Don’t Miss Rose Hill Cemetery Costumed Tour

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The 4th Annual Historic Costumed Tour at

Rose Hill Cemetery, Meridian, Mississippi

September 28, 2013 6 p.m.

When I began researching the Romani Travelers for my novel, Into the Free…particularly the “Queen of the Gypsies” Kelly Mitchell, I was honored to have the assistance of Leslie Joyner who has spent years compiling records and archiving stories about the history of Meridian, Mississippi. She works for the Lauderdale County Department of Archives & History where she is currently publishing her second book about this rich culture. I’ve invited Leslie here today to tell you all about an annual event they host in Meridian, and I hope you’ll enjoy visiting the grave of Queen Kelly Mitchell and seeing her “come to life” in the upcoming cemetery tour.

INSIDER’S NOTE: In the novel, Into the Free, I renamed Rose Hill Cemetery. It is called Hope Hill in the book, but I drew the details of the location and the funeral from working directly with many wonderful researchers in Meridian, including Leslie.

Now…Here’s Leslie:

As you drive up the hill on 8th Street in Meridian, Mississippi you’ll see what to me is a huge cemetery surrounded by fencing. I had driven by this cemetery for years and always wondered about it. In 2010 I finally got the chance to get close and personal with the cemetery’s history, and the history of those that are resting there. My assignment from my supervisor, Ward Calhoun, Jr. in January 2010 was to research a list of about 20 people. At the time I did not know that a costumed tour was in the works so I began my research with focus.

Kelly Mitchell: Queen of the Gypsies, whose story inspired my debut novel Into the Free

Kelly Mitchell: Queen of the Gypsies, whose story inspired Julie’s debut novel, Into the Free

I spent the next several months researching what to me looked like it would be the most interesting of the subjects, the King and Queen of the Romani (Gypsies), Emil and Kelly Mitchell. Exactly how did someone not from Meridian, and perhaps had never even been to the area come to be buried in this cemetery?

I found that the Queen had died in 1915 during childbirth with her 15 or 16th child in Coatopa, Alabama and Meridian was the closest town that had access to an ice plant which would be needed to preserve her body. It would be many weeks for Kelly’s family and other Romani to make the trip by foot, train, horse or horse drawn wagon to pay their respects to the Queen.

Since her death nearly a century ago, her people come through Meridian to pay their respects, and to leave gifts at her grave. A small publication on the Mitchell family was completed in October 2010 and is available for purchase at the Lauderdale County Department of Archives and History, Inc. http://www.kithandkinofthesouth.org/rose-hill-books.html

Last month, I finally completed researching and writing everything that could be found on the other people that are portrayed in the tour: Lewis Ragsdale and John T. Ball, the feuding founding fathers of Meridian; John Taylor, Mayor of Meridian during the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878; Mississippi Legislature and Confederate Officer William Patton; Marjorie Woods Austin, the founder of the Meridian Little Theater and so many more interesting individuals who helped to make Meridian a great city! The biographies of the people that are portrayed on the tour is called “The People of Rose Hill Cemetery: The Tour” and will be available on September 28, 2013 at our next tour!

King Emil Mitchell was distraught when he lost his much loved wife during childbirth in 1915

King Emil Mitchell was distraught when he lost his much loved wife during childbirth in 1915

You can keep up with the tour through our website and Facebook Page

http://www.historicrosehillcemeterytours.com/

https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Rose-Hill-Company/125210517551517

1 the crowd

If you do choose to go to the tour, be sure to arrive early…each year the crowds grow larger. Take a look at the line from 2011!

Julie’s bestelling, award-winning novel, Into the Free, is a coming-of-age tale set in Depression-era Mississippi. Many of the details are based on historical research from this region, including the Roma who caravan through town each spring to pay homage to their fallen queen. The sequel, When Mountains Move, launches SEPTEMBER 1. Learn more: https://juliecantrell.wordpress.com/order-books/

Meet the Gypsies of Spain

Susan-with-lace-cropped-31-222x300I’m excited to introduce you to a new friend of mine, Susan Nadathur, whose debut novel, City of Sorrows, was just released. You’re one of the first to learn about this beautiful new story set in the Gypsy communities of Spain, and this might just be the first interview posted publicly regarding the book.

JC: Susan, You have a fascinating life. You grew up in a quaint New England community but after graduate school became an ex-Pat and relocated to Spain. There, you fell in love with a man from India, and together, after years of some pretty amazing adventures, you decided to move among the Gypsies of Spain whom you describe as some of the most generous, humble people you’ve ever met. Tell us briefly how you ended up “running away with the Gypsies.”

