Interview with Roma author Veijo Baltzar: "I grew up in misery, but with respect"
Veijo Baltzar (*1942, Kuopio, Finland) is a Roma author living in Finland. He has written eight novels, more than 10 plays, and award-winning film and television screenplays. He is a pedagogue, a poet, a visual artist, a theater director and a theoretician of drama and new pedagogy. His first novel, Polttava tie (The Burning Road, 1968) was the first by a member of the Roma community through which Finnish society was able to view the world of the Roma community. In 1976 he founded the Roma theater company Drom and in 2002 he helped to found the International Roma Writers Association (IRWA), which brings together roughly 30 Roma authors from around Europe and of which he is the president. He most recent novel, called In Love and War (2008), describes the dramatic fate of a Roma clan in Nazi Germany.
Romea.cz interviewed Mr Baltzar about the dangers of "raisins in the yogurt" and other matters on his recent visit to the Czech Republic.
Q: How do you like the Czech Republic?
A: I like it here, I love the local architecture. I like the diversity, people from different layers of society living next to one another. A diverse society is always interesting, viable. I have noticed that some of the buildings here are being renovated, I just hope that socially vulnerable residents will be allowed to return to them, that they won't be pushed out of the city, because they are part of those layers. Today there is a tendency to start the renovation of such buildings under such conditions that all the life disappears from them. What's the point of renovating everything when the result is human isolation?
Q: What brought you to Brno, was it the local Museum of Roma Culture?
A: We are collaborating with the museum and the Anne Frank Foundation on a joint project, an internationally-conceived exhibition presenting the Roma Holocaust to the public and the schools. Right now we are designing the section dedicated to Finland. We want to design the whole exhibition so it can be presented throughout Europe with just some minor adjustments. The Roma now find themselves in a situation where they are seeking their own identity. The aim of the exhibition, therefore, is to also open discussion on the topic of presenting Roma history. Until now this has never been undertaken by Roma people themselves, majority-society people have always written the history. The problem is that a past marked by negative relations between the majority and the Roma has been projected into the analysis and research. This exhibition is attempting to offer a constructive view of coexistence.
Q: What sort of reminder, in your view, does the Holocaust hold for current and future generations?
A: The historical lesson of the Holocaust should be the single most important thing children take away from the educational system. Of course, it is necessary that schools begin teaching about it differently. There has been enough memorizing of facts, enough repetition of phrases about how it is bad to kill - that's too primitive, it doesn't have any effect. The topic of the Holocaust and minorities should be taught through the creative pedagogical method, where the aim is to acquire internal experience. Pupils can achieve that, for example, by using the tools offered by drama and improvisation.
Q: So you consider the correct approach to education to be key?
A: The educational methods that predominate in today's society are based on memorizing and theoretical instruction. They don't even work for majority-society people, not to mention for the Roma. We need multicultural and multiculturally creative pedagogy. The entire society will change along with this change to the educational approach, because minority pupils will no longer be so easily marginalized. Everyone needs an education that cultivates and develops their personality. For example, people need to learn to understand that work is a natural component of human existence. To give an extreme example, it could happen that the next generation will not understand how the streets got here, why buildings are built, why we need to work. If educational methods don't change, if minorities continue to be expected to adjust to the demands of the mainstream, then Roma people and other minorities will continue to move to the fringe of society, which benefits no one. Coming to grips with the past is no less important a task, because the burden of the past continues to negatively influence our present. For example, one product of the past is the poorly coordinated, superficial, unsuitable way in which people whom I call "raisins in the yogurt" try to help the Roma. These are gadje [non-Roma] engaged in "benefiting" the Roma. They help them, they meet with them, but the product of their work is the "coconut" syndrome - a Roma person who wants to be considered white.
Q: How do you imagine the past should be grappled with?
