VIDA’s list of Twenty ‘Gypsy’ Women You Should Be Reading


Portrait of Papusza, the mother of Romani poetry

I’m so delighted to share my Twenty Gypsy Women You Should be Reading with everyone In honor of Roma and Traveller History Month,. Gypsy culture is vastly misunderstood and underrepresented, and literature is a beautiful way to discover it. You may not have heard of many of these writers before but they will astound you with their talent. Happy reading!

“And while I spend a lot of time on my soap box bellowing that Roma and Travellers are just human, as a storyteller and a poet, I will say that some of the most beautiful, dark, and hauntingly fantastic stories I’ve ever heard or read have been from Gypsies. It’s a MathildeVonThieleworld-view that outsiders would never be able to reach on their own, and I feel this poignantly as a not-quite-white looking girl who grew up knowing that, way back, her Gypsy ancestors sailed up and down the Danube from Germany to Hungary, working as dancers and fortune tellers in the riparian towns before the war tore everything to shreds. Their lives were not idyllic, but the stories my grandmother told were beautiful. I would hold them close to my chest when I was stoned at school, or given detention for “witchcraft and the evil eye” in a town where there were no Gypsies, where my mother and grandmother routinely referred to the Gypsy community (some abstract thing I imagined) as “they” instead of “we.” I worried about my “percentage of Gypsy” and whether or not it was enough to claim. The few practices my grandmother kept and passed down to me didn’t make sense until I began to research my own people when I was a teenager and realized that alienation is also inheritance. I found Papusza, the Mother of Romani poetry and an omen of exile and connection. I stepped into the river-mouth of my blood.”


My great-great grandmother Mathilde as a young dancer


“Ederlezi”–song, “surrealist translation,” and festival

Today in class we listened to the song “Ederlezi” performed by Tatiana Eva-Marie (of mixed Romani heritage–like me) with the Haimana Gipsy Band in Paris. Since we’ve been doing Surrealist Word Games as invention exercises for our poetry, I thought the Surrealist Translation would be perfect. What you do is you listen to a song or poem in a language you do not speak and imagine that you know what the words mean. You can base your imagination on sound, association, or feeling– the goal is to create a song with new lyrics and it’s ok (nay, encouraged) if they don’t make sense. So if you don’t speak Rromanes, this would be a good one for you. Post your translations in your blog if you’re in the class or as a comment if you’re a reader.

After you’ve done that, you can read about Ederlezi on the Romedia Foundation blog and listen to other versions of the song. It’s very interesting!

Learning songs is a good way to learn another language because you know how the words are pronounced and you develop strong associations with the words. I’m learning to speak Rromanes since the language was lost in my family when Roma were persecuted in WWII. I’ve been learning this song and I really love it– it’s embarrassing to admit how many times I’ve listened to Eva-Marie’s rendition. Too many times. Like a crazy person.

Blog 9: Romani Proverb Poetry

And’e čhib naj kokalo

“There are no bones in the tongue” (Yet the tongue can speak hard words) –Romani Proverb

from We are the Romani people by Dr. Ian Hancock


Most birds, however, do have boned tongues. Image Source:

This week you’re reading “Chapter 14 Amari Čhib: Our Language” of We are the Romani people and selecting a proverb to use in your poem (due Friday). Your blog responses (300 words minimum) will answer these questions:

1. How do proverbs reflect the Romani worldview? What is their purpose?

2. Which proverb did you chose to use in your poem and why?

The Romani language is especially beautiful and idiomatic, and as a writer, I find a lot of inspiration in it. For example, to say someone died of a cocaine overdose you’d say “Cocaine ate his head.” From Ronald Lee’s Learn Romani: Das-duma Rromanes

And expressing affection is always interesting–

In Romani when you tell someone that you love him you might say, ‘I eat your heart’ or ‘I eat your belly.’”

–Sarah Carmona, a leading historian of the Roma in Europe, in the New Yorker

“The colloquial greeting ‘te xav tirre jakha’ (‘let me eat your eyes’) is a sign of affection and of the need for protection.” —PURITY AND IMPURITY IN THE TRADITIONAL ROMANI FAMILY by Delia Grigore: Lecturer Rromani Language and LIterature Chair Oriental Languages Department


Delia Grigore, Image source:

Delia Grigore, Image source:

In your poem, you can use the proverb as an epigraph or quote it directly, much like your ars poetica poem. Play with the metaphors, images, and double meanings in your proverb and see what you can do!

