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AMERICAN GYPSY by Oksana Marafioti


A Memoir

by Oksana Marafioti

Pub Date: July 10th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-374-10407-8
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

In this engaging immigrant memoir, first-time author Marafioti, née Kopylenko, describes with humor and introspection how the self-described “Split Nationality Disorder” she experienced growing up only magnified upon her family’s emigration from the former Soviet Union to Los Angeles when she was 15.

Born into a Moscow-based Roma family, the author spent the first 15 years of her life seeing Siberia, Mongolia and the former Soviet Union with her parents, who performed in a traveling Roma ensemble “the size of a circus.” Even as a child, Marafioti became acutely aware of racism both within her own family, as she witnessed the difficulty her Armenian mother faced gaining acceptance from her Russian paternal grandmother, and in school, as her Roma heritage was cruelly outed by a classmate sticking a sign to her back that read “Gyp.” Though well-off in their native Moscow, Marafioti’s family—especially her father, a gifted guitarist and composer—looked to the United States as a land of even greater opportunity, where their Romani roots would not carry the Gypsy stigma. One of the more humorous scenes involves the family’s green card interview, where the U.S. consular officer’s limited Russian led her to question Marafioti’s mother on her drinking (which she was notorious for), when she meant singing (one letter difference in Russian), her father babbling on about wishing to play with B.B. King and heal people with his bare hands. Soon after the family arrived in California, the author’s parents divorced, leaving her to cope with a broken home and dramatic change in finances, alongside the more typical immigrant difficulties of adapting to a foreign language and culture. As she recounts her love, loss and academic achievement experienced while “attending the same school that Cher once did,” Marafioti’s probing observation of the contrast of American individualism with fierce Roma ethnocentrism, even xenophobia, yields a provocative exploration of identity.

Contrasting cultural values shine in this winning contemporary immigrant account of assimilation versus individuation.