Bury Me Standing, by Isabel Fonseca
If you are interested in the Rom, popularly known as Gypsies, then you will enjoy the GeoCities site devoted to them, The Patrin. It offers almost everything you could ask for in a site, even an open guestbook where you can find others who share your interests.
However, I was disappointed that the site manager chose to annotate the reference to Isabel Fonseca's Bury Me Standing with Leslie Gross' Gryphon review. The review is pretty weak, not so much because it is essentially negative, but because its criticisms of the book give you a distorted view of its content. Gross clearly had a bone to pick; Fonseca is accused of patronizing real Rom scholars like Ian Hancock, and at one point Gross, titting for tat, refers to Bury Me Standing as a 'pop book.' Ouch.
The review begins by 'analyzing' the factual content of the book. The analysis consists of complaining that Fonseca is not a qualified professional (historian, anthropologist, etc.), an 'expert on Gypsy language or culture.' One is tempted to reply, "And...?" Fonseca makes it clear from the beginning that she is a journalist writing a personal book, and it becomes clear as the book moves forward that she has supplemented personal experience with a wide reading of solid sources.
Gross then goes on to object to Fonseca's use of that scholarship with a bizarre statement:
"My own reading on the subject, admittedly from an interest kindled by Ms. Fonseca's book, tells me that scholarship over the last two centuries has "conclusively" (a relative word when discussing history) demonstrated that Gypsies are indeed from India...."
What are we getting here? Gross read the books Fonseca recommended and interpreted them differently. How? By 'discovering' that contrary to Fonseca's indefiniteness, it has 'conclusively' been proven that the Gypsies came from India. "Conclusively" in some 'relative' sense. What? The biggest difference between Gross' view and Fonseca's, it seems to me, is that Fonseca's is coherent.
Fonseca refers to documents she discovered about an aspect of Romanian history, the enslavement of Rom, and Gross must tell us that 'the discovery of
slavery was not made by her, neither was Bury Me Standing the first book to be published on the topic,' as if Fonseca had made such claims.
Gross characterizes Fonseca's negative judgments in the book as 'prejudice,' with the kind of self-righteous logical leap one associates with academics and glib liberals (both of which, to my shame, I have been). After enduring days of 'breast-pinching,' Fonseca kicks a Gypsy woman to get her to stop it. How culturally un-diverse! Fonseca claims to have found Gypsies who were violent, prejudiced against gadje (non-Gypsies), and untrustworthy. This is like accusing someone of racism because they observe that some blacks belong to gangs and as a group they have high incidences of illegitimacy, murder, and alcoholism. Are we going to pretend they don't? Seeing this raised as a criticism of her 'objectivity', I am reminded of the Eastern seaboard twits of our nineteenth century, who thought the Indians were noble savages, and our own current twits, who expect our Indian neighbors to be peaceful environmentalists rather than Coors-drinking, high-rider-driving right-wing vets and elderly ladies with turtleshell glasses and pictures of the Kennedy boys on their walls. Grow up, Gross.
Gross takes Fonseca to task for confirming stereotypes like 'the lazy Gypsy male,' and summons the Gryphon reader's 'anti-prejudices' to bolster that argument, trying to make it sound as if Fonseca is ever so slightly racist, just a tiny bit, about 'African Americans.' Gross makes the situation pretty clear later by referring to 'our African American brothers' (and sisters, Leslie?); the yardstick here is the goodthinkfulness of the politically correct.
What actually happens in Fonseca's book is she makes it clear that 'lazy' is a culturally relative term, and that Gypsy men are 'lazy' in the sense that American housewives don't 'work.' Gross seems to feel that Fonseca is not allowed to make negative observations about Gypsies, much less blacks. One wonders why the review offers no complaints regarding Fonseca's negative judgments about Poles, Romanians, and Jews?
I found myself wondering as I finished the review, How could I have missed all this stuff in Fonseca? Ridicule aimed at American Gypsy scholar Ian Hancock? The ridicule consists of disagreeing with him. And saying some of his research conclusions are 'not much endorsed' ('By whom?' Gross interjects. By the other scholars Fonseca read, one retorts). My problem with the Gross review is not that it is a less than wholehearted endorsement of a book I love, but that it is a trivial exercise in liberal polemic, full of cheap shots and righteousness.
For a solid and similarly negative discussion of Bury Me Standing, see Scott Malcolmson's review in The New Republic, May 27, 1996.
Gross' review for reference.