Zoli Interview: Q&A with Laura McCaffrey

Colum McCann > Interview > Zoli Interview: Q&A with Laura McCaffrey

What inspired you to write this novel?

Well I’d just written Dancer, a fictionalisation of the life of Rudolph Nureyev, a story that ranged time periods and continents and territories. So I wanted to take it easy for a while. I wanted a smaller story. But that’s exactly what I didn’t get. My wife, Allison, was reading the Isabel Fonseca book Bury Me Standing and she pointed out the story about Papusza, the Polish-born Gypsy poet who became a poster girl for the Socialists back in the 50’s. Papusza ended up exiled from her people, living in a small cottage in Silesia. She died in ’86. It was a classic story of the twentieth century. I couldn’t get her face out of my mind. She was constantly there, along with the extraordinary plight of the Roma people she represented. I tried starting other novels, even short stories, but I kept returning to her. Eventually I had to write about her in order to find her and, I suppose, to lose her.

So why Zoli? Why didn’t you call her Papusza? You didn’t shy from that with Rudolph Nureyev. Why now?

I always felt that Rudi was more than able to look after himself. There have been, and will be, plenty more books about Rudi. His reputation wasn’t going to stand or fall on my interpretation alone. And I didn’t really care about him, per se. I know that sounds harsh, but I cared about the smaller people around him, those who lead more anonymous lives – the nurses, the rentboys, the soldiers, the shoemakers, the ones I made up, the fictional characters.

Zoli was always going to be a different cultural proposition. I didn’t know enough about Papusza and I certainly didn’t want any of the straitjackets of traditional non-fiction. So I wanted to take just the templates of Papusza’s life and turn them around, set them free. I certainly didn’t want Zoli to die alone and forgotten. I didn’t want her to become a spectacle of disintegration.

I wanted the story to be true and honest and accurate, but I also wanted to say that there is a future, there is a civil rights movement at the core here, there is a light at the end of the tunnel and it’s not just a train bearing down awful fast.

So this is a social novel then?

Maybe, I don’t know. It is rather alarming that for a culture of 10 to 12 million people — who are as internally diverse as any other people — that we often have, in our imaginations, one single “Gypsy” story. Coming from a country of 5 million myself, I’m well aware of the impossibility of one single Irish story to represent all stories. So it is astounding to me that we seem to weave one narrative thread around the Romani people: they lie, they steal, they sing, they dance. In a sense the Romani experience is one of Europe’s last properly told stories, or certainly one of its most ignored stories.

We have to take into account that there are ten to twelve million Roma in the world. That’s as many as there are Jewish people. Yet the public narratives are so different. The memory is constructed in a different manner. Often, for example, they are just a footnote in the history of the Holocaust. And there is no real public perception of their enslavement in 18th and 19th century Europe.

When I was writing Zoli, I didn’t want to brutalise or sentimentalise, but to answer your question, yes, on second thoughts, I think it’s a social novel. I wanted to shine a light on a story that has not necessarily been told enough. Some great books have been written about the Roma, but not enough, never enough. Stories have to be told over and over again. And again after that. Stories are the human democracy. I have great time for Steinbeck for instance, he was both a story-teller and a social novelist.

The novel isn’t very flattering of the Gypsies, or the Socialists, or of any one culture really. But the Gypsies really suffer here. There’s death, drownings, destruction – and then they exile their great poet. Surely lots of people say that’s their own fault? That the Roma brought this down on their own heads? They don’t really write. They don’t want to assimilate. Some people might say they’ve made their own bed and now they’re lying in it.

You might say that. Others might too. I might have said that at one stage. But we wouldn’t if we were Roma. We wouldn’t if we were being burned out. We wouldn’t if our kids were being shipped off to schools for the handicapped simply because they’re brown-skinned. We wouldn’t if our sisters is being sterilised by the local doctor.

And that’s happening in 21st century Europe. Today.

Sartre said of the Jewish people, something like: “They have allowed themselves to become poisoned by the stereotype that others have of them and they live in fear that their acts will relate to this stereotype … We may say that their conduct is always overdetermined from the inside.”

I imagine a lot of Jewish people would feel that the inside has been significantly determined from the outside. I imagine that the Jewish people — of all people in the world — can examine and understand the Roma story. That suffering. That longing. I think Irish people can relate too.

The Gypsies have a bad rap–

No kidding! This whole thing about Roma stealing? I’ll be honest. When I was going to the settlements I even bought myself a new pair of trousers with hidden pockets just because I was afraid that I was going to get robbed. In the end I didn’t get robbed. I robbed myself, I suppose. I robbed myself with such negative emotions. But I learned something too. I remember — I’d be in the settlements — and the children would come awful close to me, right up beside me, and I would think: They’re robbing me! But I had my hand in their pockets. You know, metaphorically.

