Ruth Behar has called herself “an anthropologist specializing in homesickness,” and her books, both fiction and non-fiction, bear this out. In her middle class novel Letters from Cuba, writes a young Jewish girl from Cuba to a sister left behind in Poland. In the memoirs for adults Heavy travelBorn in Cuba to a Jewish family and later emigrated to the United States, Behar explores her own evolving relationship with cultural identity during her travels and training as an anthropologist. her latest work, Tía Fortuna’s New Home: A Jewish Cuban Journey (Knopf, Jan. 25), puts the theme at the center of a picture book illustrated by Devon Holzwarth, which in our review calls a “nostalgic look at a little-known but rich culture within the wider Jewish-American community.” It tells the story of a young girl who helps her aunt, an elderly Jewish Cuban woman who has lived in the beautiful Seaway condominium in Miami for a long time, to move on. With an eye to the past and hope for the future, aunt and niece work together on a new chapter. We spoke to Behar by Zoom for more information. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How did your background as an anthropologist contribute to this book?
I see anthropology as a discipline about the search for home. There are many people, like myself, whom I call diasporic anthropologists. We go back to where we or our families come from and do research there. And then if we go back to where we actually live, which in my case is Michigan – which is, well, not really Cuba [laughs]I feel homesick when I’m here, and when I’m in Cuba I realize that a strong part of me is American and couldn’t be more Cuban. Anthropology gave me a framework and a philosophy to think about. In this part of my life, this parallel career where I write the things I’ve always loved – poetry and fiction for young people – I have a new way of talking about ideas I’ve spent so long untangling for myself. .
What were you focused on, telling a story for young readers?
In many ways, I found it much harder to write a picture book than a middle-aged novel! I had to be so much more precise.
More like writing poetry?
Yes, much more like writing poetry – like a long prose poem. I loved that aspect of it, but if I was writing a novel I would have wondered, Well who was Tía Fortuna† And there was all this context that I would have filled in with a novel or ethnography.
There are so many themes that come up in this story: loss; to spread; the acceptance of loss, of aging, of mortality.
It was about passing on culture to another generation, but with pleasure, because you don’t want to saddle a child with all the melancholy of the Sephardic story. How do you convey that beauty and resilience in a children’s story? I focused on symbols – foods like the bourekas and the ojitos, the evil eyes. All these traditions mean a lot to me. And the place itself, the Seaway, which is a real place and which was supposed to be demolished. I remember visiting these beautiful casitas that were right on the beach, and I thought about what leaving that place would mean for Fortuna as a diaspora woman.
I loved the way she said goodbye to her surroundings, like old friends.
I saw moving on and accepting new places as part of her heritage. She is from Cuba, but her parents are from Turkey and before that from Spain. Her farewell to the space was her heritage that spoke, but there is also a magical element to how she says goodbye. I wanted everything to be a little alive for Tía Fortuna. And I loved the idea of the magic of trees that last so long.
How did the collaboration with your illustrator, Devon Holzwarth, go?
I sent her a lot of pictures! Pillows – because I thought Tía Fortuna would have a lot of embroidered pillows – and evil eye bracelets and hamsas. Devon did such an amazing job adding the interior details of the house. Since it is a story about the loss of a house by Fortuna, the interior details were very important to me.
A Spanish edition will be released at the same time as the English version – have you considered translating the text yourself?
I was self-conscious about translating. I speak Spanish all the time, but I was concerned about choosing the right words and grammar. I insisted on revising the translation, but in the end I made very few changes. Yitzia Yani is also Sephardic and Cuban, and she did a fantastic job. I’m absolutely thrilled that the two editions are coming out simultaneously. I wanted to release a Ladino edition at the same time, but let’s see how the Spanish version does first.
What are you working on now?
My next novel is a middle-class novel, and it’s like I haven’t worked on anything before. It follows four characters from different time periods. All four are Sephardic, and they are all young women who struggle with different facets of identity and religion. They all have very revolution-oriented stories.
Ilana Bensussen Epstein is a writer and filmmaker based in Boston†