Imagining the Unknown

Colum McCann / Photo by James Higgins

By Bridget English, Contributor
February / March 2007

In his latest novel, Zoli, Dublin-born Colum McCann proves that part of his talent as a writer lies in his ability  to imagine and capture the lives of the forgotten and oppressed.

Colum McCann doesn’t write about what he knows. That, he insists, would involve sitting in the study of his apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, surrounded by books and family photos, staring at the painting that hangs above his desk and writing about middle-class life. Instead the Dublin-born author does just the opposite: he focuses on what he wants to know more about. McCann’s pursuit of knowledge has led him to some unusual and decidedly non-middle-class places, notably into the subway tunnels of New York for his novel This Side of Brightness and the ballet for his 2003 novel Dancer, based on the life of Rudolph Nureyev. In his new novel, Zoli, McCann takes on an even more foreign subject: that of the Romani or Gypsy camps of Eastern Europe.

The writing of Zoli was inspired by the true story of Papusza, a mid-twentieth century Polish Gypsy poet, who, following the publication of her poems, was banished by her own community. Viewed as an accomplice in the destruction of the traditional Roma way of life, Papusza was put on trial before the highest authority of the Polish Roma and named a culprit in the socialist campaign to “settle” Gypsies. Exiled from her people, she spent time in a psychiatric hospital before living the rest of her days in isolation. Barring a brief period in the late 1960s, Papusza stopped writing and performing her songs.

A winner of Ireland’s Rooney Prize for Literature, and a finalist for the IMPAC Award, McCann, whose writing credits include The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic and GQ, and whose story Everything In This Country Must was made into a short film and nominated for an Academy Award in 2005, is certainly up to the task. As one of the New York Public Library’s Cullman Scholars, he had the opportunity to spend nine months at the library researching and writing Zoli. His research culminated in a trip to Slovakia where Colum spent two months living in the Romani camps.

I hear that you got the idea for Zoli after reading Bury Me Standing, Isabel Fonseca’s non-fiction account of the Gypsies in Eastern Europe. You saw a photo of the Polish poet Papusza and became enamored?

Exactly. I saw Papusza’s face and it was really fascinating to me. She looked a little bit like Nadia Mandelstam, the Russian poet that I’d been reading a lot of, and I was struck by the connection. I couldn’t get her face out of my mind. I kept trying to write other things but she kept coming back to me and I thought it was a fascinating story.

I didn’t want to write about Papusza directly because to do that I’d have to write non-fiction and also because it was such a sad story in the sense that the same thing happens to her as happens to Zoli except Papsuza went to a cottage in Southern Salacia, in Poland. She died in 1986 sort of completely forgotten, never having written any more poetry. If I wrote that story it would become a spectacle of disintegration or a comment on the culture and I didn’t want that to happen. The more I got into it, the more I felt there was a responsibility to write about the Roma because they’re so misrepresented. The nicest thing that happened to me with this book was the director of the Romani archives in the University of Texas called me up and he’s an English-Rom, an English Gypsy, and he thought it was authentic.

Do you write as you research or do you do all your research and then sit down to write?

I went there [to Slovakia] to put a map on what I’d already imagined. I did the same with Dancer where I wrote it [from my imagination] though I’d never been to a ballet. I wrote about the Gypsy camps before going there and tried to imagine what they would look like. It’s sort of interesting that imagination can do an awful lot. More so than with my other books, things changed for me because the subject matter was so foreign. This was the most difficult book that I’ve done. This Side of Brightness was a tough enough book because, you know, it’s homeless people in subway tunnels. But this was easily the most foreign. Because I didn’t know any Czech, I didn’t know any Slovak, I didn’t know any Romani. I had to find Gypsy guides into no-go areas. It’s like spending three or four years in a university course and studying only the Romani way of life. I read a quote one time, I forget who said it:“If you want to know about a subject, write a book about it.” So you write towards what you want to know rather than what you actually do know.

So with Zoli did you have a clear idea in mind of what you wanted to know?

I cared about the character, so I had to know where she came from. It’s an amazing story, that you can be exiled from the Gypsies who were the world’s greatest exiles in the first place.

What about the whole idea of the Roma culture where they don’t believe in writing things down?

The cliché is that they don’t believe in writing things down. There were some Romani writers but in general the Roma have been so used and abused by officials all the way down through history that they sort of distrusted everyone, distrusted the pen. So the stories were passed on by mouth. When the socialists came into power and started encouraging Papusza to write her stuff down, that was an extraordinary leap. There had been poets before but they generally weren’t acknowledged. There are issues here of memory, but how do you create a memory and a culture? There are twelve to fourteen million Roma people in the world. And there’s also anywhere from twelve to fourteen million Jewish people, no one knows exactly. From one culture we get a wealth of information, of tradition and heritage and stories. Of the other we know nothing.

