This is kind of a writerly post, a peak behind the curtain about how I came to write Nikolai, Alexei, and Maria and their family in Soulbonded.
(I also did a ton of research on Norse mythology, current Norse religions, Minnesota, Indian massacres, and Kali and the Wild Hunt. But those are other posts. The link between Kali and the Roma St. Sara del Mar is fascinating and important to my story.)
When I started my Soulbonded series, I chose to make the main characters American Romani, a culture that is not my own. I did as much research as I could, including academic writings, studying the language, reading every personal blog and facebook group and youtube or reddit comment I could find. I still worry that I got it wrong.
I tried to keep it as honest and respectful as I could. My book is fantasy but the Romani culture doesn’t really have anything to do with that. The magic is mostly Norse shamanic and the Wild Hunt (which crosses cultures) and references to Hindi and Indian culture.
The MCs family affects their choices and what the emotional and logic is behind those choices in the same way anyone’s background would. The options we think we have are the options our life allows us to see. (Cannibalism, for an extreme example, is not often seen as a viable solution to a problem for most people.)
I hope I didn’t screw it up too badly, but I did and still do worry. The third book takes my MCs far from home and far from who they thought they were, but, still, their ties to their family and culture remain and inform their decisions. And I worry every time I write it that, well, bascially, somebody is going to yell at me.
saathi1013 on Tumblr sums up my fear.
So whenever fandom tries to address the question “Why aren’t there more works featuring characters of color?” there are a myriad of (predictable) responses. One of which is appearing with increasing frequency: “Because we (usually: white creators of transformative works) are afraid of getting it wrong.”
And like. I’ve already addressed how ‘thinking you’ll get it wrong’ is a failure of both imagination and of craft/skill (and a symptom of the racial empathy gap, which I forgot had a proper name when I wrote that post). Meanwhile, @stitchmediamix absolutely accurately pointed out that the ‘fear’ being discussed is fear of being called racist, not necessarily fear of failure.
But I will try and do justice to cultures I know, and when I get called out on my failures, I will listend and learn.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Romani culture, here are some good resources I’ve found.
Language – there are many different Rromani dialects and languages. Alexi and Nikolai are Ruska Roma, raised in the United States by an older man. their language and dialect is somewhat old-fashioned, mixed with other Rromani dialects, and peppered with Russian and words.
For non-US information, I used Rombase.
You also need to understand the affects of WWI & II and the years inbetween the wars to understand even a little about the Rom culture.look into the Holocaust. Numbers vary widely, but by all accounts, almost a million
Numbers vary widely, but by all accounts, almost a million Rroma were shipped off to concentration camps and killed. The United States Holocaust Museum has some good information on it. The Rom are a diasporic nation, you can’t write honsetly about an American Rom family without understand the background of the European Rom.
If you are interested in writing Romani characters, I suggest you check out this post and the entire tumblr blog
Romani Tropes 101: A Comprehensive Guide to Writing a Romani Character
Although I strongly discourage non-Roma from writing Romani characters that involve any sort cultural or linguistic association, I am in no way opposed to authors writing characters that happen to be Roma.. as long as said authors don’t rely on tropes and stereotypes.
We will start with some obvious and common ones:
Magic | Mysticism
This one is pretty obvious. Romani people have long been stereotyped as having some sort of magical or mystical abilities. In reality, though, we are just ordinary people. What’s important to remember, however, is that this stereotype has played a pretty big role in the oppression we’ve faced, which stems from a fear-mongering campaign led largely by the Catholic Church.
How does this impact writing Romani characters: if you are considering a Romani character that has some sort of magical ability you need to ask yourself some questions before continuing writing.
1. Is magic or mysticism necessary to the plot?
2. Is your Romani character the only one with magical abilities?
3. Is magic or mysticism used to augment the “Gypsy-ness” of your character?
4. Are you treating magical or mystical abilities as cultural or ethnic phenomenon?
If you answered yes to anything other than the first question, you need to stop and reevaluate your character. If your writing involves anything listed in numbers 2-4 then you are relying on stereotypes and perhaps you should not include a Romani character at all.
Fortune-Telling | Palmistry | Tarot Cards
Yes, many Roma do these things, but they are also common in many other cultures. This is a really common stereotype. If you’re not Roma then I would avoid any having your Romani character perform any sort of fortune-telling. We’re not going to go through any evaluation questions for this topic because it pretty obviously relies heavily racist stereotypes.
Maybe you want to touch on those stereotypes in your writing, though. That’s a good idea! So, using the topic of fortune-telling is okay when you’re doing it in a way to combat stereotypes.
For example, your Romani character could be asked to do some form of fortune-telling and respond with some history or an explanation as to why it’s a stereotype. There are ways to actually combat stereotypes about Roma by using the stereotype itself. Just be super careful to not demean or accidentally reinforce the stereotype.
Keep reading (links to the rest of the Tumblr post)
I won’t go any longer, but as you can see, I find the research for the books almost as interesting as the actual writing. A lot goes into making characters three dimensional individuals. I’m going to keep writing diverse (for lack of a better term) characters and hope I get it right more than I get it wrong.