Some clichés occupy disproportionate amounts of space. That’s a lot of what’s happened with the Roma. And then there has been silence. Silence leads to confusion and misplaced emphasis. The media is as guilty as anyone. We love the Gypsy exotic, especially if it involves a curly-haired woman and a knife and maybe a horse with teeth filed down. We have to take individual and collective responsibility for our clichés.

But we seem to know so little about the Roma. I’d no idea there was ten million or more … Is that what you said?

Ten to twelve million. That’s twice the population of Ireland. I’d say there are numerous problems that emerge when talking about the Roma experience. It has traditionally been an oral culture and so the process of “remembering” is different. There was a distrust of book learning. The poets and scholars have largely been ignored until recent years. You hear sniggers when someone says the words “Gypsy intellectual”. As if it’s some sort of aberration.

Maybe the story of the Gypsies is too painful to be encountered. We can’t deal with it. Instead we idealise a misty, ruined past or we brutalise a terrible present. Maybe I did that. I hope not. I hope that “Zoli” goes beyond that.

Often there is a deep ambivalence about the Roma identity – they are both proud and ashamed at the same time. They are sometimes even scared to call themselves Roma. It might bring a house of clichés down on their heads. There are Romani bankers, computer technicians, philanthropists, actors, all sorts of people. You don’t see the newspapers writing about them. That’s what drew me to the idea of a Roma poet. I liked Zoli. I like what she became. I liked her force and her intellect and her link with her people. She became more real to me than anyone else. I even miss her now.

People talk of the “Gypsy problem”? What does that mean?

What we have to recognise, eventually, is not really the “Gypsy problem,” but our problem with the Roma. I have always …

Can you clarify the difference between Roma and Gypsy? I’m confused.

You and me both. Even people in that community haven’t pegged the language down. Roma, Romani, Rromenstan. The people are the Roma. The adjective, and the language, is Romani. Rromenstan is that place, if you will, where Roma feel they could come together. But “Gypsy” is a pejorative term. For some people, it’s analogous to “nigger.” But it is the most often used word. Things are changing. People are changing this. Ian Hancock at the Romani Archives and Documentation Center at the University of Texas is in the process of levelling out the lexicon and putting pay to some of the incredibly stupid assertions, like there are no words for “beauty” or “truth” or “duty” or “possession” in the Romani language. These are oft-repeated notions.

Are the Roma still nomadic?

Depends what you mean. They don’t travel around so much anymore. In fact many of them have been settled for centuries. Is their intellect, or their heartsongs, are they nomadic? That’s a different question, I suppose. But you won’t find Romani families travelling around in horse-drawn carts. Many of them still group together in settlements and areas of towns. But others are fully assimilated. They are Roma and proud of it and indistinguishable from you and me, really.

How do these ones deal with the notion that the Roma are shiftless, lazy, thieving and so on…?

Well the first thing I’m going to say is that there are plenty of shiftless, lazy, thieving Roma. There are also plenty of shiftless, lazy, thieving Micks living on the southside of Dublin. And more of the same sort residing right now in the White House – far too many in fact.

But the Roma are always tarred with the same brush. That’s the problem. One person steals, and ergo, everyone steals.

Our inability to recognise the extent to which racism exists is truly amazing. Only thirty years ago I could flick through a Punch magazine and see the British cartoonists representing Ireland as a drunken pig in the kitchen. Forty years ago Martin Luther King’s marches were only just beginning in the southern U.S. Why is it impossible for us to believe that there is racism in modern-day Europe against the Roma? Why is that such a stretch? Why do people want to deny that? Why do they want to just call them thieves and liars?

When I was researching, I often sat with European intellectuals and they could talk to me of Irish civil rights and American civil rights, Miriam Makeba and Stokely Carmichael and all that, and then I would say to them: “But what about the Roma in your country — aren’t they discriminated against?” And they would reply, without any irony whatsoever: “Ah, yeah, but they’re just Gypsies.” Jesus, that could be the title of a poem. Just Gypsies.

By the way, I’m astounded by how national newspapers all over the world still refer to them as lower-case. The gypsies. I think they’re the only people in the world who don’t get a capital letter. What’s that about, if it’s not about dehumanisation? The Irish Times do it. I was shocked. It’s in their style book.

Do you see yourself as a radical writer?

Not really. I want to create texts that break through the policing of our borders, but I’m not a radical, no. I’d be in prison if I was a radical. My favourite radical is someone like Daniel Berrigan who really put himself on the line. He’s that American priest, a Jesuit, who was particularly active in the peace movement for the past 40 years. He went to jail for his thoughts. I’m not that brave to put it all on the line.

