1.This is such a richly detailed historical saga, with at least four beautifully realized fictional worlds presented to us as readers. To what extent do these different worlds mirror events and experiences in your own life – the nomadic life of the Roma/Gypsies, the world of horses and dressage teams, Russian ballet, and the plight of persecuted peoples fleeing to safety during WWII?
Most of the events mirror my own life and dreams. When the time had come for me to revisit the horrors of WW2 and my life among partisans and peoples in flight, I decided to revisit through the eyes of a peace and life loving Gypsy. Instead of her coming from the aggressor’s side, Germany, I had her originate in Russia, another victim of Nazi aggression. Ever since my childhood spent hiding in the woods of Germany and along the Polish and Czech borders, when we came across Gypsies fleeing with their horses, I have felt the noble soul of these powerful and innocent animals. Whereas among partisans all domestic animals were killed, because they could give away their locations, Gypsies did everything to save them. To them the horse is sacred. When the time had come in my life to settle down and I became a mother, the height of my life, I combined rearing my children with starting a horse farm, where I bred dogs, cats, but most of all horses and entered the world of dressage. Although, an enthusiastic but untalented rider, I was welcomed by several of our U.S. Olympic riders for training and acquired advanced knowledge of this incredible sport, often compared to the art of ballet. In fact I was exposed to ballet while living in Finland in the 50’s, where I witnessed many performances of leading Russian ballets. It was also in Finland and later in Paris that I met and became close to many Russian aristocrats in exile. It is through them that I acquired knowledge of the immense warmth and soul of this vast country that, politically, has always gone from bad to worse.
2. You very carefully describe for us numerous Gypsy rituals, customs and beliefs, including taboos and what your character, Dosha, sometimes describes as ‘superstitions.’ All of these point to a strong faith in an unseen spiritual world which has profound influence upon us humans. To what extent do you share in this spiritual faith of the Roma?
Absolutely. I was two when, due to my mother’s highly vocal anti-Nazism, we had to leave our home in Cologne, Germany overnight. From then on we lived in isolated abandoned buildings and in the woods. So, like nomadic Gypsies, I grew up in nature. Also, unlike in the world of civilization, my instincts were not suppressed but enhanced. In awe inspiring moments, without being taught about it, I felt the presence of God, a gift that to this day I value highly. I also learned to feel and trust the unseen, as well as read faces rather than merely listening to speech. It has often saved my life.
3. Several times in the novel, Dosha appeals for help to Saint Sara la Kali, patron saint of the Gypsies, whom she refers to as the “Black Madonna of all Roma.” Could you tell us a little bit more about this enigmatic Saint? Have you ever visited her shrine in Southern France?
‘Sara la Kali’, also known as ‘Sara the Black’, as legend has it, was the servant of the Three Marys with whom she arrived during early Christian persecution seeking shelter in the Camargue of southern France. Portrayed as “a charitable woman that helped people by collecting alms, which led to the popular belief that she was a Gypsy”(see Wikipedia). Sara la Kali was adopted by most Gypsy tribes as their saint, and once a year, they flock from all over Europe to pay homage.
And yes, I partook in this incredible spiritual pilgrimage, where Roma sang to her in the cathedral shrine, followed by Roma on horseback carrying the beloved statue through the streets and into the sea, where her arrival is re-enacted.
4. How did you manage to create such an astonishing, living, breathing character as the stallion, Rus? Is this based upon a beloved horse in your own life?
I have always been a lover of animals, all animals. The horse is special in so far as it is the only creature with whom we can interact by pure instinct. This is especially the case for the art of dressage, where in order to carry out intricate movements with grace, you have to truly interact by feel. As you sit on the horse, the horse reads the tension and the intention of your body, and you can feel the horse’s intent.
5. Does the nomadic and forest dwelling life of the Roma still exist in parts of the world today or is this, sadly, a vanished culture?
