Roma literature

In her essay on pariahs, Hannah Arendt points out that Jewish pariahs put their talents to the service of other people, thereby building their national culture. However, their successes are not regarded as “Jewish” successes. An example of such a person was Heinrich Heine, who was Jewish, but at the same time, could also call himself German. His work to this day is seen as German, belonging to the culture of Germans[1]. Also many people with Roma roots who were functioning in the world of art were not recognised as Roma. An example is an avant-garde painter Serge Poliakoff, who functioned in French artistic circles as a Russian and not as a person with Roma roots[2]. However, the Roma pariahs, being invisible in the world of high level culture, more than often gave their talent away completely anonymously. Many different Roma art practices have influenced many countries’ cultures, but this influence goes unnoticed. After all, today we still talk about Spanish flamenco or Russian romance[3]. According to Anna Sobieska, “(…) the emotional structure of Russian Gypsy romance – that tiomnyj morok cyganskich piesien – was exceptionally attractive to the Polish interwar poetry as an expression of a certain type of feeling characterized by a peculiar maximalism and extremity, based on contradictory emotions – delight and despair, on a psychological “excess”. The Gypsy Romance was thus a brilliant mirror in which the experience of the absurdity and grotesque tragedy of the epoch could be reflected. But we should not forget that it was also a manifestation of the democratisation of art, which was elitist until then. It was, after all – as Osip Mandelstam noted – a touch of the soul of the Russian people, an expression of their truths. It is no exaggeration to paraphrase the words of one of Russia’s most sensitive experts and admirers of Gypsy music. The Romantic poet Apollo Grigoryev is credited with the authorship of the famous remark about Gypsy singing – that without the Russian nation it is not understandable.Iit will also not be an exaggeration to emphasise that gypsyism, so important for the understanding of Polish interwar poetry, and – more broadly – the very issue of the Polish-Russian literary relations of that period: biez russkogo cyganskogo romansa nie poniat[4].
However, the inspirations from the Roma culture, the figure of the ‘Gypsy man/Gypsy woman’ as a rhetorical cliché, and ethnographers’ descriptions containing many errors and mythologisation of the Roma together create a ‘cultural ghetto’ that Timea Junghaus wrote about[5]. For a long time, Roma art was not at all put into historical perspective by society. As Wojciech Szymański writes: “While professional European art was subject to the regularities of historical development and changes occurring within it as a result of clashing aesthetic views and ideas, original non-European art and European folk art were treated as a permanent relic of the past, a kind of living fossil; if even subject to change, it was very slow and undesirable, as it was distanced from its original and ancient source and was caused by external factors (e.g. the meeting of cultures, the arrival of urban patterns in the countryside), and not by a self-reflexive, immanent aspiration for originality and novelty. While professional European art became an object of interest for history and art criticism, primitive and folk art found acolytes among folk scientists: anthropologists and ethnographers “[6].
Breaking out of the stereotypical representation of the Roma is not easy. That is why, in the first place, we should start reading texts written by the Roma themselves. Contrary to appearances, quite a lot of them have been published in Poland. Again, as in the case of the visual arts, we are dealing with a troublesome term. Is Romani literature written in Romani? Usually not. Does it discuss “Roma themes”, whatever they are? Not necessarily. Is it published by Roma institutions? Certainly not. Do Roma artists clearly define their ethnic identity? Not all of them. An example is Damian Le Bas Junior, who even makes it the theme of his novel. In a sense, however, this is a political declaration that meets with both approval and disapproval from the authors themselves. Discussions about the pros and cons of using the term “Romani literature” will certainly be the subject of future research and negotiations. I can only sincerely recommend reading the texts of Roma writers, which allow us to transcend stereotypical thinking about the Roma around the world.




[1] H. Arendt, The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition, in Joodse Essays, translated by P. Nowak, Biblioteka Kwartalnika Kronos, Warszawa 2012, 324-325.


[2] Meet Your Neighbours: Contemporary Roma Art from Europe, edit. T. Junghaus, New York 2006,.160–163; T. Junghaus, Serge Poliakoff. Abstrakcja liryczna, translated by M. Kołaczek, „Dialog-Pheniben” 2013, nr 9, 70–83.


[3] Few researchers have attempted to analyse these influences. The Ethnographic Museum in Hungary organised an exhibition Play, Gypsies! Gypsy Music From Liszt to Hungaricum, which pointed to the inspiration of the ‘Roma scale’ in Hungarian music.


[4] A. Sobieska, Ach, ten „tiomnyj morok cyganskich piesen…”: O uwiedzionych przez rosyjski romans cygański, „Pamiętnik Literacki” 2012, nr 103(3), s. 143–181; taż, Dzieci Hagar. Literackie wizerunki Romów/Cyganów. Studia imagologiczne, Officyna 21, Warszawa 2015.


[5] Por. M. Weychert, Postać Cygana w kulturze polskiej – mit czy stereotyp?, Toruń 1998 [unpublished]; Mróz L., Cyganie – Filistyni – Romowie. Studium dystansu etnicznego, in Tradycje kultury Północnego Mazowsza, Akademia Humanistyczna im. Aleksandra Gieysztora, Pułtusk 2006; O fjlistynach, cyganach alias wałęsach. Z dziejów poznawania Romów w Polsce, „Lud” 78/1995; T. Junghaus, Roma Art – The Subaltern Revolt, translated by I. Suchan, in Romano kher. O romskiej sztuce, tradycji i doświadczeniu, edit. M. Weychert, Zachęta, Warszawa 2013.


[6] W. Szymański, Od cyganerii do sztuki post-romskiej i z powrotem, „Studia Romologica” 9/2016, 34