American Gypsy: A Memoir
(FSG Originals, 2012)
In her memoir American Gypsy, Oksana Marafioti diagnoses herself with “split nationality disorder” in reference to the internal split she feels when choosing between her Romani identity on her father’s side and her Armenian identity on her mother’s. Yet the term also aptly describes the bulk of Marafioti’s narrative as she chronicles her first few post-immigration years in the United States.
Marafioti’s story begins on the eve of her family’s emigration from Russia when she was 15 years old and continues through her high school graduation in Los Angeles. Interspersed throughout the chronologically recounted episodes are stories from life back in the Soviet Union spent, generally, among her grandfather’s traveling troupe of Gypsy performers. The details of life in the U.S.S.R. are told almost incidentally as events in the U.S. trigger memories or demand further context.
Marafioti faces the daunting challenge of conveying the realities of Soviet and immigrant life in the scope of a memoir. She relies on the specific and local to illustrate a lifestyle and a culture. Unfortunately, she doesn’t use her anecdotes to their full potential. The mention of a hotel manager’s “Brezhnev-like eyebrows,” for example, can be understood by American readers, but the attendant awareness of the nationwide mockery of the premier’s eyebrows would be missed.
The challenge of describing her past life is further compounded by the fact that she must work against preconceived notions about both the Russian and Romani character, first and foremost by distinguishing the two. Marafioti does this most effectively by chronicling the regular discrimination she encountered as a Romani—a term she uses interchangeably with “Gypsy”—at the hands of Russians. In elementary school, she is accused of stealing the boys from the Russian girls, who then mob and chase her all the way to her house before her mother saves her. Her perceptive childhood admirer says, “You notice how it’s never just ‘Gypsy’? It’s always ‘dirty’ or ‘rotten’ or ‘stupid.’” Although Russian Roma are more settled than their European counterparts, the Soviet system of identifying people by nationality made the practice of treating the Soviet Others—Chukchi, Jews, Ukrainians, to name a few—even easier.
Transcription of her parents’ English is dangerous as it conjures movie villains and other simplistic generalizations about Russians. “Russian peoples only like factory and tractor,” her father explains to the woman working at the American embassy, taking a small act of revenge on those who had sometimes beaten him and, at the very least, looked down on him his whole life. Nonetheless, these pieces of dialogue also offer a source of humor: when her mother asks her what “fat-free butter” means, the confused Marafioti explains, “It means it has way too much fat. Fat has complete freedom. It has taken over this butter.”
But more importantly, these conversational snippets are reminders of the extraordinary disorientation that the loss of language entails for adult immigrants. Having accompanied her daughter to her audition for a magnet school, Marafioti’s mother—who in the Soviet Union was the Gypsy troupe’s manager, the person who deftly greased the right officials’ hands—pleads, “Program for talent, yes? Say so on your paper. She talent. Like her mama.” Marafioti wonders, “Where was the mother who could talk a king out of his crown?”
Marafioti’s phonetic transcription of choice Russian phrases, usually expletives and generally accompanied by translations, is more confusing. Arguably, it serves the purpose of engendering the same feeling of estrangement in the reader as the writer’s parents endured in the early years of their immigration. But for the English-speaking reader, they do not add much to the mood and seem to serve the unnecessary task of bolstering the text’s and the author’s legitimacy. Is it necessary, for example, to have her dad yell, “Kakova huya ona poekhala tuda,” which translates to “Why the fuck did she go there?”
All of this is to say that Marafioti’s ideal audience would be Soviet-American immigrants around her age. Otherwise, the memoir must be carried by the quality of her writing, and unfortunately, it isn’t particularly impressive. The ending of many chapters read like soap opera cliffhangers: “Had our family really traveled all this way just to lose one another?” she asks at one point. And later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, “there was no going back, because the country we knew…was no longer. The sole option was to make a new home.”
Furthermore, there is little that distinguishes this memoir from the standard immigration story. Of course, Marafioti’s Romani ethnicity gives readers insight into the community’s internal caste structure, the prejudice it faced in the U.S.S.R. (and to a smaller extent, in the U.S.), as well as its mystical aspects. One of the text’s main tasks seems to be painting a more accurate picture of Romani culture; Marafioti frowns upon what she refers to as the “famous Hollywood makeover.” And yet she trades on that very allure in her title.
Still, the narrative is littered with transparent tropes: the evil stepmother, the child searching for her father’s approval, the star-crossed lovers—Marafioti and Cruz, a boy in her E.S.L. class, who love in spite of her Old World parents’ attempts to marry her to a nice Romani boy. This last storyline, however, is a focal point of the book and one of the most effective plot turns, which is not surprising since this is the memoir of a teenage girl. It is Cruz who helps her realize the importance of her heritage and its exoticism. And in recognizing the value of her ethnicity, Marafioti is able to see—and accept—America’s gift to her. “In Hollywood High,” Marafioti writes, “diversity was a requirement for ultimate coolness.” This is the key to assimilation: in some ways, there is nothing more American than chronicling all the ways in which her family was not American at all.