Sunday, January 4, 2009

Nomadism and Social Networks

I'm currently reading a book called Plot and Structure, by James Scott Bell. I've been dragging this book around, periodically starting it, I think since the '07 Surrey Writers' Conference! There are three different colors of highlighter in the first 10 pages, and then nothing.

So, I had an hour yesterday while waiting for my daughter at a doctor's appointment, and I actually made it all the way to page 26. And somehow, along the way, I had an epiphany!

My work in progress, current under reconstruction (and in a title flux) is about a young gypsy woman living in Poland in 1938. I have about a dozen starts for query letters and short summaries, but even after taking Janet Reid's Master Class, and helping to lead a query workshop in the Compuserve Books and Writers' Forum, I still haven't nailed it. Here's my current best shot:

In 1938, Poland is on the brink of war. Change is coming, and pressure on the gypsy people continues to mount. Zia, a young Romani woman, struggles to live a traditional life and preserve the culture she loves. But when her sister dies after being forced into a gypsy settlement, Zia decides to fight back, even if this means breaking the rules of the culture she treasures – a step that could lead to her banishment.

Branko offers Zia an alternative to fighting the establishment –work with him and the Gypsy King to create a
Romani homeland, where the Rom will be free to live as they choose. But when Zia discovers the betrayal from within, she must give up her hatred of the gadje and join with them, or watch her people be destroyed by the Nazi’s.

Well, something like that.

The conflict rests in pressure to change. One pressure comes from the Polish government, which wants the gypsies to give up their traditional, nomadic way of life and move into settlements.

So what's the big deal? Running from rain and cold...ability to obtain steady employment. What's not to like? In my story, why is travel, movement, nomadism so important? Why is preserving the traditional culture so essential to Zia? What does she stand to loose?

And then it occurred to me. The gypsies had large, extended families and social groups. In traveling from place to place, they crossed paths with various groups, passed along messages and invitations to important events (e.g., weddings), shared information about the political environment in various locals, and maintained ties. Without travel, they'd be all but cut off from their extended circle of family and friends.

Travel was their equivalent to internet social networking!

Imagine if you were cut off from your internet social network - all of it (e-mails, forums, blogs, facebook, twitter, myspace, etc...). Oh, and no telephone either. You'd miss your friends, sure (and possibly get more done on your wip ~g~). Maybe it wouldn't be a great tragedy.

Now imagine there is only a small group of people you have contact with outside your internet social networks - your immediate extended family. Beyond this small group, you have no contact with people who share a similar history, or interests, or culture with you. You'll almost never see anyone outside this group again.

As writers, I assume many of you learn about the publishing industry and writing craft through contacts you've made on the internet. Imagine if you had to figure all this out, this "writing culture", while sitting alone at your desk, staring at a pad of paper with inkpen in hand! (Scared now?)

Now imagine that it's not just you, but everybody you know who is cut off from the network, because the government decided to pick on your specific group.

Okay, the analogy isn't perfect. But the epiphany I had yesterday is that nomadism allowed the gypsies to stay connected over time and long distances, much like today's social networks. Without travel (and modern communication systems), the gypsies become cut off into small, disjointed groups. They loose the interconnectedness that has helped maintain a fairly consistent culture across political boundaries and 1,000 years.

Why is this a culture worth preserving? I'm reminded of one of my favorite quotes about the gypsies:

"Perhaps alone among the people of Europe the Gypsies have been able to resist the temptations and vanities of power and the presentations of patriotism and ideology. Gypsies are known to steal chickens and to cheat when selling cars, but they have never organized a war, never persecuted others, never manufactured bombs, never perpetuated industrial pollution". W. Cohn, The Gypsies, 1972