We are in sore need of alternative images of Roma, Gypsy and Traveller people. Unreconstructed and well-rehearsed public discourse tends to waver between extreme denigration (they are all thieves and chancers) and veneration (they are a fascinating, secretive people who live wild and free). Yaron Matras’ book I Met Lucky People aims to provide some respite from such stereotypes, and for that reason alone it is welcome. But it is questionable whether simply pushing back against stereotypes is enough to really challenge and change essentialist views.
Matras begins by arguing that it is the labelling we need to sort out. Many people become confused by the plethora of terms – Gypsies, Travellers, Romani and so on – and the issue of which should be used, when and for whom. Matras suggests that “Rom”, which has long been used by some communities as self-appellation, is a solution. I Met Lucky People provides the reader with an overview of the Roms, a people Matras shows are connected by history, language and culture and who, he says, should be differentiated from public constructions of “the Gypsy”. He is therefore speaking to “us” (the non-Roma public) to describe “them” (a certain minority community). This approach prompts two questions that bothered me as I read the rest of the book.
First, what about the people who don’t speak a Romani language and/or who don’t follow all the traditions he details? By not fitting into the society Matras describes, might such people be seen as “inauthentic Gypsies”? And second, who are the “we” he is addressing? In his description, “we” become the homogeneous, unreconstructed lot who are markedly different from “them”. Moreover, his conflation of public discourse and the public itself overlooks all the cross-community relationships, families, friendships, neighbours, co-workers and others with whom experiences are shared. The matter of labelling is an extremely important debate, of course, but it is not one that can be resolved by reinforcing a simple us-and-them dichotomy.
The us-and-them approach is further underscored by Matras’ statements on the Roms’ society, language and customs. While he bases his knowledge on friendships with Romani families over the years and extols their society’s diversity, the way he describes their practices is frustratingly simplistic. Observations such as “the Roms are experienced in making use of a variety of income-generating opportunities” or “school attendance beyond puberty is difficult for girls” are written in a stilted, old-fashioned anthropological style. Such descriptions serve to fix these people in stagnant social, cultural and gendered relationships, as if they are universal truths embodied in the souls of the Roms, rather than practices potentially dependent on differing political, economic or social circumstances.
Where Matras’ book succeeds is in his ability to convey a wealth of knowledge about the archival and linguistic evidence of different groups of people across Europe associated with Rom, Gypsy or other ethnonyms. A chapter on the Romani language provides evidence of how an investigation into language can reveal certain historic migration routes, while elsewhere a focus on the constructions of the Gypsy stereotype across Europe gives a useful overview of how art and literature play their role in continually circulating the imagined Gypsy.
But where I Met Lucky People does not succeed is in moving from the expert’s view to the experiences of people in their everyday lives. We shouldn’t forget that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people have ordinary, common experiences alongside the struggles and successes of life. Public discourses do need alternative images, but these images need to be rooted in people’s real, everyday social experiences and interactions. Through this we may see that there are more similarities than differences between majority society and the Romani people; acknowledging this would truly bring a shift in perception.
I Met Lucky People: The Story of the Romani Gypsies
By Yaron Matras
Allen Lane, 288pp, £20.00 and £11.99
ISBN 9781846144813 and 97801419701
Published 6 February 2014