A: What is important is that no one today can be blamed for the contemporary problems that flow from past events. We Roma cannot incriminate the current generation of gadje for something that happened 60 years ago. On the contrary, we need to take our share of societal responsibility. In the case of minorities today, that means to choose poverty, not to be bribed by charity, and to loudly insist on our human rights, because otherwise we will face the experience of the Holocaust again in the future. The charity being provided to Roma people today will have a high price in the future, and it will be our children who will have to pay that price. Education is primarily important for Roma people, but I claim that Roma people should not participate in the kind of primitive educational courses the majority society organizes for them. We cannot study under conditions dictated by the majority. I personally consider myself a traveling Roma, my roots are in traveling. I have enough experience to be able to say that it is better to be poor in this world than to become a "coconut". When you are poor, your interpersonal relationships function healthily, you have children, you take care of them and those close to you, and you live in a community. However, when you accept aid from a charity, from the "raisins", then your children graduate from an ineffective, shallow education, they may start to use drugs, the family falls apart under the influence of alcohol, and your life loses purpose because nothing has any meaning for you.
Not to lose dignity
Q: What was your childhood like?
A: I lived in the forest, I slept under a paper roof. There were 12 siblings and I got a piece of bread maybe twice a week. Finland is a very cold country, we traveled in our wagons even in winter, with just basic clothing, with almost nothing, and it was -35 Celsius out. The police persecuted us because during my childhood, during the Nazi era, which affected Finnish society as well, the police persecuted Roma people and murdered them. When we traveled from house to house, the outdoor saunas were the only places of refuge where we could spend the night. We would arrive and the sauna would still be hot from the villagers' evening bath. We would fall asleep in the damp warmth, and when temperatures dropped during the night, our wet clothing froze to our bodies. It was horrible. When I say misery, I know what I'm talking about, I have known it. However, despite all of that, we were independent. We had warm relationships with one another in a community where people cooperated, we lived an internally multifaceted, rich life with many nuances. My parents took no charity from anyone and people respected them, which we could tell because the gadje spoke respectfully to them.
Q: Was your coexistence with the majority after the war always smooth?
A: In the 1950s my parents bought their first small house in an area where factory workers lived. That was when hell began for us. We came to live among these simple people who drank, behaved boorishly, and wasted their lives. It was a completely different world. The majority of European Roma underwent the experience of finding themselves together in one place with these criminal, primitive types from the dregs of society. I was interested in where a person gets the kind of pride that helps him to not lose his self-respect. I could have adjusted to those lower levels, but I didn't, they did not influence me, I did not lose my dignity. If I could succeed in that, why can't other Roma?
Q: What do you think promotes their societal collapse?
A: Roma people who live in poverty, in ghettos and slums, are in a similar situation as that of the Indians when Columbus traveled to America and spread disease among them. The "White Auntie" comes to see the Roma people, she's very friendly, she bestows her favors upon them - but what happens when that white contact leaves the ghetto? The result of the work she has left behind is that families are dependent on her support, and the majority society declares her actions to be all but heroic, because she rolled up her sleeves and tried to raise the Roma up. It's a vicious circle. People who may not be so helpful or understanding, but who are able to view the situation in a balanced way, realistically, from more than one perspective - those people are more beneficial to us. Their approach is creative, they can take criticism, they are open to discussion.
Q: Why do you see such evil in the work of charity organizations and projects supporting Roma people?
A: The "raisins" can always get money for the Roma, so nothing forces them to do their best to achieve a better position. The majority of Roma people are so poor they see no option but to turn to them for aid. The gadje see those Roma as the good ones, the ones who manage to adjust, to assimilate. They give them money and immediately think they can dictate to them, manipulate them. It is foolish to believe a state can help a group of people or nation acquire a social status it does not have. The "raisins" basically cheat the Roma, who have a bad image because of this work. My life is very easy and successful - why? Because I have achieved a position. In other words, Roma people who live in poor social conditions, even though they are the have-nots, the miserable - if they manage to maintain their Roma identity and mentality, they are the ones who will survive in the end. The adjustments that the "coconuts" make will not bring them anything good. Roma people should understand that the aid they receive is paid for through assimilation, through loss of identity, and that is a very high price. Modern Roma people, especially those who work, who are building their own future, should understand how important it is to preserve their identity. Right now we need independent Roma artists, strong personalities who will be heard.
My world without fences
Q: How do you believe Roma people can enrich society?
