Spotlight

[Interview] Ruth Behar: Finding Wholeness in the Age of Multicultural Childhoods





This interview comes out of an on-stage conversation I had with Richard Blanco at Books & Books in Miami on July 25, 2017. Richard Blanco is the fifth inaugural poet of the United States and the first Latino and openly gay man to be selected for this honor. I am fortunate to have been close friends with Richard for over twenty years and to have traveled together with him to Cuba three times. Together we run the Bridges to/from Cuba blog dedicated to telling untold and emotionally profound stories about the Cuban experience. I greatly appreciated Richard’s interview questions and decided to write out our exchange, so this conversation could be remembered.


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Richard Blanco: So Ruth, to get things going and add some context, give us a brief synopsis of Lucky Broken Girl in your own words. And, more importantly, tell us what inspired you to write it? What was the urgency?

Ruth Behar: Lucky Broken Girl is a book about a Cuban immigrant girl just arriving in New York, starting to find her way, when she is involved in a terrible car accident with her family. She suffers a serious fracture to her right leg and is placed in a body cast so that her legs will grow at the same rate. She spends a year in bed. Sad and angry at first, she gradually comes to accept her state and find luck in her suffering. Immobile, she takes a journey of the mind and the heart, learning that she isn’t the only one who suffers and listening to the stories of those around her. She comes to forgive the boys who caused the accident who died as a result of their recklessness, and she realizes that she is now on another life path, finding her way toward becoming an artist, inspired by Frida Kahlo, whom she discovers through the kindness of a Mexican neighbor.

This was a story I had carried with me all my life – I was that girl in the body cast. The accident was an event that changed my life and made me the person I am today. I had tried to tell the story earlier, but from the point of view of my adult self looking back on her childhood. The accident created some serious trauma. I never felt totally secure about my leg, always feared it could break again, and never could run well afterwards. I get panic attacks on the highway and can only drive on side streets. I have never forgotten the experience. It was etched into my body. Nearing sixty, I decided I needed to write down my story, but from the point of view of the girl─ Ruthie’s perspective. Somehow the child’s voice felt natural to me, as if the girl was whispering in my ear. The story flowed out of me as no other writing had before. The first draft was a series of vignettes that I then developed into full chapters.

RBL: Given that this story is partly autobiographical, why did you choose to write a novel for young adults, instead of, say, a memoir, or some other genre? As both a reader and a writer, I’m curious: What’s the difference between a young adult novel and a “regular” novel? What defines the genre of young adult literature as you understand it? You and I often talk about our mutual interest in blurring or bridging genres. Was that part of what you wanted to do in this book?

RBE: Writing for young readers gave me a sense of freedom; I could write with a mix of innocence and wisdom, which is the way kids approach the world. I felt a need to go deep into that experience, which I had shelved away as being in the past, over and done with, and revive it, to see who that girl I was had been and give her the full empathy she deserved. As a child, I was often reminded that I was lucky to have survived, that a broken leg wasn’t the worst that could have happened. Five young men died in the accident and the woman in the car in front of us was left paralyzed. So in resurrecting that moment, I could give that girl a chance to speak and be heard and be loved.

My novel is technically a middle-grade novel, not a young adult novel. The protagonist is 10 and middle grade goes to age 12, then the teenage years, 13-18, is the young adult genre. But younger and older kids are reading the book, as are adults.

Middle grade and young adult literature have young protagonists and the world is seen from their perspective. The language is accessible to children and teens but not simple by any means; indeed, books for young readers are often very poetic and lyrical. One of the things I love about writing for young readers is that I can let the poet in me speak.

Blurring and bridging genres─ yes, it’s something I do in all my work. I’m interested in the limits of what we can say within a certain form. When I read a book, I always want to know who the person writing the book is, so I’ve often meshed the autobiographical with my writing about people I’ve come to know on my journeys as an anthropologist. When writing ethnographies about people I’ve interviewed, I include my own story as an observer. It’s very hard to observe others without being affected by what they’re telling you. I have tried to express something of the poetry of getting to know the people placed in my path. The kindness of strangers, which is such a huge gift, makes it possible for us to go beyond our tribal understanding of the world and expand our ability to accept cultural differences and diversity.

RBL: I found Lucky Broken Girl just as moving and engaging as an adult novel, with just as many revealing and profound truths. I was especially moved by the novel’s message that we are all figuratively “broken” in some way. But we heal and our healing makes us stronger. Tell us more about that.

