Author Mikey Walsh discusses his new memoir Gypsy Boy On the Run—about his former life as a Romani Gypsy—and explains what’s behind the group’s ongoing persecution.
Zola: How has the Romani culture in England changed since you ran away from it? And how does it differ from the Romani culture in Europe?
Mikey Walsh: The Romani race, in the UK especially, is indeed a dying one. When I was a boy, Gypsy families were able to live a lot happier off the “salt of the earth” and earn money by knocking on doors and doing work for people or selling them goods. Now there are laws in this country that prohibit that. Also, the laws on education have cut down on travelling people, so now there is no choice but to go to school, have formal education and, of course, integrate with the outside of our culture a lot more.
Of course, with these new laws on our work ethic, to now have an education is very beneficial to our culture. The minus point is that this way of life stops us from being able to move and separates us from our heritage. The world has changed a hell of a lot for our culture in the last decade, and within another ten years I feel that the traditions will have bled into a thing of our past. This makes me very sad.
What is sadder for me is that there is still so much prejudice. My brother now sends his two kids to primary school, and like so many others, they are being told not to mention what they are to anyone, to avoid bullying and negative treatment from a stereotypical representation of what we have always been painted to be amongst the community.
Of course, overseas the Romani culture have a lot more prejudice to deal with and don’t have the same benefits as we do as UK citizens. What is happening to them in Europe at the moment is terrible.
Zola: Now that you’re an accomplished, self-sufficient, grown man, do you ever still struggle with the Gypsy ideals of masculinity that you were brought up with, especially since they’re in such stark opposition not only to your own sexual identity but also your desire to live within society and not on its outskirts?
MW: When I left home I thought that I would have escaped those kind of ideals forever. The only problem is having them drilled into my head for my whole life up to that point. It’s weird, really: as a 32-year-old man now, I am aware of my freedom, my sexuality, and all of what I have done just to get myself to where I am today…and that I should at least be proud of that. But no matter how far away my past is, even without the people of my past telling me how I must be, I have always been very hard on myself. I think that being so terrible and unforgiving to myself all the time forced me to achieve all I have done. But personally, even after hours of working and talking over and through the cracks, to say that I am proud of myself and where I am today out aloud is very difficult for me.
MW: My family are all very separated since the books, as Gypsy Boy and Gypsy Boy on the Run readers know. But these days, I have built an incredible bond with my family. My mum and dad have been very supportive of me and constantly check up on me to see if I’m okay and safe. I speak to my sisters and brother on the phone, too, and write loads to my youngest brother in prison, helping him with his reading and writing while he serves his time there.
Zola: In the book, you are particularly unlucky at love, finding yourself in many abusive relationships. How much did that have to do with your Romani background and its values?
MW: None of it. My first relationship was with the guy I ran away with, so of course that was slightly different, cause he was right in the action and suffered greatly emotionally and physically through trying to keep me with him.
I wish someone could tell me why I was so unlucky in love—ha-ha!
Sometimes I think I know why I am. It could be down to me always thinking I can “save” someone. But frankly it’s because I have been a doormat. I give too much and ask too little for fear of losing someone. I would love to know that I could be as happy alone as I could be with someone to love me back. But then this brings us back to your earlier question, I guess.
Zola: Have any other struggling Romani or young people in the LGBT community sought you out for advice?
MW: Yes, quite a lot. It’s a hard and terrible time to go through what they are. Whether a small town, a community, or culture, these things happen every day, and people suffer for something they can not help but be. It breaks me to know it, and so, when I have been contacted, even just to have an email, phone call, or private message through my Twitter account to speak to, it’s something more than they had before that. This way, I have been able to privately and safely speak to or just be an ear for them and give what advice I can to help.
Zola: What are you future writing plans? Another memoir?
MW: I’m meeting my publisher in the UK next week about a third book. I’ve already got my outline sorted. Very nervous. I was hoping to have a couple of years of eating bad food and watching old episodes of Columbo and Murder She Wrote, but hey…They can be put on hold just a bit longer.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.