My daughter bought a not-for-sale, advanced reader’s copy of American Gypsy: A Memoir at a used bookstore in Boston. “Here,” she said, “This is for your collection. I’m sure you’ll like it.”
How could I not? In the first three pages of Oksana Marafioti’s book, I learned that her father rarely says a sentence without swearing, a hilarious thread throughout the book (I’m particularly fond of Nasral ya tebe na golovoo, I shit on your head, which she doesn’t translate for the cashier at McDonald’s as her father tries to bargain – six cheeseburgers, four dollars) and that the Russian words for ‘drunk’ and ‘sing’ are a letter apart and easily confused by a non-native speaker. This is a highly relevant fact, which momentarily causes consternation to her mother, to whom both words apply. We’ve had a fine introduction to Oksana’s family, the Kopylenkos, all dressed up, on good behavior, answering questions at the American Embassy in Moscow, hoping to receive a visa to leave for Los Angeles. It is November 18, 1989, and they will soon give up a fine house, many possessions and their professions.
So, the tone is set. And the reader will careen between fascinating descriptions of two radically different cultures, that of the Soviet Union where Oksana’s parents had a rich life and status in “a traveling Roma ensemble the size of a circus” run by her father’s imposing parents and then in Los Angeles where her father and mother would almost immediately divorce, leaving Oksana, her young sister and mother, Armenian by birth, in what has to be called a slum apartment.
The book also explores the way she sorts out her complicated identity, which she calls “Split Nationality Disorder,” and defines her own path in spite of very unusual obstacles.
“Most Romani don’t give a rat’s ass about fitting in. Instead, they shape the
world around them, bend it like a spoon. But it mattered to me, and it mattered
to my mother even more… My father, being a real spoon bender, didn’t move
across the ocean to change. I knew that no matter what he’d always be Rom,
but that at least in America, nobody cared. He took his outsider status to even
greater heights by [marrying] his long-time mistress, a notorious fortune-teller
with eyes the color of chimney smoke and a soul a shade darker.”
There is much to fascinate within this book. As someone who tries not to step on cracks so I won’t break my mother’s back, I couldn’t help but rejoice in all Armenian and Roma superstitions. And, though a complete nonbeliever, I was moved by the religious and spiritual aspects of the Roma culture, including readings of coffee grounds, tarot cards, séances and a hair-raising exorcism.
American Gypsy: A Memoir left me hoping that there’s some truth to the story that my German grandfather, a sculptor of religious statuary who preferred to drink wine with the workmen, rather than open the studio he was hired to manage, might have been part gypsy. It’s a fascinating, vibrant culture and I would certainly appreciate having a bit of that DNA.
MS: It’s impossible not to become fascinated by your family, especially your charismatic father, as you describe them in American Gypsy: A Memoir. Do you mind writing about what has happened to your parents here in the States? About what advantages they might have found here, those they might have lost by leaving what was then the U.S.S.R.
OM: It is often believed that life lessons arrive at our doorstep from far away, delivered by strangers. As a result we rarely give much consideration to stories or people who have shaped us directly. For longer than I’d like to admit I didn’t consider my family stories of much value to me. This was not because I rebelled against them, but because they were too close and therefore seemed ordinary. I recognized, while writing these stories into American Gypsy, that I had made a mistake, that I had somehow gotten my entire family wrong in my early years, our paths barely crossing even as we resided in plain view of each another. I dug deep into the pages and found this great well of experience, overwhelming zeal and courage, faults and humilities, my parents’ fire and anger and an unapologetic sense of self. And that’s how I found myself.
My mother was a sprint runner in high school. There is a picture of her in her runner’s uniform, racing across the track, and I know had she stayed in Russia she would’ve been just as volatile and plucky as she was at that moment. Her character hasn’t changed much over the years, and she remains unbreakable against the hard times of our early life here. It’s difficult to believe most days that she’s an immigrant at all, so integrated is she into this American life.
My father was born on an evacuation train somewhere between Ukraine and Russia in September of 1945. A nonconformist from the very start. That said, what happened to him in America must’ve been a transition like no other. He arrived set on becoming an American, which, in his books, meant being unapologetic in his pursuit of happiness. Instead he became more Romani than he ever managed to be in Russia. Perhaps the irony of it all is that while I was trying to find my place in this new country he was doing exactly the same on a more personal level. Our transformations converged over our troubles without either of us realizing it.
