One of my favorite recent books, (and my favorite excuse for interrupting my reading of Villette,) is Lola's Luck: My Life Among the California Gypsies, by Carol Miller. I was lucky enough to get an introduction to the author. Herewith, a brief interview:
Brad Craft: Carol, first let me thank you for your book. It is an amazing story, a very personal memoir of your life with the Machvaia Roma, and a beautifully written look into a fascinating world the non-academic reader would otherwise never see. So to start, why the Machvaia Roma? I mean as opposed to Inuits or Fijians or whatever?
Carol Miller: Why the Machvaia? Well, why Gypsies in the first place. Probably the two articles in The New Yorker by Joseph Mitchell, a fantastic writer, stimulated my curiosity. Then, years later, as a volunteer teaching adults to read, I was assigned a young Gypsy couple as my clients, and my curiosity really took off. At that time, we lived in Oregon and I found the Portland public library had a number of books written by men with little, or no, direct experience and who had imagined their Gypsy stories. Apparently, very little was known about Gypsies, other than their criminal activities that got in the news. I considered Gypsies a mystery to be solved.
As I mention in Lola's Luck, Gypsies were only a short distance away when, as a graduate student, I wanted to study a society that wouldn't take me far away from my not-yet-grown children. Also, the head of my graduate committee, available at UW, was someone who had already studied Gypsies. Professor Edward Harper. There were other reasons, but that is probably enough to mention.
I explain, I think, why I chose Machvaia over the Kalderasha in my book.
BC: You do, very well. Just quickly, before I forget, would you explain the significance of the coins that line the covers of your book and head each section?
CM: In the book, (page 102,) I explain that Katy persuaded me to spend my birthday money on a half dollar gold piece. That same gold piece decorates the book's cover and separates the inside sections.
BC: Your book is a remarkable one, and not at all what I expected frankly. It is a much more personal story that your academic credentials led me to believe the book would be. Was this your intention when you started writing it?
CM: I began writing about Lola when she died in 1975. Then I included all my field notes about her; I was considering a memorial or tribute of some kind. It took me maybe fifteen years of being with the Machvaia, living with them, living among them, to finally understand the society and where Lola was, what she was, in the group. Without that information, you don't really know a person.
In writing about Lola, I began to write about myself -- how else to explain a different culture? Somewhere along the way, I began to long to share the people, the Machvaia, and what they were really are like, not what an Outsider imagined they were like, with the world. So I wrote, rewrote, for decades, in the expectation that when I had learned to write something truly compelling, a publisher would come along.
I didn't initially have the writing skills to succeed, of course. You might say I wrote Lola's Luck for thirty years.
BC: Can you explain what a “djuhli” is and is that a term that is still used in reference to you among the Machvaia Roma?
CM: A djuhli is a female Outsider; it is considerably more friendly than gadji, the Kalderasha term. Djuhli is a what Machvaia used as reference term for me. They seldom used it as a term of address. Those I was close to called me Carol.
When asked, at public events, who I was, I would say, "Me (sounds like may) sem Djuhli."
BC: At the heart of your story is an exceptional relationship with a remarkable older woman, Lola. So many questions come to mind. First and foremost, at what point did you realize you were becoming something other than an anthropologist and a subject?
CM: When did I realize I was becoming something other than an anthropologist with Gypsies as my subject? Before I even started I knew studying them wouldn't be easy. They have built-in structural defenses against anyone knowing their society or becoming intimate with them. A few years earlier, everyone who brought me to a public event -- and that was what I was trying to study, celebrations, weddings, baptisms, slavi, pomani -- would have been outcaste. So Bibi told me in 2000.
Early on, I decided the Machvaia would be my life work. I was required to finance my own fieldwork -- possible in the 60s, 70s, 80s -- with part time employment.
BC: Lola is a very real, physical presence in your book; conjured up for the reader in her own voice, in her dancing, her delightfully outrageous clothes. How much of Lola comes from your original notes?
CM: All of the material about Lola is from field notes or the memories I had in 1975, when she died. I am not an imaginative writer.
Read the rest of this interview, and my favorite quote from Lola, below: