Soros funds gypsy poetry

Romanies are speaking out at last - in verse - with the financier's help, reports Mark Rowe
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THE BILLIONAIRE George Soros has funded the first anthology of gypsy poetry, to be published in Britain this week, in an attempt to dispel the myths and prejudices that surround Romany culture.

The book has been paid for by the Open Society Institute, the philanthropic arm of Mr Soros's business empire, which has already committed substantial sums to ethnic-minority projects in his native Hungary. It is intended to strengthen the identity of the Romany population.

The collection of 45 poems and prose extracts, The Roads of the Roma, comes at a time of increasing prejudice against gypsies, particularly in eastern Europe. Its publishers hope it will foster greater understanding between gypsies and non-Romany communities.

Romany poets and writers from 20 countries have contributed to the book, to be launched on National Poetry Day this Thursday. The poems have been translated into English from Romany - which is spoken by five million people around the world in 100 dialects - via Italian, Spanish and French.

Many of the poems focus on persecution and prejudice; others explore the natural world and express a yearning for traditional nomadic lifestyles. All but two are by living poets, and they are accompanied by an 800-year chronology of gypsy history.

The Roads of the Roma has been edited by two gypsies - including Professor Ian Hancock, a British gypsy now employed by the University of Texas - and Siobhan Dowd of PEN (Poets, Essayists, Novelists), which has published a series of "Threatened Literature" journals.

"We didn't just want to include places such as Iran and Burma where writers are censored by an oppressive government with a blue pencil," Ms Dowd said. "We wanted to look at people marginalised by a kind of 'societal chill', and gypsies fall into that category, particularly since the rise of ethnic tensions in Europe.

"The overwhelming problem that gypsies face is one of hatred, which has led to them being hounded out of villages."

She said their literature acted as an identity and a defence mechanism which PEN wanted to bolster. Until 100 years ago, gypsy "literature" was purely an oral tradition.

"It became more important to gypsies to write their literature down after the genocide attempt they faced in the Second World War. They realised how fragile their culture was," Ms Dowd said. "The poems have a wonderful sense of rhythm and work beautifully when they're read aloud. They come straight from the heart."

The book's editors believe that literary treatment of gypsies mirrors the physical treatment they encounter and that the depiction of gypsies as light-hearted and "footloose and fancy-free" contributes to society's prejudices. The writer Antonia Fraser, a former chairman of PEN, will read from the anthology at its launch. "Gypsy literature has suffered from dismissal and derision," she said. "It is seen as crooning around a campfire. In many ways there are similarities between the Roma and the Kurds. They don't have a nation state and the literature is everything."

The poems reflect upon the tragic history of the Romanies, and for this reason they are interspersed with a chronology of the gypsies since they left India in about AD1000, including medieval pogroms, persecutions of the 20th century, and sterilisation programmes.

Among the titles are You Smug Bastard, an account of Professor Hancock's difficulties in getting a Canadian visa because of his Romany origin, and The Stone, which is about the boulders that block traditional travellers' camping grounds in Ireland. Other poems touch upon the war in Bosnia and the Holocaust - Only Ashes Remain and A Wedding in Auschwitz.

Hester Hedges, at 19, is the youngest poet in the anthology. Her A Wooden Rose was written from "a middle point of view", she said. "I don't have this huge thing inside me to write about oppression, since I think that most travellers don't worry about what other people think about them. But since I've been four I've seen travellers come and go. I am writing because there are things I wanted to say to them before they moved on."

The book has been welcomed by Professor Thomas Acton, who recently gave his inaugural lecture as Britain's first professor of Romany studies. He said: "The book is well put together and it is challenging to put the poems with the chronology. The intensity increases as you read further."

"The Roads of the Roma" is published by University of Hertfordshire Press, pounds 12.

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