At 15, it was hard for Oksana Marafioti to adjust to American life and find normalcy while her family dabbled in ghost hunting, conducted seances and owned a psychic shop in the middle of Hollywood.
But at least it made a good story, which Marafioti chronicles in her first published book, "American Gypsy." The book, which is set to be published July 3, is a memoir of Marafioti’s teenage life and how her family adjusted to American culture while keeping up with its Gypsy heritage.
Marafioti, who is now 37 and lives in Henderson, grew up in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Her mother was Greek and Armenian. Her father was Ukrainian and Gypsy.
"They were both performers traveling the USSR," Marafioti said. "They had a show with musicians, singers, dancers. It was almost like a circus but not quite. I spent my childhood in the wings of the theater watching them perform."
Because of her Gypsy ethnicity, Marafioti said, she had to endure racism while growing up.
"Gypsy is a nationality, a race," Marafioti said. "It’s not a calling or a cult. You can’t decide to be a Gypsy one day. You have to be born Gypsy just like Italian or Irish. The correct term is actually Romani."
Even if they have lived in a certain region for generations, Marafioti said, they have always been seen as guests in a foreign land.
Among other misconceptions, Marafioti said, people think Gypsies roam the streets stealing and don’t go to school.
"There are about 10 million Gypsies," Marafioti said. "We have jobs and families and go to school and pay taxes just like everyone else."
All these misconceptions and hardships led Marafioti’s parents to seek a new life in America, transporting the family to Hollywood when Marafioti was 15.
"I was excited to move," Marafioti said. "My sister and I had a crush on (singer) George Michael. We thought moving to Hollywood, we would meet him."
Despite the language barrier – her family didn’t speak English – and her fear of starting high school, Marafioti recalled her high school years as the best time of her youth.
Marafioti has been a writer for most of her life.
"I started writing when I was 10," Marafioti said. "I think all writers say that."
Her first book, which was 98 pages and hand-written, consisted of two stories. The first story was about the Mafia.
"I think it was because of ‘The Godfather,’ " Marafioti said.
In the story, the protagonist decides she wants out of her mobster lifestyle after she discovers two abandoned babies on the side of the street.
"So she decided she wants out," Marafioti said. "She wants to change so she can take care of them."
Marafioti’s second story came from her reaction to the horror film "A Nightmare on Elm Street."
"I was so upset that Johnny (Depp’s character) dies that I wrote a story where he doesn’t die," Marafioti said.
Whether it was an occasional poem or short story, Marafioti always kept writing as part of her life. About six years ago, she decided to take it more seriously when she came up with an idea for a novel.
"I started writing an urban fantasy," Marafioti said.
She joined a local writers group where she attended a conference and pitched her urban fantasy story to one of the agents she met.
"It was about a girl dealing with identity issues," Marafioti said.
The agent’s interest piqued when Marafioti explained that some of the metaphysical aspects of the books, which included the presence of demons and angels, came from Marafioti’s own life.
"She asked me about my background," Marafioti said. "I told her my parents were pretty much ghost hunters back in the Soviet Union."
Instead of the urban fantasy, her agent thought of a better story – Marafioti’s life.
"She asked me to write a memoir," Marafioti said. "I said ‘no.’ My family would kill me. But she told me to think about it. She didn’t push."
Marafioti thought it over and decided this was an opportunity to show another side of Gypsy culture.
"I’m the type that likes taking chances," Marafioti said.
First, Marafioti wrote three sample chapters and sent them to the agent.
"I wanted to see if an agent would even find my writing adequate enough to publish," Marafioti said.
Her agent loved the work, and Marafioti was offered a book deal with FSG Originals, a publishing company.
"That was about five years ago," Marafioti said.
Pulling her life story together turned out to be challenging.
Marafioti said her editor sent her drafts back about nine times, asking her to add more details.