For my parents, making a living on the Russian stage provided relative freedom. An artist’s lifestyle afforded a certain degree of flexibility even when surrounded by the restrictions and the ever-present intimidation of the communist establishment. Of course, in retrospect they’ve admitted that independence was largely a matter of luck and the right connections. I cannot count the number of times my father was taken away by the secret police for telling a political joke in the wrong place at the wrong time. Knowing the right people stood in the way of him disappearing forever. Living in Russia for them both was like walking a cliff’s edge: vast lush forests on one side, a deadly abyss on the other. But I think when they emigrated they left behind a portion of their identity, one they were never able to recreate on this side of the ocean. Whether or not they realized this would happen I do not now, but the loss has affected them in more profound ways than anyone could’ve predicted. I’m sure of that.
MS: The teenager you were writing about struggled between tradition and individuality in American Gypsy: A Memoir, tangled between two powerful traditions (your Armenian mother and Roma father) and trying to become an American. Would you write about that? And what becoming an American meant?
OM: Tradition and individuality are often placed at the opposite ends of the spectrum, but look closely and you’ll find them synonymous. Conformity and tradition can’t coexist and without the unrelenting drive to idiosyncratic expression traditions cannot develop.
Both sides of my heritage—Armenian and Romani—have, and will always retain a hold on me. As a teen I struggled against this bond, but in all honesty, there could be worse things than being identified by your language or ethnicity, right? At this point in my life I don’t think that assumptions made based on our culture should be taken as an insult, even at times when they’re meant to be hurtful. Perfection is a mythological creature, after all. You grow older and hopefully you learn to accept your heritage as is, the good and the bad. Isn’t this the main principle behind true love? Why should it be any different when it comes to cultures? Acceptance is the root of love and can never be conditional. All this means that learning a new way of life is a process of draping its many layers around you, all of them, regardless of preference or intention. You accept it as a whole, and in the process you become of it. Being an American therefore has never been about a definition for me, but about a sense of belonging.
MS: In your discussion on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, (August 17, 2012,) you said that there are always vast differences in the qualities and characters of individuals from every ethnicity and race. But there’s a lot of myth built up around the Roma. How are you experiencing and addressing the misconceptions here in America?
OM: Last summer I went on the road with my first ever book tour. My head was filled with grand ideas of converting my readers into the staunchest defenders of a culture long misinterpreted. I wanted so desperately to explain the fallacies and the dangers in perceiving an entire ethnic identity as a stand-alone character. Who does that, really? Of course, this was a bit presumptuous. I don’t have that kind of power and, in fact, this whole thing wasn’t about me in the first place. What I took away from the book tour, more than anything, was the overwhelming sagacity of those who came to sit with me. I was a student, not a teacher. Eventually I figured out that it’s not my job to poke objectives through the pages of my book across vast distances, but what I could do is be present as I am, with others who, like me, have plenty of their own injustices to battle. We sit together and what we can strive for is a connection that we will carry on inside, so that when life presents us with a choice between a pointed finger and unity we almost instinctively choose the latter.
MS: Food is an important subject in your book, fabulous meals cooked during those extensive Theatre Romen tours, small electric stoves smuggled into hotel rooms, pots of food tossed out the window if they were discovered, and then here in America where your mother didn’t want you and your sister to eat ‘this processed crap.’ Would you write a bit about the richness of the culinary tradition you came from? And what you’ve found in LA, Las Vegas and Rome that you consider delicious?
OM: Food is an important theme in American Gypsy. My family finds that funny, but I know they feel the same. In the Soviet society, food or lack thereof, was constantly on people’s minds and tongues. I’ve heard so many conversations centered on getting to the market before the milk or the bread runs out that I think I’ve been conditioned to hoard food in my cupboards for the rest of my life. In Armenian culture, meals are the bloodlife of happiness, in Romani, at least in the old days, an overture to a celebration, and I find all of those sensibilities still very much present in my life today.
I’ve read somewhere that cooking can be a way to meditate, and that is absolutely the case for me. Over the years I’ve gathered family recipes. Also, I’ve researched and found some older dishes, most from Armenia. The process of making something that has been created so long ago turns the experience into something of a ritual. I keep thinking about who might’ve been the first to arrange all the ingredients into this harmony and how the recipe has altered over the centuries, and in this way I am time traveling and I am weightless. Best form of meditation I’ve found by far.
When we moved to Los Angeles I was eager to explore. LA is where I tried my first pizza, tacos, chicken fried rice, duck, sushi, tapas. The list goes on. The multi cultural chow scene was incredible and comforting, because it reminded me of home where people who couldn’t hold on to their independence across all areas of life practiced the language of herbs and spices, fragrant broths and tender meats with abandon.