Dr. Ian Hancock talks with The Southeast Review about the power of words, the arts and inspiration

Dr. Ian Hancock talks with The Southeast Review about the power of words, the arts and inspiration

Check out this fascinating Q&A with renowned Romani writer, linguist, and academic Dr. Ian Hancock. He’s the author of our textbooks, We Are the Romani People and one of the editors of The Roads of the Roma: a PEN anthology of Gypsy Writers

“I try to write both fiction and non-fiction in Romani, and that is a challenge, because of the need for the means of expression. Romani is a rich language, and while it can adopt foreign vocabulary very easily, it isn’t always necessary because it is rich in metaphor, and the closer a text is to the native lexicon, the more easily is it understood by the widest audience. For example, a writer in Denmark, wanting to express “Internet” might insert the Danish or the English word, which would not be understood by someone reading the text in another country and who didn’t know English or Danish. But the native Romani word drakhalin has entered the language, its actual meaning is ‘grapevine,’ but it is now used metaphorically to mean the Internet and is everywhere understood.”

Blog 10: “Bury Me Standing– I’ve been on my knees my whole life.” Romani Proverbs and Poetry

Gadji author Isabel Fonseca lived and traveled with Roma from Poland to Albania for four years, and wrote Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey. Powerful title, right? It comes from the Romani proverb: “Bury Me Standing– I’ve been on my knees my whole life,” and her book explores the ways that discrimination and oppression has affected the lives of Romani people as well as the culture.* It’s a fitting title, don’t you think?

This week, read “Chapter 14, Amari Čhib: Our Language” of We Are the Romani People. It’s a fascinating chapter that covers the linguistic roots and evolution of Rromanes, the various dialects, Romani vocabulary, the oral and written history of Romani people, and Romani proverbs .Then, you’ll choose a Romani proverb to write your poem about. The proverb could be the title, the subtitle, or a line of the poem. Just make sure that you credit it as a Romani proverb. And since proverbs are metaphorical, there’s a lot of room for you to create an extended metaphor inspired by the proverb.  Hancock provides an interpretation for you so you have an idea of its meaning, and you might have a different spin too. Maybe you want to take it literally, turn it into a poetic cautionary tale, use the imagery to underscore a poem that deals with similar themes….Be creative– there are a lot of ways for you relate to the proverb you pick.

For the 300 word+ blog post this week, answer question 4 from the discussion questions plus one other question of your choice. Use examples from the reading to explain your answer. And for question 4, after you’ve answered the question, explain how the specific proverb you picked reflects an aspect of Romani culture.  You can answer more questions for extra credit if you like.

Note* While Fonseca’s work expresses real admiration, understanding, and tolerance for the Romani culture and is well-meaning and mostly well-researched, there are still some inaccuracies in her book. Ian Hancock addressed one of these inaccuracies In a previous article that we’ve read, “Duty, Beauty, Possession and Truth:The Claim of Lexical Impoverishment as Control.”

Another claim to a lack of certain basic human responses or skills is found in Isabel Fonseca’s Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey, where she maintains that there are no words in Romani for ‘read’ and ‘write’. Elsewhere in the same book she states that there are no words for ‘time’, ‘danger’, ‘warmth’ or ‘quiet’ either, because these are foreign concepts for us (1995: 98). Even before the book reached the bookstores, reviewers were accepting and repeating these false assumptions: ‘[the Gypsy’s] is a world … where there are no words for “time” (or for “danger,” “warmth” or “quiet”) … where no day is different from any other’. (Kobak, 1995: 14).

Blog 9: Romani Proverb Poetry

For this week’s poem (20 line minimum free-verse), you will select one of the proverbs that Hancock lists in the chapter 14 of We Are the Romani People. Proverbs fascinate me because they are culturally shared metaphors, figurative representation’s of a culture’s values, and sometimes (even often) they’re pretty good advice. 

After reading the whole chapter, which is full of interesting details about the Rromanes language, pick a proverb that resonates with you in some way. Maybe you like it or relate to it. Maybe you think it’s grim, beautiful, peculiar, funny, or true. Maybe you just like the sound of it, or the image it evokes. I notice that my favorites change depending on what’s going on around me. Right now I like, “There are no bones in the tongue.” The image is strong, and Hancock explains that this proverb gets its meaning partially from implication– there are no bones in the tongue (yet it speaks sharp words). I like the implication that speaking sharply is not in our nature– it’s something we’ve taught our tongues to do. That’s my reading of it today, anyway.

So when you write your poem, include the proverb in some way, either as a subtitle, a title, or in the body of the poem. Be creative with how you write about it– you can take the metaphor and run with it, you could make a character speak the proverb, you can make your own interpretation or explore the traditional reading, you might write about how you (or the poem’s narrator) relates to it, rails against it, it bewildered by it… whatever you do, dig into some proverbs and enjoy it.

To get you thinking, we have this week’s blog post, also due Friday April 5th. Take that proverb that you’re drawn to and write 300 words on what it means and what it means to you (those two things may differ or be the same), why you chose it, and what the proverb might reflect about Romani culture. I encourage you to research the latter and tell us about what you learned. 

Remember to leave at least one comment on a classmate’s blog by the following Sunday, and I encourage you to regularly check out all the interesting posts y’all have been writing. There are lots of impressive blogs out there! (I’m impressed).




“The wind doesn’t recognize whose wagon it blows over”