I. To Find Her
I sit on the floor of my bedroom with photos fanned around me like the ruffles of a long, vintage skirt. The black and white shots contain my mythology, images of the many relatives I don’t know but whose stories help define me. Some photos are so old that in places the color black fades into smoky silhouettes, and the color white bursts into transparency. But others are vivid, more familiar.
I find my grandparents and parents, aunts and uncles, and an impressive assortment of cousins. I gather photos of them posing with tambourines and guitars, garbed in traditional Romani costumes: colorful, wide-sleeved blouses and flowy skirts for women, and for men, silk shirts and tight black pants tucked into knee-high leather boots. Concert costumes, to be exact—not a daily wardrobe—used by the members of the touring band my grandparents headlined between the 1940s and 1980s in the former Soviet Union.
In an image dated to 1979, my parents are onstage. Come to think of it, they’re onstage in most of my photos and memories. Growing up, I watched their lives unfold in the limelight. I was intrigued by them, like a groupie, and years later, this fascination compelled me to write a book about them. In this particular photo, my father strums a twelve-string acoustic guitar while my mother sings. Which song, I can’t recall, but I do remember that I had interrupted the concert by running out onto the stage.
I was five, my dance routine superb.
Of course, grandfather disagreed.
After catching me under one arm, he stormed off the stage and carried me to the dressing room. His tap dance boots clicked in frustration all the way down the corridor. When he deposited me onto the chair and leaned down, I could see the shiny black eyeliner just behind his long eyelashes and smell the chalkiness of his face powder. At sixty, he still performed in every show. He prided himself on being professional.
Obviously I had just upset the order of things.
“Sidi i ne dvigaysa,” he growled and stuck a finger in my face. His nearly seven-foot-tall presence felt scarier than the woods outside our house. Per orders, I sat and didn’t move for the rest of the show. No one disobeyed the bandleader, although that didn’t mean that once my fear subsided I wouldn’t try again.
Or a child who hasn’t learned her boundaries.
Depended on who you asked.
Memories drift like smoke signals. I rummage through more photos, most of which are from my adolescence, the time when I cherished the stage, when I was the moss to its rain, addicted. I don’t know why I loved it so much exactly. Perhaps I saw magic in it, the people familiar to me from birth transforming into fairy queens and kings once their feet touched its wooden planks.
The royalty—their Roma spirit unrestrained by daily struggles.
Perhaps it simply meant freedom.
But at this moment in time, I am thirty-six, reasonably sensible, and I’ve come to this room to hide. Finally, I fish out what I think will do: a snapshot of my fifteen-year-old self, pondering, unsmiling, so trustworthy.
II. To Start a Bonfire
I’d always wanted to write a book, even before I knew it. Stories tumbled out of my mouth before I could read or write. As a child I told them, lived them. As a teen, I stuffed my desk drawers with hundreds of handwritten pages, and kept writing more, without a goal.
It felt good.
It felt enough.
The memoir was a different story. I wrote impatiently and with a frantic desire for only one thing—to finish a book other people would read—and when it was completed, a great sense of triumph came over me, a revelation that it was actually possible. Not only did this Roma writer have important things to say, but she also knew about Oxford commas!
Grandpa often warned his performers against inflated egos. And mine? Let’s just say that for the first month, I took regular trips to the local Barnes &Noble to check how many copies they’d sold.
And now I want to destroy the book.
Burn each in a pile on the front lawn of my house where all the neighbors can see.
For a while I sit quietly, feeling the heat emanating from my imaginary bonfire.
The girl in the photo, she waits.
I have so much to say to her. But the words, well, they’re dammed behind my teeth, driftwood piled up. So, eventually, it is she who speaks first.
“Is that your aim, durochka?” she asks. “To be deconstructed like some abandoned Soviet-era factory, taken to pieces for mere parts? Are you really going to let a book do that to you?
What could you gain?
What could that satisfy?
Nu shto? Nechevo skazat? Nothing to say?”
I sit back and blow air through my nose like a bull.
III. To Never Steal a Single Ring
Earlier in the week, I sat at a long table, shoulder to shoulder with other authors, all signing our books at a local festival. We were proud mamas and papas with our babies stacked in neat rows in front of us.
Next to me sat a well-known art critic—which I found out later—but even without recognizing him, I could see that he exuded importance and wisdom. He was large, and wore silver Southwestern rings and bracelets. He reminded me of the Old West cowboys I’d read about back in Moscow. Where I came from, cowboys were an exotic breed, and I felt giddy sitting next to a man who represented an entire cohort of Clint Eastwood films my dad used to buy on the black market and sneak home for us to watch.
“I’m Fred,” the critic introduced himself with an amicable smile and a firm handshake. He asked about my book.
“A memoir about growing up in a Roma family,” was my reply.
His fingers tightened for an instant and withdrew gently.
