U-M anthropologist Ruth Behar sails “Across So Many Seas” through the stories of four 12-year-old girls
Behar, a University of Michigan professor, will be in conversation with fellow professor Devi Mays at Literati Bookstore on Tuesday, February 13, at 6:30 pm.
The common theme among the girls’ challenges is exile. They are part of the same Jewish family, and different generations of their relatives find themselves traveling across different oceans to a new home. Benvenida journeys with her family from Spain to Naples and then Turkey in 1492 owing to the Spanish Inquisition. Reina is abruptly forced out of Turkey to forge a new life on her own in Cuba in 1923. Alegra escapes Fidel Castro’s regime with her family and relocates to the United States in 1961. Lastly, Paloma has the chance to learn about her history on a trip to Spain from her home in Miami in 2003. In fact, Paloma is the daughter of Alegra and granddaughter of Reina.
Each move causes pain for the characters, and each new country marks a new chapter in the long history of the family. As Benvenida takes a ship from Spain to Naples, she reflects:
The water is a breathtaking shade of turquoise, like nothing I’ve ever seen. Amid the sorrow of our departure, I allow myself to savor its beauty and dare to imagine for a moment that I am an explorer going in search of new lands. I’m hoping my future will be filled with new adventures and all our suffering will be left behind.
While Benvenida remains optimistic, more sorrow awaits future members of her family.
Behar, an anthropologist, infuses the novel with Sephardic culture. The stories in the four parts of Across the Seas relate closely to her heritage. In her author’s note, she shares that her maternal grandmother was a Polish Jew, and her paternal grandmother was a Turkish Jew, both of whom took ships to Cuba before the Holocaust. Since the characters are also Jewish and their stories mirror some aspects of Behar’s history, Sephardic culture fills the pages through language, food, music, and beliefs. The family also passes down songs and their instrument—an oud—through the generations.
The relationships between characters help preserve these customs. As Behar also writes in the author’s note, the close familial connections between Reina, Alegra, and Paloma mean that the book reveals "how intergenerational relationships work, and what passes on to the next, and what remains of a heritage over the years and what changes as each of the girls comes of age in a different time and place.” This legacy is not lost on Paloma, the most modern character in the last section, who observes:
I feel like I carry a lot of history on my shoulders. Not only were my ancestors driven out of Spain, but my abuela had to leave Turkey, and my parents had to leave Cuba. So many seas were crossed. So much had to happen before I could be born, here in this place.
Both Paloma and Behar recognize the trials that their ancestors overcame.
I interviewed Behar about Across So Many Seas ahead of her reading at Literati.
Q: You were born in Cuba, grew up in New York City, travel to Spanish-speaking countries, and teach anthropology at the University of Michigan. What draws you to Ann Arbor?
A: I love being among thinkers and creators of diverse backgrounds. Ann Arbor is a haven for those of us who find joy in an intellectual and artistic life. In Ann Arbor, I have met extraordinary people who inspire me and make me feel humble about all that I still want to learn. I am impressed by the incredible artists that pass through town. I remember how exciting it was to meet the original Buena Vista Social Club musicians when they came to perform in Ann Arbor. It was one of those special moments when Cuba didn’t seem that far away. And there’s a great salsa dance community in Ann Arbor, which nurtures my identity as a cubana living in the Midwest. While Ann Arbor winters can be gloomy, I’ve come to appreciate the contemplative mood they awaken in me. Finally, when spring, summer, and fall arrive they are such beautiful seasons. I enjoy so much the long days of summer and seeing the fireflies appear when the night falls.
Q: Your books range from children’s literature to young adult novels, essays, and a memoir. In your latest book, Across So Many Seas, you write from the perspectives of four 12-year-old girls. In contrast, your academic writing reflects on anthropology and your life. How do you move between these distinct genres as an author? What is similar or different about writing for the varied audiences? How does your anthropology background influence your writing?
