Interview with a Romany Insider

JC: I’m fascinated to learn you have direct ties to the Romany Travelers. You and I grew up together in the same town, and you’re now one of several people from home who have contacted me to tell me about family connections with the Travelers (others have confessed a Romany identity). Tell us how you came to know the travelers. Did you always know they were there? How did you become friends with them, and when did you begin to spend time in their Louisiana “camp?”

RT: I did always know they were there as my family became friends with them before I was born. I visited their camp in Covington as a small child, though I don’t personally remember this. When my parents separated, my father actually moved to their Slidell camp and I visited there a couple times a year after that. That would have been around 1980 or so.

JC: Describe the camp for us. What are some of your best memories from those visits?

RT: Their camp looks very much like a trailer park. They have several double wide mobile homes, as well as single wides and travel trailers. There’s a circular drive with the trailers set up around the perimeter. What I remember most about my visits is that I always felt like I was visiting family. They have always felt like aunts, uncles, and cousins to me. It’s virtually impossible to visit one family without visiting two or three or more. I have “snuck in” just to see my dad (he lives at the back of the property), but when someone found out later I had been there, they let me know I should have come to see them too.

JC: What did these Roma do for work? Did they travel, or was their “camp” a permanent one? Tell us about their lifestyle.

RT: This particular family owns carnival concessions and that is how my family came to know them as my family is third generation showmen. They travel from late spring to mid fall and the camp is considered their “winter quarters.” So, in essence, they have two “camps” if you will. The winter quarters are permanent and they all have travel trailers they use during the fair season and move week to week.

JC: We often think of our grandmothers without considering who they were as young women. Your grandmother led an interesting life, running away to marry a carnival man who traveled with the Gypsies, but you weren’t aware of her secrets until her sister spilled the beans. Tell us about her unique adventures and how that confession affected the way you view your grandmother?

RT: My grandmother was a very private person. She rarely talked about her life at all, married or before. I knew she grew up on a farm in North Dakota, but had no idea her parents had actually immigrated from Russia until the same sister mentioned that to us. We knew she was of German descent, but had no idea the family had lived in Russia prior to establishing their homestead in North Dakota. I wish I knew more about her family, but other than meeting a couple of her sisters, one of whom I’m named after, and a brother, we didn’t have contact with her family. If anything, the confession of her sister made me see my grandmother as a bit more rebellious than I ever gave her credit for being. She was always such a proper lady, I couldn’t imagine her running away to marry a carnival/circus man.

JC: Your brother, whom I also grew up with, married a Rom. Was this considered unusual? How did the two families react?

RT: It was considered unusual, but also not surprising since my brother truly grew up with his bride. He was maybe 3 at the time my father moved to the camp, so he literally was around them almost since birth in a way that I was not. He also worked more with them after he graduated from high school. I grew up on the midway as a child, then gravitated to a more “normal” life after my parents’ separation. My brother did not grow up on the midway, but gravitated to that life after school.

JC: Tell us about your brother’s life now that he is in the Romany circle.

RT: They have completely adopted him into their ranks. He looks like them physically. And you’d never be able to tell he isn’t one of them. He now owns his own carnival and makes his living in that way. He and his family travel up north in the Minnesota area during the summer and early fall.

JC: Another Romany Traveler I interviewed admitted the Roma prefer to stay a bit separated from outsiders. Have you ever felt judged or ostracized by the Travelers you know? Has your brother ever experienced such treatment?

RT: No, I’ve never felt that at all. While I personally have not been as absorbed into their inner circles as my brother for obvious reasons, I’ve never felt judgment from them. I have always known I was not “one” of them, but never felt uncomfortable because of it. I did have a huge crush when I was about 13 or so on one of their young men and that was quickly squashed, but that would be about the extent of it.

JC: What do you most admire about the Romany culture? What do you want others to know and understand about this minority group?

RT: What I admire most about them is their sense of family. They are so family oriented. Everyone is a “cousin.” They take care of their own. I also admire their joy of life. They are always ready to have a good time. Everything can turn into a party.

JC: One of my greatest fears in publishing this novel was offending the Travelers (and other subcultures mentioned in the book). I went to great extremes to capture these characters authentically. What do you think of River and the travelers who are portrayed in Into the Free?

RT: I saw nothing in your book that would offend the Travelers I know. I enjoyed the character of River, but honestly know no Romany man who was as well read as he was. The ones I know, while intelligent, are street smart, not book smart. And other than my preteen crush, I have had no romantic interludes with their men, so I cannot concur on how one truly would show his interest in a woman of his choosing. To be honest, I’ve never seen courtship among them. I would see people my age one season and the next time I saw them, they’d be married. Arranged marriages do still happen, but I have no idea the manner in which they happen. Even my brother’s marriage was a surprise to me. I got a call one day saying they would be married two days later. It seemed that quick to me. I later learned they had been “seeing” each other for nearly a year, but it wasn’t what you or I would traditionally call dating.

