Saturday, January 22, 2022

Q&A with Ruth Behar




Ruth Behar is the author of the new children's picture book Tía Fortuna's New Home. Her other books include Letters from Cuba. She is an anthropology professor at the University of Michigan, and she lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


Q: What inspired you to write Tía Fortuna's New Home, and how did you create your characters Tía Fortuna and Estrella?


A: Many different experiences inspired me to write Tía Fortuna’s New Home. I have been fascinated by Sephardic history and culture since my youth and am now involved with different groups interested in celebrating this legacy and reviving Ladino, the language spoken for centuries by Sephardim or expelled Spanish Jews. I was inspired by the challenge of finding a joyful and poetic way to share this knowledge with children.


I was also watching Miami change over the years, a place that seemed magical to me, with its warm ocean and palm trees, when I was a young person. Growing up in New York, we’d visit Miami for a week or two in the summer. For my family, it was the closest thing to going back to Cuba, the beloved home they’d lost.


Now Miami is an international city and humble seaside buildings and cottages are being demolished to make way for luxury residences and hotels. I was inspired by the idea of depicting that changing reality and how it is affecting elders and others of humble backgrounds.


Tía Fortuna was inspired by a real-life Sephardic aunt who lives in Miami Beach and serves me borekas and other delicacies whenever I visit her. Though she is only about 15 years older than me, I always feel like a little girl around her and that inspired the character of Estrella. But both are fictional characters and the story is fictional too.


The book is sprinkled with words in Spanish. My aunt and I always speak in Spanish. That is the language of home for my entire family. Spanish is an inspiration to me as a writer. I am so happy the book is also available in a Spanish edition under the title El nuevo hogar de Tía Fortuna, translated by Yanitzia Canetti.


Q: What do you think Devon Holzwarth's illustrations add to the story?


A: I love Devon’s illustrations! She makes the close relationship between Estrella and Tía Fortuna come alive, beautifully showing how their intergenerational bond nurtures both of them.

The symbols of Sephardic culture are gorgeously represented, with hamsas, evil eye ornaments, and keys, as well as Tía Fortuna’s lucky eye bracelets, filling the pages. And the Miami setting, with memories of Cuba and other lost homes woven in, is conjured in rich detail.


The story takes place during the course of a single day and Devon captures the flow of time, from bright sunshine on the beach in the morning to the orange-pink glow of sunset fading away and the first star shining in the sky in the evening.


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, “Behar’s warmhearted storytelling turns the past, present, and future into a confluence of connections as Estrella realizes her role in a legacy of faith, hope, and resilience.” What do you think of that description?


A: It’s a lovely, generous description of the book. As a creative writer, I don’t work from an explanation of what I’m doing, I use intuition more than anything to craft a story. Now that the book is done, I realize I was trying to create a living history in which Estrella, though a young child, can find her place. So yes, past, present, and future do come together “into a confluence of connections.”


Sephardic identity can seem so melancholy, with stories about departure and weeping for all that was lost. I wanted to give children a less sorrowful image of this heritage.


I also thought about how we tend to view an elder’s move to a “home” or an assisted living as a sad end to a life. But what if it’s another stage of living, and you find new friends that feel like old friends?


This all somehow came together in my imagination. I feel that “a legacy of faith, hope, and resilience” is a nice way to weave together the positive qualities I tried to share.


Q: What do you hope kids take away from the story?


A: I want kids to treasure their relationships with wise elders and to cherish the stories and traditions passed on to them. I also want kids to learn to see each day as precious and unique and to take in all the beauty we’re surrounded with in the world.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a new middle grade novel that in many ways builds on Tía Fortuna’s New Home. The novel focuses on four 11-year-old girls from different generations of the same family. The girls share a Sephardic heritage, their family driven out of Spain in the 15th century because of their faith.


Each girl lives in a different revolutionary time. The story moves from Spain to Turkey to Cuba to Miami. Each must find her own way to rally courage and learn what it means to stand on the shoulders of ancestors who chose exile rather than compromise their values.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: In terms of my life, the most important news is that I've become an abuelita! That has given me a whole new perspective on writing for children. Now that I'm officially an elder, I feel even more drawn to intergenerational stories and hope to tell more of these stories in years to come.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Ruth Behar.

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