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October 23, 2014

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Growing up Gypsy: ‘They see you as a thief and a fortune-teller’

Oksana Marafioti’s family moved to the United States from the Soviet Union when she was 15 years old, settling in LA. But Marafioti isn’t your usual immigrant; she is also Gypsy, a race of people still openly reviled and battling centuries-old stereotypes.

Marafioti’s book, American Gypsy: A Memoir, published this month, is a humorously honest story of growing up Gypsy, touring Europe with her family of performers, dealing with racism in Russia, then adapting to the U.S., where she was caught between the old world and new amid teenage angst, high school and her musician father’s psychic/exorcism business.

Marafioti, a classically trained pianist and UNLV graduate, now lives in Henderson with her husband and two kids. A BMI-Kluge Fellowship will soon have her researching spirituality and mysticism in the Soviet Union at the Library of Congress’s Kluge Center. Before that, she celebrates her book launch at the Clark County Library on July 14.

You’ve had the quintessential immigrant experience in America. How would you sum it up?When you’re an immigrant, you’re stripped of your identity. You become nothing. Everything you’ve accomplished is gone. It doesn’t matter if you had been a professor or high-ranking official. People see you as nothing.

The Details

Growing up Gypsy and Becoming American, An Afternoon With Music, Dance, Artwork and Words
July 14, 2-4:30 p.m., free
Clark County Library Theater, 1401 E. Flamingo Road, 507-3400
Beyond the Weekly
oksanamarafioti.com

How safe do you feel telling people you are Gypsy? In the past I would say Armenia, Russia, something safe, not Gypsy. In high school I was more open. Once I moved to Vegas I became very careful. I reverted back. The view of the culture has not changed from 100 years ago. You start telling those close to you and get their reaction. Now I do it as an experiment.

What happens? People ask, “How long has it been since you ran away from the clan?” or “How were you able to escape?” or “How long have you been practicing?” They see it as a chosen lifestyle and not a race. And they see you as a thief and a fortune-teller.

Even educated people? At a writers’ conference three years ago, I was sitting at a table with a woman, another writer. When I told her about my book, she leaned away a little and said, “Well, I was in Barcelona a few years back, and these dirty Gypsy kids surrounded me and started putting their hands in my pockets.” I had a similar experience with a diplomat.

That would be like me telling my Hispanic friends about the beggars in Tijuana. Most people have absolutely no qualms about insulting you to your face. It’s so dangerous to generalize more than 10 million people so easily. I still know that if I tell someone I’m Gypsy, 80 percent of the time it’s going to come back as something negative.

How does that feel? Sometimes people get angry. But I know it’s not true. As Romani, we’re used to it. We’re sort of immune. So we may brush it off. That’s responsible for the lack of change. I have family in Europe who won’t say they are Gypsy. I hope it will change something by letting people know.

Is that how the book came about? I wrote a paranormal thriller that I was pitching to my agent. Then she saw my bio, and she said, “Wait a minute, why don’t you write a memoir?”

Were you comfortable with the idea of writing something so personal? I’d always thought about writing about the family. The genre of memoir wasn’t really developed in Russia.

How has the response been? I’m getting emails from all over the world. It’s really surreal for me, because I didn’t think about that part. I thought I was writing about my family, but it’s much bigger than that. It’s bigger than I imagine. It’s much more of a responsibility.

Slate published your impressions of the show My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding. What happened when you met with a producer while it was being created? He told me, “So far I’m getting people just like you. Young women who want to go to college.” I thought, “What’s wrong with that? That’s more interesting.”They weren’t interested. They only show a niche that lives a certain way. Some people compare the show to Jersey Shore, but nowhere in Jersey Shore do they present it as a documentary with a narrator describing Italian women.

Do you run into other Romani in Vegas? I haven’t so far, but a lot of people won’t tell you they are so we don’t see them. The website Gypsy Chronicles connects people. There are writers, fashion designers, all kinds of people.

What would you be doing if your family had not left Russia? I’m almost sure I’d be onstage. It’s kind of the family business.

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