RBE: Thank you for your kind words. I agree that the main theme of the book is exactly that─ we are all broken in some way, by loss, by trauma, by sorrows we experience, and everyone is trying to heal and become stronger. What child has not suffered an injury? What child has not felt a wound to the body or the mind? We learn about boo-boos when we are tiny. We can be broken by cruel words that have been said to us by family, friends or strangers. We can also be broken by our experiences of losing home, of losing a sense of belonging. As immigrants, often we spend our lives trying to become whole again. Ruthie is broken away from Cuba, her homeland, and she experiences it through her mother’s memories, fragments of the island that have come with the family in their suitcases. We are all in constant search of wholeness.

RBL: I’m always inspired by your perspectives as a cultural anthropologist, especially on matters of the Cuban diaspora. You and your work have helped me understand so much about myself and the context of my own work. So, how does anthropology inform this novel? How does Ruth, the “anthropologist,” show up in the book?

RBE: Anthropology informs all my work; it is my perspective, my framework for looking at the world. I think of anthropology as the pursuit of an understanding of what makes us human, through the study of cultural diversity and difference. Being human is about the search for meaning. Storytelling is a core action that gives meaning to the lives of human beings around the globe. If we couldn’t tell stories, we wouldn’t be human. So for me, being a “storylistener” is how I have defined my role as an anthropologist; I am always listening to the stories of others and finding ways to share them with respect and gratitude.

Anthropology informs Lucky Broken Girl through an awareness of all the different immigrant groups that come together in Ruthie’s neighborhood in Queens, New York. No one is “the other” because all of the characters are “other” in that they are all Americans-in-the-making. Culture and cultural identity are key concepts in the book. Ruthie’s friend Ramu gives her a samosa to taste in school and it reminds her of the papas rellenas that her nanny used to make for her in Cuba. Ruthie asks her mother to make pastelitos de guayaba and gives one to Ramu, fearing it will be too exotic for him to appreciate, and instead he enjoys it immensely and says they also have guavas in India.

Ruthie is a “vulnerable observer,” a concept I introduced into anthropology years ago. She watches the world around her, not in a distant way, but rather with feeling, because she is vulnerable herself and sees that vulnerability in others. And she accepts the various ways that people try to offer spiritual support, whether it’s Ramu giving her his necklace with the Hindu dancing god Shiva, or her nanny in Cuba going to the shrine of San Lázaro to pray for her healing. She accepts the relativity of culture, one of the basic concepts of anthropology. She realizes that there isn’t one way of doing things; there are many ways, and they are all worthy.

RBL: Another unique perspective you bring to the literary table is that of a “Jewban”— that diaspora within a diaspora. Did that perception inform this book? How?

RBE: Jewban— yes! That Jewish-Cuban (Jewban or Juban) identity is always present in my life and work. It’s there from the start in Lucky Broken Girl, but woven into Ruthie’s worldview without a lot of fanfare. Growing up, I thought being a Jewban was normal, because I grew up with that mix of identities in my family and among my parents’ friends. Ruthie’s family eats challah for Shabbat on Friday nights, when they can afford it, and they also have a rich milky Cuban flan for dessert.

There is a lot of spiritual flexibility in Ruthie. Although aware that she is Jewish by birth, she is open to other religious traditions, which I think is a very Cuban thing. You can’t grow up in Cuba without an awareness of the santeros and the beautiful spiritual traditions the African slaves brought to Cuba. Not too long ago, I found pennies left as an offering for San Lázaro on my Sephardic Jewish father’s porch in New York.

An important character in the book is Baba, who is Ruthie’s Polish-Jewish maternal grandmother. Baba comforts Ruthie with her stories and through her, the reader learns about the Jewbans who were double refugees; they fled European anti-Semitism and found a refuge in Cuba, only to have to depart again for the United States when their economic livelihood was threatened by the communist turn of the Cuban Revolution.

Ruthie’s paternal side is Sephardic Jewish. Her father’s family is Turkish but descends from the Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain. Ruthie’s last name is Mizrahi, a classic Sephardic name, but she is closer to her Ashkenazi family, who speak Yiddish. The Sephardic grandparents make a cameo appearance at her eleventh birthday party, bringing two singing canaries “para alegrar la caza,” to bring joy to the house. In real life, my Sephardic grandparents lived in Brooklyn and we saw them less often than my Ashkenazi grandparents, but I always remembered that they had songbirds, which is a Turkish tradition, and how much I loved going to their house to hear them sing.

