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  • Etnografia di un libro. Scritture, politiche e parentela in una comunità di Sinti. [The ethnography of a book. Writing, politics, and kinship in a Sinti community]
  • Elisabeth Tauber (bio)
Etnografia di un libro. Scritture, politiche e parentela in una comunità di Sinti. [The ethnography of a book. Writing, politics, and kinship in a Sinti community]. Paola Trevisan. 2008. CISU. Roma. 356 pp. ISBN 978-88-7975-426-2.

To use writing (scrittura) in certain circumstances and not in others, to identify writing in cursive as the "real written word", to go to school without learning how to read and write or to learn how to read and write outside school, and finally to want to publish a book without writing it: this is what I could observe among the Sinti reggiani.

(p. 106)

Etnografia di un libro ('Ethnography of a book') is the result of Trevisan's lengthy experience (from 2001 on) with an extended Sinti Reggiani family and how they deal with the power of the written word to respond to, or more effectively, how to avoid the dynamics of the Italian nation state which have recently reached a new dimension of violent exclusion.

Of the book's ten chapters, the first four provide an introduction to the ethnographic context of the Sinti reggiani and an historical and anthropological discourse on political movements. The fifth chapter deals with contexts of 'writing' like the classes of 'Lacio Drom' (special classes for Gypsy children, introduced in the 1960s) where Sinti, as they tell Trevisan, did not learn how to write. The example of the letters of Irgal (p. 119ff), who attends a 'normal' Italian public school during Trevisan's field research, provides a beautiful insight into how Sinti children deal with being at school and how they perceive it with its specific social structures and relationships in contrast to their own family context as the real locus of their social and cultural world.

Chapters 6 and 7 discuss the challenge of polyvalent categories such as zingari (gypsies), girovaghi (travellers), viaggianti (travellers), and their implications for economic niches, as well as the opaque character of the girovaghi: Trevisan explains how many Sinti families have been transformed into girovaghi, becoming invisible to local authorities) and the 'silence' implicit in the representation of identity when meeting with the bureaucratic, administrative or legislative world (p. 219).

At the same time, these Sinti are able to observe with accuracy and to make use of the dynamics of power inherent in the written word. It is here that Trevisan's book introduces a new perspective on the analysis of writing among Romanies in Europe. Inspired by the work of Collins and Blot (2003), she pays attention to both the micro-ethnographical context as well as the historical [End Page 87] dimension and ideology implicit in the use of writing. It is through this perspective that she is able to compare the partial 'appropriation' of writing and the Sinti's choice of publishing 'writing about oneself ' (scrivere di Sé, p. 17). The observation of the Sinti's 'writing about oneself ' also reveals the actual school system as being, if anything, only a secondary source of support, if not indeed an obstacle to this process (p. 109).

Ethnography is all about context: Paola Trevisan is asked by the charismatic head of a Sinti family during a literacy course for adult Sinti 'to make a book with them.' The act of writing a book is called 'making a book' (fare un libro) among the Sinti reggiani in northern Italy. Trevisan is then asked by this family to carry out research in the archive of Prignano sulla Secchia (Province of Modena) where from 1940 to 1943 seventy-nine Sinti where imprisoned by the Italian fascist regime. The Sinti lead her to discover data which demonstrate the harsh persecution of the zingari during the fascist era but which until then have never been taken into serious consideration by Italian historians. Chapters 8, 9 and 10 cover these events.

While Trevisan planned an ethnographic investigation of schooling (which she also does), she is very aware of the fact that by participating in making a book she gains deep insight into the...


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