Analysis: Why it’s time to lay the “Gypsy” trope to rest
Through examining the Romani characters in popular culture, it becomes apparent that discrimination lives on against Roma people. In the United States, this takes the form of dehumanization or even denial. Gypsies are not regarded as real people but as storybook creatures and magical inventions.
In Europe, discrimination borders on apartheid conditions, with signs that say “No Gypsies Allowed” in the windows, extremely segregated schools, and repatriation policies such as that enacted in France, sending Roma people from Romania back to that country. In both cultures, the Roma people are stereotyped as lifestyle criminals, drifters, and child kidnappers.
Jessica Reidy, a Romani freelance writer, teacher, consultant, and editor, writes about this topic in an essay featured in the Expanded Universe column. Reidy attended Florida State University for her MFA in fiction and has been published in Narrative Magazine as "Short Story of the Week", in The Los Angeles Review, The Missouri Review, and more. She works as a visiting professor in the Cambridge Writers’ Workshops, as well as managing editor for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, art editor for The Southeast Review, and outreach editor for the Quail Bell Magazine. Reidy’s essay, “Romani (Gypsy) Power in Sci-Fi and Fantasy” explains the perpetuation of Gypsy stereotypes through “the consistent misrepresentation of Roma as non-human in literature, popular culture, and government propaganda”. These one-dimensional, filler characters have grown out of their stories to incorrectly shape the way people understand the Roma in the real world.
Rather than complex, three-dimensional characters whose ethnicity is a facet of their personality, Roma people are portrayed using only stereotypes, creating characters of low intelligence, amoral behavior, filth, and magical powers. As Dr. Ian Hancock, a Romani scholar at the University of Texas, Austin, writes in “The Origin and Function of the Gypsy Image in Children’s Literature”:
…Romanies turn up [in literature] with some frequency — never as characters who happen incidentally also to be Gypsies, but because they are Gypsies, and because they serve a specific purpose. This purpose has, broadly speaking, three manifestations: the Gypsy as liar and thief either of property or (especially) of non-Romani children; the Gypsy as witch or caster of spells; and the Gypsy as romantic figure.
When coming across (or creating) a Roma character, ask yourself: “Is their heritage a part of a deeper character? Or are they just defined by their ‘Gypsy’ traits?” The answer is often no - these characters are invoked as Roma for a specific reason.
It is easier to reduce an entire people to a stereotype, allowing non-Roma to avoid confronting the injustices done to the Roma, such as the lives lost in the Holocaust, the segregated school systems, the millions living below the poverty line, the Gypsy camps on the fringe of society. By denying the Roma’s existence, the deeper problem can be ignored.
For more accurate representation of the Romani people, there is a clear place to look: The work of Romani writers. Their style of writing is heavily influenced by their ongoing history of persecution, sometimes portrayed in fantastical metaphors.
Reidy references the short story, “Black Friday”, by Romani author Caren Gussof-Sumption, published on the Fiction Vortex in July 2014. The main character is a shape-shifter with no control over her transformation, making it impossible for her to lead a normal life. After reading it, it is clear that this struggle to balance culture and assimilation is mirrored in Roma history. Just as the shape-shifter felt the world was too small for her, the Roma people have been shuttled from society to society, with claims of scarce resources and overpopulation given as the reason.
Another work mentioned is “A Wedding in Aushwitz” by Rajko Đurić. Though I could only find an excerpt, Reidy describes the book as, on the surface, a “terrifying fever-dream populated by goddesses and shape-shifters which are simply the last figment of a Romani boy’s imagination as he dies slowly in a concentration camp”. However, these figments of imagination are a way of understanding the incomprehensible events of reality. The narrator’s mother, Kali, who comes to him in dreams, is loosely based off of the Romani Goddess Sara Kali, who is the protector of oppressed people. The shape-shifting spirits seen through the story, such as the narrator’s brother, are a way to understand a world that violently misunderstands the Roma people, in this case, by killing the narrator’s brother.
Though fantastical metaphors are often present, not all Romani writers’ stories can be included by default in the genre of magical realism. Though frequently using elements of the Fantastic in her writing, Reidy is clear that she does not write magical realism. The elements she uses are part of real Romani life, shaped by the culture and beliefs. Whether it is offerings to spirits and ancestors, or deities visiting in dreams, these are accepted aspects of the Roma culture. Fantasy enthusiasts can still enjoy the work while keeping in mind there is another level to the story.
Readers could miss the intricate layers in such a story if they choose to believe that Roma culture doesn’t exist. Through writing, the Roma have the power to change the stereotypes that have plagued them over the years and to tell their story in a brutally honest way.
Prarthna Johri is a student at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA, USA, who is an intern at ROMEA.
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