Esmeralda Declines an Interview
Today’s blog post is written by author Jessica Reidy.
I am not famous, or important, or even particularly unique. But I do get emails from writers asking to interview me, though not about my art, which I would be happy to discuss. Instead, these writers want to interview me about my life and my family history in order to feed their own creative projects, particularly when they have a Gypsy woman character who shares some superficial similarities with me. The first time I received such a request, I’ll admit, I was terrified, then flattered, then terrified again when I realized this request comes with an artistic and cultural responsibility I am not prepared to undertake, and as such, necessitates a careful response.
Maybe there is a place for the gloss of my story, just so you might understand, but this is a cautious tale with not too many admissions, because after all, this is not my interview. Like many Roma, I can trace the brutality and desperation I’ve lived through directly to generations of oppression and hopelessness. The Roma have inherited trauma just as we have inherited our skin tone, our multi-colored eyes, and our family trades. On the surface, I am a living, breathing stereotype: I work as a fortune teller, dancer, and energy healer just as the women in my Romani family did as far back as we can remember. I learned these trades at my grandmother’s knee, sitting on the floor of her trailer, parked in a rough-and-tumble trailer-park that used to flood every spring. My mother and I would wade through the dirty, snake-riddled water with thick black trash bags pulled up to our chests just to get to her front steps. I slosh through, cursing at those fat water snakes that darted through the muck-silken ripples, always hoping I’d have to fight one just to make my mother and grandmother proud of my heroism and courage. That never happened, but I can shoot and knife-fight, I can track an animal, work the family trades, and I’ve travelled the world, and though they may not always understand me, my family says they are proud. So far, on paper, I am a Gypsy dream.
But I was also a quiet girl who spent her time in the library instead of at recess; I was tested and determined to have a high IQ and college-level reading and writing skills before I was 10; I attended Hollins University, an all-women’s college where I won an award for poetry; I’ve been published in a national magazine; nominated for a Pushcart; I taught college English during my MFA; and I’m currently finishing my thesis after taking a leave of absence to care for ailing family members, because that’s what Gypsy girls do, take care of their families. None of this fits the mold that gadjé culture made for me, but everything I do is what a Gypsy girl does because I am a Gypsy girl. But like many Roma, I have been reduced to the outsiders’ idea of what a Gypsy is. So I was singled out in school and pelted with rocks until bloody on my first day, so I was given detention for “witchcraft” and “giving the evil eye,” so I was sexually harassed so often that I was absent about half of every school year, so I was raped and beaten more times than I can count since I was too young to know what such things meant, so I was taught to use my body to get what I needed to survive because my body was expendable like so much garbage, so I was told by my friends’ mothers that I was lucky I was pretty, because how else would a girl like me get through life?
When I was a child, I expected I would grow up to be Victor Hugo’s Esmeralda, a sex object abused by the men who owned her because they wanted her, because her body was not her own, and ultimately destined for tragedy. I expected this would happen unless by some miracle I could write myself out of that destiny and into a different life. So I wrote, and wrote, even when I was told over and over that only my body had currency, even when I was told this by a few grumbling colleagues in my MFA, at which I had earned a place with my work and not my bikini. Even then, I wrote with the kind and meaningful support of my advisor, professors, and peers, and always with the fire I swallowed long ago. I gave blood to the Esmeralda archetype that was foisted upon me, knowing full-well that Esmeralda danced her way into the flames by choice, if you can call it choice. I knew that all of Esmeralda’s power and all of her undoing came from her fuckability, the hell-fire of desire she inspired in the white men who wanted to possess and break her, and did.
Most of the people who write to me are just that, white men who want to take my story and make it theirs, snuff-out my voice and write me an edgy elegy from the ash. They want to use my story to validate their fantasies of a genuine Gypsy girl. I have no interest in endorsing any of that noise because I write against it. I write. This is not to say that I truly think the people who write to me asking for these kinds of personal interviews consciously have such nefarious intentions—often the writers are very well-meaning, trying earnestly to do something good with their work. They write to me, “I want to be inclusive and have a Romani woman character, but the trouble is that I’m a white guy, as white as white can be.”
