The Roma Poetess

Zoli, Colum McCann, 2007

The Roma are among the most widely persecuted peoples in the world. Going by many different names including the derogatory Gypsy (The British believed they originated in Egypt), Roma seems to be slowly gaining as the accepted name. Linguistic and genetic evidence puts their origin in the Punjab India which they seem to have left about 1000 – 1050 AD. By the 14th Century they arrived in the Balkans and by the 16th Century they had spread though out Europe. They do not have a written language but their oral traditions kept the culture surprisingly strong and intact until recently. The Nazis in WWII exterminated an estimated 800,000 in an attempt to eliminate the Roma along with the Jews. But the persecution of the Roma exists throughout Europe to this day where even supposedly liberal Norway force ably sterilized the Roma until 1977.

Roma German Interrogation

The novel is about a Slovak Roma poet, Zoli born in the early 1930s who survived the Hlinka (Slovak fascist thugs) massacre of her entire family in the 1930’s. Her surviving grandfather taught her to read and write (secretly) and she gained a reputation among her people as a poet and singer. A communist Slovak poet tracked her down after the war to collect her poems and songs. He hired a Slovak-Irish young man to assist him and the result was a series of recordings often played on the radio as far away as Prague and a book of poems. Zoli was invited to give concerts in halls.

Roma Caravan

The initially benign communist government soon turned to attempts to “assimilate” the Roma by moving them into government apartment blocks and reeducate them. When the Roma resisted, their horses were taken away and the wheels of their caravans burnt. The Roma elders blamed Zoli for their woes and banished her from their tribe. She wanders to Austria via Hungary and is eventually smuggled into Italy in the early 60’s where she marries the Italian aristocrat smugger and has a daughter. The daughter moves to Paris and by 2000 is an organizer of Roma studies and academic conferences.

Today assimilated Roma have their own political party in the Czech Republic and they have elected a number of members of Parliament. There are Roma professors throughout Europe researching and attempting to preserve and record Roma culture.

McCann is Irish but limits the Irish influence to the character of the Slovak-Irish song catcher Stephen Swan. McCann was influenced by A False Dawn: My Life as a Gypsy Woman in Slovakia by Ilona Lackova. His poetess is inspired by the Polish Roma poetess Papusza; 1910-1987.