CAREN GUSSOFF SUMPTION’S NON-EXOTIC AND COMPLETELY BELIEVABLE FICTIONAL ROMA

Glenda Bailey-Mershon

All Romani writers have unique issues when they present their work to the public, but American Romani writers have different tasks than their European counterparts. As Europe’s largest minority, Roma have been visible for centuries in the continent’s public eye, in ways both positive and negative. Yet in the United States, our smaller population of Roma––many recent immigrants––are largely invisible. Those of us who identify ourselves publicly often encounter some vague awareness of Romani people as “happy, carefree wanderers,” or of “Gypsy music,” but audiences are as likely to greet you with a puzzled expression as with a Django Reinhardt riff.

For many who have emigrated away from widespread discrimination in Europe, this invisibility is preferable.  So when an American Romani writer wants to write from his or her experience, he or she becomes accountable to readers for authenticity and to community members for cultural taboos about exposing other Roma and the community at large.

Romani writers must consciously choose to form a rhetorical vision or worldview that expresses who they are without appearing to cater to outsider perceptions or stereotypes. How we do that requires us to each answer several questions. 

First of all, does one market one’s writing as “Romani”?

Secondly, is it necessary to use Romani cultural experience as central to a specific piece of work, or does one perhaps write from that experience without labeling it, letting the audience decide how to interpret it, and avoiding cultural identifiers altogether?

This avoidance is often possible, but perhaps not in every case, depending on the author’s chosen theme and goals. For example, one may write about fortunetellers without labeling their ethnic identity. On the other hand, writing about a Romani family without referring to music, language, or certain work characteristic of particular vitsae, is sometimes problematic. Imagine writing about a Gitana family with no reference to their distinctive Flamenco music and dance, or about a British Romanichal family in the recent past with no reference to caravans or vardoes or horses––the task would not be impossible, but it might involve writing against certain traditions.  One always runs the risk of self-exotification: letting the cultural identifiers become the point of the story.

Lastly, what does a Romani author owe the audience in terms of cultural explanation, and how much does one share without running the risk of violating community norms about oversharing?

The answer to the first question is one that must be made by the individual author. One solution to the last two questions is to lift Romani characters out of the known world into realms of science fiction or fantasy, where their ethnic identity can be presented without regard to a specific community or family history. Another is to lift themes common to Romani life––the supremacy of family in all considerations, for example––that can make work more universal and accessible, without referring to Roma at all.

The very successful science fiction and fantasy writer, Caren Gussoff Sumption, has discussed these strategies in several interviews. She has also addressed the wider question that must be faced by every Romani writer: whether to speak as Romani at all.

Gussoff Sumption’s standing as a fiction writer is considerable. The Village Voice named her one of the “Writers on the Verge” in 2001, and she won the Elizabeth George Award from the Hedgebrook Foundation, the Speculative Literature Foundation’s Gulliver Grant, and honors from the European Commission on Science and Society, among others. She has written articles on craft for the well-known Gotham Writers Workshop and has presented at the Clarion Writers Workshop, as well as teaching at several colleges and universities.

The writer refers to herself self-deprecatingly in her Amazon.com bio as an “over-intellectual, hyper-ambitious dilettante Didikai,” but she has achieved substantial recognition. Her work has been called “demanding” by Publisher’s Weekly (https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-85242-458-9) and “haunting” by Kirkus Reviews (https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/caren-gussoff/homecoming-4/).

In many ways, simply by being a science fiction writer, Gussoff Sumption challenges popular notions of Romani people as controlled by passions rather than reason, and as unschooled in academic subjects such as science. (Hugo’s Esmeralda comes to mind.)

Furthermore, Gussoff Sumption’s presentation of themes, including outsider status, connection, and identity, are not unusual when viewed through the lens of Romani world literature. For example, one finds these themes in Louise Doughty’s Stone Cradle, about a travelling Romany family in a changing England. What is unusual is Gussoff Sumption’s accomplishments in speculative fiction without stereotyping Romani characters as “occult, whimsical, sexual, or criminal,” as Jessica Reidy wrote for VIDA. (Reidy, Jessica, “Twenty Gypsy Women You Should be Reading.” VIDA, June 21, 2014, http://www.vidaweb.org.) Thus, Gussoff Sumption’s worldview is often specifically Romani, whether or not her characters follow suit.

