Author Oksana Marafioti's new memoir, American Gypsy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), is two success stories in one: one of an immigrant making her way in America, the other of a Gypsy.
At 15, Marafioti moved from her native Moscow to Los Angeles. In Russia, she'd endured discrimination (including taunts of “Gyp” at school). Here, she faced a language barrier, money problems and her parents' divorce.
Still, her folks were armed with that age-old immigrant goal of making a better life. And, as Marafioti writes, life in America — where you had to hide neither your heritage nor your “wealth underneath the living room floorboards” — was infinitely better.
Marafioti's lineage has as many layers as a matryoshka doll. She was born in Latvia to a Romani Gypsy father and an Armenian mother, both of whom were also half Greek. The estimated 10 million Romani in the world today trace their origins back to India, although they've been in Europe for nearly 1,000 years. Centuries of persecution include the slaughter of nearly 1 million by the Nazis.
Marafioti goes into painstaking detail describing the ways of her Armenian and Gypsy heritage, especially the superstitions: not sitting at table corners; pouring vodka shots for the dead; splashing water onto a car to ensure a smooth journey. Even the ritual of “marrying the essence with the water” while brewing tea reads like a spell. And if you've ever wondered why Gypsies wear so much gold, Marafioti attributes this to a nomadic habit of “carrying your wealth.”
Her parents were entertainers in a traveling performance troupe that had been in her father's family for generations. From the ages of 12 to 15, Marafioti (née Kopylenko) didn't attend school, instead touring the Soviet Union with her parents.
On the cusp of her 16th birthday, Marafioti's family relocated to East Hollywood. “From everything they heard about the United States, they believed they would have more opportunities to practice and develop their careers onstage,” Marafioti recalls during a phone conversation.
Instead, Marafioti's parents split up. Her mom moved from one manufactured city to another — Vegas — while dad remarried and moved to West Hollywood. Marafioti's dad fell back on the old family business to help pay the bills: He worked as a healer and exorcist, his new wife as a fortuneteller. (“I grew up with God and the Devil and every other idol in between at my doorstep,” Marafioti writes.) The business was surprisingly profitable: Her stepmom charged as much as $500 for a love spell.
“The striving for a better life begins with really good intentions,” Marafioti says. “But when people come here, they realize that road isn't as easy as they envisioned. My father was convinced he was going to make his living as a performer and musician.” But, she says, “There were millions of people in America who had the same dream.”
School for Marafioti was a haven, the place where she first embraced the word “exotic.” “In Hollywood High, diversity was a requirement for ultimate coolness; anyone too bland faded into the background, a yearbook picture the only trace of their existence,” she writes.
“When I came to L.A.,” Marafioti says, “I noticed that people's self-worth wasn't as closely tied to their bloodlines. You could be all those nationalities you belonged to. You didn't have to be ashamed. All these kids were going through the same thing. I wasn't by myself struggling to prove to someone my individuality.”
Now 37, Marafioti graduated from UNLV with a degree in film. She married a gadjo, or non-Romani — a New York Italian, to be exact — and, through a fellowship, she now works as a full-time writer.
Despite her family's line of work, Marafioti insists that her life was perfectly middle-class — a reality at odds with not only centuries-old stereotypes of Gypsies as caravan-dwelling swindlers but also the recent surge of Gypsies on TV.
A trio of reality TV shows — BBC's My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, U.S. spinoff TLC's My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding and National Geographic's American Gypsies — has turned modern Romani life into a source of amusement, focusing on teen marriages, lavish weddings and a community so uneducated and insulated it makes the Amish look like hippies.
Earlier this year, Marafioti met with a TLC producer to make her pitch. “They were looking for a typecast,” she says. Her story — that of a college-educated Gypsy woman who has worked as a cinematographer — was met with little interest.
“The sad thing is that they're narrating them, so it gives the feeling of a documentary as opposed to a regular reality show,” she says. “They say things like, 'Gypsy girls love to stay home and clean.' Any educated, logical person would find that statement absurd. They're funny and entertaining as long as you know the rest of the story.”