One of my earliest memories is our grandmother trying to keep us kids within the confines of our north Queensland backyard by saying the gypsies might take you for their own. I didn’t mind the threat at all … roaming the roads in a horse-pulled caravan sounded perfect.
Nana O’Neill’s threat was an example of how prejudice against the Romani came with my clan, the British and Irish migrants. It also showed a child’s romanticised ideal of who the gypsies were.
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, Lela May Heron.
I knew it would be difficult for a pale-skinned, Celtic-descendant Australian writer – even a culturally-sensitive writer who’d never use unfounded assumptions or stereotypes of cultural groups.
I’ve tried 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. Prejudice against the Rom continues into contemporary times.
But I needed to delve deeper – into the Romanichal clans living in Wales in the early 1920s. And also the Rom who immigrated to Australia.
A wonderful grass-roots ambassador and activist for the Rom is Yvonne Slee. Yvonne used to live in north Queensland. I first visited her amazing exhibition about the Australian Romani in the old Cairns Museum, I was inspired. I soon found my story’s hero – a young Welsh-Romani migrant in 1921. And Lela May Heron was born.
The Romani in Australia
The first three Roma men 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.
Regarding the word, GYPSY – from my contemporary research, many people prefer to be called Romani, Rom or Roma, but some don’t mind the term gypsy.
In my story, Lela and her family call themselves Romani or Travellers – not Gypsy, or Tinker, or other derogatory terms used by non-Romani. The terms are occasionally used in my book by bigoted characters as they would’ve done back in 1921.
I’ve learned much from the Australian-Romani community through their written, spoken and videoed stories of their lives. I hope to chat with a Romani community member about my manuscript – a hands-on sensitivity reader – because I want to get it right.
I thank Mandy Sayers for her truly fascinating book, Australian Gypsies – their Secret History. Mandy’s research went beyond reading – she met, interviewed and enjoyed many a meal with Australia’s Romani people in their homes. A trusted and compassionate listener and questioner.