In her novel, Three Songs for Roxy, she includes the character of Kizzy, a foundling raised by a Romani Kalderash family in present-day Seattle. As Kizzy is about to be claimed by the aliens who left her to be raised as human, Gussoff Sumption writes,

Some stories aren’t meant to be told. The more they get told, the more they change from what they once were, worn down and smooth like pieces of sea glass too beautiful to have ever been broken bottles […]Some stories aren’t meant to be beautiful or mythic, they are meant to be true—chachi paramicha—and so those are better not told.  (Gussoff, Caren; Three Songs for Roxy, Aqueduct Press, 2015: 16.)

Speculative and science fiction, through both world-building and dystopian texts, allow one to focus on the beautiful and mythic in both real-world and fantasy-world cultures, creating new or using known cultural identifiers, although these aspects may not be historically true. (Too often, non-Romani writers write about Roma as magical creatures, leading to exotification of cultural practices––Flamenco dancing, tarot reading, palmistry, etc.–– though many Roma among the wide diaspora do not follow those practices at all, or, if they do, may or may not practice them around outsiders.)

Meanwhile, the “purely true”—that which is at the essence, for example, of Romani culture, need not be told at all. For many Romani writers, these truths include our language and our spiritual practices; for others, origin or folk tales, as well as family identities, should not be shared. Scattered phrases, a casual picture of an altar, perhaps, may make it into the text, but, for some authors, a full description of a slava or wedding ritual, or even everyday practices might not. Many Romani writers skirt these cultural dilemmas with care and concern.

However, there’s another version of “stories meant to be true,” that Gussoff Sumption excels in writing. As she says in her short tag bio on the literary website curious.com, [she] “writes emotionally messy sci fi that hits you in the feels.” What is “true,” then, may be told with any identifier that augments the piece’s emotional truth––and this need not be full cultural exposure.

Indeed, Caren Gussoff Sumption proves that a Romani writer, when writing informed by that ethnic identity, can avoid self-exotification and unconscious revelations of cultural taboos, without presenting an American facsimile of assimilation. That is, her characters are very real and beautifully detailed in an emotional sense, whether they are identifiably Roma or not, or following common practices for any specific cultural group.

For example, in Three Songs for Roxy, a Romani family adopts an abandoned child whom they soon learn to be an alien who sheds her skin entirely at random moments. They raise this alien child, Kizzy, alongside their human daughter, Roxy. Another alien, Natalie, arrives to retrieve Kizzy, revealing that both non-human women are part of an experiment researching Earth anatomy and psychology. Roxy falls in love with Natalie, introducing self-doubt and a possible schism in Natalie and Kizzy’s traditional family. Kizzy, however, never doubts that she belongs with her Romani family. Indeed, it is the true “alien” to human culture, Natalie, who doubts her place in her own species as she is assigned to separate the sisters.

Throughout this novel, multiple characters, both Romani and non-Romani, question their own belonging and connection with those around them. Gussoff Sumption skillfully portrays a close-knit Romani family as distinct in culture and language, but completely familiar in their gender and identity issues and concerns for loved ones. To push the universality of these concerns, Gussoff Sumption introduces non-Romani  characters who also question where and how they belong: Stevie, a gay male drag artist who nonetheless loves Natalie; and Scott Lynn Miller, a former soldier and Hurricane Katrina survivor lost in meaningless jobs, who witnesses the alien ship and tries to warn humans of their presence, while in the meantime abducting his own son. The non-Romani characters long just as much for belonging and connection as the Romani ones: a dilemma familiar among any cultural group in diaspora, but also among many lonely hearts.

To teach Roxy and comfort Kizzy when she is a child, Gussoff Sumption’s Mamo tells them the myth of Lallah Pombo, a Romani girl who can neither sing nor dance nor do anything regarded as “useful” by her family. She is sent away to wander. In the process, she discovers a great body of water and returns, bringing the rain her people desperately need. Throughout the book, Gussoff Sumption returns to this myth, especially at times of stress when Roxy is confused about what is happening around her. Roxy knows that there are multiple versions of this tale, even within the family: in some versions, Lallah Pombo is given a choice––“she could save her people and be left alone, or die with them.” (Ibid: 128). This story “meant to be true” underlines the terrible choices faced by everyone in the novel: Natalie’s dilemma of whether to follow directions that will wreak tragedy on Roxy’s family; Scott Lynn Miller’s decision to abduct his son while also trying to save everyone from what he believes is an alien invasion; Kizzy’s choice of losing her sister or losing her family; Stevie risking a beating from homophobic men when he identifies himself as gay. The girls’ family eventually must lose one of them: which one?

