Natur & Kultur, 2015.
Reviewed by B J Epstein in SBR 2016:1
Review Section: Backlist
First published in 1969 and 1970 respectively. This review also covers Lawen Mohtadi, Den dag jag blir fri (The Day I Am Free).
The Romani people are just like everyone else. This is the rather simplistic message of the Katitzi series of children’s books by Katarina Taikon, and indeed the message of Taikon’s own life and activism. But just because the idea is simple doesn’t mean that it’s obvious, or that it was easily accepted and absorbed into Swedish culture.
Katitzi is a little girl who is reminiscent of Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking or Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline or even Richmal Crompton’s William. That is to say, she’s bright, bold, opinionated, independent, and fun. She says what she thinks and doesn’t see why she shouldn’t. Her experiences and adventures are based on Taikon’s, and they are told in such a way that readers are drawn in by Katitzi’s sweetness and apparent naivety and then have their eyes and minds opened along with her. Since Katitzi spends her early years in foster homes and an orphanage before returning home to her Romani family,the Romani ways and the discrimination they face are as new to her as they are to many readers.
The first Katitzi book was originally published in 1969, and the others came out in the decade that followed. They have now been republished in Sweden to much acclaim, presumably because they highlight a Swedish minority group that has been hard done by and yet is unfamiliar to many Swedes, while the tales are also universal and enjoyable to read.
The stories take place in the 1930s and 1940s and they begin with Katitzi in an orphanage, before her father comes to collect her. The children at the home are so entertaining that it is rather a shame we never see them again once she has left, and that Katitzi appears to forget about the people she was once so close to – but then this is fairly true of young children and how they live in the moment. According to Taikon’s biographer Lawen Mohtadi, Katitzi’s story has the same broad outlines as Taikon’s own. Both Taikon and her creation return to the Romani camp to find their mother dead, their father remarried to an unpleasant Swedishwoman (who dislikes her stepchildren and complains of constant migraines, which means she does nothing to help with the household chores), and a job awaiting. Katitzi has to learn to dance to entertain Swedes who come to the family-run carnival, while also helping care for her younger step-siblings and contributing to the running of the home. At a very young age, then, her life becomes work-focused.
Though Katitzi finds joy in being with her brothers and sisters and getting to know her extended family, there is a large streak of sadness running through the books. Under Swedish regulations, Katitzi is not allowed to attend school, despite being eager to become literate. Also, the family is regularly forced to move from one location to another, and can’t move into a flat or house; they have to get permission to live on people’s land, and often this permission is grudgingly given, or not given at all. They constantly face prejudice and it’s clear they are viewed as being less than ‘normal’ humans. Due to this depressing history and the need to educate readers, the books can sound didactic at times. In the first one, Katitzi, a clergyman visits the orphanage and rather conveniently explains to the bewildered children what zigenare, or ‘gypsies’, are and how they live: ‘Gypsies don’t want to live in houses. They like their freedom so much that they want to travel all over, and see all places. They don’t like being cooped up in houses . . . They are more used to the cold than other people . . . they are musicians above all. And also coppersmiths and tinsmiths . . . they don’t want to go to school . . . And they don’t think it’s important to learn to read and write. They are children of nature.’ Katitzi receives this sort of information and tries to understand herself through it, but she doesn’t feel it applies to her, so eventually she begins to fight back against it, speaking up for her rights. In the books, her inquisitive, open, feisty nature gets her into trouble with some frequency (as when she sticks her fingers in a socket and gets an electric shock).
Lawen Mohtadi’s biography of Taikon is an interesting complement, both for the subject matter and for the style. Mohtadi weaves together general Romani history (it turns out that Romani have been in Sweden since the early 16th century), Taikon’s family background (her relatives are one of the eight key family groups of Romani in Sweden), tales about other Romani (such as what happened during World War II to a young Polish Romani who survived Auschwitz and later came to Sweden and married into Taikon’s family), Taikon’s own story, depictions of life in Romani camps, and Mohtadi’s own experiences researching and writing this book (especially her meetings with Taikon’s sister Rosa). Mohtadi describes Taikon as ‘one of the twentieth century’s foremost advocates for human rights in Sweden’, so it’s certainly time that her life and work were celebrated.
Born in 1932 to a Romani father and a Swedish mother, fifty years later she fell into a coma from which she never recovered. For thirteen years until her death, her partner, her children, and her sister Rosa cared for her. It’s amazing to think that in just fifty years, Taikon published thirteen Katitzi books and many works for adults, including poetry, and that she managed to expend so much energy on the fight for equality. She did all this despite having to deal with an abusive stepmother, lacking a stable, warm home, running away from a forced child marriage, and being unable to attend school until she was grown up.
Mohtadi’s biography is rightfully full of admiration for Taikon’s books and for her activism. Like young Katitzi, Katarina Taikon refuses to shut up. She protests againsts Swedish laws, takes part in demonstrations, fights for Romani families to get residence permits in Sweden, and even finds herself sharing podiums with the likes of Martin Luther King. Taikon was successful in some of her causes, but not all, and it’s clear that this took a toll on her. She really gave herself to the fight for Romani rights and seems to have prioritised this above all else, so it did negatively impact on her relationships and her health even as it made a huge difference to the lives of so many others in Sweden. For example, her daughter Angelica felt that everything changed once her mother began publishing books and getting famous, and this made Angelica distance herself from her Romani family. One does get the impression that it was the Romani in general that Taikon had passion for, rather than specific people, Romani or otherwise.
It’s easy to imagine Katitzi growing up to become Katarina. Both Taikon and her fictional child self are willing to question received wisdom and long-standing laws. And Taikon was comfortably unconventional, living with and having children by a variety of men; one can picture Katitzi shrugging off the idea of long-term marriage and two-point-five children.
The Katitzi books are worth publishing in English not only because they are well written and engaging, but also because they expose readers to a way of life and to a period of harsh and disturbing stereotyping and discrimination that many won’t know much about. The stories are important and they still feel current. Strangely, in Taikon’s book and in Mohtadi’s biography of Taikon, the message that the Romani people are just like everyone else comes through clearly, but so does the idea that they aren’t just like everyone else; they are, of course, deserving of equal rights, but they also have an interesting and distinct history that’s fascinating to read and learn about.