Tell me about your research. Is the journalist who goes to the camps a sort of Slovak version of you?

The guy who’s “comfortably fat”? Yeah, I suppose! That’s me. I mean, something similar happened to me, though not quite as jarring. I was there in Slovakia over the course of two summer months. I met all sorts of people. I had these guides from the Milan Simecka foundation, Martin and Laco. They were amazing. I met writers like Michal Hvoercky, musicians, ethnographers, sociologists and of course many Roma activists. I also went to the most notorious Slovakian settlements to see the conditions of life there. It shocked me – the mud and wattle huts, the poverty, the desolation. No electricity. No running water. I just wanted to hang around and get a flavour of the place.

How did the Roma people treat you?

I had a lot of fascinating experiences. They liked when I sang old Irish songs. And we ate together, drank together. But most of the time I just hung out and watched. I was an outsider. I was dependent on others to show me around. I didn’t have a secret key to their hearts or anything. But that’s what I do best – I hang around, people invite me in, I try not to intrude on them and I also try to understand them. It’s about empathy.

But one day I was in Svinia, the notorious “dog-eater’s camp,” which is just another journalists’ fancy name for a way to brand them, or a way to spice up things. People there have eaten dogs, yes, but — believe you me — they resist the temptation to call it a delicacy.

Anyway, a big group of kids and I went down to the local soccer pitch to play football together. We were playing away happily, quietly. But then these “white” women started shouting at us from a distance. Before we knew it we were hounded out by the mayor and the local policemen who called us “fucking Gypsies.” Except they were a bit puzzled by me. They kept staring at me. As if to say, Who’s the white boy? Anyway, we got kicked out. They locked the gates behind us. I tried to protest in English and apparently they were calling me another bleeding heart, another European sentimentalist. We walked away, back to the settlement. A half-mile along this country road. Quietly. No fuss. No fights. There was lots of broken glass at the field near the settlement. That’s why we couldn’t play there and had to go to town.

But therein lies the dilemma. I could make this a story about being treated terribly by the local authorities. That’s true, but it’s also true that nobody smashed glass on that field other than the Roma themselves. The kids had ruined their own field. That’s the heartbreak. That’s the contradiction that fiction, too, has to find.

Zoli at one point says: “I cannot explain why so many of them have hated us so much over so many years, and even if I could, it would make it too easy for them…” Is this the point of the novel?

Well, I think a reader should become a writer at the end of the novel. The novel should be left open for interpretation. I’m mouthing off now, but in my novels I don’t believe in mouthing off. I want the reader to have the dignity of his or her own interpretation of the text. I don’t want to tell people how to think. I’ll leave that up to others. There’s nothing better than being a reader and being allowed to let your imagination go wherever it wants to go. That’s freedom. It begins between the ears.

Is it a novel about memory?

Well, the thing is, Zoli sings at the end. She sings something that has been forgotten. I didn’t struggle with the ending. I wanted her to have dignity.

Does it matter to you how a book goes down with the public?

Yes, but the best moment for me so far in this whole process with Zoli was Ian Hancock, the scholar I was telling you about, lending his signature to the book. I was on cloud nine that day. I danced around. I thought: Well, I broke my back with this, and some parts of it still don’t work, but I’m happy. I did my best. And Hancock liked it. Which means I got at least a part of it right… you know, it’s terrifying, this whole thing, but you can’t afford to spend too much energy worrying about it.

Where next?

Ah Jesus, I don’t know. Maybe Ireland. Maybe New York. I really want to do something where I don’t have a lot of research to do. I don’t want to become pigeon-holed. I spent all my writing life fighting against being pigeon-holed. I always wanted to be different. I wanted to come out with a book and shock people. Now people expect that from me – something “exotic.” I’m going to have to do something low-key. Two chances, I suppose. None … and sweet F.A!

I remember once I told an interviewer that writing about real-life people represented a “failure of the imagination.” Well, a couple of years later I was writing about Rudolph Nureyev. That says it all. I never know where I’m going to end up.

You’re friends with Frank McCourt–

Who wouldn’t be? He’s the most generous man I know.

Are you part of the New York literary scene?

You know, I can give you a list of people whom I consider, now, to be friends, but I hate doing this, and it would sound ridiculous, and I always leave someone out. My friends know who they are. I mean, I travel around, I have a beautiful family, I have a for a charmed life. Charmed. But it’s never going to distract me from the stories I want to do. So, well, I don’t know if I’m part of the New York literary scene or not. People talk about New York being the centre of literary ambition as if that’s a curse. Me, I think it’s just a great place to live and raise a family. And I couldn’t give a shit one way or the other, to be honest, about literary scenes. I just need to keep on writing…

Good luck – and many thanks

Thank you.

(Questions by Laura McCaffrey)