Printed 01.12.2020 01:14
22-11-2014 David Vaughan
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 Romany dish.
“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 there was.”
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 gets involved.
“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.
The episode featured today was first broadcast on September 21, 2013.
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