“Well then, I better make sure none of my rings have gone missing.”
IV. To Pretend You’re No One’s Fool
It is true that I’m talking to a photo, but I’m not crazy. Neither am I a durochka. Fools are oblivious, at least those from my childhood fairy tales. I, on the other hand, am perfectly aware of the problem. Why else would I be doing this new-agey therapy thing?
The problem, then?
I’ll tell you.
It is socially acceptable to insult a Roma.
Anyone can meet ‘a Gypsy’ (the word being an insult) at a friend’s house or at the dry cleaner’s. The occasion doesn’t matter. What does is that once the person reveals their Roma heritage, most likely this new acquaintance will insult them. Deliberately, or inadvertently, or even with the best of intentions.
My experience with the art critic is the perfect example of that. My answer to him was a smile. Most Roma would do the same. Tilt their head in amusement, say they haven’t stolen a thing in ages, play along for however long necessary.
But don’t be fooled by this easy response.
By this self-defense mechanism.
A Roma is taught early on not to take such exchanges to heart, lest they wish their heart repeatedly broken.
However, pretending not to be offended eventually grinds at the core of your soul, and sooner or later, if you’re not careful, you’re either reduced to a splinter, or a sharp-pointed stake. You either lose your identity, or you’re constantly angry at the world because of it.
Even though I know I should ignore the critic’s reaction, I’m at the point where I can no longer pretend not to hurt.
Which am I?
The splinter or the stake?
Could I be both?
I’m devoted to and in defiance of my heritage. My very soul is part my identity, part my resistance to it. I’m Roma, but I cannot escape the Gypsy.
V. To Find the Exercise Quite Silly
Before the book, I hid my background because, as a kid in Russia, I’d often get beaten for it. In those days, I learned quickly that the infliction of suffering is a natural human delight, the avoidance of it, a natural animal instinct.
As I grew older, distinguishing friend from foe became an art, but I was happiest when I could reveal my heritage with pride, which depended on the situation, really. Artists and other creative types, for instance, tended to be more erudite and accepting. They didn’t ask questions like, “Can you read my palm?” or, “Is it true that Gypsies make great lovers?” However, in most other circles, the revelation resulted in a number of predictable responses: A nervous tic at the corner of the mouth, a tighter grip on the purse, rapt inquiries about caravans and séances.
Before the book, life was easy to maneuver.
Now, I’ve lost the reigns.
Hence, the conversation with the picture.
A good friend told me that the exercise of talking to your younger self can sometimes help smooth out unresolved internal conflicts, but I should’ve known better. The teenager me is no less stubborn than the thirty-six year old me, and she insists that writing the memoir wasn’t a mistake.
But what does she know?
VI. To Be ‘Normal’
When I was twelve, I officially auditioned for my grandmother—a famous songstress—in the hopes that she’d let me join the band. It was a dance I had practiced for months, a country dance made popular by a movie called Gypsies Go to Heaven. Most of the numbers in my grandparents’ show were Romani Folk in style because Soviet audiences loved traditional Roma music. Our melodies, played in Soviet films, in bars, in homes around holiday tables, had long ago fused with the Russian Soul, or Russki Dykh, many claimed.
And yet this acceptance came with clearly marked boundaries.
For instance, my father was a respected artist, never short on invitations to elite parties. It was at one of these gatherings that he met a university admissions director, in whom my father confided his passion for history.
Over several bottles of Stolichnaya, they chatted for hours about everything.
Socrates, Roman Conquest, Stalin’s proclivity for metaphysics.
A few weeks later, encouraged by that conversation, my father went to the director’s office to discuss his interest in earning a degree.
The man on the other side of the desk stood, shook my father’s hand, and said with an uncomfortable shrug, “Forgive me, my friend, but an educated Gypsy? Why, that’s just not done. I think you might be more comfortable playing your guitar than pouring over textbooks.”
And so was I rejected at the end of my dance, when Grandma peered down at me and pronounced, “You don’t have it in you, girl, because you’re a Gadjee (a non-Roma) and can’t feel the stage. It’s not your fault. Just how things are.”
My mother wasn’t Roma, you see, and just then I blamed her fiercely for ruining my dancing career. Devastated, I spent three days locked up in my room.
That’s when I first glimpsed the paradox of acceptance.
Prejudice, it seemed, was mutable.
The discriminated are also the discriminators.
To my father’s family I wasn’t Roma enough, but to most of the rest of the world, I was the dark-haired Gypsy girl.
As an adult, I exchanged my dreams of the stage for a normal life. Nice house, new cars, and friends.
So many, many of them.
Together, we dreamed of unaffordable vacations and slim hips. We visited doctors for anxiety and depression. Ferocious readers, devourers of self-help books, firm believers that professing our love to ourselves in the mirror assured great happiness. It felt good to share the angst with others, and we were perfectly content in our collective misery. As long as we suffered in unity of familiar illnesses, all was bearable, and no one felt left out.
