Sofiya Zahova is the first postdoc at the Vigdís Finnbogadóttir Institute, financed by a three-year grant from the Icelandic Centre for Research.
Sofiya Zahova holds a PhD. in Ethnology from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (2011) and an MA-degree in Cultural studies from the Sofia University (2007). She is member of the Board of Directors of the Gypsy Lore Society. Author of „Montenegro after Yugoslavia: Dynamic of Identity“ (2013 in Bulgarian, forthcoming English edition in 2017) and „History of Romani Literature“ (2015), she also co-edited with Mila Maeva the collection „Ethnography of Migrations: The Bulgarian in the Mediterranean“ (2014 in Bulgarian).
Sofiya´s research interests are twofold: Romani studies on the one hand, particularly the culture, literature and identity of the Roma / Gypsy people and, on the other hand, South-East European history, i.e. communities and identity policies in former Yugoslavian countries as well as contemporary migrations from South Eastern Europe. Sofiya was kind enough to explain her research project and the reason for conducting the research in Iceland:
“What unites these topics is, first, the fact that many Roma live in Eastern Europe and have until now produced quite an impressive number of books and, second, my interest in processes in the making. For me, it’s challenging to observe phenomena in their making. That is why one of my research interests lies is Montenegrin identity and nation building as this is, so to say, one of the youngest country in Europe (independent since 2006).
Romani literature is a literature of a people that doesn´t have a state and that is also a young but very rapidly developing phenomenon dating back only to the end of the 19th Century. It is a minority literature, or if we use the term in the sense of Deleuze and Guattari, it is a minor literature, e.g. it is always very political, very generalizing and engaged with the Roma. At the same time, Roma authors are also authors of the country they live in and major part of them choose to publish in the national language of the country they are living in as they need to establish a dialogue with the national literature canon. Additionally, the globalization and the movement for political empowerment of the Roma leads to an internationalization of the Romani literature scene. And all this is taking place just in the last few decades. This is a challenge!
The reason I wanted to pursue a research career outside Bulgaria, is that I very much like the contemporary idea of mobility in all fields and that I think that mobility in science and research is of vital importance for every scholar. Romani studies is a field that is, so to say, global per se. And I study Romani literature on a global scale. So for me, it was important to have methodological and research experience that is more international and that will allow me to investigate Romani literature on a global scale. Besides that, from my previous cooperation with Vigdís Finnbogadóttir Institute of Foreign Languages I got very interesting ideas about researching minority literatures. So for me, any place on the globe that would support me to develop my research interest was considered. However, Iceland was on the first place on my wish list, because I think that despite or maybe because of the homogeneity of the Icelandic nation, Icelandic research community strongly appreciates and has a very practical interest in various languages and literatures, particularly in minorities’ languages and communities.
When I was looking for a postdoc position, I considered countries and research institutions that were likely to support a global project for the research of Romani literature. I considered primarily possibilities within the Western EU countries and the US. For me it was also important to be in a country in which the research and scientific community have a particular interest and methodological tools to research minority literatures, diasporic literatures and migrant literatures. That is why I considered countries as the US, Germany, and the UK, and of course Iceland. As a matter of fact, after I got the news that the postdoc position at the Vigdís Finnbogadóttir Institute was approved by Rannís, I also got invitations for a position from other institutions. However, I decided to implement my project in Iceland because I already had wonderful established contacts and some knowledge of the institution and I was sure to get the best results in this environment. Besides that, my heart was with Iceland as, ever since my first visit in 2013, I have felt a strong personal motivation to live in and to get to better know the country.
I had already cooperated with Vigdís Finnbogadottir Institute. I was here for a very insightful conference, organized by the institute. The conference was entitled “Cultural Minorities in Children´s Literature and Verbal Culture” and was held on 24-25 April 2013 in the National Museum.
I was here again in 2014 for a short research trip, again hosted by the Institute, when I met colleagues and explored methods and approaches in the research of children minorities’ literature. Then in the framework of the campUSCulturae project, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir Institute hosted an exhibition and a small conference, “Roma Culture in Past and Present”, in which I had the pleasure to participate.
During these couple of years I got to know the Vigdís Finnbogadóttir Institute better and I had delightful discussions with Auður Hauskdóttir, Gro Tove Sandsmark and Guðrún Kristinsdóttir, though which I was fascinated that Iceland is not only declaratively supporting the world´s linguistic heritage, but is actively working to contribute to its preservation and promotion. I was impressed by the work of Vigdís Finnbogadóttir Institute and the setting up of the new Vigdís International Centre for Multilingualism and Intercultural Understanding. I thought that presenting the Romani language and literature heritage at this Centre would be of great importance.
Since August 2016 I work on the three-year postdoc project supported by Rannís, Romane lila. The entangled history of Romani publications and Romani identity politics (in Romani language the ´romane lila´ means Romani papers, e.g. publications, books). The research project has two overarching goals: first, to research and analyze the entangled history of Romani identity policies and written culture practices on the example of Romani publications in Europe and worldwide; and second, to contribute to the scientific knowledge and societal understanding of the Romani literature by presenting Romani written culture at the Vigdís International Centre for Multilingualism and Intercultural Understanding. The objectives of the project are to discuss historical perspectives on how identity policies concerning Roma in different countries/regions have influenced the development of works by Romani authors and in Romani language; to analyze the way in which written works by Romani authors and Romani language publications have become resources in an endeavor to construct Romani identity and to (re)present Roma; to create an annotated bibliography of Romani books and Romani written culture materials to be published and to become a database at the Vigdís International Centre for Multilingualism and Intercultural Understanding.
Apart from the pure academic value of the project which is to enrich the scientific knowledge about the Romani literature by academic publications and annotated bibliography of Romani literature, it has very practical results of a wider societal benefit – the database created within the project will also be useful for practitioners as Romani teachers, experts on Roma issues, minority publishers, cultural rights activists, etc. Presenting the database at the Vigdís International Centre of Multilingualism and Intercultural Understanding will contribute to elevating the status of Romani written culture and language as part of the world’s linguistic heritage. In this way, in a moment of a rise of strong anti-Roma and anti-migrants feelings throughout Europe, backed up by century-long negative stereotypes, the project aims to contribute also to strengthening Romani communities’ self-esteem.”