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Media Monday: Portraying Roma people in literature and art

Media MondayThe book: Snow Gypsy by Lyndsay Jayne Ashford

The music: Carmen by Bizet

My January choice for Amazon’s free prime book was Snow Gypsy, a story set in 1940’s Spain. I love For Whom the Bell Tolls, so I went with a book heavily influenced by the Spanish Civil War. Snow Gypsy tells the story of two women: Rose, a veterinarian who’s searching for her soldier brother who went missing in Spain during the war, and Lola, a Roma whose family was murdered during the war.

Rose travels to the annual Roma pow-wow in Stes.-Marie-Sur-la-Mer, in the Camargue of southern France, to try to find someone who might be able to lead her to where her brother fought, because only Roma can do that? Also, she’s kind of obsessed with Roma culture because they’re all carefree and herby, and she uses their knowledge to write a book on natural cures.

Lola is a dancer, because of course she is. She adopted a baby whose mother was killed alongside Lola’s family, and she’s dedicated to providing a good life for her daughter. She loves her culture but wants more from life, and she doesn’t want to be tied down to a husband.

Rose and Lola travel to Lola’s home in Granada, and before Lola or anyone can take Rose to the village her brother was last at, Lola is imprisoned. Fearing her daughter will be taken away from her and given to white people, Lola sends Rose and the kid to where she grew up. Rose settles into village life pretty well and even falls in love with a guy, before the gripping climax wraps everything up.

Carmen is the story of a Roma woman, Carmen. Duh. Carmen is self-assured and sexy, so all the women hate her and all the guys want her. All, that is, except Don Jose, a soldier who’s in love with his adopted sister, Micaëla. So when Carmen knifes a coworker in the face and his brought to the jail with Don Jose, she seduces him into letting her go. He forgets all about Micaëla and goes to prison for awhile. Meanwhile, Carmen’s living up the smuggler’s life prés les ramparts de Seville, chez son ami Lillas Pastia (in her friend’s tavern in Seville). Don Jose gets out of jail and comes looking for her. Conveniently, she and her smuggler friends need more laborers in their band, so she seduces him again and he’s out after curfew and ends up pulling a gun on his lieutenant. Oops. He has no choice but to join them, but he hates it and starts to hate Carmen. Carmen, of course, no longer has a use for him and moves on, but Don Jose is really jealous so he tells her they’ll only be apart in death. Micaëla shows up and tells Don Jose that his mom’s dying. He leaves but vows it’s not over. Carmen hooks up with Escamillo, a famous toreador, and tells Don Jose to f off, so he kills her. The end.

Although the two stories are very distinct, they share a common thread, and that is romanticizing the Roma culture. For Snow Gypsy, although it does show the prejudice against them, it still paints them as noble savages. And for Carmen (which was written in the 1880s, I think), Roma people are seen as violent, as lawbreakers, as unwilling to do honest work.

This year, I’d like to try to not only read books about different cultures and places, but read them by authors from those cultures. For example, I’ve started reading through all the books I picked up last year when I was in India. Even though I’ve been to the country three times, it’s still eye-opening to read books by people from that country. Even when I’ve been to the places they talk about, they have a completely different perspective than mine, and it’s a pleasant change of pace.

It makes me wonder what Carmen would be like if it had been written by a Roma person in the 1880s, or how they’d write it today. Same with Snow Gypsy; how different would it be if it were written by someone who’s Roma or even just Spanish?

Especially for my own writing, I need to sometimes take a step back and remember that even though I’m writing about a culture or place to the best of my ability, I still don’t have that insider perspective.

This is from the Metropolitan’s 2010 production of Carmen, with Elīna Garanča as Carmen. She is the best Carmen, hands down.

1 Comment

  1. That is so very true. People often have a different view of a culture when seeing it from the outside, than the people living it.
    Great post and good luck with your reading goal <3

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