The Amethyst Road: The Yulang

Serena’s mother’s people are the Yulang. They are a group of traveling people, divided into different tribes by the trades that they follow. Their tribes carry implications about status. However, no matter how high a tribe’s status within the Yulang people, they are never considered to be on an equal footing with the sedentary, Gorgio society, which controls most of the wealth, and other kinds of power.

The Yulang are NOT meant to be an accurate, sociological portrayal of modern gypsy (Rom) people. That would be a disservice, as I’m no kind of expert. However, their nomadic lifestyle, their love of travel and the intense distrust and prejudice they have historically faced (and still face today) are characteristics of my Yulang people as well.

There are a few other connections here. Every chapter of the Amethyst Road opens with a few lines from a song. More than half of these songs are real folk songs, mainly from the British tradition. When I started listening and learning more about folk music, I was surprised to find that, especially in England, Ireland and Scotland, many of the traditional folk songs originally come from British “traveling people” – gypsies. Of course this makes sense. Travelers are carriers of culture. They bring songs, stories, gossip and news with them as they travel. In times before high-speed internet and mass literacy, they were the people with knowledge – the people who had been places and seen things. Perhaps that’s why settled people have this persistent fantasy of “running off with the raggle-taggle gypsies”.

Another musical connection for me, is that my father-in-law is a jazz guitarist. His guitar hero is a man named Django Reinhardt, a Belgian gypsy, who lost two fingers in a fire in his caravan, and still played the most incredible jazz guitar of the twentieth century (OK – in my limited opinion).

A less happy connection has to do with human rights abuses, and the Holocaust. During the Holocaust, the gypsies were targeted, along with the Jews, as a “race” to be wiped out altogether. I’m a teacher, and often teach Elie Wiesel’s great book Night. It is a heartbreaking reminder of what happened to the Transylvanian Jews during the Holocaust. Transylvania is also home to many Rom people, who were also targeting during the Holocaust, the time they call porraimos: “the devouring”. This made me wonder how much attitudes towards the Rom had changed since that time. I’m a member of Amnesty International, a group which researches and issues human rights reports on most countries in the world on a yearly basis, so I looked up information on the human rights situation of Rom people in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I was astonished to find that many of the human rights abuses still chronicled in the late 1990s and early 2000s were targeted at gypsies. I’ve tried to write about what it feels like to be targeted in this way, especially when it seems to continue over the generations, and you wonder if it will ever end.

Find out More

Here are some great books and music you can find if you want to learn more:

The Yellow on the Broom – by Betty Whyte. This is an amazing autobiography of a Scottish traveler woman, telling of her childhood in the 1930s. It’s funny, touching, and an incredible look into a way of life that even then, was swiftly vanishing from Britain.

The Traveling People – recording by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger (from the 1960s) includes songs and interviews with British travelers. There’s also a book they co-wrote about it, but I’ll have to find the title.

Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey by Isabel Fonseca. This is a journalists’ account of time she spent living with gypsies in Romania, Albania, Bulgaria and Hungary (as well as other places in Eastern Europe). It was written in the late 1990s, and gives a vivid account of the people she meets and the challenges they face. It also delves into gypsy history and activism. The most amazing thing that I learned reading this book was that gypsies actually had a long history of being slaves in Eastern Europe, until emancipation in the 18 th century.

Crossing by Jan Yoors
Yoors was a teenager in the 1940s, who actually did ‘run away with the gypsies’ – with his parents’ knowledge and permission (he returned home for school and would go traveling throughout the breaks). His adopted gypsy family was caught up in the horrors of the Holocaust, and Jan spent some of the terrible years of WWII with them, and also as a resistance fighter.

Latcho Drom (Safe Journey): Tony Gatlif (director)
This is a documentary, with a accompanying CD of the music. It doesn’t have any narrative connection, but follows gypsy people and their music from India all the way across Europe into Spain (and I believe, France). Incredible music, incredible film footage (including a gypsy wedding in India).

Amnesty International Annual Report
You can access this at http://amnesty.org. Of course, you can learn a huge amount here, not just about the gypsies, but about human rights world wide (and how you can be a human rights activist yourself!)