14 Oct 2010

Gypsy life making its mark on the arts scene

Their controversial deportation from France angered the EU – but here stories about Romany Gypsies are having an increasing cultural influence, writes our Culture Editor, Matthew Cain.

A new opera by Opera North, Andrea Arnold directing a film version of Wuthering Heights, a TV series on Channel 4, a play by the Romany Theatre Company at the Royal Court Theatre, and a bestselling book – Gypsy Boy.

It seems that everywhere you look at the moment, gypsy culture is filtering through to the mainstream.

Of course this is nothing new; from Bizet’s Carmen to Victor Hugo’s Esmeralda, there’s always been a fascination with gypsies. But in the past, most representations of gypsies have consisted of the stereotypical dusky maiden in hoop earrings dancing around a camp fire.

More recently, this stereotype has been accompanied by another; that of the dishonest and untrustworthy gypsy, perhaps most shockingly encapsulated in Viz magazine’s cartoon strip The Thieving Gypsy Bastards.

Gypsy Boy
But what’s interesting now is that creative voices are beginning to emerge from within the gypsy community rather than outside it. The best example of this is the book Gypsy Boy by Mikey Walsh.

It pulls no punches and confronts head-on the stereotypes and misconceptions about gypsies.

It’s been a huge hit and a Sunday Times number one bestseller. And it really is incredible. Not because of how well it’s written. In fact, some of the writing is clumsy and awkward, mainly due to the little education Walsh received as a child and his low level of literacy for many years. But in a weird way this gives a greater ring of authenticity to the book. And it only adds to its greatest strength – its shockingly powerful first person testimony of growing up gay within the gypsy community.

Two strands
And it’s here that the two strands of the book must be separated. On one level it portrays an individual’s story of growing up within a family dominated by a violent father and haunted by the sexual abuse perpetrated by an uncle, something that could unfortunately happen in any cultural context. There’s never any suggestion that this kind of behaviour is endemic to the gypsy community, although the author doesn’t shy away from drawing attention to the community’s rampant machismo and homophobia.

But it’s the other level on which the book can be read that has caused controversy within the gypsy community and led to the author wishing to keep his true identity a secret. As the book’s cover proudly announces, it can be read as an exposé of the Romany Gypsies’ closeted community and secretive way of life.

Without going into detail, it pulls no punches and confronts head-on the stereotypes and misconceptions about gypsies. Some are blown apart but some are confirmed. And it really is sensational stuff.

Gypsy Girl
Whatever your opinion of the book and what it has to say, I urge you to read it. Whether or not it satisfies its readers’ curiosity is almost an irrelevance; a sequel is already in the works as well as another memoir by a different author entitled Gypsy Girl.

So there’ll be plenty of literary stimuli to help you make up your mind. And whether mainstream society’s stereotypes and prejudices end up being bolstered or definitively blown away, it seems that our fascination with gypsies and their culture shows no sign of dying out just yet.