This article previously appeared in Kentucky Opera’s OperaBill for Carmen, 2019
Article written by Caren Gussoff Sumption
Carmen’s literary origins reveal the allure of the mysterious. Bizet’s beloved opera is based on a novella of the same name by Prosper Mérimée. The novella was based on a real Spanish woman, but Mérimée exoticized the story by crafting his heroine to be gypsy. We question what he, as a Frenchman and outsider, actually knew of Romany culture. In an effort to better understand this culture ourselves, we turn to our partners as they share their experiences.
As a Romany woman, I hear and see a lot about myself and my culture that is negative. Grifter, criminal, fortune teller, carny, thief. I’m a Halloween costume, a character at a Renaissance Faire, a marketing buzzword, a Fleetwood Mac song. A free spirit. Deviant. I’m tragic and sexy. I’m Esemerelda.
There’s no shortage of stereotypes, mythologies. Stories about me by people who’ve never met me, because, I’m a “Gypsy.” I put the word in quotes because, aside from a few reclaiming the word (with a capital G), it’s a slur. It doesn’t mean “Boho,” “iconoclast,” or “nomad.” It’s derogatory, an exonym.
We’re not. We’re Rom (or Roma, Romani, or, like I use, Romany. We’re probably Indo-Aryan in origin, leaving the Indian subcontinent centuries ago for reasons long lost. We’ve been in diaspora ever since. There are more than 20 million Romany today, across the world, including Spain, inspiring the character of Carmen. We’re also in the US, in your community, living and working alongside you.
For all the drama attributed to the Rom, most hide in plain sight. Centuries of distance forged diverse Romani cultures, but experience has made us pragmatic and private.
We’re wary. We’ve been enslaved; decimated in the Holocaust; deported from our homes (even now, in 2019 Italy). We’ve been ghettoized and sterilized, targeted by police, systematically denied access to education, healthcare, and employment.
And though many Romany deeply value arts, depictions of us as Orlando’s ignorant, savage; as Dracula’s pitiless henchmen; or as Carmen, the insatiable temptress that gets her’s in the end—re-enforce us as other.
Instead, give us your hand; but not to read your palm.
Nais tuke* for reading this. We’ve heard your stories for a very long time. Will you hear ours’?
* Romany for “thank you.”
Caren Gussoff Sumption is a didicai Kalderash Romany and Jewish writer living in the Pacific Northwest.