A: I went into anthropology wanting to be a creative writer. I struggled at first to figure out how to make that happen but eventually found my voice writing autoethnography. I had always wanted to write fiction and would spend summers working on short stories and a novel that I set aside. And then one day I began to write about how I’d been in a body cast as a 10-year-old immigrant child recently arrived in New York from Cuba with my family. I wrote reconstructing from memory and imagining the rest, and this became Lucky Broken Girl, my first middle-grade novel. A door opened into the world of fiction with that novel. I went on to write Letters From Cuba and Across So Many Seas, as well as the picture book Tía Fortuna’s New Home. Recently, I co-authored a picture book, Pepita Meets Bebita, which I wrote with my son Gabriel Frye-Behar, who is a native-born Ann Arborite and lives in New York with his wife and two daughters, my granddaughters. I like writing in different genres because it gives me the opportunity to tell stories from different perspectives. And I like the idea of writing for all ages and hope the books I write for kids will also be of interest to adults. I teach a course called "Blurred Genres" at the University of Michigan where we explore how there isn’t always a clear border between ethnography, fiction, and memoir. But I do feel that my anthropology background has influenced my writing. I’m passionate about the themes of identity, cultural identity, heritage, and historical memory, and come back to them in whatever genre I am writing in.
Q: As the author of several books for young readers, what keeps you writing for children and young adults?
A: It’s so exciting to see children and young people reading my books. I find that kids read with a great fullness of heart and pay close attention to every detail. They ask such profound questions about the story and the craft of writing. They really astonish me. When kids request a sequel to one of my books, that’s really nice! It’s the enthusiasm for storytelling of this age group that keeps me writing. Also, I have to add that I write for the child in me who seeks to be understood in ways she wishes she’d been when she was young.
Q: Would you tell us about the inspiration for Across So Many Seas?
A: I was inspired, first of all, by the “other history” of 1492. This date is associated with the conquest of the Americas, but not everyone knows it was also the year that the Spanish kings expelled all the Jewish people from their kingdom. These expelled people became Sephardic Jews—the word “Sefarad” being the Hebrew word for Spain—and they held on to the Spanish language and the memory of their lost home. I set the opening of my book in 1492, envisioning the expulsion through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl. I was inspired, as well, by the story of my abuela, my paternal grandmother, who was a Sephardic woman, sent from Turkey to Cuba by herself as a young woman and never saw her parents again. She brought an oud, strumming tunes as she sang sad Sephardic love songs. I found her story mysterious and wished I knew more. I took liberties in fictionalizing her life, but through writing the book I felt I came to understand the depth of her loss.
Q: Your research for this book sounds extensive, including traveling to Spain. What was most surprising about your research?
A: I enjoy doing research and going places is a central part of my research. I traveled to Spain, to Turkey, to Cuba, and to Miami, all the places where the story takes place. I think what surprised me most was meeting Spaniards who are fascinated by the historical memory of the Jewish presence in Spain. They light Shabbat candles on Friday night and celebrate Hanukkah. I found this amazing and their desire for a kind of spiritual kinship inspired the ending of my book.
Q: The stories in Across So Many Seas encompass many cultures, including Sephardic and Cuban ways of life. One aspect of them is the languages spoken. How did you go about showing the evolution of these cultures through your novel?
A: I thought about how the first girl, Benvenida, would be speaking 15th century Spanish while the next girl, Reina, in 1923, would be speaking Ladino and Turkish, and then Alegra, in 1961, would be speaking Cuban Spanish and struggling to learn English at the end of her story, while Paloma, in 2003, would be speaking American English in Miami but also be a bilingual Spanish speaker. And they would all connect to their Spanish origins through the Sephardic songs in Ladino passed on to them through the generations. The evolution of these cultures comes through as well in the change of settings and we see how each girl connects with others who have a different heritage and they create friendships across cultural borders. In Benvenida’s part, there are divisions in her own family, with some choosing to remain Jewish and others converting to Catholicism, and yet they still remain close to each other. In Reina’s part, she forms a friendship with a Muslim boy, and that becomes the reason her father sends her away to Cuba. In Alegra’s part, she bonds with an Afro-Cuban girl who is her neighbor, and they go together to serve in the literacy campaign. Then in Paloma’s part, she discovers how different cultures can drift apart and flow together again like the waves of the sea.
