If I hadn’t ended up reading two fantastic ethnography books back-to-back, Court of Twilight might never have been written in the first place.
Back in 2012, I was living in New Zealand, and working as a receptionist for a hostel in a remote part of the South Island. The closest bookstore was over an hour away on the other side of the Southern Alps, and the closest library wasn’t much better. However, there was a small lending shelf at the hostel, which became my primary source of reading material for the four months I lived there. As a receptionist, there were often several hours a day when the rooms had been cleaned, the laundry folded, the plants watered, and the lobby swept, when there was legitimately nothing I needed to do other than sit at the front desk and wait for someone to walk in about a room. Which meant I spent a lot of time reading.
Two of the books that came my way that season were ethnography books, which I ended up reading within the same week. Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey by Isabel Fonseca is a book depicting Roma culture in Europe. The author lived among Roma people, mainly in Eastern Europe, for several years in the 1990s, and the book recalls her experiences as a guest and participant in their culture. The title is a reference to a devastating Roma saying – bury me standing, for I have lived my life on my knees.
This is an excerpt:
As we left Grabian, an old woman, so thin that her cheekbones seemed to be pointing out of her face, hung onto my sleeve. She wanted to show me something. She reached into her apron pocket and produced a fuzzy scrap of white paper, no bigger than a gum wrapper, folded down to the size of a thumbnail…She held it up close to my eyes, and I saw nothing – maybe a slight smudge of dirt. I took it from her and checked the other side. Nothing. Apart from the grubby crease marks it was blank…What had I failed to see? Written on that piece of paper, she claimed, was the telephone number of her son, a refugee in Italy. It probably had been once, written in pencil that had long since worn away. If she was illiterate, which seemed likely, and had never been able to read the characters, what she had seen there was already an abstraction. Anyway, I am sure that she did see and continued to see that telephone number. “Te xav to biav,” the old woman called after me as I climbed into the car: May I eat at your wedding.
The picture Fonseca paints is of a resilient society struggling against both the poverty and upheaval of Eastern Europe, as well as the discrimination they faced, and both the pride and difficulties the Rom face in being a people who consider their true home the road.
The second book is Meeting the Other Crowd: The Fairy Stories of Hidden Ireland, by Eddie Lenihan and Carolyn Eve Green. It’s a unique book of Irish folklore, set as a series of first-person accounts of events attributed to fairies, along with brief passages by the authors attempting to fit these stories into a framework that might explain the fairies’ habits, beliefs, behaviors, and motivations. The book takes a very open-minded view of the fact of fairies’ existence, treating them as an invisible culture that lives along side, and occasionally intersects with, the culture of the human inhabitants of Ireland. Many of the stories have the flavor of ghost stories (and if some of the accounts had happened in West Virginia, where I was raised, they would likely have been attributed to ghosts.) Most of the book is written in dialect, and keeps closely to the oral traditions that produced many of the tales.
An example, from the story ‘The Fairy Frog’ in which a girl has been taken to a fairy dwelling to assist a fairy woman giving birth:
He took her out, anyway, up on the horse behind him again, and off they went as fast as the horse’d go, and never stopped till they came to this grove o’ trees.He pulled up the horse and he says, “Did herself give you anything that time they called you back?”“She did,” says the girl.“What was it?”She was half afraid o’ him, that maybe he was going to rob her.“Tell me,” says he, “what was it.”So she told him about the bag o’ gold and the necklace.“You aren’t the first one to get the line,” says he. “And if you’ll take my advice, and if you want to see your father and mother safe and sound again, take that necklace now and tie it around the branch o’ that near tree there.”
Reading the books pretty much simultaneously, I saw some very clear parallels between the literal invisibility of Lenihan’s fairies and the figurative invisibility of the Rom people. Both were societies that kept themselves separate from their neighbors, and considered themselves different in certain key respects. Relationships between their culture and the wider community were fractious, and prone to misunderstanding. Interactions between one culture and the other were proscribed by a set of rules and expectations. For example, fairy folklore stresses the importance of not eating fairy food, with the results of doing so ranging from an unbearable longing for it, to being trapped permanently on the fairies’ side of their vaguely-defined border.
In Bury Me Standing, Fonseca describes the Rom she lived with in Albania having similarly serious concerns about food.
“The real reason Gimi stayed outside when we stopped in at the house of Albanians was the food. Inevitably, and whatever the hour, our hosts would prepare a meal. It was impossible to decline the hospitality, but whereas for me it was at worst a nuisance, for Gimi it presented a danger. Gypsies everywhere do their best to avoid eating food prepared by gadje [non-Rom], which almost by definition is bound to be mahrime [unclean].”
I want to be clear that I didn’t intent my own fictional Others, trows, to be in any way representative of the Rom - or any other human culture, for that matter. What I did want is to use issues brought up in both works of ethnography – issues of belonging, invisibility, and erasure, and interactions across disparate cultures that can still go wrong even with the best of intentions on both sides – to help inform the background and culture of my own invented Others.
If you’re looking for more recommended books with perhaps a more literal treatment of Ireland’s rich cultural history and beliefs, I would recommend any of Juliet Marillier’s works. Daughter of the Forest is an engaging retelling of the traditional story The Six Swans, but embeds its magical elements nicely within a real-world story about family and betreyal. Heart’s Blood is another compelling standalone novel, where the magical elements are portrayed more as a burden than a gift. The Iron Druid novels by Kevin Hearne, starting with Hounded, takes elements of Irish belief and transplants firmly them into modern day America. The first books are a little more combat-oriented than I generally read, but the stories are engaging. I first got into the series through my enjoyment of Oberon’s Twitter account (Oberon being the narrator’s talking Irish wolfhound), which is worth following even if you aren’t into the books.
Fiction, and in particular fantasy fiction, inspired by Rom sources is a little harder to find. The only fantasy book I’m aware of in which Romani beliefs and characters are central to the narrative is Charles de Lint’s uncharacteristically gruesome horror novel Mulengro. Outside of the fantasy realm, I can thoroughly recommend Oksana Marafioti’s introduction to modern Romani culture through her memoir American Gypsy, detailing her family’s immigration from Russia to Los Angeles when she was fifteen.
If you can recommend other books with an Irish or Romani connection, let me know! Or let me know what real-world histories, ethnographies, memoirs, and other real-life inspirations you've used, or seen used, in a fictional piece.