SN: I often wonder where this journey began. I think God always knew, even though He was not so good about sharing the details with me. But, looking back on my life, the road seems clear. For example, if as a child I had not been bullied, picked on and humiliated, I would not have developed the keen sense of empathy I have for people who are marginalized. And without that compassion, I would not have been profoundly affected by a racist remark targeted at my Indian friend in Spain who was confused for a Gypsy way back when I was a twenty-two-year-old expat living in Seville.

“Gypsies and Moors are not served here,” a Spaniard said before refusing my friend a cup of coffee. That one statement, spat out decades ago in a bar in Seville, became the catalyst for a story of love and loss in the vibrant world of Gypsy Spain—a world I would never have penetrated if I had not felt the sting of isolation, humiliation, and rejection that gave me the unique, unspoken connection to this group of persecuted people.

Several years later, that story finally germinated. I started to write the novel which has become CITY OF SORROWS. But, in order to do justice to the project, I had to return to Spain. And this time, I had to meet and get to know the people whose culture I was writing about. Spanish Gypsies.

The only problem was, I knew that most of the Gypsies in Seville lived in poor, dangerous sectors of the city. My husband knew that too. As well as my pastor. The only way I was going to convince both my husband and pastor that I would be safe in these marginalized areas was by connecting with a Christian church that had ministries in the Gypsy community. Well, to make a long story short, I ended up in a  Pentecostal Gypsy church called Dios Con Nosotros (God with Us), in one of the most sordid sectors of the city (Las Tres Mil Viviendas). And not once did I ever feel unsafe. The congregation embraced me, though kept me at a distance whenever I asked questions about their culture. Too many years of marginalization and oppression had made them wary of foreigners.

But as the weeks went by, and they began to trust me, my experiences began to change. I was invited into homes, into people’s lives. Finally, I was asked to leave the apartment I had rented in Seville and invited to live with Pastor Pepe Serrano and his family in their home on the outskirts of Seville. Once I moved into Pastor Pepe’s home, I no longer had to ask questions. I only had to live as part of a family to understand the people I had been led to write about.

Pepe-Pura-and-Susan-Cropped1-300x242Looking back now, I remember what Pastor Pepe said to me that day I first entered his church.

“God has not brought you here to research your book,” Pastor Pepe said. “He has brought you here to work on you.”

I guess God always knew the plans he had for me. There was a reason I was me.

JC: You are not only fluent in Spanish, you have created a successful business teaching Spanish to medical professionals and have published several books on this topic. It’s clear you have spent your life working to promote cross-cultural understanding. What do you consider the most positive aspect of modern Gypsy life in Spain? What are their struggles?

SN: I think the most positive aspect of modern Gypsy life in Spain right now is the transformation that is occurring because of Spanish Gypsy evangelism. Negative behaviors historically associated with Gypsies, such as vagrancy, theft, violence, revenge and tribal feuding, are being modified and corrected with conversions to Christ.

From “gypping” someone out of their money, to truancy and laziness, to admonishment for being unhygienic, to retaliation and revenge, the standard image of the Spanish Gypsy is cloaked in negative stereotyping. The Gypsy has come to symbolize everything that modern-day, industrialized societies reject as immoral and inefficient. But that image is changing from the only place where change is meaningful – from within.

A remarkable phenomenon is occurring that is changing the face of the Spanish Gypsy: Pentecostal evangelism. As thousands of Gypsies convert to Christ, their slogan has become:

 

Antes los gitanos iban con cuchillos y quimeras.

Ahora llevamos la Biblia, la palabra verdadera.

Before the Gypsies went with knives and quarrels into battle.

Now we take the Bible, God’s True and Holy Word.

For more on this subject, here’s a link to an article I wrote for EMQ Online titled “Waiting on Dibel: The Growth of Pentecostalism among Spanish Gypsies.” https://www.dropbox.com/s/nusbzyrmnk48sku/Waiting%20on%20Dibel.pdf?m

  • “Waiting on Dibel: The Growth of Pentecostalism among Spanish Gypsies” was originally published in the April 2011 issue of EMQ (www.emqonline.com). Reprinted with permission. Not to be reproduced or republished without permission.

