Irena Eliášová: a song to raise your spirits|
The poet, playwright and novelist Irena Eliášová spent her early
childhood in a Romany village in south-western Slovakia. The memory of this
time has become the defining experience in her writing. But Irena does not
write just about the lost world of her childhood in the 1950s and 60s. She
has also written powerfully and poignantly about the life of Roma in the
Czech Republic today. Yet even when she writes about the present, her work
is permeated with a sense of family and community that also draws us back
to an older world of Roma tradition. David Vaughan meets one of the Czech
Republic’s foremost Romany writers.
Irena Eliášová and her husband Zdeněk, live in the small North Bohemian
town of Mimoň, a place surrounded by deep forests, which at this time of
year are full of mushrooms and mushroom-pickers with wicker baskets. I’d
had a long drive, and as soon as I arrived at the family’s little
terraced house, Irena sat me down in the kitchen. Within minutes I had a
plate of hot food in front of me. Irena had prepared me a traditional
“I’ve made you gnocchi with chicken and gravy. That’s what I
remember from my childhood in the village. It’s what my mother used to
cook. Of course, in those days there would only have been chicken on
Sunday. Otherwise we’d have the gnocchi with cabbage or whatever else
After lunch, sitting at Irena’s computer, under photographs of her
mother, children and grandchildren, I asked her about her childhood days in
Slovakia, the subject of Irena’s short novel, “Naše osada“ – Our
Settlement – published in 2008.
“It was a big village called Nová Dědina, and we Roma lived in little
houses, about fifty of them, just outside the village on a big meadow. So
we lived more or less apart from the Slovaks. Every year our parents would
travel to the Czech part of Czechoslovakia to work; so we’d all spend the
summer near Liberec, until in the end we moved here permanently.
“I wrote the book through the eyes of a nine-year-old girl. I wanted to
show some of our traditions, how we lived. I had a happy childhood. I have
wonderful memories. We didn’t have much, we weren’t rich, but our
parents gave us so much love, and that was something we really felt. That
was our wealth.
“I wrote the book in four seasons – winter, spring, summer, autumn. In
that way I could offer a flavour of the different traditions like
Christmas, Easter, weddings and funerals.”
The book, which received excellent reviews, is raw and unsentimental, but
also hilariously funny. It is written in Czech, although the dialogue is
mostly Slovak, littered with words and phrases in Romani.
Irena reads me part of a wedding scene. The marriage is unusual, as a
Romany girl, Maryška is marrying a Slovak boy. There’s a lot of drinking
and a hint of tension in the air. The word “gádžo“ [Eng.
„gorger“] used here is the Romany word for non-Roma.
An argument breaks out, fists fly, and before long, even the parish priest
Romany culture has an immense tradition of song and story-telling but, but
not of the written word. Irena Eliášová belongs just to a second
generation of Czech Roma writers.
“I started writing stories and poems as a child and by the time I was
fifteen I had written my first play. Whenever the girls wanted someone to
write a love letter or poem, they’d always ask me to do it. My parents
always encouraged me, but I think it was most of all thanks to my
grandfather. We didn’t have television and he would tell us stories,
he’d often make them up and they were wonderful. I stopped writing when I
had children, but now the children have left home and it’s just me and my
husband, I’ve started again.”
Irena and Zdeněk lead quiet lives in a beautiful part of North Bohemia,
but just fifteen miles to the north are the towns of Varnsdorf and
Šluknov. These are places that have struggled with long-term economic
decline and this has fed social tensions. There have been mass
demonstrations, which have seen the Roma as the scapegoat. Some of the
language that has accompanied these demonstrations has been openly racist.
“When those protests took place in Varnsdorf, it wasn’t nice. My
husband experienced it even with the people he’s been working with for
the last five years. At first sight they were friends, but then they began
talking about Roma in that same way. I didn’t like it, but, unfortunately
I just don’t know how to answer back in the same tone, I’m no good at
swearing and arguing, so what I do instead is to write something. I wrote a
poem, Nechte nás žít.“
Behind the simplicity of the poem – in my clumsy English rendering –
there is a subtle message. The singer is defiant, he will not move on,
because he is at home, every bit as much as the neighbour who tells him to
leave. The original Czech even echoes the words of the Czech national
anthem Kde domov můj, in the line “Já zde domov mám“ (this is my
home). In offering his song, the singer is sharing the thing that is
dearest to him; the problem lies with the neighbour, who does not want to
listen. Typically for Irena Eliášová, the poem ends on a more optimistic
tone, as if to say to the prejudiced neighbour: Cheer up. That way you’ll
see things in a different light.
Irena’s most recent book is the novella “Listopad” – November –
published by the internet publisher Kher (www.kher.cz), which is doing an
admirable job bringing out the work of contemporary Czech Roma writers.
“It was published in April and is the story of a prostitute. You know,
in 1989, democracy arrived here and in the 90s some people felt they could
do anything. This young girl ended up in a brothel. The poor girl had never
known her father, her mother died when she was a child and her aunt brought
her up, but it worked out badly. The girl had some horrible sexual
experiences. She didn’t believe in love, but one day she fell in love,
passionately in love. She wanted to throw away her past, wipe it out. She
was ashamed of being a prostitute. Sadly her dream of love didn’t come
true. It’s an awful but true story. I knew the girl personally. I was
working in a shop and we got to know each other. She told me her story and
asked me to promise to write down her story. She died. The pimps kidnapped
her, forced her into the street. Sadly, she got AIDS and died.”
Death and violence are never far away in Irena Eliášová’s work, which
makes her resilient cheerfulness so much the more remarkable. But such, she
says, is the nature of the life. And for Roma more than most. Here is a
last extract from a poem called Osamocená – Alone. It is about a distant
relative of Irena’s who became mentally ill. She lost her husband and
children and ended up homeless, living in the street. Irena wrote the poem
for her funeral.
Apart from the few fragments I translated for this programme Irena
Eliášová’s work has not yet been translated into English. If you read
Czech, you can download Listopad at no cost from the www.kher.cz website,
and some of Irena’s work can also be found on www.romea.cz.