But all that changed after the book came out.
An old college professor once told me, “After you’ve written a manuscript and you think it’s perfect, you must go back and break it in order to write a better one. You have to rebuild it from inside out. That’s when the real work starts.”
But in this case, the book broke me.
And I was seeing my Roma self through the cracks.
VII. To Find Inspiration in One’s Own Madness
I’m angry with the critic, but even more so with myself. I’m having a nervous breakdown. “Gdye eto vodanno!” my grandfather would say. “Never heard of such a thing!” But I’m the product of modern times, when even books can cause neurosis.
I’ve just been called a thief at my first signing—great for publicity, not so much for self-esteem—and suddenly, I know this will continue to happen. The Freds of the world will keep on coming.
Sitting on the floor looking at the photo, I remember that moment at my book signing and I’m now crying. I hate feeling sorry for myself, but I do it anyway. The heat in my eyes and cheeks turns me into a hot air balloon.
“Yes,” I say. “You know what?” I turn to the picture once again. “I don’t think this is working. You’re not helping at all. You’re just a stupid kid, so how could you?”
She’s not bothered by my insults. “Maybe kids know better about such things?”
I say nothing to this. I also know kids are master manipulators, and I don’t want to give in to hers. After a bit of silence, she speaks again.
“When we ran onto that stage, remember how the audience applauded?”
“And even some of the band members. Remember how they cheered?”
I give a grudging nod.
“And when grandpa ordered us to sit in the dressing room, did we care he was mad?”
“Scared like hell—”
“But we didn’t care! All we cared about was that we danced, even if for a few seconds. We’d put on mom’s gorgeous cobalt-blue costume, remember the one? And her black Italian heels and we rushed out there, and not even the stagehands could stop us, and you know how fast they are, those monkeys. We flew past them all! And do you remember dad? What he was doing?”
“Smiling,” I say. “He was smiling. I’d forgotten that part.”
“Molodets. Good job!” she says. She then points at the sea of photos between us. “Do you know why he was smiling?” Her voice is mild and patient, like she’s my kindergarten teacher and I’m learning my vowels.
I follow where she points: to the image of dad as a young man, performing on a stage in the middle of what looks like a large park. He’s wearing black boots and traditional Roma attire of wide-legged pants and a shirt with ballooning sleeves. The stage is surrounded by plainly dressed people who have stopped to watch on their way from work or the market. Many carry sacks of food. Dad looks bored; he’d rather be anywhere else.
“This was after he was released from jail,” she says. “And grandpa made him play that day as punishment, because no one else wanted that gig. And remember why he was in jail?”
VIII. To Find Inspiration in the Madness of Loved Ones
My father first heard American music as a teenager: Nat King Cole, Miles Davis, Elvis. Western music was outlawed in the USSR. If caught, you could be fined and jailed. Despite the danger, dad kept a stash of pirated records under his bedroom floorboards. Most of these were made by rigging the original vinyl to another turntable fitted with a custom needle and a sheet of an x-ray, cut to fit. The vinyl and the x-ray were then played simultaneously with the second needle making groves on the x-ray identical to those on the original. Naturally, my father spent a lot of time at the doctors’ getting x-rayed for various ailments he didn’t have.
Grandpa disapproved. He wanted to promote Romani music. His only goal was to establish Romani as legitimate artists in their own right and in doing so to help change the world’s poor opinion of our character and culture. But dad, obsessed with jazz, blues, and rock and roll, was starved for a different future.
At twenty-one, he decided to escape to America.
The plan? Simple.
Wait at the Armenian-Turkish border until nightfall, and make a run for it.
In the USSR, escape attempts were common, success rates abysmal. Offenders spent time learning valuable lessons in Siberian labor camps, but this didn’t faze my father, who grew deaf when his friends pleaded with him to reconsider.
One day, before sunup, he snuck out of his parents’ two-story house in the Moscow suburbs, leaving a short note on the table telling them that he’d send visas once he was established. On his journey, he brought only three things: his guitar, a 100 ruble note, and a pair of pliers to cut the fence.
Once in Yerevan—the capital of Armenia—my father immediately hitched a ride into the mountainous regions miles away. He’d mapped out his route earlier. All he needed was a chance to lay eyes on Turkey. Inspiration—American music—would push him the rest of the way.
During the summer months, the land in the Armenian outback is wild and feral, the terrain post-apocalyptic. There’s something unruly about it, something chthonic and primordial. Jagged mountains reach their peaks, in desperation, toward the brilliant white sun once worshipped by the nation’s pre-historic tribes, but they wither into brown, lifeless giants in its glow.
