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New awards encourage writing in the Romani language
08-12-2006 - David Vaughan
Students from a secondary school in Prague where almost all the pupils come from the Roma minority recited poetry, sang and even performed a jazz improvisation at a Prague cafe on Thursday evening. This was all to celebrate the presentation of a new set of annual literary awards, named after the academic Milena Hubschmannova, who until her death last year had devoted many years to supporting Romany writing and culture. The competition received several dozen entries, and there was only one condition: they had to be written in the Romani language, spoken in various dialects by Roma communities around the world for hundreds of years. Roma are thought to make up around two percent of the Czech population, and despite the pressures of assimilation, many still speak the language. Helena Sadilkova from the Museum of Romany Culture in Brno was on the competition jury, and after the ceremony talked to David Vaughan.

Milena Hubschmannova award "About half the entries we received have been written by students from a secondary school that has been established in the Czech Republic for people who are supposed to be working in Romany communities. Even though it wasn't meant to be a Roma-only school, it ended up that most of the students who are now in the school are from Romany communities around the Czech Republic, and they have the Romani language as one of the subjects that they are receiving their education in.

"We also received pieces from now already established Romany writers, such as Andrej Gina, who is mostly writing about his experiences from pre-war Slovakia."

The experiences of the teenagers who are writing must be dramatically different from writers like Andrej Gina, who is now seventy and is well established as a Romany writer.

Andrej Gina "I think the greatest difference for me was that these young people were writing about their own experiences and their own emotions. They are writing for themselves, whereas writers like Andrej Gina are more aware of speaking for the Romany community."

And what sort of things were the younger writers writing?

"The piece that received one of the prizes was written by a boy who has been abusing drugs and he has got through it. Now he is studying at the secondary school, so he was explaining how he got into problems with drugs. And then we had pieces that were talking about the history of the families. For example, the boy who received the first prize in the prose category [Michal Misigar] is only fourteen years old and is quite remarkable in how he is actually capable of writing, of putting things together. He has been writing about the history of his own family, describing the history of his grandmother and grandfather."

There is often a lot of doom and gloom about the future of the Romani language here in the Czech Republic - that young Roma don't speak the Romani language as well as their parents and grandparents. Quite often they know only a few words. Do you have the feeling that there is a future for the Romani language and for Romani writing?

"There are teenagers who use Romani in their everyday conversation with their peers. So in a way there is a future among the people themselves. And then, what's more important - as for example the secondary school shows - there is a future for the Romani language even in the schools, because Romani is taught in the schools and it is bringing results, as we've seen in this competition. All of these pieces were written in Romani and most of the pieces we received were in very nice language."

The competition was organized by the association ROMEA, which you can find at www.romea.cz.



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