In which I discuss why sometimes writing about an ethnicity you ‘like’ can do more harm than good.
Earlier I discussed Tolkien’s use of a simile race in his greatest works but I will admit that perhaps I did not make my motivation clear. In fact I may have simply just muddled the waters for Tolkien is for all intense and purposes irrelevance to my point, The Hobbit was simply the inspiration behind my train of thought.
I call these posts ‘Kill me with Affection’ because I have noticed that this is indeed what a number of authors do, whether it be their intention or not. Lets take the Romani discourse for example, that is after all what I desire to speak about.
People write, on mass it would seem, on the topic of ‘Gypsies’. I reference fiction, fantasy, role-playing. Not entirely limited to books, we also have television, plays, video and card games, we might even take drawing, photography and fashion we will always come down to the same problem. People enjoying ‘Gypsies’, or at the very least this fictional romanticist of what a ‘Gypsy’ is. No body really likes Gypsies, I have spoken to many people who enjoy the tales and dressing up but when it gets down to it don’t much care for our living, breathing forms. But I’m afraid that I’m mixing too many issues at once so lets start simply.
- People enjoy writing about ‘Gypsies’.
- People enjoy reading about ‘Gypsies’.
- People have a very set view of what constitutes a ‘Gypsy’ is and are only interested in their understanding of what one is and what one should be .
- People have a number of misunderstanding on Romani culture and how we live our lives, relevant to both the ‘Gypsy idealism’ and how other Romani families live both now and ‘then’. The ‘then’ being any arbitrary imagined period, or perhaps more aptly ‘style’ that the author wishes to portray, hopefully correlated with some factual truth.
- In addition to this we also have Travelling people as literary, or story devises – smuggling, curses, fortune telling.
People want to write and read stories about a particular race because they find them interesting. The author, or society has decided that they are interesting. Why do people find this race interesting, personal perception of what another race is like, and because the Romani have been romanticised for eons.
People are tired of their day-to-day life they want a holiday, they’re stressed by work, their home life etcetera. etcetera look Gypsies they have no responsibility, travel from place to place without worries. Even if we just stick with all of the ‘good’ things that people think about Romanies and Travellers and forget the bad exist we are still left with this issue of dehumanisation.
The people who are being written about are not a people but a desire of what the writer wants – escapism. Now this can lead to two sets of problems, firstly Romanies, or Gypsies as the common bookworm identifies us as, become equated with faeries and mythical creatures. This is an attitude I have particularly noticed of Americans.
A Mythological creature cannot suffer racism, discrimination or crime, they have no human rights and as a result of this I have found that people are more likely to dismiss the suffering of Romani people because they have problems taking them seriously as human beings, this is further amplified by intense misconceptions of what a Romani looks like, “what women is not a gypsy, where is her tambarin and singing goat” etc. etc.
This fairytale lifestyle is also insulting. Yes us Romani are pretty great, we sing and we dance but we travel out of necessity, pulled by economic opportunity and pushed by discrimination and genocide. The Roma and Sinti suffered the Porajmos, the Romani holocaust. We have been slaves, and we are still to this day forced into ghettos and work camps. To wash over our history (and present reality) of hardship is disgusting, it is an insult spat in our face and the faces of everyone we have ever loved.
But most importantly these stories paint a very particular view of what us ‘Gypsies’ are supposed to be like, not every story is the same but most grew from tired stereotypes based around one period of Romani history. I say one, I lie, I actually mean two. The first is the Bohemian, the likes of Esméralda and Carmen, and the second my people (*bows*) with our painted vardos. Beautiful imagery I’ve no doubt, and indeed the painted vardo is still very much to this day beloved by modern Romany however this view, this idea of how a ‘Gypsy’ should be distracts away from how we are. There is this hatred towards ‘Travellers’ in their trailers but a romantic love of ‘Real Gypsies’ in their horse-drawns. We live to shouts of ‘if only they would live properly, I don’t mind proper Gypsies’. This is not right, how can a characterchure of a bygone age that only ever existed partially be the ‘Real’ and us, with our blood, our history, our culture be the fake?
Even if the author wish to avoid old stereotypes, they will come up against the issue that they, and their readership, simply do not understand enough about Romani culture to accurately portray us. Is that not a good enough reason in itself not to write about our culture?
Nevertheless, even after countless research, an author who has decided to write about a culture that interests them merely because they are interested is doomed to fail, because fundamentally they will write about the aspects of that culture that interests them, they will expanded upon, exaggerated it and distorted it. It is not their characters that are important but their ethnicity. A distorted wreak of cultural mishmashing lacking in believability, they will not live as themselves but as an ‘other’ to be juxtaposed against the ‘norm’. For the author will always have their audience in mind, a gargle of romanticists, without even the smallest consideration that a ‘Gypsy’ might be able to read their books.
Why is it I say that people are killing me with affection? Because even when people are being nice to the Romani all they seem to be able to come up with are washed up old stereotypes that at the end of the day continue to do more harm than good.