Interview with AndroMedia project partner Sofiya Zahova

Photo: Mary Humphrey

An interview with Sofiya Zahova, who is a partner of the AndroMedia project. Sofiya Zahova was born in Bulgaria but currently lives in Iceland, where she works as a researcher at the Vigdís Finnbogadóttir Institute for Foreign Languages and theVigdís International Centre for Multilingualism and Intercultural Understanding. She is engaged in research in the field of Roma, minority and language policies in Europe, Southeastern Europe, nationalism and ethnicity. She is author of  Yugoslavia after Montenegro: Dynamics of Identities (2013) or History of Romani Literature with Multimedia on Romani Kids Publications (2014).


We are planning to organize a seminar on critique/review of Romani art which you will be part of. What do you think students should learn from the event? In particular, what do you think they should develop the most?


This will be done with students who are part of courses including lectures on Romani literature and culture. They are students who, despite often not having any direct experience with Roma or Roma culture, already have stereotypes about what Roma/Gypsy is. These stereotypes are placed, as some academic works have pointed out, between two extremes – marginal and exotic. The most important thing I´d like them to learn is that they should not approach art and culture produced by Roma in any kind of “special way” or with “special approach” only because these are artifacts that are called “Romani”. They should apply mainstream critical approaches and theories as they would do it with any other piece of arts and culture which they analyse be it Icelandic, Czech, English, American, etc.

As a matter of fact, some of the students in the course Languages and Cultures that I supervise have already done that by taking a written piece by a Roma author published in English in the Romani literature anthology the Roads of the Roma edited by Siobhan Dowd, Ian Hancock and Rajko Djuric or by analysing the novel (The Color of Smoke) by the prominent Hungarian Romani writer Menyhert Lakatos. The essays that students produce are very interesting and include critical theories and self-reflectivity on their own stereotypes.


We are very excited to meet you during the festival Khamoro this year. Have you ever been to the festival Khamoro? If yes, what was the experience like for you?


I´m also very much looking forward to the 2021 year festival, very much hoping that it will be realised in Prague. I was at Khamoro festival in 2015 when I had the pleasure to participate at the conference devoted to Romani literature organised by Slovo 21 and Hristo Kyuchukov as part of the festival. Even though this academic event was of a small scale it provided a platform for sharing experiences and very interesting discussions with colleagues. At that event I met for the first time Eva Davidová and for me it was a very exciting encounter as well. Khamoro´s festival programme, organisation and implementation is one of the best festivals in an urban environment that one can see, and here I´m not speaking about Roma festivals, but European music and art festivals in general.


Could you reveal to us more about your research project Romane Lila?


Romane lila is a project that looks into the interrelated history of Romani identity policies and written culture practices on the example of Romani publications in Europe and worldwide. My view, that is shared also by other colleagues, is that literary writing is a platform for Roma to communicate their views about Roma in general and that literary activities are often an extension of Romani activism. Thus, I look at Romani publications as part of the history of Romani movement and leadership ideas. This was a postdoc research project implemented with the support of the Icelandic Centre for Research (RANNÍS) and now I'm working on a manuscript discussing the results.

Do you use any special methods for working with students at the University of Iceland?

Usually, I adopt historical and interdisciplinary approaches in my courses, but I would not say that the methods for working with students are specific and different from the classical teaching methods. Apart from studies and academic scholarship, I like to often use primary sources materials, be they texts or visual, for instance I use a lot of videos and documentary materials that can be found on YouTube or in other platforms. For students, this is very important as they can form their own opinion or understand better communities (such as Roma, Sámi, Muslims, etc.) which they have no previous knowledge about or contact with.


Could you tell us more about your publication History of Romani Literature with Multimedia on Romani kids publications?


This is a small popular book with an encyclopaedic overview of Romani literature that is accompanied with a lot of illustrations with covers of books and other publications. The idea was to show to the public that Romani literature is not a recent phenomenon but a literature with more than a century of history and to demonstrate that by facts and illustrations. It was produced in the framework of a bigger project of Studii Romani, the oldest and most established association for studies of the Roma in Bulgaria. As we also wanted the publication to be distributed in schools among Roma and non-Roma children, a CD with multimedia in several languages, including Romani, accompanies the publication. A review of it has been made in 2020 in Czech for the journal Romano Džaniben.


What was your childhood like? Did you grow up in Bulgaria? Or did you move somewhere else at an early age?


I grew up in Bulgaria where I also lived until 2016 before moving to Iceland where I live and work now.



Projekt je financován Fondy EHP 2014 – 2021, program Kultura.