"I think she was dragging a lot out of me," Marafioti said. "I thought less would be better and didn’t want to talk too much about the really personal stuff. But that’s what makes a book stand out."
A couple of times, Marafioti called her editor while crying, saying she wanted to quit.
"But she would gently talk me out of it," Marafioti said. "I have a lot of respect for my editor. She is very strict, like a school teacher, the kind that never lets you not turn in a homework assignment and tells you she knows you can do better."
Marafioti is waiting anxiously for the book to come out in July and to see people’s reactions.
"It is different than if it were fiction," Marafioti said. "I’m worried people might criticize my life story. I’ve been training myself not to react too much and try to be Zen about it. But I hear all writers go through this. Then the book comes out and nothing happens. The world keeps turning."
On the verge of having her first book about growing up Gypsy, Marafioti thought she could be an asset for people who wanted to learn about her heritage.
Marafioti contacted the producers of the TLC show "My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding" to see if she could be a consultant . Marafioti, who has a degree in film from UNLV and worked as a cinematographer, thought her expertise could be beneficial on the set.
After meeting with producers, she got the sense they were more interested in displaying cliches about being Gypsy, she said. She conveyed these feelings in an article for Slate magazine called "Is ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding ‘ unfair to Romani community?"
But Marafioti is moving forward, focusing on her writing, which already has landed her success.
She recently was accepted into the Diana L. Bennett Fellows Program and received a Kluge Fellowship in partnership with the Library of Congress, both through UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute.
Dr. Carol Harter, the executive director of the Black Mountain Institute, said this program has been offered for five years and has received a variety of writers, all of whom have worked on a range of topics.
Harter said what separated Marafioti from other applicants was how different her story was.
"It is the most interesting story," Harter said. "It’s about how her family came to the United States and how they fit in with their Gypsy culture."
Applicants, when proposing their topic, have to show a need to use the Library of Congress.
"Because her project has to do with mysticism and other forms of religious beliefs, she really needs to read materials in their original language to get a sense of their beliefs," Harter said.
The Library of Congress will be the best opportunity for Marafioti to investigate and research everything she needs for her project, Harter added.
Fellows stay in Washington, D.C., for four months while they conduct their research.
When Marafioti was speaking at a conference on memoir writing two years ago, a member from the Black Mountain Institute suggested she apply for the fellowship.
"I was like, ‘Yeah, right,’ " Marafioti said.
Last year, Marafioti decided she had nothing to lose and submitted her application.
"If I got it, I got it," Marafioti said. "If I didn’t, I didn’t."
Marafioti sent in a proposal for a fiction novel in the genre of magic realism. The story takes place in the former USSR and is embedded with Gypsy culture drawing on the region’s history.
"A lot of people view the Soviet Union as this communist country with no religion or spirituality," Marafioti said. "That’s not true, and that’s what this book will talk about."
In addition to the book she will be researching at the Library of Congress, Marafioti is rewriting the urban fantasy novel she initially pitched to her agent.
"I am attached to the characters," Marafioti said.
Marafioti is slated to have a book launch event from 2 to 4:30 p.m. July 14 in the main theater of the Clark County Library, 1401 E. Flamingo Road, before heading on a book tour.
She is scheduled to leave for Washington in September.
Marafioti remains intimidated by her success. She said her family members, including her husband and two children, keep bragging, and at times embellishing, her accomplishments.
"I think they have told half of Europe," Marafioti said. "And it turns into ‘Oksana is the only writer in the world to win this’ or ‘Oksana was picked up by the world’s best publisher.’ I try to reel it in, but they won’t let me."
In the end, Marafioti doesn’t care about becoming a success in the literary world.
"I’m not doing it to become the next Stephen King," Marafioti said. "I’m not looking to become rich and famous. If it happens, it happens. I’m just hoping to make enough to support my family and have a career I can do for the rest of my life."
Contact Henderson/Anthem View reporter Michael Lyle at firstname.lastname@example.org or 387-5201.