A lot of what’s known is perpetuated by stereotype, which encourages discrimination. The Roma who do well and integrate tend not to call themselves Roma or Gypsies because there’s a certain shame there. That’s only changing now because these young Romani poets are starting to write things down, and other Gypsy intellectuals are actually going to the conferences and a civil rights movement is being formed. People laugh and say that there’s no civil rights movements left in Europe, that Europe is free and enlightened, but racially that’s not true.

In Europe “Gypsy” is analogous to the word Nigger especially with regard to the lower-class Gypsies. The children are sent to schools for the mentally disadvantaged, just because they’re Gypsies. People get burnt out, walls built around them. In 1993, Miss Czech-Slovak said she wanted to become a prosecutor and get rid of all the brown-skinned inhabitants of her town. You talk with these Czech or Slovak intellectuals who knew even more about Irish Civil Rights than me and I’d listen to them and I’d be flabbergasted. I’d ask, what about the Roma right here in this country and they’d look at each other and say, “they’re just Gypsies.” We don’t understand the extent of the racism that’s going on. So my small little contribution is to try and write down a story and not to brutalize or sentimentalize.

One of the things Ian Hancock [world renowned Romani scholar] said that he liked about it [Zoli] was that it wasn’t sentimentalized, because she gets kicked out of the Gypsies and it’s hopefully not a sentimental portrait of Gypsy life when she loses it. The vast majority of Gypsies who live in Europe are seen as liars, thieves, cheats, and rogues. It’s like how the Irish were treated in the fifties and sixties. You know, we were drunks and they romanticized the exotic in the Irish like the writer or the singer. The same thing happened with the Gypsies, with the exoticized traveling life, which none of them really do anymore, or we exoticize the music.

The Irish and other marginalized peoples have found a voice through literature. Why did the Romani treat Papusza, who was a voice for her culture, so badly?

Well, it was because they thought that she had made a link with the white community and betrayed the secrets of their culture to an extended culture that was brutalizing them at the time. There’s a real fondness amongst the Roma in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Russia, for the communists because they were treated better under the communists and socialists than by anyone else. They were given jobs and health insurance. They were called comrade; they were invited in to be represented. They were still discriminated against but not as badly as they were before under the fascists. We don’t recognize that the Roma are diverse. Because we’re not educated enough yet ourselves and we haven’t embraced the story, and quite frankly, they haven’t told the story. Hopefully this will get some young Romani poets or whatever really angry that this f–ker, this middle-class Irish writer comes along, and presumes to be able to tell their story.

Did you worry about resentment from the Romani when you were writing Zoli?

You know what, I’ve done it so much now with the African-Americans in This Side of Brightness and with the gay community in Dancer that I’m not really so worried anymore.

What are some of the differences you noticed between Western culture and Roma culture?

In the Western imagination we have timelines and we’re very logic oriented. The Roma have more literary references like, it happened at a time when the snow came above the telephone poles or when my Uncle Joseph died. We crave facts and figures and they don’t think in that way. The thing I keep coming back to is that the Roma are the same population as the Jewish people and yet we don’t know anything about them. My book is just like a tiny little drop. But if that drop opens a door for somebody else or somebody to get angry and do something better, that’s great. I’m lucky that I’m a widely published writer, maybe not in the United States, but Dancer was published in twenty-six languages. So the idea that this book might go to twenty-five, twenty-six languages and tell a story in those cultures to me sort of says, well, the book will do something. I’ve already had a woman send me a picture of what she thought Zoli looked like. I just hope that it does change something.

How do you reconcile the historical facts you come across in your research with the fiction you’ve created?

You can get diseased with facts. The most important thing is to get the texture right, and then the facts will take care of themselves. A writer has to know where a fact comes in and where it doesn’t and how much power and weight it has.

You once said in an interview that every novel is a failure and that the only triumph comes in getting as far as possible in what you want to know. Do you think you succeeded as far as your own goal in writing Zoli?

Yeah, well, I succeeded in that I failed as far as I could. Samuel Beckett said it far better than I could with his famous quote, “No matter try again. Fail again. No matter fail better.” I suppose I would say fail as far as you can. If you think you’ve written the proper thing, then why not just finish?

Do you hold certain of your books above others in terms of what you wanted to accomplish?

For a while I was really scared about Zoli, but what’s happening now is that people who read it a couple of months ago say it comes back to them more than any other book of mine that they’ve read, that she is somehow in the atmosphere. Other books may have been more daring linguistically or structurally but Zoli seems to stick with people more than any other characters. I was worried about it. I didn’t know, you never know. At the end of a book you think, Jesus Christ, I just spent the past four years making a complete mess of my life, you know?

Do you think that your Irish identity has any effect on your work?

I think that’s an interesting question in that the Irish really have gone everywhere. So in this way it seems sort of natural to me that a writer should be able to go imaginatively anywhere. And being Irish actually helps an awful lot. When I was down in the tunnels it really helped, these African-American guys were like, he’s Irish, he knows what discrimination is about.

