The neglected wealth of Roma writing in the Czech Republic|
Once again a very warm welcome to Czech Books. Now if somebody asks you
about Romany or "Gypsy" culture in Central Europe you'll most
probably think first and foremost of music. But in the Czech Republic and
Slovakia today there is also a growing tradition of Romany writing. That's
the subject of today's Czech Books. A few days ago, my colleague Bernie
Higgins went to meet Milena Hubschmannova, who teaches Romany studies at
Prague's Charles University and the Romani language, still spoken by many
of Central Europe's Roma. Dr Hubschmannova has been instrumental in
fostering an awareness of Romany literature both in the Czech Republic and
abroad. She began their conversation by telling Bernie a little about the
short history of Roma writing in this country.
"Well, Romany literature is very young. It
started to be created about thirty years ago in 1969/1970 when the first
Union of Roma was founded. They published a journal, Romano Lil, and I
would say that for the first time in history the Roma started to write in
Romani, and also their things were published in this journal. And then
again this "normalizace" ["normalization" - the period
that followed the Soviet-led invasion of 1968] came back and a policy of
assimilation. Again Romani was not allowed to be publicly spoken,
published, used, and so again it stopped. But these people who started to
write, they didn't forget. They knew that something like that is possible.
So immediately after 1989 - in 1990 - they started again to write. The
first authors were not at all educated, for instance Tera Fabianova, who
is really an excellent writer - she was born in 1930, and when she was
attending school, the war came, and she was allowed to go to school only
two years. So in fact, Tera Fabianova, who is one of the best and one of
the oldest, attended only two classes of elementary school."
She won an award earlier this year, the European
Roma Literary Award - a special distinction in fiction - but I know her as
a great poet. I wonder if we could concentrate on one poem of hers, and
I'd like to ask you to read it in Romani.
E BACHT KE MANDE AVEL
E bacht ke mande avel
ca perdal le chavorengere vastora.
O coripen ke mande khere,
so man uzarel?
Dinom le Devleske, so leskero hin.
Mek kamav le bengeske vareso?
Upral mro sero o chmari denasen,
me ke phuv kijaphandli som
sar bango kast...
Tho bango kast del uchaj.
I'd like to give a very loose English translation
now: 'Happiness comes to me/ only through the hands of my children./ At
home there's only unhappiness - / what more is waiting for me?/ I've given
to God what I owe./ Do I still owe something to the devil?/ High above my
head the clouds race/ and I am connected to the earth like a twisted
tree.../ Even a twisted tree casts shade.'
"All the poems which Tera wrote - and there are
not many of them - she was shouting them into the universe. For instance,
you know, she was washing the dishes once. I came to her because she is my
very close friend, and she was washing the dishes. All at once she started
to recite - no not recite - but simply to say how she got married. So I
said: Tera, immediately sit down and immediately put it down. She couldn't
because she had hands from the dishes, so I told her to repeat it again
and I put it down [laughs]."
I'd like to mention now a book by Ilona Lackova,
which I know you had a great part in bringing to birth.
"Well, I must say that Ilona Lackova was a
little exception in the beginning because she was writing herself and it
was her dream to write. She was writing very often in Slovak language,
because it was not possible under communism to publish anything in Romani.
A girl who was born in the Gypsy settlement with six hundred Gypsies - or
I should say Roma - and all of whom were illiterate, she was the only one
who went to school because her father was a "cibal" that means a
head of the settlement and he was a little exceptional. She became famous
by writing a first play - but of course again in Slovak, not in Romani -
about what she went through during the Second World War. And she staged
and rehearsed it with her relatives. Most of them were illiterate, so she
was telling them the text and they were repeating it after her. And what
Ilona was telling me about her life was a hundred times more interesting
than what she was writing, unfortunately, because there was no Romany
literature existing, so she had no model, she had no pattern. So she was
trying to copy what she read in Slovak literature, and unfortunately she
was reading what in Czech is called "cervena knihovna" [romantic
fiction], because that was the only thing which she got in the Gypsy
settlement. And the other source of her inspiration in Slovak was Marxist
literature - so you combine these two! But what she was telling was
something completely different. It was so fascinating. So we were sitting,
and she was a fantastic narrator, as most Roma are, so I was recording and
recording and recording. And then, after eight years of recording, I put
it together. You know, we arranged it and this book was born. But it's all
her own narratives which I only edited - recorded and edited."
And the English translation of this book is "A
False Dawn - my life as a Gypsy woman in Slovakia." [Narodila jsem se
pod stastnou hvezdou]. I'd like to read a short piece now from the English
translation, and this is about how she started to write the play that
you've just mentioned.
I was writing in Slovak. It didn't occur to me that I could write
differently. But in my head my characters' lines came out in Romani.
Whoever heard of a Romany woman getting angry in Slovak because her little
daughter had grown up and fallen in love not with a fellow with some
steady job, but with some swell of a musician. Those beautiful verbal
skirmishes of ours, full of peace and good feeling that I wanted to start
my play with couldn't even be translated into Slovak. My husband was
starting to get irritated with my efforts, getting angry and saying: 'Give
it a rest girl. You can see it's too hard for you, so what are you working
yourself up for?' [...]
I thought that I would quit, but then the devil got into me and I finished
the play in one session. I called Josef and said: 'Please come and sit
down for a while and listen.' I called the play "The Burning Gypsy
Camp". It was the story of how they took our men off to work camps,
how they moved us out of the village, how the mayor of the Romany
settlement stood up to the gendarmes and how they shot him, and how his
beautiful daughter Angela cried out: 'Dear Father, don't die,' but then
together with her kindhearted "gadzo" engineer, who loved her to
death, incited a rebellion by the Roma against the gendarmes and the
Hlinka Guards. Josef was curious and really did settle in, and I began to
read. I read with fire, getting into every character, and I had quite a
time of it to keep from crying. I finished reading and I was afraid to
look at Josef. He was quiet. He stayed quiet for a long time, until
finally I carefully, slowly lifted up my eyes and I saw tears as big as
beads of glass rolling down his face. He said nothing, and then he asked
straight out: 'Who are we going to rehearse it with, girl?' 'With our own
people, who else.'
I'd like to ask you now about the younger generation
of writers and whether you've noticed any changes - what the state is
today with Romany literature.
"You know, that's very interesting. Now there's
a difference between the Roma, who live in the Czech Republic and
Slovakia. In the Czech Republic the assimilation process is going more
quickly than in Slovakia. So in Slovakia you can find young Roma who are
trying to write and they write in Romani. Here in the Czech Republic you
can also find young writers, but they are divided. Some of them still
write in Romani and some of them write already in Czech because though
passively they may know Romani, it's not their language of communication
any more. And what is very interesting, for instance, is that we have one
writer called Samko - he is about thirty years old - and he is trying to
trace Romany history, and writing invented historical legends about Roma,
which is a very specific genre and very interesting. What is also very
interesting is the high school in Kolin - the Romany school in Kolin - and
there also, for a third of these young kids, Romani is still their mother
tongue. And some of them write. One of them writes fascinatingly, very
nicely. So there are Roma writers."
Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.