December 1, 2015 | Rome, Italy | Partly Cloudy 9°C

King of the Gypsies

American author Lenora Myka served in the Peace Corps in Romania.
By Patricia E. Fogarty
Published: 2015-11-30

aris, November 2015: explosions crack the evening air. A haunting parallel to that recent terrorist nightmare is Lenore Myka's debut short story collection "King of the Gypsies" (BkMK Press, University of Missouri-Kansas City: 2015), whose actors confront cultural clashes and identity conflicts that are as extreme and potentially destructive as automatic weapons.

Gypsies, Americans, and ethnic Romanians twist through stories whose common fictional thread is post-Ceausescu, post-Communist Romania, where Myka served a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in a Bucharest orphanage. Transforming her experience into narrative, she chafes the living nerve of endemic poverty, racial, sexual, and child abuse, and ethnic and social tensions. For Myka, such environmental forces ineluctably mold character.

In the title story, an overturned stone bust of deposed dictator Nicolae Ceausescu lays in an orphanage playground as a boy named Dragos watches Romanian children eye him with hostility. "Gypsy," they taunt him. When his mother abandoned him here years before, she warned, "Don't listen to what people say about us." While balancing on Ceausescu's stone head, Dragos defiantly bellows that he is "the King of the Gypsies."

His is the howl of endangered survivors. European Union citizens have long regarded itinerant gypsies, or Roma, as a threat. It is an ingrained dislike most Europeans seem unwilling or unable to modify.

"King of the Gypsies" won G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction.

Myka then shifts focus to the United States, to Ohio, where the adopted Romanian son of an American woman named Ginger points to the white bandages that cover her gashed wrist.

"I did that," the child announced flatly. "Does it hurt?"

"Not really," Ginger lies.

"Robert" was nine-months-old when he arrived — "perfect," she called him then. At seven, he's been shifted from school to school after incidents of violence against other children for which he has no remorse. "He's going through a phase," Ginger insists to unbelieving social workers and her husband Ethan. "In the Bucharest orphanage infants were all tied to their cribs." Robert's dark eyes reflect a painful blend of sadness and anger over which he has no control.

Dragos, on the other hand, internalizes his mother's warning. He's irritated when the orphanage director picks him to "buddy" Irina, just because she's gypsy. At 13, she's a year older than Dragos. Her winding black braid contains gold coins that signal an arranged marriage. On the eve of the wedding her older sisters helped her "escape," but she only got as far as an alternative prison, the orphanage. She sings to herself in a language no one understands, swirls her colorful skirt, and spits at the feet of the other children. She disrupts lessons. She comes from a world in which fathers and uncles beat women who aspire to read. "It's not a woman's place," they say.

Irina is soon taken from the orphanage and forced into child prostitution ring managed by a male street gang who bill her as "virgin pussy." She appears again in later tales: first as desperate street person and finally in a Bucharest hotel brothel where the reigning pimp recognizes that brutally abused Irina conserves a stubborn inner strength.

Another story follows educated Romanian Gabriella who met her husband Joe when the two worked at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest. They move to Washington, D.C., where Gabriella is suffocated by the thin-lipped smiles of the cocktail circuit. Romanian parties instead vibrate with exuberant dancing and joyous singing. Superficial variants? Perhaps, but Myka's emotional probes are convincing — Gabiella's marriage won't survive this cold, unaccustomed world.

A few of the fictional characters are U.S. citizens, often Peace Corps workers in Romania. Sadly, they're as much documentary as fiction. These innocents abroad soon realize Romania is unthinkably "different" from America. Among them is Peace Corps worker Stella, who is desperately unprepared for the job and the strange country. She yearns for "a box of American cereal."

Dragos returns as an adult in the closing story. Following post-orphanage indenture to a farmer, he's worked to buy and till his own place. He then marries Lucy, an American bluegrass fiddler who came to Romania to study its folk songs. The couple is happy — until Lucy's parents come to visit. Suddenly, she realizes she's in a very foreign place, and misses "just everything at home!" Inured to defeat, Dragos seeks solace in the land he finally owns and the open spaces around him.

Reaching across cultures isn't much of a possibility in Myka's collection, where cultures clash blindly when they do meet. Yet something strangely beautiful remains in this author's poignant, often bleak accounts of cultural incomprehension. Her characters — a cast of endangered survivors — obstinately hold to a slender, probably illusionary, but universal dream of hope.

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Patricia E. Fogarty

A writer, critic, and translator, Fogarty lives with her family in Rome.

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