As far as their struggles, Spanish Gypsies have much to overcome. Poverty is rampant, Work inconsistent (A large number of Spanish Gypsies make their living as itinerant street vendors, a way of life that has been severely affected by the economic crisis that has plagued Spain since 2008). Drugs and crime threaten the world in which many Gypsies live. And attitudes toward education sometimes limit them from exploring options outside of what is familiar to them as a group of people living as part of, while at the same time separated from Spanish culture. And of course, there still exists a subtle level of (sometimes self-imposed) social marginalization from mainstream Spanish society as well as the perpetuation of negative stereotypes. You will still see the beggar sitting in front of a church, or the fortune teller stalking the outside of the Cathedral for unsuspecting foreigners ready to part with their money for a Tarot spread or palm reading. But, the positive news is that change is coming, slowly but surely to the Spanish Gypsies.

CITYofSORROWSfinaldigitalCOVER-660x1024JC: Because you are a writer, you have documented some of the stories you’ve witnessed during your adventures. Tell us a bit about this project and how your real life influences your fiction.

SN: CITY OF SORROWS (release date December 2012) is the story of a young Spanish Gypsy, Diego Vargas, and his journey from the shackles of grief to the obsession of revenge, to the miracle that is love after loss. Young Diego lives with his family on the Southside of Seville, in what is basically a Gypsy ghetto. Just turned nineteen, he is recently married, madly in love, expecting his first child, and completely unaware that his life is about to come crashing down around him. On a dark road outside the city of Seville, Diego must find the courage to face death, the strength to survive it, and the power to hold onto his humanity while both his mind and his will scream against it.

The seeds for this novel were sown many years ago, when I first lived in Spain. But for a long time, those seeds remained dormant. When I finally sat down to write the book, I was all revved up and ready to whip this story into shape. Just “write what you know,” I thought. Well, yes and no. I had NO idea what I had gotten myself into. Surprise, surprise, sitting down to write a novel actually meant acquiring some new skills. Like characterization, plotting, pacing and so many other things I had simply taken for granted.

After writing what was basically a fictionalized account of my life with my Indian friend in Seville, I soon realized that if I wanted this story be of interest to anyone except my immediate family, I had better start studying the craft, and then, start rewriting. As I went through the process of a second draft, I started seeing some subtle changes. My protagonist, who had some pretty obvious character traits of that Indian friend I had met in Spain, started taking a back seat to his fictional best friend, Diego Vargas. And then it seemed as if Diego wanted to write his own story. When that happened, I convinced a lot of people that I needed to abandon my home for a while and go live with the Gypsies in Seville. There was no way Diego was going to hijack the story without me doing my research.

Many of the scenes in the novel are based on my experiences living among the Gypsies. I have tried to be faithful to the reality of their world without either glamorizing it or condemning it. Like in real life, my novel has both good and bad Gypsies. Good and bad Spaniards. And yes, there is a strong Indian presence offered through one of the supporting characters, Rajiv Kumaran. Rajiv is Diego’s philosophical friend from India, the man who helps him to work his way out of the darkness of despair and into the light. And yes, I admit it, Rajiv does have a strong likeness to that Indian friend from Spain who later became my husband.

JC: Finally, I’m intrigued by your efforts to help young adults cope with bullying by celebrating their differences. You even offer a blogsite for such teens. Tell us about these efforts.

SN: I have always enjoyed young people, especially those who don’t quite “fit in.” I currently volunteer at the local high school in Lajas, Puerto Rico, where I live. I work with the students both individually and in a group setting, where I encourage them to express themselves in writing. Many of these students feel isolated or “different” from their more popular peers. They all have been labeled something, from “Goth” to “Nerd” to other more offensive titles. And up until recently, they have, for the most part, kept silent. I have been working with them to help them find their voices.

The students and I have formed a group called Vox Occulta which translates to “hidden voice.” The students have written poems, stories, and rap songs about their lives, learning about themselves in the process. Many of these stories are posted on my blog www.susannadathur.com.

These young people have made a mark on my life. And like the Gypsies, they have influenced my writing. My next novel-in-progress is for young adults. You can’t spend so much time with young people without being influenced by them. They are a wonderful addition to my life.

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SUSAN NADATHUR is a widely-traveled writer, teacher, and self-proclaimed “outsider” from Connecticut who lives on-and-off in Spain with an extended family of Gypsies in Seville. A registered nurse with a Masters degree in Spanish, Susan teaches language and cultural diversity workshops to childbirth and healthcare professionals, and has authored several books on Spanish language acquisition and cross-cultural communication. City of Sorrows (Azahar Books, 2012) is her debut novel. She lives with her husband, a philosophical scientist from India, and their daughter in Lajas, Puerto  Rico. Visit the author online at www.susannadathur.com.