Image credit: Enrique Zaldivar / Wikimedia Commons
As a storyteller, poet, teacher, and public speaker, Ruth Behar is acclaimed for the compassion she brings to her quest to understand the depth of the human experience. She made her fiction debut with the Pura Belpré Award-winning Lucky Broken Girl, a novel for young readers about how the worst of wounds can teach a child a lesson about the fragile, precious beauty of life. She is an anthropology professor at the University of Michigan and lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her newest book, a picture book, Tía Fortuna’s New Home, published this year by Knopf Books for Young Readers, explores her paternal family’s Sephardic Cuban heritage.
Behar spoke with Public Seminar about writing for young readers, how people and their stories are intertwined in both fiction and anthropology, and the importance of telling stories with ethnographic accuracy.
Reeva Dani [RD]: I want to start by asking you about Tia Fortuna’s New Home (Knopf, 2022), a book of children’s fiction. What inspired the topic and the characters in the book?
Ruth Behar [RB]: A number of things: I’ve been researching Sephardic culture and history for many years. I made a documentary about the Sephardic Jews of Cuba 20 years ago called Adio Kerida (Goodbye, My Love). Recently, there’s been a revitalization of interest in the culture of Sephardic Jews, and Ladino, the language that they speak and I’ve been a part of all of these conversations, research, and symposia. The book started from there.
As you know, I’ve written two previous novels for young people and I decided to write Tia Fortuna for a much younger group, ages four and up. Hopefully, adults will enjoy it, too, because the thing about books for little kids is that an adult has to read it to them. So, the book has to appeal to both the child inside the adult and to the child who is being read to. I had read a lot of children’s books back when my son was little, and now I was beginning to read them more from a literary perspective. I just thought, “I really want to try this out.”
I have a real-life aunt in Miami, who I spent a lot of time with. To me, she is an exemplar of Sephardic Jewish culture. She told me a lot of stories and she remembers words and expressions in Ladino, and I wanted to create a portrait of her—a very fictional portrait—infusing some of her spirit onto the page. I had been thinking about the relationship that a young girl might have with her aunt. I also knew with Tia Fortuna’s story that it was going to end in assisted living. So, I had to figure out how we were going to get there and what was going to happen to the aunt and the niece’s emotional relationship between the beginning and the end. We have a lot of stories about parents and children or grandparents and children, but sometimes a figure like an auntie can play an important role.
RD: Why do you think it is important to tell these stories and to keep telling them? What are the challenges in writing about these experiences?
RB: I know these stories very well. I have lived them through my personal life, as well as ethnographically; I’ve gone to Cuba countless times and researched the community there. So, I have been a witness to these stories, and I’ve recorded a lot of them. These are the human beings that I know best, but I’ve also worked in Northern Spain and in Mexico with people quite different from myself. But we share the Iberian history or the Spanish colonial legacy.
On a more personal level, there are just a lot of stories that I hope won’t be lost. I want to be sure that this legacy remains, even though it’s a miniature community and maybe not of great interest to everybody in the world. Especially for writers like myself, who come from minority backgrounds—we’re trying to fill in absences or gaps.
There was obviously no literature like Tia Fortuna when I was growing up. There’s this very large Jewish Latino community in Miami, but they’re just not represented in literature. I felt that was a gap that I could fill.
RD: You collaborated with illustrator Devon Holzwarth in Tia Fortuna. Tell us a little about the process of collaborating with people in a variety of creative and intellectual fields.
RB: Collaboration is so much fun. Initially, I didn’t have much contact with Devon because the artist should be independent and come to the story in the way that they wish. But because I wanted to say so much about Sephardic culture—and I wanted a lot of the iconography to be incorporated into the story—I created a portfolio of images that I shared with my editor, who passed them on to Devon.
In the portfolio, I had pictures of my family; I had images of things like the Lucky Eyes, the Hamsas, a lot of things from the culture that I had grown up around. I had embroidered pillows with Spanish words that are in my own house that I just could envision being in Tia Fortuna’s house, and I had various pictures of the remains of old synagogues in Spain.
I wanted to achieve ethnographic accuracy. I sent her the pictures of my family because I wanted to give her an idea of what Sephardic people look like so that she did not come up with a stereotyped representation of these people. I was so impressed by her because she was really serious about these artifacts and symbols that I felt were very important to the story. She researched them visually and thought about how best to represent them artistically in the book.