Look at what people do to themselves and others, all in the name of belonging, of being seen as “useful,” of not being “the other,” the author seems to be saying.

I’m a lesbian, my sister said, and I answered So? I’m a lesbian, she repeated, and I asked, So what? It’s different for you, she said. I scrubbed the tub until the ringing phone made me stop.

I could hear breathing on the other end of the line. “Whoever you are,” I said, with a surprising amount of conviction, “stop fucking around.” Then I hung up.

The hot tub shone in the lights from the trailer. So what? Then I said it aloud. “So what? I’m an alien.” (Ibid: 32)

Gussoff Sumption returns to this theme in her more mainstream short story, “The Moon Illusion.” Here, a father feels himself to be an alien and tries repeatedly before he dies to connect his daughter with his estranged family. Neither character is explicitly Romani, but both feel like outsiders. The father is extremely concerned that his daughter not be alone. He says to her, “People with no family flap around untethered, do stupid, careless things.”

Gussoff Sumption’s Roma avoid stereotypes. They are very much “tethered” and also not at all careless––or “carefree”––even as they pursue varied work and pastimes. They include a life coach; a forest fire watcher; a trader; a fortuneteller who does not believe her gifts to be “occult,” but a product of fine observations of her clients, and more.

One critical feature of the story is the pressure on both girls to marry someone approved by their family, a practice of many traditional Romani families. This critique only serves to strengthen the elucidation of outsider status: Kizzy knows that she cannot marry a human, and Roxy’s family is aghast at her lesbian relationship.

Most of us write the identities we know best, even when that identity is not the point. Gussoff Sumption subverts the popular perception of “Gypsy” by giving her characters fantastic or exaggerated surroundings in which they are free to act unconstrained by their everyday lives and are thus exposed as essentially human.

Romani families are generally tightly knit and insular due to their lack of safety in societies that discount and discriminate against them, and to be ejected from such families is thus a great hardship and emotional strain, as shown by the father in “The Moon Illusion.”

By setting Romani families in worlds also inhabited––or believed to be inhabited––by aliens and other socially “unacceptable” people—the mentally unfit soldier; individuals with diverse sexual orientations; the distraught, disconnected father––the author can examine what it really means to belong, for true aliens and the socially ostracized alike.

How far can one break from a Romani family and still be accepted? How “alien” can one be and still be loved by the family that raised her? In both the novel and short story examined here, characters wrestle with these issues. But aren’t these universal questions for every family?

      In short, speculative genres seem tailor-made for the kind of preoccupations with family, identity, gender, and belonging that often concern Romani writers around the world––that occupy, indeed, any oppressed minority––and the success of Gussoff Sumption’s explorations lead one to wonder why more Romani writers do not enter this very popular genre.

Works Cited:

Doughty, Louise, Stone Cradle, London: Faber and Faber, 2014.

Gussoff Sumption, Caren, “The Moon Illusion,” Curious Fictions, April 13, 2020, http://www.curiousfictions.com.  [Note: This story first appeared in mixer (2020.)]

Gussoff Sumption, Caren, Three Songs for Roxy, Seattle: Aqueduct Press, Conversation Pieces Series, 20

A Caren Gussoff Sumption Bibliography

Novels

Gussoff Sumption, Caren, Homecoming, London : Serpent’s Tail, 2000.

– The Birthday Problem, Auburn, MA: Pink Narcissus Press, 2014.

 – Three Songs for Roxy, Seattle: Aqueduct Press, Conversation Pieces Series, 2015.

Short story/novella collections

– The Wave and Other Stories, Seattle: Eastlake and Roanoke: 2003. (Also available in tenth anniversary edition, 2014.)

Selected anthologies

Strictly Casual (2003)

Inappropriate Random: Stories on Sex and Love (2003)

Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School (from the Gotham Writers Workshop, 2003)

Tied in Knots: Funny Stories from the Wedding Day (2006)

Fucking Daphne: Mostly True Stories and Fictions” (2008)

Destination: Future (2010)

Daughters of Icarus (2013)

Shades of Blue and Gray: Ghosts of the Civil War (2013)

Handsome Devil: Tales of Sin and Seduction (2014)

Selected awards

Winner of the Elizabeth George Award, Hedgebrook (2010)

Winner of the Speculative Literature Foundation Gulliver Travel Grant (2009)[5]

Village Voice Writers on the Verge (2001)

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