American Gypsy – Oksana Marafioti

This is a Soviet immigrant memoir with a twist– the author is half-Romani. The daughter of traveling professional musicians, she studies piano, is bullied at her Moscow school for her heritage, and hopes things will get better when her family moves to America. Right after a more-serious-than-usual teenage heartbreak– her boyfriend, who had traveled to Romania to fight for Romani rights, is murdered– her family finally gets the chance to move. Almost immediately on arrival, however, her parents split up, with her Armenian mom descending into alcoholism and her Romani father marrying a much younger woman and diving into the occult.

However, Oksana embraces the opportunities of her new country, learning English through romance novels and attending a performing arts magnet school. When she falls in love with a non-Romani boy, tensions with her father build to an unsustainable level.

This is a very funny memoir, with her stepmother’s occult antics providing much of the humor. One night, she forces Oksana to help her steal graveyard dirt for a spell, and they get stopped for speeding. The officer doesn’t believe them when they tell him the suspicious bag in the car is dirt!

There are the usual immigrant tensions between tradition and the new culture. Oksana’s stepmother is eager to marry her off, and her father views her as insufficiently free-spirited when she gets into the performing arts school (which he equates with the Soviet arts system), believing that she should learn from her family instead. The problem is that he doesn’t take her seriously enough as a musician to teach her, because she’s a girl. However, Oksana finds a balance between rebelling against sexist traditions and valuing her cultures.

You learn a lot reading this book without it being at all dry. The author offers a lot of detail about her cultures and her experience growing up in the USSR, though the book is mainly about what happened after they got to America. Some things I didn’t expect, such as the fact that though she and her family were discriminated against in the Soviet Union, they were also quite rich and connected. The author also indicates the diversity among the Romani themselves, explaining how Russian Romani were looked down on as sellouts by some Romani from other countries, and how her grandfather distrusted Hungarian Romani.

The only thing that bugged me was that at one point she talked about the negative stereotype of Ossetians in the USSR (as being gangsters), but then her only description of Ossetians in the book is of stereotypical gangsters complete with curved daggers.  This was understandable as the Ossetians were fighting with her father, but just seemed out of place in a book that was otherwise sensitive to these things.

Anyway, I both enjoyed and learned from this book.

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