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A Las Vegas writer offers a glimpse into Gypsy culture

"American Gypsy" by Oksana Marafioti
"American Gypsy" by Oksana Marafioti

THE GENESIS OF American Gypsy is almost as interesting as the story that unfolds within its pages. Oksana Marafioti was a young Las Vegas writer hoping to get her urban fantasy fiction published. When she pitched her work to an agent at a local writers conference, her ethnic background came up in conversation. The agent recognized that Marafioti had a true story to tell that eclipsed her fictional ambitions. The book had a major publisher before there was a first draft.

Marafioti set to work telling her coming-of-age memoir, from growing up in the Soviet Union with her Gypsy father’s traveling music troupe to the family’s emigration to the United States. The result is an illuminating and unvarnished peek into a much-misunderstood culture, one that’s been plagued for centuries by discrimination and worse.

That said, while American Gypsy documents some dark and troubling events, it offers just as many funny and heartwarming moments, including a particularly well-executed fart joke.

At its heart, the book is about the teenage Oksana’s struggles between embracing her Gypsy heritage and the desire to become a regular American girl. She must deal with her culture’s old-fashioned marriage tradition, in which weddings are arranged when the girls are young. Oksana’s father forbids her to have “gadjee” — non-Gypsy — boyfriends, which leads to big trouble when he finds one in her bedroom.

When Oksana lands a minimum-wage job at Kentucky Friend Chicken, her father is horrified, urging her instead to go into the family trade, which, post-music career, is to tell fortunes and conduct séances (a very lucrative trade in Los Angeles, apparently).

“We Roma make money for family, not boss man,” her father explains to the restaurant manager when he tries to get his daughter fired.

Meanwhile, Oksana strives at school to disguise her Gypsy heritage, although at the same time she appreciates the level of acceptance she encounters in America. Rather than “weird,” as she often felt in Russia, she has become “exotic.”

On the surface, Marafioti’s depiction of the Gypsies she knows is not terribly flattering. Her father is a chronic philanderer, while her mother struggles with alcohol and her stepmother with gambling. Verbal warfare typically takes the place of genteel conversation, while outmoded traditions still hold sway. Curses, sexism and superstitions are unquestioned. Historical stereotypes are not reinforced, but Marafioti is also unafraid to portray her culture’s rough edges.

While she voices modest skepticism, Marafioti reveals a few mystical experiences that leave a lasting impression on her, including witnessing her father perform an exorcism on a “Russian web designer from Pasadena.” Like a scene out of an urban fantasy novel, or a certain scary movie, she deftly narrates the chilling process. The experience convinces her she never wants to enter the family business.

“The exorcism spooked me for a long time, even more so because it actually worked,” she writes.

Promotional materials for the book emphasize the humorous contrasts between American and Soviet life in the late ’80s. For example, Oksana and her family are fascinated by the luxuries of individually wrapped cheese slices and free hotel soap. But these are the weakest aspects of this otherwise engrossing book, suggesting the low-rent standup of Yakov Smirnoff.

Marafioti is at her best when she focuses on her struggles to navigate the treacherous path between her family’s expectations and her desire to go another direction. In this sense, she is similar to teenagers everywhere. The difference for her is a matter of degrees, as the contrasts between Gypsy culture and the possibilities of American life are more sharply defined.

At book’s end, Marafioti moves to Las Vegas to attend UNLV. While Las Vegas does not figure heavily into the story, it’s appropriate that this is where she makes her big break with the past and invents a new future. It’s a classic Vegas story after all.

AMERICAN GYPSY: A MEMOIR Oksana Marafioti, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 368 pages