Ruth Behar, author of the Pura Belpré Award-winning Lucky Broken Girl, interweaves the lives of four Sephardic Jewish 12-year-olds across generations as they navigate cultural, familial, and societal upheaval in her latest middle grade novel, Across So Many Seas. Drawing inspiration from her own family’s history, Behar follows Benvenida fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 to what is now Istanbul; descendant Reina’s banishment by her father from Turkey to Cuba in 1923; Reina’s daughter Alegra’s immigration from Cuba to Miami in 1961; and Alegra’s Afro-Cuban daughter Paloma who, in 2003, takes a trip to Spain during which she learns about her ancestors’ history. Behar spoke with PW about how she stays connected to her ancestors, how her work as an anthropologist informs her writing, and how her desire to learn inspires her stories.
Each of your protagonists rely on music and poetry to connect with their heritage. How important have music and poetry been in your life and in relating to your family history?
I’ve always loved music and poetry. That lyrical side of life was always very important to me. It really goes back to my youthful days. We had a lot of music at home. I played the guitar and the violin, and my brother is actually a musician now. I was also very lucky to have a Cuban teacher in high school. I was writing poems at the time, and she really encouraged me to write in Spanish as well as English.
In Across So Many Seas, I wanted to weave it in because I think, particularly for Sephardic Jews, that one of the ways that we connect with our heritage—which is very old and goes all the way back to Spain—is through music and through song: beautiful love songs and lullabies, sad songs of saying goodbye to people and to places. All of that is just as important to my heritage as food and proverbs and stories.
Where did this story originate? How do you decide what you’re going to work on next?
It has to be a story that’s tugging at my heart in some way. Having written my autobiographical-type novel [Lucky Broken Girl], and then having written about Baba, my beloved maternal grandmother [in Letters from Cuba], it just seemed like now was the time to consider my other grandmother, Abuela—still beloved, but someone I knew less well. I wanted to honor her memory.
Twenty years ago, I made a documentary about Sephardic Jews in Cuba, so I had been thinking about Sephardic topics for quite some time. Still, I thought, “Can I write a Sephardic novel? Would it just be about my grandmother? Or would it have other aspects to it?” I was also very curious about the expulsion in 1492. Somehow, all of that started to come together for me. But the question was, “How can I weave the past and the present together?”
Usually, something has to have affected me in some way. I do get very inspired by things that have happened in real life that I’m trying to understand, or I’m trying to expand upon, or trying to imagine how things might have been or what could have happened. So, I just start with real life and memory and things I’ve heard about, but maybe only half know about, and fill those gaps with fiction.
With Letters from Cuba, I was thinking about how my Polish Jewish grandmother made it to Cuba and helped bring the rest of her family to the island and saved them from certain death during WWII. I thought that was so heroic. How could she have done that? What kind of young person was she? A similar feeling inspired this story about my abuela. She got sent to Cuba all by herself and we don’t exactly know why. When there’s a mystery or a conundrum, I’m like, “I’m going to try to figure out how this happened and tell the story.”
Did your desire to “imagine how things might have been or what could have happened” influence how you wrote Paloma’s experiences?
Paloma is a very unique and dreamy character; her name means dove in Spanish, and doves symbolize peace. She’s the one who flies back and forth and brings people together. In trying to understand where she comes from as an Afro-Cuban child with Sephardic Jewish heritage, she’s bringing together the stories of her mother and her grandmother. I thought about her story as an interesting comparison to Benvenida’s, Reina’s, and Alegra’s because their stories are all about departure, displacement, going to a new place or a new country, a new land. Paloma is the one who returns.
In your author’s note, you write that “for many people who have a Sephardic heritage, there is this vast gap of time; only a few of us have been able to trace our lineage that far back.” Can you elaborate on how you included this gap in Across So Many Seas?
When I first outlined this book, I knew that the three final characters would be grandmother, mother, and daughter, and that they would be connecting to a distant ancestor in some way.
I’m fascinated that to this day, Sephardic Jews feel that they have this connection to 15th-century Spain, or further back even. How is it possible that after so many years, you can still feel this connection? What’s so interesting about Spain and Europe, in general, is that people coexist between the present and the distant past. The Sephardic Museum in Toledo, Spain is a former 14th-century synagogue that somehow managed to be preserved through being used in all these different ways throughout the centuries. But when they restored it, they found all these inscriptions in Hebrew from the 14th century that somehow managed to stay there and not be destroyed or bulldozed or something. I feel when I’m in Spain—and particularly in cities like Toledo that are just so incredibly rich with history—that the past isn’t something quite so distant. It doesn’t feel distant there in the old cobblestone streets that were once the Jewish quarter.
It felt right to me somehow that the three newer generations would still be able to connect with that past of 500 years ago. The gap is something that we all kind of live with. I know my genealogy up to my great-grandparents, but I don’t know further back than that. Yet I’m certain that we descend from Spain and from the Inquisition and from the expulsion. I don’t necessarily have all the proof or the genealogical evidence but given that we spoke Ladino and that our last name is Behar—which is from a town in Spain called Béjar—all these things connect us to this heritage.
Is it difficult for you to create narratives for characters from times and places you haven’t been?
Creating any kind of narrative is difficult. How are they going to speak? What do their speaking voices sound like? What do their interior monologues sound like? What’s going to happen to my characters? What scenes are going to be interesting? All of that is a challenge. I sit down to write, and I go, “Will I be able to do this?” That happens to me with everything I write, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph.
But it’s not that different for me from my work as an anthropologist. When you’re an anthropologist, you’re listening to people’s stories, and then you’re writing them down and figuring out how to represent them in a text. With fiction, it’s similar in that you’re listening to the character. These are some things I know about Paloma; these are the things that seem natural for her. With Reina, I had the sense that she was going to be a very melancholy character. She was inspired by my abuela, who I’ve always thought of as a little melancholy. She had a distant look in her eyes and so I asked myself, “What would she do? How would she think? How would she react to things?”
Having spent decades as an anthropologist listening to people’s stories, and traveling to so many places, and spending a lot of time with strangers who I came to trust completely and who were so incredibly kind and generous to me, it’s kind of the same with my fictional characters. They start off as strangers and then by the time I’m done with writing, it’s like, “Oh. Now I know who you are.”
Across So Many Seas by Ruth Behar. Penguin/Paulsen, $17.99 Feb. 6 ISBN 978-0-593-32340-3