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BOOK REVIEW: Australian Gypsies: Their Secret History by Mandy Sayers

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Today, roughly 100,000 Gypsies call Australia home, yet until now their experiences have been hidden from our history, and from our present. Here, award-winning memoirist and novelist Mandy Sayer weaves together a wide-ranging and exuberant history of Gypsies in Australia. She begins with the roots of Romani culture, and traces the first Gypsy people to arrive in Australia, including James Squire, the colony’s first brewer. She meets Gypsy families who live all over Australia, who share the stories of their ancestors and their own lives. With her own nomadic early life and experiences as a street performer, Sayer brings unique insight into the lives of the people she meets, and a strong sense of their extraordinary history. She also demolishes some longstanding but baseless myths along the way. Her original and compelling book reveals a rich part of our history that few of us even know is there.

My Thoughts:

When I was a little girl, my father was always going off adventuring. One day I asked my grandmother why he loved travelling so much, and she laughed a little and said, ‘oh, darling, it’s the gypsy in him.’

Now, I do not know if she was speaking literally or metaphorically but I’ve been fascinated by the Roma ever since. I used to dress up in a gypsy skirt and embroidered blouse, and call myself Mitzi, and my sister and brother and I were always camping out under the stars and cooking sausages on the campfire. As I got older, I began to collect books about the Roma and their fascinating and tragic history. This interest culminated in ‘The Chain of Charms’, a series of six historical novels about the adventures of two Romani children in the final weeks of Oliver Cromwell’s rule in 17th century England.

While researching ‘The Chain of Charms’, I tried numerous times to make contact with the Romanichal community in the UK, particularly the Finch and Smith families who were the descendants of the real-life Queen of the Gypsies I was writing about. I had no luck at all. In the end, after the books were written and published, I met by the purest chance a member of the Finch family who told me that there were a great many Roma in Australia. I was so interested to hear his story, and tried to research more, but once again found it difficult to make contact or open lines of communication.

So when I saw that Mandy Sayer – a writer I had read and admired for years – was working on a history of the Roma, I knew that I wanted to read the resulting book. I went along to her launch, where Romani musicians played and danced, and then later that week I began to read it.

Australian Gypsies: A Secret History begins with Mandy Sayer’s own first encounter with the Roma, in Hungary, which sparked her fascination with their rich and secretive culture. Then she moves on to a brief summary of their history – their slow migration from India to Europe in the 11th-13th centuries, and their many years spent wandering and making a sketchy living as dancers, musicians, fortune-tellers, and horse-traders. Gradually the prejudice against the dark-skinned outsiders grew and persecution intensified, until the horrors of the Holocaust, where 1.5 million Romani were exterminated in death camps. I was deeply familiar with this history, thanks to my own research, but it is always interesting to read it again.

The narrative then moves to the history of the Romani in Australia, and in Mandy Sayer’s own personal experience in researching their lives and telling their stories. This was all new to me, and deeply interesting. I did not know, for example, that there were three Romani men on the First Fleet and that was one of them was James Squire, Australia’s first brewer. I really loved hearing the stories of the many different families who came to Australia hoping for a place of safety to call home, and the subsequent generations who have lived here since. Mandy Sayer’s account of the history of the Australian Roma is truly an enthralling untold story. I just wished that she had confessed how she came to win the confidence and friendship of people who are notoriously suspicious of the Gadje (non-Romani people), and perhaps a little more about the youngest generations and how they perceive their lives and culture changing and growing into the future. These are minor quibbles, however. The book itself is a brilliant piece of untold social history and will hopefully do much to break down any existing prejudices still remaining in our society.

For another great read about the Romani, check out my review of Along the Enchanted Way by William Blacker.

Please leave a comment, I'm interested in your thoughts.

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