Alice Hoffman talked with Bookshelf about her most recent young adult novel, Incantation (Little, Brown). Set during the Spanish Inquisition, the book is narrated by 16-year-old Estrella, who must come to terms with her family’s secret identity and her place within it.
What was your inspiration for Incantation?
I have always been interested in the Marranos, the hidden Jews, and what a terrible choice that was to make. So many looked down on them for selling out. The [Marranos] pay such a huge price for their decision. Whatever you decide in a circumstance like that, it’s a no-win situation.
I’ve always felt, as a Jew, that your identity really is hidden and secret much of the time. I was very interested in all of those things. And I realized I knew nothing about the Spanish Inquisition, and my kids knew nothing about it. It had been in none of our history classes, and I wondered, is that what will happen with the Holocaust, as well, that we’ll forget what it was like?
I started to feel that this is really important, especially given what’s going on in the Middle East, and that I needed to try to understand what was going on then.
How did you decide that the subject was best suited to a YA novel rather than a book for adults?
I think for a couple of reasons. One because I’m not a historian and couldn’t write a huge detailed novel. I thought the way to write about [the Inquisition] was in an emotional story. What I really wanted to get at were the core feelings of the people involved. The main character is learning about it just as I was learning about it. I wanted to write for someone who comes to this knowing nothing about the time period or the situation.
It’s strange how some things have come to me as teen novels—the books that are the most emotionally raw, like Green Angel, which is about 9/11, and The Foreshadowing, about the involvement in war. Whenever I’ve had these big questions for myself, they’ve come as teen novels.
These teen novels are brutally emotional, and I think that teen readers understand this state. Adults are more analytical and perhaps removed from that emotional state.
Why write this book now?
For me, it’s directly related to what’s happening in the Middle East, to the position of Jews in the world, to this sense, really, [of what] Mel Gibson said: “The Jews are at the bottom of every war.” It’s a sentiment that [is not his] alone.
When I read about the history of Spain, [I saw] that there was a time when this wasn’t true, when Muslims were in control and Jews had rights. It seems to me I was trying to explain for myself what’s being played out in the Middle East.[Also]
I was on a book tour and I was staying at this—what I thought of as—haunted hotel in Miami. I did a reading and when I went back, the cab driver said, out of the blue, “There was a synagogue in Cuba, and when Castro came, the head rabbi put a spell on the door, so he couldn’t get past the doors.” I know now that Castro is said to be on a list of possible Marranos, that his mother was allegedly Jewish. I thought, “This is a strange story that the cab driver is telling me,” and I thought, “I’m meant to write this book.”
It was interesting to me, too, because of how religion and magic are so intertwined for a lot of people. Spain was the one European country where there was no witch hunt. In [Incantation], the focus is on Kabbalah, which is a philosophy and study, not magic. But the whole idea [in Spain at that time] of books being equated as the dangerous spark—it’s always the burning of books that are at the center.
Someone pointed out to me that the Jewish religion is the one religion where, in order to become a man, one must be able to read. That’s really part of the legacy and the tradition. And now in the Muslim countries, women are not allowed to learn or be educated. It’s just so sad that that keeps happening again and again.
Do you think the themes of the Spanish Inquisition have resonance today?
Yes, I think hugely. So many barbarous things are done in the name of religion that have nothing to do with religion but have more to do with fear and greed. It seems that we’re in the midst of something that feels very similar to me. Religion is like a powder keg right now.