Review by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993–96)
Lenore Myka writes astonishing stories of the Romany people (Gypsies), sex-trafficking, inter-cultural relationships, adoption of Romanian children, all with the deep, often disturbing understanding that comes with living in a particular place with people who define your life for a significant period of time, as would a Peace Corps Volunteer. But this is not a Peace Corps memoir; in fact, Myka’s service in Romania is mentioned only in passing.
The narratives are mysteriously linked. In the title story, we meet a Romany child, Dragoş, an orphan who counters bullies by puffing himself up, pounding his chest and proclaiming himself “King of the Gypsies.” His search for his parents is heart-breaking, as is his brutal confrontation with a dog. In another story, “Song of Sleep,” we meet Dragoş as an adult, married to Lucy, an American musician. Their idyllic life on a farm is undermined by a visit from Lucy’s parents.
“Rol Doboş” tells of a young Romany girl, Irina, freezing on the street, who desperately demands “her American,” whom she calls Kelly Beverly Hills, to buy her jelly rolls and hot chocolate in a warm café, while the American woman, equally desperate, tries to disengage herself from the girl, who craves “Americanca mea’s” attention more than her money.
There is a sinster element in these stories. In “Wood Houses” Stefan is a teen-age boy adopted from Romania, befriended by an American boy who grows increasingly frightened of Stefan’s bizarre, violent actions. Stefan becomes weirdly hirsute, with long black hairs on his hands and ankles, develops heavy shoulders and a loping gait. A werewolf ? We are close to an imaginary Transylvania in this story.
In “National Cherry Blossom Day,” Gabriela, a Romanian woman married to Joe, becomes displaced and dysfunctional in his American home town. There are no promised cherry blossoms. She feels alienated from her husband’s colleagues and, at a party, drinks half a bottle of vodka and outrages everyone by singing and dancing “Macarena” while, from the window, she finally sees cherry blossoms.
Myka does not shy away from cruel realities, such as in “Palace Girls,” where kidnapped young prostitutes hang themselves from a chandelier, endure beatings and sexual perversions and suffer relentless humiliation and fear.
Food figures prominently. In “Real Family,” Ginger is obsessed with cooking elaborate meals for her mentally disturbed, adopted Romanian son, and her increasingly worried husband, fantasizing menus in a psychiatrist’s office. Romanian food is sprinkled liberally through the stories: homemade sausage, sarmale (stuffed cabbage), sheep cheese, salami, cherry brandy, polinka.
Myka paints images with evocative words:
. . . the laundry hung from windows, listless in the still Bucharest heat.
. . . a crocheted dome of fresh leaves bursting from the trees above them.
The moon is out now, a fingernail clipping littering the black rug of sky.
A little girl rises from her bath, “. . . water falling away from her body like thousands of tiny, silvery fish.”
Myka uses Romanian words often, without translations. I found that interesting. Anyone with an inkling of Romance languages can figure out Ţigan or orfanatul, nici-o problemă or la revedere. In “Lessons in Romanian,” where she actually defines words like a school teacher, she also captures a whole love affair in a few paragraphs. Andrei is trying to convince American Dana to marry him and take him to the U.S. She responds by asking him if he’s hungry, rolls out of bed and prepares a plate of food. “When he finally stopped trying and left for good, she didn’t cry because she wasn’t sad.”
I’m amazed at Myka’s perceptions of her characters, especially the Roma. I’ve spent decades studying, collaborating, writing about and teaching courses on the Roma. Never have I come across a writer, especially a gaji (non-Romany), who understands Romany behavior and describes their inner conflicts, as well as outer conflicts with the gaje world, as intimately and accurately as Myka.
Lenore Myka is a very talented writer, who has published fiction in the Massachusetts Review, Iowa Review,and the New England Review, has won fiction awards and is listed as notable in Best American Short Stories and Best American Nonrequired Reading. Her passionate, polished style gripped me page after page. I’ll be looking for her in The New Yorker.
Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of 55, then went to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002, and wrote a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, and of Haiti, In the Valley of Atibon. You can contact Leita at firstname.lastname@example.org).