Steampunk Gypsies: Rromani Character Creation – Papusza
Greetings! Here, as promised, is another careful look at how to respectfully draw on aspects of Rromani culture and history in order to construct a Steampunk character. Again, I’ve used the word Gypsy in the title here because many people mistake the word Rromani for Romanian but most Rromani people find the term Gypsy offensive so it really is better not to use it. As several people have asked me for more details about this I will do another post soon explaining in detail where the various spellings of Rromani come from, which to use, the history of the word ‘Gypsy’ and why it is offensive.
But for now, let’s look at our next character…
Papusza means ‘dolly’ in the Rromani way of speaking and was the nick name given to real life Rromani poet Bronislawa Wajs by her mother. She was called ‘dolly’ because of her beauty but the word is a double edged sword – a ‘dolly’ is a pretty, powerless play thing, manipulated as suits the one who plays with it and then dropped when that player becomes distracted or bored.
Bronislawa’s poems about the difficulties faced by Rromani people on the road were used against the Rromani community by various government regimes as an excuse for the execution, sterilisation or forced settlement of Rromani people (not into decent housing and mainstream society, which most would have desired) but onto filthy containment camp sites where their strict religious codes of cleanliness and ritual (Rromanipen) could not be observed. The problems of illness, poverty, persecution and social segregation which Papusza wrote about were obviously not solved by this move and the Rromani community blamed her for the trouble she had caused them by trusting her words to the hands of non-Rromani people.
A lot of lies can be found about her on the internet – for example, that she was cast out by her people for being a poet, that women are not allowed to be poets in Rromani society, she was not allowed to read and write because Rromani people believe these things are evil, that she agreed with the forced settlement regime and that the Rromani family she travelled with were lawless nomads.
A film has been made about her life but I haven’t seen it personally and so I’m not sure how authentic and accurate it may be…
The sad truth is that most of her work is now out of print, recordings are like gold dust and versions that do exist have sometimes been altered slightly / interpreted differently “Dikchaw daj, dikchaw doj…” I look here, I look there, I cannot find my Papusza…
So I found myself wanting to pay tribute to her in my own small way, by basing a steampunk character around her real life self. But I know I’m on very dangerous ground here – what I absolutely don’t want to do is add to the false mythology that has grown up around her and now prevents people with a genuine interest from discovering the whole truth. I must remain respectful to the truth and evidence of who she was, as well as to her family and clan, her friends and everyone who may be affected by my actions in characterising her.
So, instead of trying to take Bronislawa (as little as I can ever know of her) and plonk her clumsily into my steampunk world, I’m going to build an entirely new character who suffers the same problem of being exploited because she happens to have a particular talent.
And I’m going to call her Dolly Cauldari…
Dorothy Cauldari (Dolly) is a Sho’vani character. The Sho’vani are a technologically advanced, displaced diaspora of the Jentacular Landmass. Their rebellion against Wiz and his evil army of Wizards went horribly wrong when the automaton army they had created rebelled against them and the twelve tribes, led by twelve princesses, fled across the sea to the scattered Isles Of Ire where they have been outrageously persecuted ever since.
(Colonialism is an important and troubling part of our world history but so is the historical and current treatment of refugees and immigrants and I wanted to reflect this part of Rromani history in the history of the Sho’vani.)
As the Jentacular Isle is believed by most to be purely mythical (Collin and Max can personally vouch for the fact that it is not!) the government has decreed that the Sho’vani must have come from Bohemia. They first arrived in Ire during the reign of Henry The Eighth and the mechanical wonders they brought with them caused them to be instantly branded as witches (an offence in Ire that is still punishable by death.)
It wasn’t until Elizabeth The First came to the throne that this persecution eased up a little and a deal was struck – if the Sho’vani would abandon their nomadic lifestyle (ie – hiding in woods and running from the witch hunters) and share their technological knowledge with the queen’s wizards they would be allowed to live peacefully in squalid little hovels just like any other peasant. Many agreed and became known as Tinkers, others did not.
When Ann became queen she tried to strike another deal with the travelling clans – if they would agree to transport the queen’s tea safely from her plantations to the elite county of Devon in their mechanised vans and prevent it falling into the hands of land pirates, all accusations of witchcraft would be dropped.
Dorothy Cauldari’s family were among the many Sho’vani clans who ‘agreed’ to this arrangement and so by the time Dolly was born, they had been transporting the queen’s tea from the plantations of Crumbria to the elite closed county of Devon for many generations. They moved from one government designated or safe known stopping place to the next, using their skills in technology to make life on the road that bit easier and their skills with spoon-playing and spoon-duelling to entertain themselves and break the monotony of the constant circular journeying. It was not the idyllic, nomadic lifestyle that poets like Christina Biscotti like to fantasise about, but neither was it as bad as the lives of the plantation workers, treacle miners or inner city factory workers.
