‘My mother’s side of the family are Romani. Gypsies. No babysnatching and tambourines, just resilient souls and richly coloured skin. I look most like them, with my brown eyes and scars. I don’t have the richly coloured skin, though. Instead of deep bronze or golden ochre, I came out the colour of sunflower oil and, thanks to childhood malnutrition followed by years of low iron levels, I’m now the shade of an off-brand Simpson.’
This is the true story of Eliska Tanzer. Born into a Romani life, her family already outcasts, she has no future and no way out. Very early on, Eliska realises that the only way she will ever be happy is to leave the place and make her way in the world through an education. So she sets in motion a chain of events that will bring her to England and take her within inches of her dreams.
But the dusty road she must tread is fraught with challenges, and soon young Eliska has to face up to the brutalities of the world and her own struggle to stay alive. This is her story. A story of remarkable will, determination and desire to become a better person. A story of a girl on the brink, who, just when things couldn’t seem to get any worse, manages to overcome the odds for the right to be an educated woman.
For fans of Tara Westover’s Educated and Kerry Hudson’s Lowborn, this is a major debut with a powerful, unflinching, and brutally honest account of survival and how the most unexpected turns can still lead you to your dreams – if you continue to believe in them.
The Beauty of Trauma
Guest Post by Eliska Tanzer
My Memoir started as a 2000-word assignment for a Life-Writing module at University.
I never intended anyone other than my lecturer to read it and was mortified when I walked right into a three-person workshop brandishing the assignment. The idea of two of my classmates reading something this embarrassingly personal made my throat seize up. I’d spent the previous two and a half years of the course cultivating a ‘Is she there? Does she even exist? Who is she?’ low-key presence with the occasional overly-joyous smile when forced to work in group tasks. I disliked crowds and relished the solace of writing.
So sat around the small table in my lecturer’s office as we read through each of our assignments, I was prepared for the eternal shunning of me. A Gypsy German belly-dancing immigrant from Slovakia? Not overly out-there. A gang-rape surviving product of a brown, child prostitute and a white supremacist? Social suicide.
But the weird looks, grimacing smiles and pitiful eyes never came.
Instead for that hour the three of us shared our stories with each other, with our lecturer and more importantly – to ourselves. Failing to inherit any of my German ancestors’ organizational skills, my assignment was done in a blind panic upon realising the due date and the first time I read through it was sat in front of my mini-audience and realising just how different I was from the ‘feral Gypsy girl’ I’d written about.
In Western clothes, freshly washed hair and a made-up face – I was no longer Eliska the prostitute’s daughter, Eliska the girl who first had a bath at five years old, Eliska the girl who lay ripped and bloodied in an English alleyway. Instead I was Eliska the Educated girl from a Gypsy ghetto. I was the immigrant that ‘made it’. I had clawed my way out of dire poverty, racial attacks, sexual assault and I was still here. I had been given the gift of dignity and I embraced it fully.
Hearing my classmates stories of strict families, cultural pressures and eventual independence; I was proud of us.
Each of us had travelled different but hard paths to sit in this room with the cream walls, fresh flowers and wooden ornaments from South Africa on a windy day in the Midlands.
I thought of my family back in Slovakia. My mother, aunties, cousins and friends. Their bodies didn’t have the barely-healed signs of violence like mine but they also didn’t have the honour of education.
My beautiful Ma was harsh when she found out I’d been ‘spoiled’ by animalistic men in an English alleyway for ‘free’. But she didn’t know who John Keats was, she didn’t know the breathless magic of ‘Harry Potter’, she didn’t know the haunting seductiveness of ‘Macbeth’ – I did.
I may have been stripped of worthiness in an English alleyway but I was rewarded with more pride and self-respect than my birth-right had ever granted me, in an English classroom.
About the Author: Eliska Tanzer is a writer and dancer, not always at the same time. She completed a Creative Writing degree at the University of Wolverhampton and this is her first book.
Eliska spends her time in the Midlands with an uncomfortably large collection of notebooks and sequins.