Thursday, March 22, 2007

spotlight: colum mccann

Colum McCann, born in 1965 in Dublin & owner of a degree from the University of Texas, has recently published Zoli (Random House, 2007), whose eponymous hero we meet in the 1930s after most of her family is murdered by Czechoslovakian fascists. Zoli's surviving grandfather teaches her to read & write, an extremely rare skill among Gypsies, who consider it a gadje (outsider) practice. The girl becomes a poet when she grows up; however, her own culture clashes greatly with her unasked-for role as poster child for socialism, & she is banished from her kumpanija (group of caravans).

McCann is the author of half a dozen works of fiction, including the masterful This Side of Brightness (1998), Everything in This Country Must (2001), & Fishing the Sloe-Black River (Picador, reprint edition 2004). He frequently makes use of actual people & events as the genesis for his fiction: in This Side of Brightness, three sandhogs working in subway construction are shot "like a spat cherry stone" out of a pressurized tunnel deep beneath the East River, through the riverbed & into the air on a geyser of water. As improbable as this sounds, it's a precise echo of what happened one day in Manahattan in 1916.

In an interview today with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW's "Bookworm," McCann recalled how the character of Zoli came to him. His wife was reading Bury Me Standing, Isabel Fonseca's 1996 account of modern-day Roma in Eastern Europe, & in the front of the book was a photo of Papusza, the exiled Gypsy poet. After Dancer, his fictionalized account of the life of Rudolf Nureyev, McCann was hoping to write a novel that was light on research. But the woman in the photograph grabbed McCann "& wouldn't let go." Papusza, a Polish Gypsy named Bronislawa Wajs, was beaten as a child whenever she was discovered reading, yet she persisted. Like the character Swann in Zoli, a gadjo poet named Jerzy Ficowski "discovered" the adult Papusza & convinced her to write down her songs so that they could be shared with the mainstream culture; the Polish government also used her as part of their effort to settle the Romani in housing estates. Naturally, Papusza & the fictional Zoli were viewed as traitors by their own people.

"I think it's a book about the human heart in conflict with power and power structures," said McCann, adding that the Polish regime would drop leaflets from airplanes urging citizens of Gypsy origins to join them--that is, to give up their nomadic way of life--and that it ordered that the wooden wheels of the beautiful caravans be sawed off as part of the resettlement campaign. Zoli's kumpanija no longer spoke her name after her exile; ironically, she then wandered about the countryside, somehow managing to survive extreme depredation with only occasional help from kind strangers.

An excerpt from "Tears of Blood," written by Papusza about the suffering of Gypsies under the Germans in 1943-1944:

When big winter comes,
what will the Gypsy woman with a small child do?
Where will she find clothing?
Everything is turning to rags.
One wants to die.
No one knows, only the sky,
only the river hears our lament.
Whose eyes saw us as enemies?
Whose mouth cursed us?
Do not hear them, God.
Hear us!
A cold night came,
the old Gypsy woman sang
a Gypsy fairy tale:
Golden winter will come,
snow, like little stars,
will cover the earth, the hands.
The black eyes will freeze,
the hearts will die.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What haunting, lovely photos to accompany a story about a woman who spent her life as a wanderer, cast out of her own culture.

March 27, 2007 at 4:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just enlarged the leaves and blue berries photo. I can't believe the sharp detail. The color and composition are exquisite. Every time I look at your photos, I want to know where I can buy them.

April 10, 2007 at 10:19 PM  

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