This is my fourth Gemstones piece, a blog post featuring people who lead with an open heart and work to uplift others. I’m honored to have the chance to introduce you to the work of Ruth Behar.
What inspired you to write this book?
It’s a story I’ve been carrying around with me for a long time. It was the same with my earlier novel, Lucky Broken Girl, which was based on an experience from my childhood. I seem to carry stories with me and then a day arrives when I finally set them down on paper.
Letters from Cuba was inspired by my maternal grandmother Esther’s story. She was the first of seven siblings to make the immigrant journey from Poland for Cuba. She had to beg her father to let her be the first to go to Cuba. He had wanted to bring her younger brother, but she convinced him that she, as the eldest, should go first, and that even though a girl, she would work hard and help him with the difficult task of saving up enough to buy steamship tickets for the whole family. I thought it was amazing that my grandmother played a key role in saving her family from an almost certain death in the Holocaust.
In my author’s note, I talk about a photograph that hung on the wall of my grandmother’s apartment in Miami Beach. It was a picture cherished by my grandmother of her grandmother. It took me years until I finally asked, “Who is this woman?” and my grandmother told me, “This was my grandmother, who I couldn’t save. She decided to stay in Poland, where she died.” She died at the hands of the Nazis. My grandmother lost her grandmother while I was fortunate to grow up with both my grandmothers. That memory of my grandmother’s loss stayed with me. As I was writing Letters from Cuba, I knew Esther’s grandmother wouldn’t to make it to Cuba. The sorrow was a backdrop to Esther’s happiness in helping to bring the rest of her family to safety.
You are a cultural anthropologist. What kind of research did you do for the book?
I’ve researched and written extensively about the Jews of Cuba and about Cuban Jews in the U.S. I knew about the Jewish immigrant experience from my research and from listening to family stories, but I didn’t know what everyday life was like for a young Jewish immigrant in Cuba. My maternal grandfather told me he’d eaten only bread and bananas to keep kosher. This led me to wonder— How did Jewish immigrants find ways to mesh cuisines? I wondered what it had been like for them to learn Spanish. And I realized that these Jewish European immigrants were experiencing new cultures and religions, especially traditions with African roots. What was it like for them to hear, for the first time, the batá drums used in Afro-Cuban rituals? To conjure that experience, I went to the town of Agramonte, where most of the novel is set, and got a feeling for life there and also did research on Afro-Cuban rituals. I had to use a combination of research and imagination to make the story come alive.
The Jewish immigrant journey via Ellis Island is well-known. But little is known of the Jewish immigrant story in Cuba. There was an immigrant detention center at Triscornia, across from the port of Havana. That’s where immigrants were processed in the 1920s and 1930s. My grandmother told me how scared she was when she arrived all alone to Cuba and was taken there. Her father was delayed and she feared he’d never come for her. Fortunately, he finally arrived and she was released. She got to work right away, never forgetting that her mission was to save her family in Poland. She was so brave to make the journey across the ocean by herself, not knowing what the future held.
What would you want to say to your grandmother about the book?
“Thank you. Gracias. Gracias a la vida.” Or another way of putting it, “Baba you took this chance, this risk. Thank you for the life it gave me.”
We are all living with such uncertainly now and she lived with a different type of uncertainty: taking a ship across the ocean, hoping her father would find her, hoping she could work, not knowing if she would ever see her family again. Tremendous uncertainty that she experienced day to day. And yet she was determined to get her family to safety in Cuba. For that, I say “gracias.” I wouldn’t be here if not for her.
I have an altar next to my desk with pictures of my ancestors and I’m looking at my grandparents right now. My grandmother was such a strong woman and she loved to read and sing and give speeches and she encouraged me to read and write more than anyone else in my family. The book honors her spirit, courage, resilience.
She lived to be 92. She lived the longest of my four grandparents. I was so lucky to know them all. But she was the one I knew the best. I spent a lot of time with her. I’d make her sad because I’d visit her in Miami Beach and then go to Cuba and she’d wonder why I was going to Cuba and not spending that time with her. She was concerned that I was carrying too much in my suitcases, bringing gifts to people in Cuba, and she thought I’d get a hernia (a “kileh” in Yiddish). Looking back, I feel guilty that I wasn’t the best granddaughter for not spending more time with her. Now, as a mother, I feel so sad when my son leaves after visiting. I remember the tears in my grandmother’s eyes when I get tears in my eyes as my son says goodbye.
Some say that young people don’t read books as much as previous generations. What are your thoughts and experiences regarding young people and reading?
After the publication of Lucky Broken Girl, I had the chance to meet a lot of young people who read the book. I find that kids in the 9 to 12 age group are very excited about reading. They love the physical form of the book itself, and enjoy opening the text, reading the pages. A few years ago, as part of the Miami Book Fair, the bookstore, Books & Books, donated books to several schools and the level of joy I experienced with kids running up to me, asking for their copy of the book to be signed, was amazing. I didn’t have a lot of books growing up, all my books were borrowed from school or the library. Having a book of your own was very meaningful, and that continues to be true for immigrant and working-class kids. When they get to hold and keep a book, it’s a huge gift.
