fingers to themselves. There is nothing wrong with writing such a character into our worlds, the problem comes if we link this aspect of their personality to them being Rromani, that is when it becomes racism. In reality Rromani cultural and religious beliefs dictate that stealing is wrong – as do most cultures and religions the world over. As with ALL cultures and races, there are some Rromani people who steal and particularly those who live in poverty but this is a socio-economic issue, not one of race or cultural belief system.
5. The sexuality myth
We have the likes of the Pre-Raphs and the Gypsy Law Society largely to thank for the sexualisation of Rromani people (and Rromani women in particular). So much so that the tired old trope of the exotic, yet one dimensional, Gypsy Lover who sweeps into a story only to have swept out again by the end; a ‘free spirit’ who cannot help but dance from one sizzling love affair to the next breaking heroes or heroines hearts along the way is now so twee as to be ludicrous. It is even more ludicrous when taken with the fact that as most Rromani people are either Christian or Muslim – and even those who aren’t have very strict codes governing dress and behaviour – such carry-on would be deemed scandalous!
Many thanks for journeying along with me today. If you’d like to find out more about the lives and history of Rromani people, the following blogs and books by Rromani writers are an excellent introduction:
For Rromani folk tales see the works of Hedina Sijercic
For 20 powerful Rromani women writers see Jessica Reidy’s list
For lots more information and articles on this topic from my own website see my Rromani Steampunk section
Penny Blake is rooted in a traditional storytelling background. She writes Mythpunk and LGBTQIA+ Steampunk inspired by her Rromani and Celtic cultural heritage. Her book of Mythpunk short stories can be found here: Mahrime: Mythpunk for Monsters, the first book in her Steampunk series can be found here: The Curious Adventures Of Smith and Skarry and her latest release, Necromancers – an irreverent zombie romance in which a forgotten cult accidentally resurrects the wrong gods – can be found here: Necromancers.