Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Q&A with Ruth Behar




Ruth Behar is the author of the new middle grade novel Across So Many Seas. Her other books include Lucky Broken Girl. She is an anthropology professor at the University of Michigan and lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


Q: You’ve written that Across So Many Seas was inspired in part by your grandmother--can you say more about that, and about how you created your four protagonists?


A: My father’s mother, Rebecca, grew up in the Sephardic Jewish community of the small Turkish seaside town of Silivri, near Istanbul. Her parents sent her all alone to Cuba in the 1920s. Her younger sisters and brothers stayed in Silivri, as did her parents, whom she never saw again.


No one in our family is entirely sure why she traveled to Cuba all alone. The story I always heard was that she was sent on an arranged marriage, but by the time she arrived in Havana the man she was supposed to marry had already married someone else. She was taken in by an uncle.


She had brought an oud to accompany her singing in Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, the language of Sephardic Jews. Sitting in the entranceway of her uncle’s house, singing and strumming on her oud, she attracted the man who became my grandfather. But after they married and had four children, she stopped singing, hung her oud on a nail on the wall, and never touched it again.


I was so touched by this story that it became the inspiration for the book. Rather than simply tell her story, I chose to place it in a larger historical frame.

Toledo, Spain

Reina’s life parallels that of my grandmother. I imagined her ancestor, Benvenida, who is forced to leave Toledo, Spain in 1492, after the Spanish queen and king ordered the expulsion of the Jews from the kingdom, as well as two of her descendants, her daughter, Alegra, who is born in Cuba and participates in the Cuban Revolution, and her granddaughter, Paloma, who is born in Miami and seeks to understand the stories and songs and dreams that the women in her family have passed on to her.


Q: How did you decide on the time periods to focus on in the novel?


A: I chose time periods that were moments of historical transformation. I start with 1492, the era of expulsion and displacement when thousands of Jews who had deep roots in Spain were forced to leave to hold on to their faith.


That year is better known for Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas, and maybe for Spain’s conquest of Granada, the last Muslim kingdom on the peninsula. I wanted to call attention to the “other 1492,” which readers may not know about at all, but which is of huge significance to Sephardic Jews.


I then move to 1923, the era after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, when Turkey gains its independence as a nation and begins to enforce nationalist changes that Sephardic Jews are concerned will affect their ability to hold on to their language and traditions.


After that, we are in 1961 in Cuba, two years after the triumph of the revolution led by Fidel Castro, when a literacy campaign takes place bringing thousands of young people from Havana to remote towns and villages the countryside to teach farmers how to read and write.


And then, in the last section, we move to 2003, the year that Celia Cruz, the “Queen of Salsa,” dies and a memorial is held for her in Miami, and soon after, Paloma travels with Reina and Alegra to Toledo, Spain, where they find a connection to 1492, and Benvenida, in the Sephardic Museum that is housed in what was once a 14th-century synagogue.


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: I did historical research, reading about the four historical periods that I write about – medieval Spain, modern Turkey, revolutionary Cuba, and contemporary Miami.


I had already immersed myself in all the places that became the setting for the story. I’ve lived in Spain and have visited Toledo and its Sephardic Museum many times. I visited Turkey and was able to step inside the house where my grandmother lived in the town of Silivri.


I’ve gone back numerous times to Cuba and have researched the Jewish presence there. And I have spent time in Miami over the years, getting to know the Cuban immigrant community.


For me, being in places is extremely important. That comes from my background as a cultural anthropologist, but also from having been an immigrant child and experiencing displacement and the need to create memories of places in order not to lose them.


I travel to the lost places of my history seeking the memories which become the foundation for my storytelling.


In researching Across So Many Seas, there were many interesting surprises.


One of the early ones was learning that as the Jews left Spain, though they were heartbroken, they sang to keep their spirits up. This was recorded in a chronicle by a Spanish priest who watched the Jews as they departed and wished they’d taken an easier route by staying and accepting baptism. An excerpt from that chronicle is the epigraph to the book.


Q: The author Alan Gratz said of the novel, “As lyrical as it is epic, Across So Many Seas reminds us that while the past may be another country, it’s also a living, breathing song of sadness and joy that helps define who we are.” What do you think of that description?


A: I love it! I am grateful for these kind words from Alan Gratz, whose books I admire so much and have found hugely inspiring. And they are profound words too. The past lives on in cultural traditions, language, identity, storytelling, religion.


It’s a theme I’ve found fascinating as both an anthropologist and a writer of historical fiction. The first book I wrote, based on my dissertation, was about “the presence of the past in a Spanish village.”


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a middle-grade verse novel. I’ve been an admirer of the genre for a long time and I thought I’d give it a try. I can’t say more until it’s done. If I talk too much about it, the story will lose its magic… I’m also working on a couple of picture books, inspired by my new role as a grandmother!


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

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