Oksana Marafioti: Writing is a constant discovery for me
The author Oksana Marafioti considers the creative process to be one of discovery. For me it was a discovery to meet her - she is a beautiful, charismatic woman who is resolute in her opinions and thoughtful as well.
This American author has Armenian and Romani roots. Until the age of 15 she lived in the former USSR, from which she emigrated to the United States.
She and her family members performed in a music group for some time and she is a classically trained pianist. She has also worked as a camerawoman.
Currently she lives in Las Vegas, where she teaches creative writing, critical thinking and literature at the university. She is married and has two children.
Her successful book American Gypsy: A Memoir, according to all indications, could mark a breakthrough in the existing canon of Romani literature and lead it from the realm of poetry and smaller-scale prose to a full-fledged "grand novel" as Euro-Atlantic literature traditionally conceives of such things. We met for our interview at the US Embassy in Prague to discuss the political climate, Romani people in America, and writing.
Q: In one TV interview you speak of yourself as a Gypsy. I assume you wanted to touch on a concept the American viewer might be more familiar with, since they probably don't know the term "Romani". What, in your view, is the cause of the fact that even in the politically correct United States the designation "Gypsy" is still commonly used?
A: Americans usually do not suspect that Romani people are their own ethnic group. They are of the opinion that it's a lifestyle. I'd say most Romani people in our country use both concepts interchangeably, Gypsy and Roma, frequently mainly so others will get the picture. I myself, when I lecture or speak with somebody, usually use the term "Gypsy" in the beginning, and then I freely transition into the designation "Romani" while trying to explain to those I am speaking with the difference between the two concepts. Unfortunately, it doesn't help that Romani people have practically no say in American society, no unified voice in either politics or social life. The fact that we have zero representation in those areas means there is a process of stagnation when it comes to how the public perceives us and what the general opinion of us is.
Q: What was your view of the controversial American TV show "My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding?" How, in your view, is it possible that in the politically correct United States, Romani people still face so much prejudice?
A: In my opinion, it's a horror. My reservations about that show are based on my personal experiences with the producers of it when the show was first being made. When they were doing their first research into the topic, they contacted me and wanted to interview me. First they claimed they wanted to present "real Roma" to the American public. I was, back then, absolutley naive. In the beginning I was enthusiastic, I took it as a chance to get rid of the myths and stereotypes that have been dragging us Roma down for so long. My optimism soon faded, however. What the producers actually wanted was to find some Romani figures they could use to create a sensation. They wanted to exploit them so they could confirm all the existing stereotypes about Romani people. I refused to participate in the program and I wrote them a letter urging them to change their approach and to focus on recognized, successful Romani people. So-called reality television, naturally, has nothing in common with reality and a great deal to do with making money. It's just business. That's how that show eventually developed into a form that mainly presents the broadest possible range of controversies and "shocking moments" that sell best.
Q: Do you ever go back to your native Lithuania, or to Russia, where you grew up? Do you consider those places your home?
A: I have not yet revisited either place, no. I moved to the United States when I was 15, so I grew up there and I belong there more than I do to Lithuania or Russia.
Q: What is your view of the current political course of all the big global powers: China, Russia, the USA? Is there a threat on the horizon?
A: I am of the general opinion that no government should ever deviate from its main reason for existing, and that is to ensure the prosperity of its citizens. People in power frequently forget what their basic role is. They claim that governing is complex, but I believe the reason they have to face these so-called complexities is they are incapable of remembering that their task is neither to approach their work as if they were in business, nor is it to wield power. The role of a politician is to serve the citizens.
Q: Do you consider it a threat to democracy that Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States? Do you believe his term in office could negatively influence the situation of minorities in the USA?
A: I know many people for whom Trump's rhetoric during the presidential campaign, which aimed to incite various forms of intolerance, was a cause for concern. Inciting the cultural and social exclusion of specific groups in a country born from diversity seems absolutely inappropriate to me. There is still, however, the hope that the President will develop in his role and will demonstrate that he is a leader whose priority is the good of the country, and that state can only be achieved by advocating and supporting tolerance and cultivating solidarity.
Q: Do you know other famous or successful Romani people from elsewhere in the world? Are you close with any of them?
A: I admire my grandparents and parents for never tolerating any prejudice. They are my greatest role models, both as artists and as people. I have a great weakness also for Vrtannes Papazian, an Armenian-Romani author from the beginning of the 20th century. The list of all the successful Romani people, of course, would be too long to review, and it would not just include the famous figures in public life, like the poet Papusza or Django Reinhardt, but also many current figures, some of them my friends, who are tirelessly working for the social equality of minorities.
Q: What is writing for you? Some authors see an equation between their very existence and writing. What meaning does it hold for you?
A: For me, writing is a way to find out who I am at my core. As a child I knew myself rather well, but as I grew up, that layer of my identity ended up buried beneath the deposits of another "I", acquired through my life experiences. My reactions to those experiences were especially interesting, but it was not until I began to really dedicate myself to writing that I realized how difficult it is to express what I actually want to say. I have to submerge myself very deeply in the sentences to extract my own, primary voice from the tangle of words. In the beginning, that was a really frustrating process that frequently went hand in hand with anxiety. You have to wade through a lot when seeking the "I" that isn't confused by different external influences, all of those first drafts, it takes a lot of hard work, but then it becomes easier and easier. Writing is a constant discovery for me.
Q: Do you have any literary role models? Whose work do you admire?
A: One of the first big authors I read as a child was Michail Bulgakov. I still love him to this day. The sensual imagery of his language always pulls me in. He is probably the only author whose books I have read many times over, and from each new reading there is something else new to discover.
Q: Which language do you consider your mother tongue? Are you teaching your children Romanes?
A: As a child I learned to speak Armenian, Romanes and Russian at the same time. My mother is not Romani, so after my parents divorced, no Romanes was spoken at home, and unfortunately I soon forgot most of what I had learned. My children, fortunately are determined to learn "Romanes". They even want us to learn it together!
Q: Romani people do not have any geographically-delimited territory, if you will, no home or homeland. What do you personally associate the concept of "home" with?
A: I don't view "home" as a physical locality. For me, it's something I carry inside irrespective of where I happen to be living. My home is the common heritage that determines who I am. In that sense, home is any place where I feel happy.
Q: Are you still involved in camera work and film? Which of your many hobbies and talents employs you most today?
A: I have not been involved with film for more than 10 years. At the moment I am concentrating my energy on teaching creative writing and literature at the university in Las Vegas and on writing my own work. Of all the work that I have "dabbled" in, those two jobs are by far the ones I like the most.
Q: What does it mean to you to be a Romani woman? Is the Romani identity significant for you, along with your other identities?
A: To be a Romani woman is, for me, the same as "being an author". It means knowing who I am. As a Romani woman, it is crucial that I obstinately stand up for myself, because it is very easy to get lost in all the tidal waves of other people's assumptions and beliefs. That process has beefed up my Romani identity. To be a Romani woman is very important to me. If it were possible to map my personality the way we map planet Earth, then Romani heritage would take up the biggest territory. I think such a map of manifold cultures and nationalities is something each human being has, and we always carry them with us. They form us and shape our collective identity. That is why we should cultivate them.
First published in Czech in the print edition of Romano voďi (Romani Soul) magazine (January-February 2017). You can order a copy of the magazine (in Czech only) by using the simple online form at www.romanovodi.cz.
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