The trouble is that I am not all Roma. I get plenty of emails from Roma who subtly and not-so-subtly imply that I am not a “real” Roma because of my education, my mixed-blood, my choice to reclaim the slur “Gypsy,” or even my fondness for swimming. There are so many Romani clans and cultures, with so many differences and grudges between them, that there are few commonalities among us but that we are all a globally persecuted, misunderstood people. We are an ethnic group, but we are consistently denied that designation, and the periods of slavery and genocide that we have endured in the Americas and in Europe often go unacknowledged. We are consistently romanticized, demonized, and dehumanized as bands of criminals, free-spirits who made unusual life style choices, or even magical creatures. We share the burden of these stereotypes that actively undermine our fight for human rights. Though we have a shared origin in 10th century India, we have no nation. This makes it difficult for us to gain representation in the UN and in humanitarian organizations that work to protect marginalized people against systemic racism, ghettoization, forced sterilization, hate crimes, unlawful deportation, poverty, and the other injustices that Roma all over the world endured for centuries and still endure today. We share this pain, but it is not easy to express it. Our governments turn against us, the gadjé ignore us, or actively silence us with Molotov cocktails. Though our language shares a Sanskrit root, there are so many dialects and differences among us that we cannot always understand each other. This makes us very lonely in a world that seems so determined to misunderstand us as a whole. Our customs vary wildly from one clan to the next with the exception that we define ourselves against gadjé, the non-Roma. We are a private, secretive people because we are afraid, with good reason, to make ourselves known and therefore vulnerable. This is why, if we are able to hide our ethnicity (and many of us do not have that luxury), we do. We are a diasporic people scattered by the violence of our oppressors—this is our universal, this is our common ground. No one will elect me to represent us, to unite us, to speak for all of us—no one will crown me Queen of the Gypsies, even if such a title existed. (And it doesn’t. It really doesn’t.) I am a controversial figure, even in spite of my unimportance. This liminal space that I inhabit is hard enough for me to write, and I live it every day. What makes a stranger think he could write it for me?
The trouble is that I am not a muse; I am an artist in my own right, and if you want to learn about me, then read the many essays, stories, and poems I’ve published. Keep an eye out for my book. And if you want to learn about the Romani people, then read the many works written by the many Romani men and women who have overcome so much to write them. There are good reasons that we, Romani writers, publish our stories instead of simply telling them into the void—we publish to share our voices, to educate others, and to speak for ourselves and our people. We publish to legitimate ourselves as professionals, academics, and artists in a world that does not see us as legitimate human beings deserving of even the most basic human rights. We publish to protect our intellectual property when we have not been protected. We publish to own our stories when so much has been ripped from us. If you want to be inclusive, then read and support the writers you want to include. Don’t ask to take our lives for your own gain. I won’t play your Gypsy girl going up in flames.
The trouble is, if I give these interviews and say, “Yes, dear Internet stranger, here is my history. Here are the assembled experiences of a real Gypsy girl. Make of them as you will,” then I am tacitly approving whatever that writer creates from me, no matter how problematic it is, no matter how inexpertly navigated the terrain might be, no matter how many offensive stereotypes it enforces. And I would be endorsing all of this while giving away the only thing I have to my name—the songs of my blood. This, I cannot do for anyone, regardless of color, sexuality, status, or gender, no matter how well-intentioned the request. Esmeralda respectfully declines her interview.
If you are a Romani person reading this, and if you have received such requests, I am not necessarily saying that you shouldn’t oblige the well-meaning inquiries into your life. Perhaps sharing your story in this anonymous way is exactly what you want to do. Perhaps that is the safest option for you, and the kindest to your family and community. Or perhaps your drive to tell stories is simply different from mine. But consider this, my phen, my sister: it is your story and you are allowed to own it. Publishing your story on your blog is enough to stake your claim. Protect what is yours in whatever way you need to. Our people have guarded our stories for good reason. Look at dear Papusza, the grandmother of Romani writing, and how her words turned on her and her people because the gadjé who published her framed her poems so carelessly, manipulated her metaphors, and used her songs to further oppress her community. I am proud of our literary Grandmother but my heart aches for her exile. She sacrificed herself to show us how a Gypsy woman can be an artist and how much can be taken from us still. My blood-grandmother lived through WWII in Nazi Germany as a Romani girl, one of the persecuted ethnic groups, and though millions of Roma and Sinti died in the Holocaust, O Porrajmos (The Great Devouring, as we call it), we are still denied acknowledgement, and on the few occasions that our loss is acknowledged, it is rarely as “genocide.” Our basic status as people is undermined—our persecution continues—Roma are still dying because of representation and ignorance. Our stories are vital, and you have the power to decide when, how, and to whom you tell them. Make sure you do what you need to do, whatever that is. I trust that you know what you need, just as I know that I need to write my own stories, and if I’m going to give an interview, it’s going to be about the work I’ve done. I will not be sacrificed and exsanguinated like Esmeralda at the stake. My art is my identity, my liminality, and the most genuine reflection of my existence. The Gypsy archetype looms over every story we record, but through our records, we give blood to the archetype and write ourselves human.
Jessica Reidy attended Florida State University for her MFA in Fiction and holds a B.A. from Hollins University. Her work is Pushcart-nominated and has appeared in Narrative Magazine as Short Story of the Week, The Los Angeles Review, Arsenic Lobster, and other journals. She’s a staff-writer and the Outreach Editor for Quail Bell Magazine, Managing Editor for VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, Art Editor for The Southeast Review, and Visiting Professor for the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop retreats. She is a freelance writer and editor, a yoga instructor, and also works her Romani (Gypsy) family trades, fortune telling, energy healing, and dancing. Jessica is currently writing her first novel set in post-WWII Paris about Coco Charbonneau, the half-Romani burlesque dancer and fortune teller of Zenith Circus, who becomes a Nazi hunter. Visit her online at www.jessicareidy.com.