There’s No Way to See Suffering from Above. Europe’s Roma Communities in Lidia Ostałowska’s Reportage Cygan to Cygan (A Gypsy Is A Gypsy)

Wim Willems claims that the Roma appear in the popular imagination chiefly in two roles–as the dregs of society or in a flattering but not exactly illuminating light as Romantic outsiders.1 Willems underscores that his book does not answer the question of who the Roma truly are or what they are like, but rather how they are portrayed in literary and anthropological texts of the past two centuries. Willems’s research indicates that in the history of representations of the Roma, a collective image dominates which does not reveal the ethnic diversity of the group, but instead oscillates around the position that its cultural system is “inferior,” while the “norm” against which it is so judged is naturally located in the culture of the scholar or author.

The history of representation shapes social reality; that history participates in public discourse which has contributed to the continuation of discrimination against Roma, their marginalization and exclusion. The culmination of these processes was the creation, in many parts of Europe of Roma ghettoes, closed spaces both physically and symbolically. It should be underscored that the phenomenon of Roma migrations2 as well as that of the social advancement of some representatives of the community3 have hindered the process of consistent ghettoization.4 Nonetheless, the formation of separate spaces to which Roma are confined, whether camps or neighborhoods on the outskirts of European towns and cities, endures as an ongoing phenomenon.

Images depicting the condition of these communities and their members, hitherto absent in Polish nonfiction literature, have now become the subject of journalism by reporter Lidia Ostałowska.5 In the period 1996-2000 she took a series of journeys into Roma communities in Romania, Poland, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Czechia and Hungary. As a journalist, Ostałowska is conscious of the mechanisms of previous, orientalist representations of the Roma in literature and the media and is consistently engaged in building an oppositional project of listening closely to the Roma point of view; the result of her efforts is a collection of reportages bearing the title Cygan to Cygan (A Gypsy Is A Gypsy), an ironic poke at generalizing oversimplifications.