- Roma Voices in the German-Speaking World by Loreley French
Loreley French’s generally thoughtful and perceptive study pursues two objectives. First, she intends to introduce a wide range of Romani texts and authors to a larger public. By focusing solely on Roma voices, the author seeks to avoid outside perspectives that, as she affirms, have in the past given rise to vilification or exoticization of Roma and their culture. As much as French focuses on political and social aspects, she also emphasizes the aesthetic worth of the writings as a way of lending “insights as to how, why, and what we read” (28). Second, she examines female and male authors’ perspectives on gender and ethnicity. In her study, she attends especially to disrupting widely held prejudices against Roma and Sinti as nomadic, illiterate, indolent, unclean, and criminal. Furthermore, common beliefs about seemingly immovable patriarchal structures within Roma and Sinti communities are critically questioned. Wishing to debunk biases and stereotypes, she is particularly meticulous in her examination of gender and writing. French goes to great lengths to “avoid gender valorization” (150), in other words to attach more importance to women’s perspectives than to men’s. However, despite her attempt to avoid bias and prejudice French herself appears at times almost too careful and protective of, and perhaps also too fascinated by, Roma culture for a critical analysis of Roma literature and may thus do a disservice to those authors.
By weaving together different theoretical approaches—postcolonial concepts of the subaltern, Western feminist debates on ethnicity and gender, African-American feminist scholarship, theories on racism and sexism, intersectionality, trauma theory, and memory studies—French lends her study an eclectic character that allows her to thoroughly investigate the different texts and to underscore the complex process of writing, identity building and socialization of the Romani people. Beyond the texts themselves the reader is briefly acquainted with the distressing history of oppression, persecution, [End Page 148] and annihilation that European Roma and Sinti have endured. Furthermore, French discusses the terminology to be used for Roma and Sinti and decides to employ Roma, thereby subsuming the Yenish under this term.
With painstaking research, French analyzes an impressive variety of authors and works, including a good number of brief biographies in the appendix. One would not expect this volume of literature from a minority group without a longstanding written storytelling tradition. Most authors are German or Austrian. One writer, the Yenish Mariella Mehr, hails from Switzerland. By and large, two main groups emerge: authors who survived the Holocaust and the post-Porrajmos (“Devouring,” Romani term for the Holocaust) generation that reflects both loyalty to their ethnic group and an opening to the majority society due to slowly changing historical circumstances and a newfound self-assured public identity.
In addition to the authors, whose works she investigates in great detail, French also lists in an extensive footnote numerous autobiographical and biographical testimonies edited and published by non-Roma that she deems more “ethnographical and biographical” (43) than the works she analyzes in her text. But the line between those two groups of texts is somewhat blurred. Although French explains why she chose some texts over others, the differences are not always obvious to the reader. As some authors from the first group also received assistance with writing, editing, and publishing, especially Karl and Mongo Stojka, Mišo Nikolić, and Otto Rosenberg, the criteria remain unclear. And while both her corpuses are quite extensive and the author does not pretend to be exhaustive, one still might pose the question why she has not added, for instance, Uns hat es nicht geben sollen: Drei Generationen Sinti-Frauen erzählen (2004), edited by Austrian writer Ludwig Laher. Moreover, as French counts the Yenish among the Roma and Sinti—and this point remains debatable—she could have added to Mehr and Simone Schönett other Yenish authors such as Helga Röder (Germany), Romed Mungenast (Austria), and Peter Paul Moser (Switzerland).
In addition to her wide-ranging research, the merit of French’s inquiry lies in her analysis of Romani identity...