I have too many favorites, and there always seems to be an occasion to discover more delicious fares. In general I’m drawn to the traditional culinary creations rather than those of fusion. Just recently I tried grits and couldn’t stop eating. When I lived in Italy a few years back I couldn’t get enough of fresh bread, and I practically drank olive oil by the glass!
Getting to know a culture is a ritual that begins with two key steps. You speak its language and you taste its cuisine. Everything else falls into place and before you know it, the doors open and you’re home.
1. Marzi by Marzena Sowa. Illustrated by Sylvain Savoia
This story of a young Polish girl living behind the iron curtain is absolutely incredible. She and I share the knowledge of the culture of fear, but she chose to portray her story in the form of a graphic novel, which makes the read that much more intimate and powerful.
2. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
The first thing that drew me to this memoir was its title. The Hmong phrase is qaug dab peg, and it’s used to describe epilepsy. It’s a story of a little girl caught between two very different cultures. Customs of her ancestors explain her epilepsy by ways of magic, and encourage animal sacrifice as treatment, while the Western medical traditions leave the spiritual aspect out of the picture completely, and propose synthetic medications and the latest procedures. The competition between these two worlds to prove one’s supremacy over the other is what makes for a very intense read.
3. Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
Around the time I sold American Gypsy I asked Augusten about his experiences with memoir writing and this was his answer. “Writing a memoir isn’t going to make things easier. It’s not going to fix your life. The book isn’t the cure.” Back then I had no clue what he was talking about. Now I get it.
Treat your memoir with care. If anything pay more attention than you would with any other kind of writing. We tend to get lazy with memoirs, because we assume we know the material well enough to write with our eyes closed while making an important call or two and watching bad television. But it just doesn’t work that way if you’re honest about your intentions. After all you are writing for others, not for yourself. Make sure you know your purpose and why this story needs to be heard, and most importantly why of all the people in the world you’re the only one who can tell it right. And once you figure out those things draw a path between you and your reader and never look back.
I was born in Riga, Latvia and grew up in a stage family, spending my childhood on concert tours with a Russian Romani troupe led by my grandfather, Andrei Kopylenko. It consisted of singers, dancers, musicians, even acrobats. This sounds glamorous, and, at times, it was, if you don’t count hauling stage equipment and costumes from one train station to the next, eating hotel food (sometimes getting sick from it and swearing to never eat hotel food again… then breaking your promise in the next town), and never knowing what kind of an audience you’ll get. Will they slump over in their seats asleep halfway through the show or chase the performers after, begging them to autograph their galoshes? It might not have been glamorous most of the time, but it was certainly magical. Kind of like living inside a book, side by side with fascinating characters who surprise you every time you think you got them. These people taught me that doing what you love is never easy, but it makes you who you are, or rather reveals what you’re made of at your very core. I’ll always admire each and every one of those performers, my grandparents and parents included, for showing me that artistic creativity of any kind is a serious trade that requires years of practice and dedication. I moved to America at fifteen, went to Hollywood High Performing Arts Magnet School, which was like experiencing culture shock on steroids. Before moving I really imagined America being like the movies and the music videos. Remember the barely clad hunks and goddesses dancing in the streets alongside Elton John in “I’m Still Standing”, or Bangles’ “Walk Like An Egyptian”? That was my America. The place where people were carefree and unburdened. Of course I didn’t find too many Americans dancing in the streets, but I wasn’t disappointed for too long and quickly set off on a quest to get to know this country. Meanwhile, my dad, after many unsuccessful attempts to break into Hollywood music business, opened a psychic shop and developed his skills as an exorcist and a healer (something he was never allowed to do under Soviet rule), and my mom moved to Las Vegas on a whim and became a change girl (her version of chasing the dream). Since then, to sum up, I’ve graduated from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, worked in the film industry, got married, had a couple of awesome kids, ran a piano studio, obtained a dual American-Italian citizenship through ancestry research (ancestry.com rules!), moved to Florence and then Rome, Italy with three humans and one cat, came back to the States, pitched an urban fantasy to a literary agent, ended up writing American Gypsy: A Memoir instead, and most recently, got a fellowship for my next book project at the Black Mountain Institute-Kluge Center in partnership with the Library of Congress.
Further information about Oksana Marafioti is available at www.oksanamarafioti.com.
Her photograph is below.