When I went into the Gypsy camps every now and then I’d be sitting around talking to these guys and a song would come up. And I’d sing an old Irish song. It was actually quite beautiful to sit in these old mud and waddle huts just sort of swapping songs back and forth. They sounded vaguely similar, and there’s something vagabond in the Irish soul that isn’t necessarily Gypsy but it is sort of empathetic of other people. I don’t want to be romantic about the Irish, because there are some Irish a–holes with no empathy whatsoever, but there’s something about the collective Irish imagination, which is able to go elsewhere.

When you were twenty-one you took a bicycle trip across the U.S. because you felt you hadn’t experienced enough of life to be able to write about it. How much do you think a writer needs to experience to be able to write?

A writer needs zero experience to be able to write. For me personally, I need to experience virtually everything. But for the general writer it depends on the person. There is no formula – otherwise all books would be the same. I sometimes envy someone like Frank McCourt because he had that wonderfully miserable Irish childhood, you know? And I didn’t. Of course I don’t want to be miserable, but that was for him territory that was there to be explored. For me I have to go out and find the territory. But eventually the territory is within, the only thing you really write about. Even though you write about what you supposedly don’t know, you can only philosophically, logically write what you do know.


Colum McCann is the author of two collections of short stories and three novels, two of which were international bestsellers. In the following excerpt from his new novel, Zoli, six-year-old Zoli is traveling with her grandfather after the majority of her family drowned after being driven onto a frozen lake by fascist Helinka guards.

We went down the road, Grandfather and I. My days were spent still staring backwards, waiting for my dead family to catch up, though of course I knew then that they never would.

We ate from the forest: boiled leaves, pine cones cracked open in a fire, wild garlic grass, and whatever small animals he’d caught in a trap the night before. We could not eat birds, we were not allowed, it was ancient law, but we ate rabbit and hare and hedgehog. We filled our canteens from the taps of houses where they welcomed us, or from the fast-running streammelt that came down from the mountains, or from wells abandoned in the fields. Sometimes we stopped with the Roma who lived in tin huts and underground hovels. They opened up with great friendliness, but we did not stay in the settlements, we kept moving on, there was no time for that, Grandfather said we were meant for skies not ceilings.

In the evenings Grandfather sat and read – he was the only person I knew who could read or write or count. He had a precious book I did not know the name of and in truth I did not care, it sounded strange and ridiculous and full of what I thought were huge words, nothing like his stories. He said that a good book always needed a listener, and it sent me to sleep quickly – he always read from the same pages, they were heavily thumbed and they even had a tobacco burn in the bottom left corner. It was his only book and he had stitched another cover on, a brown leather one with gold lettering from a Cathechism to fool anyone who questioned him. I found out years later that it was Das Kapital – the notion still makes me shiver, though in truth I’m not sure, honorroeja, if he ever got a lot of meaning from the pages, they confused him as much as they finally confused others.

Why didn’t Mama read? I asked him.


But why?

Because she didn’t want to feel the weight of my hand, he said. Now run along and stop asking me stupid questions.

Later he gathered me up in his arms and I snuggled against his long hair and he said it was tradition, it had always been so, only the elders read, and that one day I would understand. Tradition meant sticking with ways, he said, but sometimes it meant making new ways too. He sent me off to bed and tucked the blanket around me.

On our slow trip eastward, under the shadow of the mountains, he promised that if I kept quiet he would teach me to read and write, but I must keep it secret, nobody else could know, it would be better that way, it would cause a fuss among those who did not trust books.

He unbuttoned the breast pocket of his shirt where he kept his eyeglasses safe. The glasses were broken, wrapped in bits of wire and tape. The cross frame was held together with a supple twig. I laughed when he put them on. When he began he did not start with A, B, C, but with a Z, although my other name was Marienka.

We slept under the sky, the weather was fine and the nights were full and soft, except of course for our yearning for those we’d left behind. We had little left to remember them by, but there was an old song my mother had sung: Don’t break bread with the baker, he has a dark oven, it opens wide, it opens wide. There were times I would sing it for Grandfather while he sat on the low steps and listened. He closed his eyes and smoked his tobacco and hummed along, and then one day he stopped me cold and asked, What did you say Zoli? I stepped back. What did you say, child? I sang it again: Don’t break bread with the Hlinka, he has a dark oven, it opens wide, it opens wide. You changed the song, he said. I stood there, trembling. Go ahead, sing it again, you’ll see. I sang it over and he clapped his hands together, then rolled the word Hlinka around in his mouth. He repeated the song and then he said: Do the same with the butcher, precious heart. So I did the same with the butcher. Don’t chop meat with the Hlinka, he has a sharp knife, it slices deep, it slices deep. He said: Do the same with the farrier. Don’t shoe horses with the Hlinka, he has long nails, they’ll make you lame, they’ll make you lame. I was too young to know what I had done, but a few years later, when we found out what the Hlinkas and Nazis had done with ovens and nails and knives, the song changed for me yet again. In fact when I see myself now from a distance, when I look back on it all, I was just another girl in a polka dot dress on the back roads of a country that seemed strange to me at every turn.

From Zoli by Colum McCann. Published by Random House. ♦

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