Then, it is really lovely when another person takes an idea of yours, and then they add dimensions to it. Devon has a little bird that she added to the story that’s almost on every page and that kind of follows Tia Fortuna through her journey. I thought that was just such a lovely and whimsical touch. That’s what’s nice about collaboration: other people add things that you didn’t think of because you can’t think of everything yourself. Now I can’t think of the story without the art: it is very much a part of the story.
I’ve also loved working with translators as well, talking to them about certain words or expressions, and being in collaboration that way. Anthropologists often collaborate or often find each other in the same field site too.
RD: You’ve said elsewhere that you’ve always wanted to write fiction, but had you envisioned writing for young readers?
RB: I never would’ve expected that I would be writing for children. The fiction that I had been writing on the side of my anthropology work was fiction for adults. Then, when I started writing Lucky Broken Girl (2018), I started writing from the 10-year-old girl’s point of view. And by the time I finished, I thought: “This is going to be a story for kids.” So, it just was really serendipity. That book is very autobiographical and I was intrigued by the prospect of trying to relive a moment in my life—not writing as me at this stage of my life, looking back—but actually being in the head and in the body of the 10-year-old girl I was.
RD: Staying with the story of Lucky Broken Girl for a moment: you wrote an essay about the same experience called, “The Girl in the Cast” in 1997. What were the differences between producing an academic essay and a novel for young readers?
RB: I wrote the essay first, without ever having any expectation that a novel would come afterwards. I really love the essay form, and I think the personal essay in particular is just such a beautiful genre. I have tried to be innovative with writing ethnographic essays that have a personal voice. In The Vulnerable Observer, you have essays that are a mix of personal and ethnographic, and “The Girl in the Cast” is the most autobiographic of all of them.
So, with that essay, I was really trying to figure out what happened. The story had a plot to it and many layers. I had the actual newspaper article about the car accident, and I incorporated it into the essay. I addressed issues of mental health, panic attacks, and reliving the trauma of the car accident.
I was trying to figure out an episode of my life—a car accident—that was very, very frightening. How was I just so broken, literally, by this experience and how had I become so vulnerable and so debilitated? I started thinking about the irony of being an anthropologist who couldn’t leave her bed. If we’re supposed to be displacing ourselves to do our research, how is it that I couldn’t move?
One of the big differences between “The Girl in the Cast” and Lucky Broken Girl is that with the fictional story, I could elaborate. I could take that truth, embroider upon it: I had all these liberties because I could make up things. I could put thoughts in Ruthie’s head. I could put words in her parents’ mouths. I could create characters that maybe didn’t exist at that time, but I wish they had. I could create characters based on real people but make them a little nicer than they were.
In the book, there’s a moment where Ruthie is still in bed and she just has the cast on the right leg. It’s New Year’s Day. Two hospital attendants come with a stretcher and they take her out to play in the snow with the other kids and make a snowman. As I was writing, I thought, “Oh, what a sign of the love and affection these guys had towards Ruthie.” When my mother read it, she said, “I remember when that happened.” And then I said, “Well, that never happened. I made that up because I wanted Ruthie to have that joy.”
RD: How has anthropology affected your trajectory to becoming a writer of fiction?
RB: I went into anthropology wanting to be a writer. In anthropology, you’re writing about the experiences of people who are like you, not like you, or some mix of the two; you’re writing about all kinds of convergences of cultures and religions and social formations. I wanted to be with people, and I wanted to hear their stories. I was very aware that I’d always loved listening to my grandparents’ stories, and the stories of the elders really fascinated me. So, there was a desire to travel, there was a desire to be in the Spanish-speaking world, and there was the desire to write.
I discovered anthropology in my senior year in college, but when I went to grad school, I’d taken only two anthropology courses. I found the theorizing very difficult and alienating at first. I was reading a lot of literature by anthropologists that I couldn’t make heads or tails of because of how they were writing. I wondered whether it was me or the writing that was the problem. I thought, “Do I have to learn how to write this way to make it in academia?” I wasn’t reading ethnographies that I loved. They were repositories of information but they weren’t that interesting as literature. I have always had a lot of respect for deep intellectual work, but I found that a lot of it was just very obfuscating, and unnecessarily so. It was the sense that you had to write in a complicated way to be a true academic.
