American Gypsy is a fun, humorous and sometimes heartbreaking memoir of a teenage Russian immigrant. Now based in Henderson, first-time author Oksana Marafioti (née Kopylenko) details her move at age 15 from a comfortable life in Moscow to one of struggle in Los Angeles. The move happened in 1990, about a year before the fall of the Soviet Union, and her book shows what it was like to live through that turbulent political time … while being part of a famous, traveling Gypsy ensemble. (Unfortunately, the story ends before she studies film and music at UNLV.) Alongside this spirited and touching coming-of-age tale, Oksana, 37, offers a glimpse into the often-secretive Romani culture. Here are 10 things we learned from her book, which debuts on July 10 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $16).
1. Wherever you go, you’re always an outsider. Before Oksana was an American Gypsy, she was a Russian Gypsy. In telling the story of her adjustment to American culture, she uses flashback to show the depth of discrimination that has always been the Romani’s lot. From a cruel Russian classmate taping the word “Gyp” on her back to an American friend taunting her with Gypsy stereotypes, Oksana discovers that racism knows no geographic boundaries.
2. Food is like magic. Food and its preparation play a large (and delicious) role in American Gypsy. Ingredients are personified, and recipes read like magic spells (when brewing tea, for example, you must create motion because “leaves by nature are lazy and water is too proud”). But the only way to learn is by watching. Dishes are used as a way to form relationships: Oksana’s mother, a gadjee (Rromanes for “outsider”), forges a first peace with her mother-in-law through the cooking of an Armenian-style kotleti “with lots of onions, potatoes and dried basil in the minced beef.” The dishes bring Oksana’s story to life; when reading, you can almost smell the suckling pig, tort-salat (layered meat salad), salted herring, Armenian basturma (wind-cured beef) and pelmeni (Siberian dumplings). Above all, cooking skills are prized among Romani women for their ability to conjure the most important magic: catching a husband.
3. All you need is a hot plate. While these dishes may seem beyond a typical American’s culinary capacity, Oksana explains that when the band was on the road, meals were cooked in a jiffy and on the sly. That’s because it was too expensive to eat out for six months in a row, and hotels forbade cooking. “Onions had to be chopped with mad speed, eggs fried until just runny, toast buttered and swallowed before we were discovered,” she writes. Oksana’s desire to learn cooking amid that sort of chaos led her to start her first journal at age 9, originally to write down recipes.
4. America is (or was) cooler than you think. At least in the eyes of Soviet schoolchildren. Although ostracized from her classmates, Oksana became popular every time her uncle sent a care package from California. It contained envy-inducing gumballs, Disney-themed hair clips and T-shirts with Elvis and Marilyn Monroe. All this stuff represented the international allure of the American Dream. As a reader, your heart breaks for Oksana when she eventually moves to America and discovers those same prized possessions on sale for cheap at the aptly named DollarDream.
5. Entrusting personal items to the dead can bring bad luck. When Oksana’s close friend dies tragically, Oksana tucks her scarf into the casket. Her cousin Zhanna is flabbergasted, and orders her to retrieve the scarf during the funeral, saying, “Do you want his ghost to haunt you forever?”
6. Curses can’t reach across the ocean. In addition to being torn between two countries, Oksana is torn between two cultures: Her mom is Armenian and her dad is Roma. One thing both groups share is a love of superstition. “The Armenians spit over their shoulders and knocked on wood, while the Romani crossed themselves when yawning,” she writes. “In each culture, nearly everything was construed as a sign. … The signs are endless and move inside me like mice in a wheat field. To this day, I catch myself skimming tea bubbles off the top of a steaming cup and dabbing them on the crown of my head in hopes of acquiring a large sum of money.” Of course, the dvoeverie (a dual belief in Christianity and paganism) extends beyond superstition to a rich tapestry of curses, divinations and exorcisms. But Oksana’s father believes that they can separate themselves from a family curse through the distance of an ocean.
7. In America, even a centuries-old wandering diaspora gets the Hollywood treatment. Upon arriving in the U.S., Oksana finds Americans to be more accepting of Gypsies, if not a little unclear on what it means to be one. “On this side of the Atlantic,” she writes, “a Romani is given the famous Hollywood makeover, and 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.” To illustrate this point, Oksana tells a hilarious story of her father accosting a blond Valley Girl for fancying herself a Gypsy because she could belly dance. “Belly dance is Arab. You know, yes?” Dad says, to Oksana’s increasing mortification.
8. Immigrants get jobs in the family business. In high school, Oksana saw Los Angeles as the mythical land of opportunity, whereas in Russia, work “would’ve consisted of learning to cook and sew ghastly dresses from ghastly Soviet pattern books.” Oksana found a job at KFC, only to have her father try to get her fired so she could learn the new family business: fortune-telling.
9. Sometimes, being an American Gypsy means getting to have it both ways. Since Oksana is from a performing family, you’d think her father (himself a dedicated musician) would be thrilled that she’d been invited to a performing arts magnet school. But that isn’t the case. “What is a performing school?” she recalls him saying. “You’re a Kopylenko. You already know how to perform.” It’s true that she’d first taken the stage at age 8, but Oksana wants to do it the American way. So she attends the school, and eventually benefits from the best of both performing worlds.
10. Wherever you go, you’re always an insider. Ironically, it’s Oksana’s intense desire to fit in with popular culture that makes her feel so isolated. At all times, and throughout her ensemble’s travels “from Mongolian deserts to the Siberian tundra,” there is always a loving extended family of Romani to accept her. The book’s liberal use of the word “gadjee” shows that the idea of who is “in” and who is “out” is one of perspective. “Most Romani don’t give a rat’s ass about fitting in,” Oksana writes. “Instead, they shape the world around them, bend it like a spoon.” While Oksana does care about fitting in, American Gypsy chronicles her growing ability to do a little spoon-bending of her own.
Unorthodox Author’s Event
Because Oksana Marafioti comes from a performing background, her book-signing offers more than the usual author appearance. Sure, she’ll read an excerpt from her memoir and answer some questions, just as everybody else does. But as she writes in her blog (OksanaMarafioti.com/happenings), “it’s not so much a book launch as it is a book/music/art/food show.” In addition to Russian and Armenian pastries, the afternoon will include performances (and art) by:
Hot Club of Las Vegas, a Django Reinhardt-inspired Gypsy jazz band.
Zarina Standridge, a professional dancer who specializes in Tajikistan’s folkloric dance.
Amira of Las Vegas, who is actually from Estonia, and teaches Raqs Sharqi (i.e., belly dance).
Elena Wherry, a watercolor painter who was born in Kaliningrad, Russia.
Coral Citron, a flamenco instructor and founder/director/choreographer/principal dancer of Fiesta Flamenca.
Valeria Sokolova, a UNLV adjunct professor, collaborative pianist and singer originally from Ekaterinburg, Russia.
Albina Asryan, a collaborative pianist for UNLV who is from Turkmenistan.