“I remember somebody saying in a writing workshop, ‘You shouldn’t write about a culture you don’t know,’ and I was so depressed. I wanted to write as a way to discover. It felt like the world had closed down if you could only write what you knew. I thought, ‘Maybe they’re right. Maybe I have no right to imagine what the Russian woman is thinking or feeling. What if I get it wrong?’ But I decided to take the plunge. I decided, ‘I’ll just do my research and interview anyone who will talk to me.’ And no one has ever come up to me and said, ‘You got it wrong.’”

–Interview with Karen McCowan in the Register Guard 

Gina Ochsner, Writer in Residence, travels to Romania, Serbia, Moldova, and Bulgaria researching for next novel

“They made me dance,” Gina Ochsner groans, as she describes celebrating Saint George’s Day with several Roma families during her most recent trip to Bulgaria. Corban University’s Writer in Residence, Gina has spent the last nine years researching Roma culture in Bulgaria, Moldova, Romania, and Serbia in preparation for her next novel. But much of her research has actually been focused on building relationships and experiencing life with the Roma people. “They made me dance the hora,” she says again, laughing. “I was so bummed because the photographer got out of it. He got to just take pictures.” Because of the photographer, “there’s a record of it somewhere, which I hope will be lost forever.” But while she hopes her own dance moves will be lost, Gina is passionate about remembering and sharing the lives, stories, and culture of the Roma people.

The day Gina Ochsner became interested in the Roma, she was sitting in a café in Riga with a well-known Latvian poet. She’d seen quite a few Roma people during her time in the capital city of Latvia. “There were Roma in Riga, outside of Riga, and I thought, wow, who are these people?” As she was sitting with her poet friend, a Roma man in a worn tracksuit came into the café. The poet, rather than ignore the stranger or move politely out of the way, deliberately turned his shoulder to him.

When Gina asked about the encounter and observed how many Roma people she’d seen in Riga, the poet replied gruffly, “There are no Roma in Latvia.”

“That’s a very interesting approach to take,” Gina thought. She became curious. Who were the Roma people, and why did a well-educated, intelligent Latvian man seem to deny their existence? “Is it like this elsewhere, in other parts of Europe?” Gina wondered. “What is the reputation of Roma? How do they think of themselves? How do others, outsiders, consider them? Are they well-accepted, well-integrated?”

Thus began her quest, her pursuit for learning anything and everything she could about Roma culture and communities. She was particularly interested in “folklore, old traditional tales and stories, anything about their culture that distinguishes them as unique and distinct, but also might be in danger of being lost.” The more she researched, the more she realized the Roma people weren’t writing much about themselves. “Very few people are keeping memoirs, writing letters.” Rather than being written down, stories, songs, and family histories were transmitted orally. But, as is often the case, the younger generations didn’t always listen, and the older generations sometimes forgot.

Gina began to network, sending out emails to researchers at universities, missions agencies, and humanitarian organizations—anyone who was studying or interacting with Roma people. “The people who replied, unfailingly, were involved in Christian ministry.” Whether her contacts were Roma themselves or “outsiders” like her, they welcomed her into their work because “we shared the same banner of faith.” Not because she was an acclaimed author of short stories and novels, not because she was a researcher interested in Roma culture, but because she was a sister in Christ, she found a series of open doors to Eastern Europe.

While her research methods were not always as structured as that of anthropologists and ethnologists, they may have been more effective in learning about people who, for centuries, have been wary of outsiders. “So much of what I do, first, is building relationships, building friendships,” she says. She emphasizes the amount of distrust Roma people hold toward those outside their own community, “because so much of their trouble is at the hands of the outsiders.”

Gina Ochsner builds relationships with the Roma people of Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and Moldova

But the more time she spent with the Ursari in Moldova, the Arlia and Tamari in Serbia, and the Deskne and Kalaidje in Bulgaria, the more she was invited into the lives of the Roma people. Most recently, she’s been spending time with the Kalaidje, the people who demanded she dance at the Saint George’s Day celebration.

Saint George’s Day is celebrated by many different Catholic and Orthodox traditions. In the Bulgarian Orthodox tradition, a lamb is killed, Gina explains, and the blood is dabbed on each person’s forehead. Traditions like this highlighted for Gina the tension that sometimes arises between evangelical Christianity and traditional Orthodox beliefs. While killing a lamb on Saint George’s day is heavily reminiscent of Old Testament traditions, it may also trace back to Slavic pagan rituals. Gina remembers her host, an evangelical Christian serving with YWAM, saying to her, “Idolatry! Idolatry!” after one woman tried to dab some of the lamb’s blood on his forehead.

“So there are these traditions that are long-held and loved,” Gina reflects. “I’m really curious about the interplay between evangelical Christianity and the older traditional beliefs. Do some of them meld and merge, do some have to be tossed out because they just don’t fit with Christian ideology?” Many of the Roma people she’s interacted with are evangelical Christians, and as a result, their older Roma customs and traditions are in transition. She observes that evangelical Christianity has acted as a “shaper, a way of reinterpreting their culture.” While some researchers have become worried about this phenomenon, seeing Christianity as the force that’s wiping out unique aspects of Roma culture, many Roma see the changes as redemptive. They no longer feel the need for the “old lady who knows how to read the tarot cards, or who can cast spells”—they have the Holy Spirit.

But evangelical Christianity is not the only force shaping Roma culture. They are keenly aware of the interplay between new technology and ancient custom, and the way technology shapes their lives. “I hate Facebook,” Gina remembers one middle-aged man complaining. His daughter was 14 at the time, and like most parents, he was aware that boys and girls were attempting to use Facebook, Skype, and other social media to make their own romantic arrangements outside of the traditional familial oversight. But when Gina asked him whether or not he used Facebook himself, he replied, “Of course I use it. I have to watch what the kids are doing.”

“They see that technology is changing how some of these transitions are being maintained,” Gina reflects. She’s particularly struck by the flexibility and adaptability of the people she’s met. “It’s how they’ve survived all these centuries. They’re keen observers of human behavior, economic changes, technology trends, and they learn to navigate them very quickly. They may not have college degrees, but they are excellent, astute observers of the world around them.”

And so, one could argue, is Gina. After years of building relationships, observing, and listening, she’s nearly ready to plunge into her novel. In fact, she’s already gotten one chapter written. “I started writing about a Roma used-car sales family living in Portland. That’s as far as I got. Chapter 1.” She envisions telling a story that interweaves Roma in the Pacific Northwest and Roma from the 1910s through 1945 in Serbia or Bulgaria, “with that central hinge-point being World War II—I think.” She pauses, then reiterates, as if the course of the story could shift or adapt at a moment’s notice, “I think.”

Visit Gina Ochsner’s website to read more about her work: http://www.ginaochsner.com/