Many authors are writing books for kids now. I didn’t realize just how much children’s literature had expanded and developed in the last thirty years until I became part of the children’s literature community. Authors are writing about characters that have not been seen before in literature, offering perspectives on the lives of young people of diverse backgrounds. The organization and movement, WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS, has been a crucial force in advocating for books where all children can see themselves and feel they belong, feel they are visible and respected, and loved.
As a child, I read Pipi Longstocking, Nancy Drew, and Treasure Island, and while I enjoyed the adventures they conjured, I didn’t feel visible in these stories. Now, for example, if you are Mexican-American, you can find many books with characters you can relate to. Many other identities are also represented in the new children’s literature. For example, Monica Brown creates great characters, such as Lola Levine, who is American, Peruvian, and Jewish. There are many more reading options for kids, they have many more ways of finding themselves in books. Another great example is a book I just read, Yo Soy Muslim, a beautiful picture book about a Mexican Muslim father who introduces his child to their unique culture with its mixed ethnic and religious roots.
I think kids are reading. They are supported by an incredible community of educators and librarians who spend their summers, and any other free moments, reading new books to share with their students. At an ALA (American Librarian Association) meeting a few years ago, where I was introducing Lucky Broken Girl, a librarian came up to me and said, “I know the perfect child for your book.” I was so impressed that she knew the kids at her school that well. She knew which book was right for each child. We have a community of teachers and librarians who are helping to bring the love of books to children and giving them the opportunity in school to read both assigned books and books they get to choose on their own. Kids need time and space to read joyfully, so they can expand their imaginations. I love that kids will tear through a book when they are enchanted by the characters and the story.
What’s the pivot to writing for younger people been like for you given the first part of your career as an anthropologist was spent writing for and educating adults?
I’ve spent a lifetime trying to sound smart in academia, which hasn’t been easy for me. There is a child in me who wanted to tell stories and write poetry, and I had to silence her for a long time. Anthropology required me to document experiences and maintain a strong commitment to academic discipline. Discipline is the key word there. Academic professions discipline you to think and write a certain way. I was aware of this from the start, but I thought the sacrifice of my creative voice was worth it, because I wanted to be a professional traveler. Anthropology gave me a framework for embracing the world, and gave me the opportunity to travel and spend time in Spanish-speaking countries. I feel joy hearing the Spanish language, and anthropology has allowed me to live in the language in Spain, Mexico, Cuba, and other places.
Eventually I realized that there were stories I wanted tell that I needed to write as fiction. I spent a decade trying to write an adult novel that is in a drawer. Then I gave myself the freedom to write from a state of innocence, allowing myself to be a kid again. There was something so empowering about that. Lucky Broken Girl spilled out onto the page and it made me feel that maybe I could do more writing from a child’s voice. I liked writing with that voice and for a middle-grade age group, which is a magical time between childhood and adolescence.
My next book will be told from a boy’s perspective and it’s loosely based on my son and how I remember him as an eleven-year-old.
I’m still doing anthropology, teaching and attending conferences. While I am writing fiction now, I think about my two middle grade novels as anthropology for kids. Both books are about the intersection of cultures and religions, and they introduce kids to an anthropological way of thinking about the importance of honoring diversity.
What else do you want to share?
When I was writing the book, I did not know there would be a pandemic, but I was thinking about immigration: the wall that Trump wants to build; kids and parents being deported. These issues were very much on my mind and I thought about how my grandmother went through an immigration experience where she was separated from her family and worked so hard to reunite them. Maybe, I thought, I could tell herstory as historical fiction and offer it as a mirror to understand young immigrant children who are crossing the border today. I was so upset by the images of kids in cages and wanted to respond. I felt that Letters from Cuba would help readers to better understand the plight of immigrant children arriving from Latin America. Esther’s hope of finding refuge for herself and her family in Cuba is not so different from the hope that kids have today who are trying to come across the U.S.-Mexico border.
When I think about the pandemic, it’s the uncertainly that is so difficult to live with. Uncertainty is another theme in the book. Esther doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. She’s writing to her sister, Malka, without knowing if she’ll ever see here again. How do you live with that much uncertainty and still be resilient and have faith that things will be all right?
Some of the nicest words about the book were offered by an educator in Michigan who said, “May every person that reads it, grow to understand the hardships of those who seek refuge and share kindness with all people.” This is what the book is about: being kind to those seeking refuge.
Having a home, a refuge, should not be a privilege, but a right. If you don’t have a place to be at home, that is painful and terrifying. This time of the pandemic is a time to think about what home means and how homelessness hurts all of us.