This was the terrain my father crossed as he approached the border, down a path weaving through an endless field. Dry heat wrapped him in its stifling embrace and pressed on his lungs. Later, in his recollections, he had likened that trek to Odysseus’ descent into the land of the dead, but with one major difference. Unlike the ancient hero, my father knew that a guaranteed salvation waited: one day soon, he’d be in America, recording mega hits with Elvis, a fellow Romani.
The fence came into view, a barbed silver belt stretching in both directions as far as the eye could see. It appeared unguarded, too unguarded, which made the temptation to run rise in my father’s chest. But he suppressed it. Every Soviet citizen knew from childhood that privacy was a Western, not Eastern, fairytale. Policing eyes could be everywhere, even in the Armenian mountains at midday. He decided to wait until nightfall, when the tiny sparks of matches and cigarettes would likely give away the guards’ positions. He sat cross-legged in the tall dry grass, leaning against a boulder, and waited. Little did he know that he’d already been spotted from a nearby hill, on top of which two Russian border guards sat eating lunch.
When the sun finally fell, dad crept through the brush toward the fence, holding out the pliers like a weapon.
The soldiers tore down the hill, rifles aimed. But my father didn’t heed their orders to stop. Instead, he sprinted across the expanse of the bristly, rocky terrain, leaped like a mountain goat, and flew to the fence with pliers cutting through air as he swung his arms to gain speed.
“Stoy! Stralyat budem!”
And, as promised, they fired. The first bullet whizzed by his ear. He loped in zigzags, the way he’d seen action heroes do in American flicks, hoisting up the guitar case as it bopped and banged against his back and thighs.
Finally, he crashed into the fence and the momentum carried him up, higher and higher. He climbed frantically, the noise of running boots and cocked rifles deafening in his ears. The fence’s metallic rattle fused with the rhythm of his heartbeat as he dug his fingers into it, pulling himself up. As he reached over, the barbs bit into his skin, but he felt no pain. Close to the top, he flung the guitar case over, and it landed with a thump. In Turkey. He slung one foot over the fence, the other lifted and ready to follow as his body teetered on the edge. But seconds before victory, a hand clamped down on his foot and dragged him back to Armenia.
After a sound beating, the guards threw their prisoner in the back of their grizzly jeep and transported him to the nearest station. A week later, his parents arrived with a bribe for the station captain. The guards had no problem letting my father go, especially since, as they thought, A Gypsy doesn’t know any better.
My father’s guitar was never retrieved.
IX. To Roll with the Punches
The conversation has stretched into late afternoon. Dusk is dragging the light like a fisherman’s net through water. When I look around, I am submerged in its glow. I feel better, exhausted but somehow cleaner.
“He was always so damn gutsy,” I exclaim. The pride in my voice is quite noticeable and I feel it support me.
“Strong convictions will do that to ya’” she replies. “He always had those. Like a whole bunch. That’s why he made people angry all the time. They wanted him to act one way, but he did what he wanted. He never grew bitter, either.”
“That’s amazing, isn’t it?”
“Yep. Most adults find something to be bitter about.”
My father made numerous escape attempts. Not because of his heritage or discrimination, but because his personality demanded artistic freedom. His character drove him to run until finally he succeeded, in 1990, when we arrived in Hollywood, and our American story began. But even then, he never let intolerance and ignorance deter him from knowing who he was.
Every time questions regarding his background came up—and they did regularly—he relished the opportunity to respond. In most creative ways.
- When he recognized people as uncompromising, he punched them in the nose and proudly spent the night in jail.
- When people proved to be nothing but imbeciles, he cursed at them in Rromanes, but so elegantly that they assumed he was apologizing. Then he would leave, smug and satisfied.
- Whenever possible, he gently convinced them to reconsider their insult.
- When he could, he taught them about his culture—about the Roma, an ethnic group of great beauty, strength, and diversity. Who live in houses, and work normal jobs, and want their kids to have an education and be healthy and happy. Quite human, you see? Not a Romantic painting or a mug shot.
- When he had his guitar in hand, a song became a peace-offering. This last was his favorite choice.
My father’s friends would often advise that a Romani man should always choose to fight, but to this he only had one answer: Wars damage souls. Art repairs them.
X. To Brew the Brew
“This book broke me, you know?” I say to the photograph, but I no longer feel mad.
For goodness’ sake, I think. Fate did not deliberately trick you into writing. Not like it sat in a dark basement over a bubbling caldron, rubbing its hands together, whispering in a crackling falsetto, “Just you wait, my dearie. Just you wait.”
“Nu i shto? So what?” says the girl in the photo. “Broke open old cuts or broke you free or… it’s a remedy.”
My fingers trace the familiar faces in the photos.
My self—many selves looking back at me.
Their multitude mends.
Repairs the pains I had forgotten.
I let it.
It’s time to.
Photographs provided courtesy of author.