The girl … another history, another culture

‘The gypsies will take you away!’ That was our grandmother trying to stop us kids wandering from our far-north Queensland backyard. Back then I didn’t realise she was stereo-typing Romani people by repeating what she’d heard as a child.

I took no notice of Nana O’Neill’s threat – travelling the roads in a horse-pulled caravan sounded perfect to a young mini-me.

That’s me with the long legs, aged 8.

Now, as an author, I’ve delved even deeper in the world of the Romani. It’s been an awesome research journey. Writing a novel set in the past about a young Romani girl needed both research and sensitivity to what life was like for my young protagonist, AND a respectful approach to writing another culture, especially if it’s set in the past.

Which is why I have a wonderful grass-roots ambassador and activist for the Romani as my Cultural and Authenticity Reader, Yvonne Slee.

I first connected with Yvonne in north Queensland when I visited her amazing exhibition about the Australian Romani in the old Cairns Museum. I was inspired – especially because it filled in so much more of the research I’d been doing for my work-in-progress novel set in Wales and the far north Queensland in 1921.

Some of my research material

I worked to make this story ring true. Researching the Romanichal (the British Rom) history, culture and firsthand accounts of discrimination through history – from King Henry the Eight’s exiling and killings, Queen Victoria’s odd arrangements with Romani fortune-tellers, the constant persecution of the Roma peoples across Europe and beyond, to the Nazi regime’s deliberate ethnic-cleansing – took effort, but well worth it. Prejudice against the Rom continues into contemporary times.

I also needed to go back to the Romanichal clans living in Wales in the early 1920s. And the Rom who immigrated to Australia.


Did you know the first three Romani arrived in Australia on the First Fleet? One of them is still well known for his name – James Squire, the first brewer in the new colonial colony. His beer is rather more boutique these days.

Numbers vary about how many Romani live in contemporary Australia. It ranges from 25,000 to 100,000 in regard to the country’s broader Romani community, made up of several distinct ethnic groups.

Regarding using the word, gypsy – from my contemporary research, many people prefer to be called Romani, Rom or Roma, but some don’t mind the term.

In my story, my protagonist and her family call themselves Romani or Travellers – not Gypsy, or Tinker, or other derogatory terms used by non-Romani. I use the word ‘gypsy’ when spoken by a bigoted character, just as they would’ve done back in 1921.

WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT AUSTRALIA’S ROMANI? I’ve learned much from the Australian-Romani community through their written, spoken and videoed stories of their lives. I’m so grateful for Yvonne’s feedback, support and enthusiasm for her advocacy. Here’s a great video from ABC.

Another great resource about Australian Romani is Mandy Sayers‘ fascinating book, Australian Gypsiestheir Secret History. Mandy met, interviewed and enjoyed many a meal with Australia’s Romani people in their homes. A trusted and compassionate listener and questioner, which is why it’s an excellent book.

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