RBL: When I was about 4 years old, my family “immigrated” to the República de Miami from New York, which is where your novel is set. Reading it made me recall some very important and tender memories of my family life in New York. Yet, it’s a setting that we don’t often find in stories about the Cuban exile experience. How does the New York setting inform the novel? What would be different if the novel happened to be set in Miami, let’s say?

RBE: Growing up in New York gave me a very unique perspective on the world. I came to experience the amazing multicultural diversity of the city, seeing different immigrants living side by side, colliding with each other. In Miami, it’s possible to be in an exclusively Cuban enclave, which continues today in neighborhoods like Westchester and Hialeah. You can find a lot of Cubans in New York─ many settled in Spanish Harlem in the 1940s and 1950s before the Cuban Revolution─ but those who came afterwards were dispersed and many went to Queens, which is a big immigrant borough of people from all over the world. I have heard it said that more languages are spoken in Queens per capita than in any other part of the United States.

Setting the novel in New York allowed me to show how Ruthie’s identity is informed by her relationship with a diverse set of immigrants─ her Indian friend Ramu, her Belgian friend Danielle, her Mexican neighbor Chicho, her Puerto Rican physical therapist Amara, and many others. She is surrounded by her Cuban family, but she realizes that they are not the only immigrants. Moreover, she learns that even within her family there are different approaches to being an immigrant. Her mother is nostalgic for Cuba, while her father thinks they should move forward and forget the past.

RBL: Given the wide spectrum of your work and interests, would you say there is some kind of central theme or obsession that ties everything together? And if so, how is that reflected in Lucky Broken Girl?

RBE: I think that what ties together all my work and interests is vulnerability, an unceasing awareness of the fragility of life. By being made vulnerable through her injury, Ruthie comes to see this fragility and to cherish the beauty of life more fully.

RBL: Lastly, how would you describe Lucky Broken Girl in one word?

RBE: LOVE. In the end, Ruthie learns a fundamental lesson: that without the love of all those who cared for her she would never have healed.


About the Author

Ruth Behar was born in Havana, Cuba and grew up in New York City. She is the Victor Haim Perera Collegiate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan and the recipient of a MacArthur Fellows “Genius” Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. A traveler, storyteller, poet, educator, and public speaker, her books include The Presence of the Past in a Spanish Village, Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza’s Story and The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart. Ruth frequently visits and writes about her native Cuba and is the author of An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba and Traveling Heavy: A Memoir in between Journeys. She is the editor of the pioneering anthology, Bridges to Cuba and co-editor of The Portable Island: Cubans at Home in the World. Her poetry is included in many collections, among them The Whole Island: Six Decades of Cuban Poetry and The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. Her debut novel for young readers, Lucky Broken Girl, the story of a Cuban-Jewish immigrant girl, is a 2017 release from Penguin Random House. You can find her online at www.ruthbehar.com.



About the Interviewer

Richard Blanco is the fifth presidential inaugural poet in U.S. history— the youngest, first Latino, immigrant, and gay person to serve in such a role. He was born in Madrid to Cuban exiled parents and raised in Miami. He is the author of the memoirs The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood and For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey; the poetry chapbooks Matters of the Sea, One Today, and Boston Strong; the poetry collections Looking for the Gulf Motel, Directions to the Beach of the Dead, and City of a Hundred Fires; a children’s book of his inaugural poem, “One Today,” illustrated by Dav Pilkey; and Boundaries, a collaboration with photographer Jacob Hessler. With Ruth Behar, he is co-creator of the blog Bridges to/from Cuba: Lifting the Emotional Embargo. His many honors include the Agnes Starrett Poetry Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press, the Beyond Margins Award from the PEN American Center, the Paterson Poetry Prize, a Lambda Literary Award, and two Maine Literary Awards. The Academy of American Poets named him its first Education Ambassador in 2015. You can find him online at www.richard-blanco.com.

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About Anansesem

Anansesem is an online magazine of Caribbean children's and young adult literature by adults and children. We strive to bring you the best in news, reviews and creative content from the world of Caribbean children's publishing.
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