Zoli Interview: Q&A with Michael Hayes

Colum McCann > Interview > Zoli Interview: Q&A with Michael Hayes

What did you know about the Roma before you started writing the book?

Nothing. I came to the Romani culture empty-handed. That’s interesting, now that I finally understand it. The gadjo (non-Gypsy) comes in, swaggering, but is immediately apparent as empty-handed. What an idiot he is. He thinks he can watch. Even worse, he thinks he can understand. He has no background to trade on.

But then again there’s a freedom in that, an open doorway, if you’re open to possibility. You walk into it cold. Then you pass through a warm house. And you realise you’ve been somewhere special. And then you understand that in a certain way, you, the changed one, have turned your own clichés upsidedown. I was the one who went in with nothing. This could be called begging, but it’s not. It’s searching. And, then, I was the one who came out – after four years of writing and researching – if not more knowledgeable, then at least changed.

I equate my initial ignorance with the general level of ignorance in the wider world. I’m no different to anybody else. I knew nothing about Gypsies. I didn’t even know the word Roma or Romani. But my interest was piqued by the Isabel Fonseca book (Bury Me Standing) and I just wanted to know. I wanted to delve. I wanted to see if it was possible to tell this story that was largely untold. It was then I found my heroes … the Papuszas of the world, the Hancocks, the people in the Milan Simecka foundation, the community workers, the ones that effect a difference in the larger communites.

In relation to the novel, I know that I didn’t get it all right. I know that. Who can? Who might want to? Zoli is a failure. All books are. But I tried to tell it in the most honest way possible. I tried to make a little footprint.

The thing I’d love is that a young Romani writer might look at Zoli and say – hey, that’s okay, but it’s not good enough, I need to write my own story. That would be a curious form of success for me. If it became the yeast for the bread that finally comes from the oven.

…and what was the catalyst for this book?

I was literally looking for a book that would form a peak to my ideas about exile. I have written about exile since my earliest collection, Fishing the Sloe-Black River, when I was in my twenties. It has – though I wasn’t always entirely aware of it – been my obsession for two decades. And once I realised that it was my obesession, it was time to get rid of it. One last excursion into that particular darkness. And then my wife, Allison, told me about Papusza, whom she’d read about in Isabel Fonseca’s book. I couldn’t get rid of her. This poet. This exile. This Gypsy. In order to lose her, I had to write her.

It was, I hope, my most complicated statement about exile. But there’s no point in me sitting down to try and make intellectual sense of it. That’s for others. It should be emotional. It should be felt. By way of analogy, consider the writer as being disguised as a creek. Eventually he or she meets other waters. That is the reader, or even the critic. Hopefully it hits a wider world.

Have you had much feedback from women about the book? How did they “respond” to this story of an “unusual” woman whose life experience and minority culture background would have been quite different to the average woman’s life (in either Western or Eastern Europe back then?)

For whatever reason it seems that women have latched on to this book – and especially women who know what it is like to be marginalised. Perhaps they recognise her in a way. Some are frustrated by Zoli and her seeming lack of action in her middle age – and yet that’s part of her attraction too. I can see that Zoli is frustrating as a fictional character …in a way she’s meant to be … if you take it from a white European or American perspective, she never seems to fight back. She takes what comes to her. She walks away. She never entirely embraces where she has come from. And yet from a Romani point of view, what she does is extraordinary, and, I hope, true. She forges her own identity. She fights through, not back. And in the end it becomes a personal song of triumph. So much of the Romani experience seems to be captured there, or at least I hope it is.

She becomes someone else, something else, someplace else. She sees the value in the elsewhere but this time the elsewhere is an imaginative place, a written place – and finally it becomes a poem. I tried so hard to code all this in the book. It’s strange, now, to confront it as an idea. I wanted Zoli to have an emotional life. I wanted people to believe that – perhaps – one might be able to go down to Northern Italy, today, of all days, and meet her. There she is, walking outside the coffee shop! There she is in that mountainside hut. I wanted that for the reader. To see Zoli as entirely real. And that’s been the response. Readers seem to somehow know Zoli.

It’s a book about gender, voice, distance, media. A friend of mine said that it wasn’t hip, but it was hip-high. It struck him. And I meant for it to deal a blow to the solar plexus.

And yet many other readers thought that Zoli should have a trimumphant halo around her at the end. Certainly I didn’t want her to become a spectacle of disintegration. There’s been enough of that. But I didn’t want to turn her into cliché. I didn’t want for her to stand up at the conference in Paris and deliver a blow for Romani rights. No. Her victory was smaller – but no less signifcant – than that.

It has been noted by some people that you are fascinated by the idea of the “Other” or Otherness? Was this always the case – i.e. from your earliest writing – or is the exploration of Otherness something which has become more important to you and your work in recent times?

I’m a middle class Dubliner now living in New York. I sound halfway between suburbia and silence. But I’ve tried all my life to value the story of the anonymous other. In this case – for Zoli – I didn’t think that enough had been said. Is that arrogant? Maybe it is. Probably it is. But I’d rather die with my heart on my sleeve that end up someone who patrols quietly around the perimeters. Watch those waters. They’re tepid. I’m so sick of divorce stories and suburban triste. And so I thought, Slovakia, Roma, socialism, okay, I’ll try that story. I’m not trying to excuse myself. I hear writers, when they’re talking about minorities, giving the excuse that they’re half this, or an eight that, or that their best friend is this shade of skin colour … as if that allows them the right to own the story.

I don’t own any story. It’s my job to intrude.