Q: The lives of these four girls featured in the four sections of the Across So Many Seas span hundreds of years, starting in 1492 and going through 2003. You note, “Surely I could have created a few more characters between the fifteenth century and the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? I did think of it, but I chose not to.” Did you write the book chronologically or jump around between the four related stories and characters? Why?
A: I wrote the book chronologically. Then I went back and revised and edited, and at that point, I did jump around between the stories and characters. But before I could do that, I felt I had to get the 1492 story to be as complete as possible. I had an idea of each historical period (1923, 1961, 2003) in which the characters would be 12 years old, and that helped, knowing what the context would be for each story. Still, I wrote not being exactly sure how it would all end and how the threads of the four stories would come together. The magic of writing for me is not knowing too much and finding your way through the darkness, having faith that there will be light at the end of the tunnel.
Q: Each of these girls experiences exile or confronts the history of exile in her family. Despite the changes and pain, the girls and their families hold on to what is important to them. The girls persevere amidst intense challenges. What helped you depict these characters and write from their first-person perspective?
A: In my life as a cultural anthropologist, I spent many years listening to people’s stories in Spain, Mexico, and Cuba. I think that this training as a listener taught me to listen to my characters as a fiction writer and to tell their stories from first-person perspectives.
Q: This novel has personal connections to you because your family immigrated from Spain to Turkey on your father’s side, and your mother’s side was from Poland and Russia, and then they went on to Cuba and the United States. How do you decide which personal details to include and which ones to alter? Also, does writing about history so closely related to your family’s past change how you think about it? If so, how?
A: When writing, so many things come into play, a wide range of emotions, memories, things you know, things you wish you’d known, things you’d like to imagine happening differently than how they did in real life, and you follow your intuition and try to tell a story that feels alive and meaningful. As you put words down on the page, you decide which details seem necessary and which are distracting, and what you don’t know for sure, you invent, and what you only half know you fill in the other half. I remember my maternal grandfather, who was from Russia, saying he only ate bread and bananas when he arrived in Cuba as an immigrant. I found that detail so interesting I used it in Letters From Cuba, my earlier middle grade novel. In Across So Many Seas, I chose to focus on the story of my paternal grandmother’s oud, and how she stopped singing and playing music after she married, though in my book she comes back to singing in a heart-wrenching moment. Writing so closely about my family’s past allows me to fill in gaps in their stories and to reimagine the lives of those who came before me and made my life possible. Although I’m writing fiction, I feel that I get to know them better, that I form a more intimate relationship with them spiritually.
Q: For readers looking for more books like this, what are you reading and recommending this year?
A: I love the way Alan Gratz writes historical fiction from multiple points of view and I recommend his books highly. Two of my favorites are Refugee and Ground Zero. I’m a fan of Margarita Engle’s work, and admire how she writes historical fiction in the form of verse novels. Her books, Tropical Secrets, and Your Heart, My Sky, are among my favorites. Veera Hiranandani is another author who writes beautiful historical fiction. I’ve learned so much from reading her books, The Night Diary and How to Find What You’re Not Looking For, and she has a new book, Amil and the After, which is a sequel to The Night Diary. As for a Sephardic story, Elizabeth Graver’s Kantika, written for an adult readership, is a unique mesh of fiction and nonfiction inspired by her Sephardic grandmother’s story.
Q: What are you writing next?
A: I’m working on a verse novel. This book is very contemporary and it’s about loss and grief and finding hope after living through unbearable sorrow. I can’t say more until it’s done.
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.
Ruth Behar will be in conversation with fellow professor Devi Mays at Literati Bookstore, 124 East Washington Street, Ann Arbor, on Tuesday, February 13, at 6:30 pm.