JC: Is there any significant difference in the way the younger generation is growing up? Have the cultures melded together now to the point we all live similar lifestyles?

RT: I don’t have any children. I have two nieces and a nephew and they are half Gypsy. They are growing up totally immersed in that lifestyle. Their grandmother, my sister in law’s mother, takes care of them often. She moved in with them when the oldest was maybe a year old. They attend school, but I don’t think they are encouraged to develop close ties with their schoolmates. Their cousins are their friends and playmates. JC: On a side note, Millie notes in church that the preacher believes many people are going to Hell. He includes “Mormons” in this list. What is your reaction to that passage and what would you like people to know about The Church of Latter Day Saints

RT: I have to say I agree with Millie’s response. I have many friends who are Mormon and attended their church when I was younger. Though I now consider myself non-denominational, I have great respect for their culture. Sadly, I sat in a Sunday service in a Mormon church when I was 15 and heard a very similar sermon. The bishop basically said anyone not sitting in that room that morning would be going to hell. That was the last time I attended church there. My faith is great, but I often find myself having issues with organized religion.

JC: Thanks so very much, RT. I really appreciate you helping improve cross-cultural relations and helping readers learn to offer more compassion and kindness to those on the fringes of our society.

RT: You are more than welcome Julie!

About the Roma: A Note Regarding The Term “Gypsy”

In my novel, Into the Free, I struggled with the use of the word “Gypsy,” but I also didn’t know what else to call this group of characters in my book. The locals in Depression-era Mississippi certainly would have referred to them as gypsies (the lowercase ‘g’ was selected during the editorial phase of the book), and most Americans don’t realize the term is considered derogatory and offensive to many Romani people. Of course, I’m not a Rom, so I certainly didn’t have the right to decide what to call this group of people. I needed to go to the source.

I was honored when a lifelong friend’s husband agreed to be interviewed regarding his experience as a Romani American. You’ll see in the interview (coming soon) that he and his family prefer to be called Romany Travelers. While he was not familiar with the Mitchell family buried in Meridian, Mississippi’s Rose Hill cemetery, historians in Meridian report the Mitchells were also Romani and that they were travelers. So those are the terms I opted to use in the novel when the “gypsies” refer to themselves: Romany and Travelers.

In the book, Romani was changed to the spelling “Romany” during the editorial phase of publication, and traveler was spelled with one /l/ as opposed to the European spelling “traveller.”

Dr. Ian Hancock with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Photo courtesy of Dr. Hancock and the University of Texas at Austin

With so many contradictions on word use and spellings, I needed some expert advice. Ian Hancock, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin, is not only a world-renowned expert in Romani studies, he is also the Roma ambassador to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, a member of the International Romani Parliament, and the White House appointed Romani delegate to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. 

Under Dr. Hancock’s direction, UT at Austin oversees an extensive collection of Romani-related materials and is recognized as the premier center for the study of this unique culture. They also offer coursework in Romani language, history, and culture. So, when I wanted to find more information about Romani Americans, I was honored when Dr. Hancock responded to my request. (Learn more about Dr. Hancock’s visit with the Dalai Lama:

Dr. Hancock suggested that Romani (with an /i/) is the proper spelling, even in America, and that most Romani do not consider themselves Travelers – whether spelled with one /l/ or two.

It seemed that every time I found a fact about this fascinating culture, conflicting information was discovered next. But that difficulty in nailing down some solid details only increased my appreciation for the complexity of the Romani culture and my recognition for how difficult it must be for them to maintain a sense of unity when they have so many different subcultures across the world.

If there’s anything I have learned while trying to identify what it means to be a Rom, it’s that there seems to be no one answer. Perhaps that’s the overall message that we all need to hear…that Romani people are just like any other group of people – they are each individuals with different ideas, opinions, talents, skills, and ambitions. And, just as any minority group, they should not be lumped into one stereotypical category.

I will never claim to understand the Romani culture, and I am certain I’ve gotten many things wrong in my book. Still, I have spent countless hours researching and learning as much as I could, and I hope I managed to portray my Romani(y)/G(g)ypsy/Travel(l)er characters in a positive light as I wrote Into the Free.

*NOTE* Many posts regarding Romani Americans, the Choctaw Nation, the early American Rodeo, and other themes from Into the Free will follow this one. Subscribe to Julie’s Journal to learn more about the facts behind the fiction.