Interview: Ian Hancock

Interview with Ian Hancock

Interviewer: Jessica Reidy
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Dr. Ian Hancock received his PhD from London University and teaches Romani Studies at the University of Texas, Austin, where he is the Director of the Romani Archives and Documentation Center (RADOC). Born in Britain, Hancock descends on his father’s side from Hungarian Romungre Romanies and on his mother’s side from English Romanichal Gypsies, and was the first Gypsy to be awarded a doctorate in the UK. Gypsies, or more properly Romanies or Rom, are an ethnic group with their own culture and language and originating in northern India. Leaving India at the time of (and probably because of) the Indo-Persian wars, the original Romani population found itself in the Byzantine Empire by the eleventh century, and by the fourteenth century had been pushed up into southeastern Europe on the crest of the encroaching Turkish move West. Due to persecution, Romani people continued to travel through the centuries and now there are Romani populations on nearly every continent.
1. You’ve written prolifically about Romani culture, history, and linguistics in a variety of genres ranging from academic to creative non-fiction, and poetry, most of which touch on social activism. What is the relationship between writing and political and social change/awareness in your work?

Depending on what I’m writing, and the intended audience, it’s rather like my involvement with performance events. My university brings in major musical and other well-known Romani performers such as Esma, The Gypsy Kings, Taraf de Haidouks, Birelli Lagrene; before the production I take a few minutes to go out on stage and—taking advantage of the captive audience—tell them that they will enjoy the singing and dancing immensely, but that it isn’t what “Gypsies” are all about; and I read a few current news reports and as briefly as possible explain who we are and where our ancestors came from. It is important to emphasize that “Gypsy” isn’t a behavior, it is an ethnicity; we are not a “lifestyle,” but a culture a thousand years old.

2. What were some of the challenges and triumphs of selecting work for The Roads of The Roma: an anthology of Gypsy writing?

Not too many challenges, except I’d have liked more contributions from younger people, and more in our Romani language (with English translation). The triumph is in the interest it has generated, and the fact that it has appeared in subsequent re-issues. It has surprised some people in the Romani community, and prompted them to try writing themselves. A second volume would find a ready audience.

 3. Which writers and/or artists have influenced you the most?

Linguistically, John Sampson’s book The Dialect of the Gypsies of Wales is a constant goldmine for me. The writer I admire most is Matéo Maximoff, he was a prolific Romani writer (The Ursitory, The Price of Freedom, Condemned for Surviving, Savina)

 4. Which books do you find yourself coming back to again and again?

Well, I do keep going back to George Borrow’s books, both for his Victorian style of writing and for the imaginative way he presents himself and the Romani characters in them. I have written about the profound effect he had on the shaping of the Gypsy stereotype, and the damage he has done.

5. Poetry, especially Romani poetry, finds its roots in music, song, and percussion. How does musicality play in your own writing style?

I think there is a rhythm in writing; I’m not a particularly outstanding writer, but I do go back over a sentence I’ve just written to see how it flows musically, how the syllables balance, and I’ll change a word or add a word if it doesn’t ‘flow,’ apart from the actual content. And I have to have music while I’m working.

6. How has your extensive background in linguistics influenced your writing, or your view of writing?

I love words. I am easily sidetracked by them. I have a huge library of works on the English language and its origins, and consult them all the time. I learned a new word just yesterday: “transpontine,’ and will find a way to use it, since I must cross a bridge to get to work each day. I try to write both fiction and non-fiction in Romani, and that is a challenge, because of the need for the means of expression. Romani is a rich language, and while it can adopt foreign vocabulary very easily, it isn’t always necessary because it is rich in metaphor, and the closer a text is to the native lexicon, the more easily is it understood by the widest audience. For example, a writer in Denmark, wanting to express “Internet” might insert the Danish or the English word, which would not be understood by someone reading the text in another country and who didn’t know English or Danish. But the native Romani word drakhalin has entered the language, its actual meaning is ‘grapevine,’ but it is now used metaphorically to mean the Internet and is everywhere understood.

7. What is your vision for the Romani Archives and Documentation Center (RADOC)?

I’m sorry to say that it hasn’t generated much interest at my own university. My wish is to see it find a permanent home at an institution where Romani Studies is a part of the permanent curriculum, and the Archives are properly managed and used.

 8. What are your must-read recommendations for students of Romani Studies or Romani culture enthusiasts?

A problem my students have is in knowing which sources are reliable and which are not; most of the (especially earlier) literature is unreliable, written by people who have never actually met any Romanies. There is a steady market too for the ‘Harlequin Romance’ type of literature, which helps to keep the romantic stereotype alive. My concern is that the general public is better acquainted with the romantic, unreliable, nomadic [g]ypsy rogue of fiction than with the real population, and the very real social problems we must deal with. While most people can contrast the media image of, say, the Mafia with actual Italians, and are aware of the Italian contribution to the world, there is no such balance available for us.

 9. What inspired you to begin writing and publishing?

If you read Dileep Karanth’s introduction to Danger! Educated Gypsy you’ll see that my entry into the academic world was somewhat unusual. I didn’t have much early education and didn’t finish high-school, but was given the remarkable opportunity to attend London University. I was the first Romani in Britain to get a PhD, and am the first Romani professor to teach at an American university (there are a couple of others now). When my situation became known, I was practically bullied by friends to put my education to use, given the practically non-existent number of educated Romanies in Britain at that time (the mid ’60s). With the confidence my new degree gave me, I began to write.

10. What are you working on now?

I have a few things in the works: I’m writing an account of my experience as a Romani person teaching in the non-Romani world, and the daily effort necessary to behave like my peers, to fit in and accommodate sometimes difficult cultural conflicts, which they are quite unaware of. I’m also working—slowly—on a book dealing with the origins of my people and the Romani language, that has been an ongoing project for a number of years; and I am writing a book on the origins of Krio, the Creole language of Sierra Leone. I am quite far along with that, it very much involves my love of words, and it will be a tribute to the language that provided me with my education in the first place.

Dr. Ian Hancock is recipient of numerous awards and honors including the prestigious international Rafto Foundation human rights prize in Norway in 1997, the Gamaliel Chair in Peace and Justice from the University of Wisconsin in 1998, and in the same year he was appointed by President Clinton to represent Roma on the US Holocaust Memorial Council. He was part of a four-man team led by the late Yul Brynner that presented the petition to the United Nations for Romani membership in 1978, and has served as representative on the UN Economic and Social Council and in UNICEF. He was awarded an honorary doctorate with distinction from Umeå University in 2002, and another from Constantine University in Slovakia in 2009. A scholarship in Holocaust and Genocide Studies has been established in his name at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. In March 2003, he was invited by the Dalai Lama to a private meeting in India. He is the author of The Pariah Syndrome, We Are the Romani People, Danger! Educated Gypsy, and many other books and articles on linguistics, creole languages, and the Romani culture.

Jessica Reidy is an MFA candidate at Florida State University, where she teaches about creative writing, rhetoric, and Romani culture and representation. Her work has appeared in Narrative Magazine as Story of the Week, Quail Bell, The Los Angeles Review, and other journals. She is the Art Editor of the Southeast Review, co-founder of The Poet Time e-reading series, and also works with VIDA–Women in Literary Arts. She is currently writing her first novel.