Tuesday, July 08, 2008

What's in a name?

Written and first published in 2006, Svetkavista was my first novel-lengthed work. It was a book I never expected to write, about a people I never thought I'd explore, but there's a great deal of me in the book nevertheless.

Svetkavista is about a band of Rom, or gypsies, in Hungary in the 1800s, during a time when they were severely persecuted as a people, and horribly misunderstood.

She was Romani, a gypsy, like her mother, and her mother’s mother before her. Her family wandered the land, living outside of society, on the fringe. Some called them vagabonds and vagrants, others called them thieves and heathens, but they were none of these things. They simply…were. Their way of life was misunderstood, their values misconstrued. The nomadic people were viewed with distrust and distain all across Eastern Europe, and lately the movement to convert or enslave them had increased in popularity.

As I began to research for the book, I decided I did not want to portray the Rom in the same stereotypical way most romance novels do; I wanted an honest and realistic depiction of the culture, which was not an easy feat given the secretive nature of the Romany people. Their notions of clean and unclean, or marhime, are a major focus in the book, as the characters face punishments based upon the maintenance of a strict moral code, and the stigma of deep-rooted superstitions.

Much to her family’s dismay, Karina was čhaj, unmarried, despite her age. Her younger sisters had married at twelve and thirteen, and her brother took a wife at fifteen. She was now twenty-three, and still under her parents’ care. None of the young Argintari men of her tribe had ever expressed an interest in her hand, and her father had not, to her knowledge, done much in the way of finding her a husband either. Her family blamed her misfortune on prikàza, a form of karmic backlash. Cosmic bad luck.

Women were inherently marhime, unclean by their very make-up. A man could be declared marhime for a variety of reasons, and once branded as such, no other men were permitted to speak with him. Sex was never ever discussed. To yawn in public was a dirty and offensive act, because it implicated one was thinking about being in bed, where sex occurred.

What would a young woman living in this insular culture feel? How far would she go to explore her innermost desires? As such the book is deeply erotic in nature, a blending of cultural mores and basic human nature. Karina has never quite fit in with her tribe, and it isn't until her best friend teaches her about love that she realizes why.

The hero of the novel, Brishen, is a violinist. I myself am a trained classical violinist, so writing his character was a real treat for me. I was able to weave my knowledge of music and the violin in particular with his character development.

It was a traditional gypsy dirge that he played, one normally accompanied by a female voice, but no one dared sing. Not when Brishen was playing. The melody began slow, the horse-tail bow drawing across the G and D strings in a leisurely glissando that transitioned into a grating, dissonant chord. He held the notes, drawing them out, tormenting his audience with the unsavory sound before sliding his ring finger up a half-step, reconciling the note with harmony once more. Karina swore she saw him smirk, but his eyes never opened; his expression never changed.

Without warning, the mournful tone disappeared as Brishen’s tempo increased. He played faster with each passing bar until all traces of the mulengi djilia had disappeared, transforming into a fast-paced cante jondo. His fingers danced across the strings, his right arm a blur as he moved the bow in frenzied, staccato strokes. Several members of the informal audience began to clap in time. A few were inspired to stand and dance.

The question I get most frequently about the book, of course, is: What the hell does the title mean? "Svetkavista" is a Romany (gypsy) word meaning "ring" or "circle." The book centers around a love triangle, and by the end many things come full circle. In that regard, the title was perfect. Though there are Romany words interspersed throughout the novel, it is most assuredly written in English.

Svetkavista is available now in both ebook and print.

(All excerpts are from Svetkavista, (c) 2006 Kayleigh M. Jamison)

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