And, always, in the back of my mind – whether I’m writing about homeless people in New York subway tunnels, or the gay underworld in the 1970’s, or the teenagers caught in the Northern Ireland conflict — I’m aware of what I’m saying, or thinking, that I’m not that, what should I write about it, what right do I have? It’s economically arrogant, culturally arrogant, sexually arrogant, socially arrogant. That’s not me! That’s not my life! But what am I going to do? Write about the pleasant Friday afternoon in 173 Clonkeen Road, Blackrock, Co. Dublin? Or the very nice chess game I just had with my kids on 86th Street in Manhtattan? That’s my immediate life, yes, but I’ll leave that to a writer more talented than me.

So … To be the voice of “the other”? Fuck, yeah. Absolutely. No better compliment. Or to be a small catalyst of that voice? Wonderful! That’s where I’m comfortable. That’s where I’m best.

Do I claim to be that voice? No. Of course not.

I write stories. That’s another one of my jobs. I try for them to be good. I want them to be engaging. And on a certain level I want them to be social.

Some might argue that Irish fiction until recent decades was somewhat insular and fixated on themes relating to a rural Ireland that has virtually disappeared – and issues as relating to sex, religion, authority, poverty and the conflicts between different generations etc. It appears that Irish fiction and other media music/film has become more “international” now – dealing with more “universal” themes – How do you feel about this?

Fair enough – but then at some stage you go back to your own. Zoli is an Irish novel. How can it be anything else? I’m an Irish writer. And yet it must be everything else. I realise that I’m answering by evading, but that’s the job of the poet. Then again, I’m not a poet. I’m a contrarian.

People have asked why I didn’t write about the Irish Travellers. Well, because I think that story is in the process of being told by others who are more inside than me, more at the centre, with more access. They will, and some already have, told it better than I could.

Did you feel a burden of “responsibility” in bringing the story/voice of somebody who is now dead but who was also a woman from a “reviled” group who’ve been subjected to centuries of stereotype and many of whom have had no literary or public voice to date?

Yes, it was a massive responsibility. I didn’t want it to be – or didn’t even expect it to be a responsibility. But then I began researching and I was astounded. There were so few stories, so few novels. And they all came out the same. I wanted Zoli to fit in a certain box and yet for her to change that cardboard box utterly.

Early on in the novel I knew that it was the greatest social responsibility that I have had – as a writer – to date. I found that a lot of the scholarship was shoddy, particularily from people on the outside who wanted to impose their ideas on the Roma.

Is this the first book where you have written in the “persona/voice” of a woman? How did you find that – was it more difficult than writing in the voice of a male narrator or the same?

I’ve written in a woman’s voice before…My first published short story was “Sisters” in a woman’s voice. But this is the first woman I truly know as a character. I am quite convinced that Zoli is alive today and living in Northern Italy, although of course she is not. In this sense, I find her to be my truest character.

The Roma would be one of the largest minorities who have come to settle in Ireland in recent times – many with a view to making a life for themeselves in Ireland permanently/settling here permanently – was this in the back of your mind when you wrote the book?

It’s a good question…but it had nothing to do with the writing of the novel .

Again … maybe someday I’ll write the story of the Roma who have come to Ireland…I’m amazed that other Irish writers (apart from yourself) haven’t had the gumption to do it…Why? I did at one stage flirt with the notion of bringing Zoli to Dublin, but she refused this option. She just wouldn’t get on that ferry! I spent about a month writing that section and then, in the end, she tore up her first class ticket!

Did you find it difficult to balance writing somebody’s story (albeit fictionalised to a great extent) and the duty of “informing” people about some of the realities of Roma history and their development as an outsider group?

A great question. I never felt it before. I never felt myself to be “the uncreated conscience of my race” in any manner or means. I never felt a dute to “represent” Ireland. But I felt it necessary – and maybe even imperative – to get the story of the Roma at least partway right. I mean, the thing is that I wanted to commincate that the Roma are as internally diverse as any other people. Fiction writing is about being able to hold the essence of contradiction in the palms of your hand. I wanted the story to have wide ripples. The thing is the troughs of silence run very deep. But once you penetrate them, many other voices will emerge.

You lived in a Roma settlement in Slovakia for a number of months?

I stayed in a few settlements, but I didn’t live there. I was in Slovakia for two months altogether.

What did you find difficult about this experience and what was the most rewarding aspect of it?

The poverty in certain areas was brutal. Amongst the worst I’ve ever seen. And the racism was astounding.

Then, to have such generosity around that amazed me. I mean, these people invited me into their homes. They should have been berating me for my silence and ignorance. They should have been taking up arms against the policemen who spat on them every day. That astounded me. And we would sit in at night and sing songs. I sang Irish ballads. And the kids would lean against me and sometimes go to sleep. Possibly because I sang so badly.

You must have heard some amazing stories while you were living there? Were there any that left a lasting impression on you?

All the stories left an impression on me. I can’t remember and separate them now from the stories I created about Zoli. Hopefully her story contains their stories.

I do remember that one day I was in Svinia, in what they call “the dog eater’s camp.” I saw a young boy sitting near a bridge, rolling a cigarette. The bridge was a mess, put together with planks, aluminum siding, rope, tree trunks, sodden cardboard, tires, that sort of stuff. The boy himself looked part of the bridge. He was sprinkling tobacco onto the paper. Then I noticed that he had torn a page from a book in order to roll the cigarette. When he lit the smoke, the paper flared a moment, and he smoked in quick sharp bursts. When he was finished, he tore the remaining pages from the book and stuffed them in the pocket of his jeans. He threw down the cover and it landed at the foot of the bridge.

When he walked off towards a ramshackle shed, I strolled across to see what he had just smoked – it was a Slovak translation of the Rumanian writer, Emile Cioran. And I thought, well, that says it all, doesn’t it? He had smoked the page.

(Michael Hayes is author of “Irish Travellers: Representations and Realities.” He is a widely published poet and expert on Romani culture)