Unfortunately, when Dorothy was about ten years old, the ideological militant sect know as The Pre-Cognitive Sisterhood (A group of women who violently enforce their beliefs that the world would be better off if The Cog had never been invented) attacked their convoy one night, destroyed the vans, burned the tea and murdered almost the entire clan.
Dorothy managed to escape and eventually made her way on foot to Lancaster where she soon made a home for herself, along with hundreds of other street urchins, high up amongst the new Skyway Rail system that criss-crosses the entire city, carrying the wealthy elite in safety away from the stench and commotion of the over-crowded and poverty-stricken streets below.
Here she quickly earned respect and notoriety in the illegal spoon-duelling rings that are run out of the basements of the many Tiffin Dens and Flop Houses that pepper the overcrowded docklands on the banks of the river Lune.
The urchins who live amongst the Skyway Rails are vulnerable to many predators. After her first few nights of clinging to the enormous metal girders, trying to wrap her skirts and shawl in such a way that would reduce the risk of falling should the wind blow too hard or her fingers become too frozen to grip on, Dorothy received a visitor. A kind and sympathetic woman who brought with her bottles of sweet, fizzy, sugar laden Lemonade.
Night after night the woman came, bring these little bottles of sweet, sweet hope, until Dorothy and the other orphans found their days melting into grey insignificance as they waited for their next sugar-fix.
Then one day when the woman came she was very sad, her money had run out and she couldn’t bring this free Lemonade any more. But she had a good idea! If the orphans could each sell two bottles of this illegal beverage and bring her the money, she could then buy them one bottle each. It seemed fair enough at the start. But the amount of bottles she expected them to sell in return for one bottle for themselves kept rising and when Dorothy decided that she had had enough of this game, the woman turned very nasty indeed and made it clear that opting out was not an option.
Dorothy was trapped and so she turned to the only resource she had left for comfort – her spoons. Dorothy had played the spoons since before she could walk and she often drummed out little rhythms on the Skyway Rails to pass the time. But now she threw herself into the art with a violent passion – drumming out her anger and frustration at the injustice and futility of the plight of all these children being secretly enslaved to the Lemonade Dealers. There were words too, but she never let those slip out.
People stopped to listen, although they couldn’t see the percussionist high above them, and then one day a curious theatre owner braved the climb and discovered twelve year old Dorothy. He persuaded her to come down, though she was careful to pay for her own coffee and oatcakes, and it wasn’t long before his ‘Little Dolly’ was making headlines at The Garish Theatre with her incredible displays of cutlery-based- percussion-craft.
As Dolly’s fame began to increase, she saw the opportunity to introduce lyrics to these displays and finally expose the true and dreadful story of the exploitation of Lancaster’s homeless children. Hearts broke, tears flowed, rallies were held and the government of Ire was backed into a corner – what was going to be done about this?
There’s always a man with a plan isn’t there? Some bright Whitehall spark quickly saw that what these children needed was shelter, food, clothing, soap and the prospect of a life long career. Fortuitously, Her Majesty’s treacle mines and tea plantations were struggling due to the fact that the adults ’employed’ there were often too large to perform all the terrible tasks that needed to be done.
Dolly Cauldari’s name has now become a curse on the lips of every street orphan who lives in fear that tonight may be the night when Her Majesty’s ‘Good Folk’ will arrive in their wagons and spirit them away to a ‘better life’ in the treacle mines or tea plantations. Many Sho’vani people have also loudly expressed their condemnation of her actions – claiming that she should have known better than to trust the secrets of her fellow poor people into the hands of the hated rich, who will always see something that they can get out of the exploitation and powerlessness of the poor.
Ignoring her critics, however, Dolly has continued to attempt to use her fame, wealth and influence to improve the lives of the street children of Ire. She channels all her earnings into campaigning against the ill treatment of children in the mines and plantations and exposing the corrupt empires of the Lemonade Barons, many of which she claims are members of the aristocracy.
Costume For Dolly Cauldari
Despite her fame, Dolly spends very little of her earnings on herself. Her clothing is largely home made and she places great importance on certain religious and sentimental items. She always dresses in red – the feminine, protective colour of her people. Her shawl once belonged to her grandmother and, along with her handkerchief-bag, in which she keeps her heirloom amber bracelet and silver snake hair-charm and spoons, it is the only thing she has left of her original family life. She is a traditionalist and always wears a red dikhlo (head scarf) and still braids her hair in a crown braid. The locket and mulengi dori (ribbon of the wind people) she always wears in memory of her parents.
So, there you are! As with the character of Amelia Manylentils , I have tried to draw respectfully on aspects of Rromani culture and history to create a character that is more realistic, respectful and removed from the Fantasy Creature we know from fiction and art as ‘The Gypsy.’ Again, I really hope this is helpful to anyone interested in writing Rromani characters into their Steampunk worlds or cos-playing a Steampunk Rromani character and if you have any questions feel free to leave them in the comments section.
Big Blessings, Penny 🙂