I don’t know about South America or the Middle East, but in Europe, sadly, nomadic Gypsy life has been extinguished. Roma are and have been driven into abject, hopeless poverty. The few that escape and become successful in our culture, you rarely hear about. The poor and starving, forced to steal for survival reinforce the prejudice against, as those who actually know them, a peace loving people. It is also true, that like within any group of people, they do have their delinquents, their so to say bad apples.
6. What are the special challenges facing city Roma as they attempt both to adjust to secular society and still retain the values and beliefs of their traditional culture?
In the States they have integrated, while maintaining their own culture, like many other minorities. Also they really don’t come across any major problems or persecution, except the usual prejudice, that they steal. And here I can testify on their behalf, having lived a very nomadic life all over the world, Gypsies are no more prone to stealing than anybody else who is hungry and in need. Living with Gypsies in the Balkans, I never had to worry about my belongings. In fact, they protected me from being robbed when I ventured beyond their villages. In Europe they have to be given basic human rights, protection, work, health care, access to education.
As to their culture, Roma are very tribal and divided, like Europe. When they left India over a thousand years ago, they originated from different tribes. They have maintained many of those differences.
7. To what extent do you think the Roma offer a critique and counterbalance to our Western ‘civilization’? What values have we lost which the Roma still retain.
Roma left India during the threat of a Muslim invasion. Rather than join in the killings, they opted for escape and, only in diaspora, did members of different selected tribes become the Roma. Gypsy was a misnomer, because Europe believed they originated from Egypt. They are fundamental believers in the love of peace and respect for all life, including animals. Nomadic Gypsies ate primarily small animals, respecting the life of the bigger ones. They brought along lots of beliefs from India, except instead of the cow, to the Gypsies the horse is sacred – the eating of horsemeat being considered a major crime.
Instead of war, Gypsies invariable chose conflict avoidance, i.e. peace. At present in Europe their traditional conflict avoidance response works against them. They have to set aside tribal separations, unite and stand up for their rights and fight injustices committed against them. Right now, in a time of economic downturn in Europe, their renewed persecution is reminiscent of the beginnings of the holocaust, with the press, once again, remaining largely silent.
8. The conclusion of the novel seems to vindicate the mysterious prophecy regarding Dosha, as the ‘chosen one, ‘ who will lead her people to freedom. This seems to imply an unseen Providence guiding her from the start. To what extent was this your intention in writing this deeply moving historical saga?
That prophecy, like so many in life, will prove elusive. The Roma are a hopeful people. They were beloved in Russia, until Khrushchev. They could not foresee the hatred and the reality they would encounter in Europe. The sequel will be one where Dosha, once again in disguise, through circumstances that were held from her, will find herself in Europe’s upper class as well as the International Jet set with its colorful array of celebrities. It is that tumultuous and frivolous time in Europe, especially in Geneva, Switzerland with its added dangerous mix of political enemies walking side by side, the reader will experience. And all of it seen through the eyes of this Gypsy girl, who in turn will be viewed by a highly intelligent but schizophrenic American socialite, who befriends her.
In the end Dosha, although being offered great opportunities and the possibility of great wealth, will seek her way back to her own culture and a country far away from Gypsy tragedies. In that aspect she will show the way for Roma to survive.
About Sonia Meyer:
Sonia Meyer fled the Nazis with her parents when she was 2 years old to live in the woods of Germany and Poland with partisans and Gypsies. There her father taught her to throw hand grenades using a wooden darning egg. They lived in the woods, in abandoned houses, in fields, in isolated excursion inns and barns, always dodging the German and later Soviet armies who hunted them relentlessly. Shortly after the war Sonia and her family returned to Cologne Germany where she foraged for food with a band of Gypsy children camped nearby.
Later Sonia was welcomed into a Gypsy encampment in southern France, when she broke the ice by quietly whispering a few words in Romani to horses grazing nearby. She lives in Vermont where she raised horses before retiring to write Dosha. Sonia is currently working on a sequel to Dosha.
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