A Life Divided: Oksana Marafioti’s American Gypsy
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012
Reviewed by Candace Opper
“In Europe, the words ‘thief’ and ‘swindler’ are synonymous with ‘Romani,’ and the conflicts between cultures often end in violence. The roots of this animosity span centuries, and trying to make sense of them would take up an entire book on its own.”
When Oksana Marafioti was fifteen, her family emigrated from the Soviet Union to a late 1980s Los Angeles. In her debut, American Gypsy, she recollects her first few years as an American teenager, building her story from a series of east-meets-west incidents that are both hilarious and humbling. The first of many recollections describes Oksana’s virgin encounter with American cheese—a phenomenon that baffled her entire family:
“‘Are the Americans rationing food? I thought the war was over?’
‘No, man,’ Vova said. ‘It’s like this on purpose. You put it between two slices of bread and cook it on a skillet until the cheese melts.’
‘What about the plastic?’ I asked.
‘Here.’ Vova placed the cheese into my palm. ‘You pull this edge up and remove the wrapper.’
A collective ‘Oh’ went around the kitchen.
My father shook his head, still unimpressed. He turned to Mom and said, ‘See? I told you. Anybody with half a brain can become rich in America.'”
Like other personal narratives filed under “immigration memoir,” the essence of Oksana’s story is her and her family’s struggles to assimilate into American culture. The narrative is full of mistranslations and misguided dreams, the greatest of which may be her parents’ aspirations of becoming rich and famous in Los Angeles—the internationally recognized hub of American prosperity.
The element that makes Marafioti’s book more than a familiar immigrant story is its rich depiction of a widely under- and misrepresented culture. She alternates her American experiences with the story of growing up half Armenian and half Romani—more commonly known as “Gypsy”—in a near-crumbling Soviet Union. Marafioti’s family was part of a multi-generation traveling Roma performing ensemble that spent most of its time on the road. Despite some glamorous experiences, Oksana faced her first (and arguably worst) prejudices before she even reached America. This began when a classmate pinned the word “Gyp” to her back in the fifth grade, after which her school principal warned her against openly defending her ancestry.
“The principal’s admonition of my family’s unsavory behavior was quite common in the Soviet Union at the time. As the Stalinist cleansings made horribly clear, certain nationalities were considered second-rate—proof optional. Gypsies came third. We were quite new in our role as model citizens, a bit clumsy at it, and it seemed that even a few centuries of domestication couldn’t fully smother our nonconformist ways. We questioned too much, followed too little. Therefore, ‘trouble’ and ‘useless’ remained synonymous with ‘Gypsy’ in a country that tooted solidarity from every slogan.”
These stereotypes generally dissipated in the face of American culture. “On this side of the Atlantic, a Romani is given the famous Hollywood makeover,” she writes. “Suddenly Gypsy means a free-spirited hippie or a bohemian; it’s not seen as a stigma or even a race but as an exotic lifestyle choice.” Her parents made their way by fortune telling for an L.A. clientele base more than happy to pay serious money for authenticity.
The same authenticity that embarrassed a 15-year-old Oksana seeps into her narrative, which is in many ways a love letter to a culture with which she profoundly and spiritually relates. A fundamental piece of the memoir she doesn’t explicitly address is her self-imposed duty to paint a fair and thorough picture of this culture. Her immigrant experience acts as more of a structural device to support the telling of a cultural history. I would have liked her, as a memoirist, to explore her role as a storyteller—not only of her own story, but that of the widely misunderstood Romani.
The writing of American Gypsy is itself an integral piece of Oksana Marafioti’s assimilation, one that recognizes the ways in which storytelling shapes the immigrant experience. She leaves us with a half-personal/half-cultural history, migrant in nature, evidence of a life divided.