Academic journal article German Quarterly

Contemporary romany autobiography as performance

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Contemporary romany autobiography as performance

Article excerpt

"Tanze / Entferne die Trugbilder / Durch Tanz / Wecke das Feuer / Dass die Geachteten sehen / Tanze / Das Zeichen der Zeit mogest du sein [...]"

-Rajko Djuric1

The political, social and cultural landscape of Europe has shifted drastically since German re-unification and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Faced with unforeseen changes, many writers and artists have focused on representations of the past, often struggling to determine its meaning in relation to the new present. Coming to terms with the Nazi past already had been a difficult and often painful process. Particularly in Germany and Austria literary and artistic works involving memory and autobiographical expressions continue to emerge, and it seems that the German obsession with memory is by no means over. Many post-1989 remembrances propose interesting reconfigurations of former dividing lines drawn between such oppositions as East and West, Jews and non-Jews, or Germans and ethnic minority groups. These searches for new forms of remembrance reflect cultural transformations that have taken place since the late 1980s.

In the following I focus on representations of the past in several autobiographical texts by contemporary "Gypsy" or Romany writers in Germany and Austria.2 In these texts attempts to come to terms with the past play a central role especially since the writers are survivors of Nazi persecution. These writings and artistic expressions, produced by members of an ethnic minority who -as Romany and as German or Austrian -are both cultural insiders and outsiders, represent test cases for determining what it means to be "Austrian" or "German" today. Their texts reveal the unique configurations of memory, writing, identity (both personal and national) and culture very clearly. What emerges is a notion of identity that is not essentialist but rather strategic and positional. As Stuart Hall remarks in his reflections on cultural identity, such a position

accepts that identities are never unified and, in late modern times, increasingly fragmented and fractured; never singular but multiply constructed across different, often intersecting and antagonistic, discourses, practices and positions. They are subject to a radical historicization, and are constantly in the process of change and transformation. (Hall and du Guy 4)

More important, Hall also points out that "identities are about questions of using the resources of history, language and culture in the process of becoming rather than being: not 'who we are' or 'where we came from', so much as what we might become, how we have been represented and how that bears on how we might represent ourselves" (4). This notion of the subject in flux, aware of how s/he has been represented, is related to the moment of performance in the memory texts under scrutiny here. Romany autobiographies often stress the importance of reviewing past and present representations of Roma from multiple perspectives. Displaying the relationships between non-Romanies and Romanies, the texts perform the complex interplay between past and present. Their focus on the connection between memory and performance forces us to acknowledge the materiality of the memory process and the constructions of identity and history. It also encourages us to consider memory's potential for disruptive re-play and resistance to oppressive power structures.

The Romany autobiographies under discussion raise questions about where memory traces are located and how memory is given a place in the present. Those questions fore-ground issues pertaining to narrative forms of re-presenting the past in the changing sociopolitical and cultural landscape of Germany and Austria today. The emphasis on the prefix "re-" (as in re-embody or re-vision) is important, because these "repetitions with a difference" allow for transforming meanings of the past in the present or future. The texts offer new modes of remembrance concerned with understanding the present (and how the past is understood and presented in the present) rather than merely illuminating past events. …

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