So, I became somewhat rebellious. I asked myself, “Can I be an anthropologist and write against anthropology, find another way to do this profession? Could I do it through writing that I would find meaningful, and that would allow me to address important questions and deep questions?” Anthropology gave me a form of writing that I didn’t want for myself, and then it moved me to figure out how to do my own writing and still stay in the discipline.
RD: Do you find something particularly compelling about the anthropological way of telling stories?
RB: I think anthropologists are excellent storytellers and as a group, they’re interesting because they’re interested in other people. A lot of writers can be very solipsistic, and they’re just interested in their own stories, their own worlds. And what’s very fun about anthropologists is that they are interested in different worlds—other spiritual worlds, moral universes, and so on.
And there certainly have been excellent storytellers and writers within anthropology. That’s one of the reasons I co-edited the book Women Writing Culture (1996) because I was really interested in finding the canon of women writers within anthropology who had written well. Anthropologists like Ella Deloria, Zora Neale Hurston, and Barbara Myerhoff, among others, have been amazing writers.
The writing that I love within anthropology is where we really go deep into the stories of the people who we have met, and who have opened their lives to us. I spent a lot of time with a street peddler in Mexico named Esperanza Hernandez. It was important to me to really learn her story and find a way to tell her story in a moving way, as I did in Translated Woman(2003).
Anthropologists are very good at the genre of travel writing, too. This involves writing about the experience of being in another place, even if that place might be where you’re from. Cuba is where I’m from, but I left as a child, so I have to recreate that place in my writing. How are real people that we know being portrayed and how are places being portrayed? What are you learning about these people and places? Anthropologists have thought about those issues for a long time.
Ethnography is a self-interrogating genre. Anthropologists really question themselves: “Why am I doing this work? Do I have the right to do this work? What am I giving back to these people? How am I exploiting these people by being here and asking them questions?”
This self-interrogation is a special quality of anthropological work, one that we don’t see enough of in fiction. Sometimes in fiction, authors hide or erase the work and interrogation that they may have done to be able to write their novels. But in ethnography, we often include that interrogation within our texts.
And to me, that’s an inspiring part of our storytelling.
RD: Talking about travel writing: you’ve produced some work in that genre and you’ve also written poetry and memoirs. How do you juggle all these various roles, of being an anthropologist, a writer for young readers, a professor, and a memoirist? How do you write for such a wide variety of audiences, and still make your work accessible?
RB: On the one hand, I’ve been interested in blending different kinds of writing, such as ethnography and memoir, as I did in Traveling Heavy(2013).On the other hand, I’ve compartmentalized a lot, too.
When I’m wearing the children’s fiction hat, I’m thinking about offering a different perspective. How can I come up with a very specific experience or moment that will be really gripping to a younger reader? Although, I’ve done a lot of events with kids, and I’ve been impressed at how intensely they read. 10 and 11-year-olds are at that age where they are absorbing so much knowledge. They know and understand a lot. I mean, they are as sharp as graduate students.
When I have an ethnographic essay, article, or book review to write, I’ll pivot to a more interpretive and explanatory mode. Right now, I’m actually trying to write an essay about the writing of Tia Fortuna, so now, I’m intellectualizing the process. But when I wrote it, I had to be in the story.
In both my fiction and nonfiction, there are a lot of things that intersect as well. Poetry is important to me. I try to write my prose very poetically, thinking about each word, why it is on the page, and what it means. Poetry infuses my prose in various ways through the musicality of each word. Both in fiction and nonfiction, there’s always a kind of storyline that’s in my head. The process can be very similar between these different genres, but they each have a specific set of prerequisites.
I try to write very clearly when I do my anthropology writing, and I don’t want to use jargon. I know concepts are very useful because they can be shortcuts, but I personally chose not to do that kind of writing. When I write my scholarly work, I’m looking for a way to make it as accessible as possible. In my children’s fiction, I also want to teach them ideas. I don’t want them just to have a story: I’m giving somebody who perhaps knows nothing about Sephardic Jews a sense of that culture. Even if it is a preliminary sense, it’s an affirmation that this culture and these people exist.
In that way, I’m bringing my ethnographic work even into a domain like the picture book.
Ruth Behar is James W. Fernandez Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan.
Reeva Dani is a MA Candidate in Anthropology at the New School for Social Research.