Driving past Las Tres Mil Viviendas, the notorious gypsy neighborhood on the southern end of Seville, is a daily constant for me. I’ve often wondered what life is like for the squatters who make their home there, where rumored jaleos stretch long in to the night. I’ve seen stray animals wandering around the stark grounds, nibbling on discarded garbage, from my car’s passenger side. Sevillanos consider it to be the most dangerous neighborhood in the city – so much, in fact, that policemen are said to not go there.
Gypsy culture is both revered and shunned, creating an interesting but sobering relationship between them and payos, Spaniards. Spain’s most celebrated artistis – from Camarón to Lorca to Falla – have gitano origins or influence, yet rejection, intolerance and marginalization continue to exist.
I recently read Susan Nadathur‘s debut book, City of Sorrows, about the difficult relationship between ethnic Gypsies, Spaniards and even outsiders. The fictional novel is a heartbreaking look at the misconceptions that exist in mainstream society, as well a message about overcoming tragedy in both cultures. Susan researched the book while living with a family in Las Tres Mil Viviendas, providing a powerful basis from which to understand Gypsy life.
Intrigued by what I’d read, I asked Susan a few questions about her research and experience living with a gitano family. This is the first part of our interview:
Your novel challenges the idea that Gypsies are all fortune tellers, thugs and thieves. What should mainstream society know about Spanish Gypsy culture?
Mainstream society – both in Europe and the United States – has been at odds with the Gypsies since their migration from India in the 15th century. The Gypsies have lived most of their history accused of being different, non-conformists, and problematic. They have been marginalized, stereotyped, persecuted, glorified, and under-appreciated. But, no group can be lumped into one neat package. Yes, many Gypsies are fortune tellers, con artists, and thieves. If you are a tourist in Spain, you will certainly run into Gypsy women working the streets surrounding the cathedrals, offering a sprig of rosemary in exchange for a generic palm reading.
You may find others begging in front of the cathedral door. But you will also see many other hardworking Gypsy merchants at local outdoor markets. In Seville, they are at El Charco de la Pava on Saturdays, selling everything from shoes, boots and women’s stockings to children’s clothing and luggage. These merchants are serious vendors, with permits and taxable income. They are not thieves but hardworking groups of families who are out on the streets every day, rain or shine, in the bitter cold and the oppressive heat of summer, selling the merchandise that will feed their families. If we only see the negative of a group of people, we see only half the picture.
You’ve often said that your childhood being bullied has contributed to your empathy toward Gypsies? Can you draw any comparisons to their plight with the bullying you felt as a child?
I sincerely believe that if I had not been bullied and ridiculed as a child, I would not have developed the empathy that gives me the deep awareness of the suffering of marginalized groups like the Gypsies. In any society, there is the mainstream and those who live outside of it. I grew up in New England, which has historically been harsh on people who don’t fit it—on those who are “different.” In my case, being different meant looking different than my peers. I wore thrift shop clothes in schools where plenty of kids had plenty of money to buy new ones. I was the only one in my elementary school classroom to wear glasses—and the kids let me know how ugly those glasses looked on me. I was the classic school-yard victim, bullied because I looked and acted differently.
Because of where I come from, because of having endured acute feelings of intolerance and isolation, I can identify with the Gypsies—who are not necessarily bullied, but are certainly marginalized and misunderstood. Nobody wants to get too close to people they don’t understand. It’s easier, and safer, to make fun of, slander, or simply stay away from people who make us uncomfortable. My peers were uncomfortable with me because I looked different from them, acted differently from them (I was a loner who enjoyed reading and favored solitude in the village cemetery over jeering in the school courtyard). Many of my friends are Spaniards, who have all expressed very strong opinions about “not wanting to get too close to the Gypsies.” While I understand that some of their fears are justified, I wish they could just try to understand that beneath the surface of these enigmatic people lays the same common, human experience.
What gave you the idea to write City of Sorrows?
The seeds for City of Sorrows were sown long before it grew into the complex novel it is today. When you take a shy young girl and make her feel like a lesser human being—for whatever reason—a story is formed. When that shy girl takes refuge in books, a reader is made. And when that reader turns to journaling, a writer is born.
If as a child I had not been bullied, picked on, and humiliated, I would not have developed the keen sense of empathy I have for people who are marginalized. Without that compassion, I would not have been profoundly affected by a racist remark targeted at my Indian friend (now husband of 27 years) when we lived in Seville. “Gypsies and Moors are not served here,” a surly waiter said to my friend while refusing to serve us a cup of coffee. My friend was neither a Gypsy nor a Moor, but because he came from India, was dark skinned and looked like a Gypsy—that was enough to label him “outcast.” That one statement, spat out decades ago in a bar in Seville, became the catalyst for this story of love and loss in the vibrant world of Gypsy Spain—a world I would never have penetrated if I had not felt the sting of isolation, humiliation, and rejection that gave me the unique, unspoken connection to this group of persecuted people.
Interested in winning your own copy? Susan is an avid follower of Sunshine and Siestas and has offered one copy, either digital or paperback, to another reader of this blog. We’re interested in knowing how you feel about Gypsy culture, regardless of whether or not you’ve lived in Spain.
The winner will be randomly chosen from the entries on November 22nd, in honor of the Spanish celebration of El Día de los Gitanos Andaluces. Susan is offering City of Sorrows at a promotional price of $9.59 for the print book and $4.19 for the Kindle book, throughout the month of November. You can purchase on Amazon or via Susan’s author website. You’ll learn that it goes beyond flamenco and jaleo – Gypsy culture is passion, devotion, tradition.