A: We are living in modern, multicultural states, but European politicians do not know how to approach ethnic minorities. Politicians emphasize only economic values, material strength. Roma people have one of the richest cultures there is as far as relationships are concerned - between children and parents, men and women, people and nature. They raise their children for independence and also for respect. European society gives children, on the one hand, a great deal of freedom, but on the other hand it teaches them to live in a space that is restricted by very narrow borders, to experience many restrictions. Naturally, here I am partially speaking from an historical perspective, from the experience of traveling Roma, which in my case was the period of 1940-1950, from the point of view of Roma people who had never encountered or interacted with "coconuts" and did not recognize the problems associated with them, such as crime, drugs, etc. The traditional Roma way of life could enrich society in many respects, but for some reason society is not interested. People are losing the variety of their personalities - they prepare for a single profession, they are very narrowly restricted by their knowledge of their field and only their field. These people see the world in categories, they judge a person only by his profession. We should not forget that the human being is very creative, multifaceted - and unique. In today's one-dimensional world, people grow up with the aim of becoming slaves to that world, their individuality is suppressed, as is their direct experience. They do not take everything that this world - which is really three-dimensional - has to offer.
Q: How did you decide to express yourself through art?
A: When I was four years old, I was playing in a sandbox with some children. They were building fortresses around themselves out of sand, and I realized the adults also built fences around their houses. I thought: That is a world to which I do not belong. That was my first literary thought.
Q: As a Roma author writing in Finnish, how do you handle linguistic differences? I am asking because some Roma authors say the language of the majority cannot convey their Roma experience.
A: In my opinion, the entire problem of language in interpersonal relationships is overrated to the detriment of those who do not speak a language perfectly, such as representatives of minorities and newcomers who are also excluded from society. If I were to start writing books for Roma people in Romani, what purpose would that serve? Who would learn to understand us if only Roma people could read them? We need to change the sensibilities of the majority, to offer them something very easily accessible. Moreover, the language dominating literature and the public sphere today is too influenced by the language of academic environments, the mass media, science - it is dry, monotonous, pedantic. We have forgotten that human communication has many richer aspects to it, such as the language of gestures. In the 1960s, when I wrote my first novel, there was freedom in my writing. I used a language that was quite multi-layered, rich, with many shadings - but it was also comprehensible. It's true that in the Romani language one word expresses many meanings, but the Finnish language was once in the same situation. I'm sure Czech had a richer expressive capacity as well. Scientific progress has enriched our lives with many things, but unfortunately it has also impoverished us. We see faces, but we don't investigate their expressions, we restrict ourselves to the surface, just like today's language. It's no surprise people are beginning to fail to understand one another.
Q: In which languages have your books been published?
A: The first and last book to be translated from Finnish was published in Sweden. We are still trying to get it published in Bulgaria, in the Czech Republic, in Slovakia, but that is a lengthy process, because translating a 400-page novel is too costly for publishers. (Editors' Note: Excerpts from Baltzar's works were published in the 1/2010 issue of Romano džaniben).
Q: What are your plans for the future?
A: I am writing a second book devoted to the topic of the Roma Holocaust. However, it has a different concept than my other books. I am approaching the material very realistically, the story is based on the real fate of a 90-year-old woman who survived the Holocaust and tells about her experiences. I am also writing an extensive pedagogical and philosophical work dedicated to new pedagogy and I am directing a multicultural play which will be staged in a well-known church in the center of Helsinki. I am coordinating projects about the Holocaust and many other things.
Q: What message do you have for Roma people living in the Czech Republic?
A: I would like to give Roma people the courage to try and live according to their traditions - to travel, because in the pilgrimage from place to place you encounter your own self. You organize your thoughts, you achieve the recognition of what nobility is, you cleanse yourself of that detritus produced by today's society, which is concealing the real meaning of life from us. Human beings l se their dignity, and with it their trustworthiness, only once in their lives, and then, if we are to use the language of the theater, their character loses its integrity and life energy. Maybe you'll get rich, make millions, and everyone will fear you, but everything will remain as it was, because you will be that character who has lost his dignity, who has adjusted himself to a majority from whom no real respect can ever be expected anyway.
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