The Con­ver­so’s Return: Con­ver­sion and Sephar­di His­to­ry in Con­tem­po­rary Lit­er­a­ture and Culture

Dalia Kandiy­oti

January 14, 2020

Five cen­turies after the forced con­ver­sion of Span­ish and Por­tuguese Jews to Catholi­cism, sto­ries of these con­ver­sos’ descen­dants uncov­er­ing long-hid­den Jew­ish roots have come to light and tak­en hold of the lit­er­ary and pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion. This seem­ing­ly remote his­to­ry has inspired a wave of con­tem­po­rary writ­ing involv­ing hid­den arti­facts, famil­ial whis­pers and secrets, and clan­des­tine Jew­ish rit­u­al prac­tices point­ing to a past that had been pre­sumed dead and buried. The Con­ver­so’s Return explores the cul­tur­al pol­i­tics and lit­er­ary impact of this reawak­ened inter­est in con­ver­so and cryp­to-Jew­ish his­to­ry, ances­try, and iden­ti­ty, and asks what this fas­ci­na­tion with lost-and-found her­itage can tell us about how we relate to and make use of the past.

Dalia Kandiy­oti offers nuanced inter­pre­ta­tions of con­tem­po­rary fic­tion­al and auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal texts about cryp­to-Jews in Cuba, Mex­i­co, New Mex­i­co, Spain, France, the Ottoman Empire, and Turkey. These works not only imag­ine what might be miss­ing from the his­tor­i­cal archive but also sug­gest an alter­na­tive his­tor­i­cal con­scious­ness that under­scores uncom­mon con­ver­gences of and sol­i­dar­i­ties with­in Sephar­di, Chris­t­ian, Mus­lim, con­ver­so, and Sab­batean his­to­ries. Steeped in dias­po­ra, Sephar­di, transamer­i­can, Iber­ian, and world lit­er­a­ture stud­ies, The Con­ver­so’s Return illu­mi­nates how the con­ver­so nar­ra­tive can enrich our under­stand­ing of his­to­ry, geneal­o­gy, and col­lec­tive memory.

Discussion Questions

Draw­ing togeth­er a wide swath of con­tem­po­rary lit­er­a­ture writ­ten in Eng­lish, Span­ish, French, and Turk­ish, Dalia Kandiy­oti reveals the excit­ing poten­tial of the study of Sephardic cul­ture to illu­mi­nate themes and ques­tions of glob­al rel­e­vance that bridge the Mid­dle East, Europe, and the Amer­i­c­as, sev­er­al lit­er­ary tra­di­tions — as well as the realms of Judaism, Chris­tian­i­ty, and Islam. In addi­tion to exam­in­ing the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of con­ver­sion and the fig­ure of the Con­ver­so, cryp­to-Judaism and secret iden­ti­ties, and invent­ed and reimag­ined genealo­gies, The Converso’s Return also explodes the very cat­e­go­ry of Sephardic” and reveals the insta­bil­i­ty and mul­ti­plic­i­ty of mean­ings attached to it.

Through a the­o­ret­i­cal­ly rich explo­ration of fic­tion­al and auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal texts set in geo­gra­phies span­ning from Spain and France to the for­mer Ottoman Empire and Turkey, to Cuba, Mex­i­co, and the Unit­ed States, The Converso’s Return exca­vates sup­pressed his­to­ries and the trau­ma of expul­sion and per­se­cu­tion by reveal­ing how authors have dis­cov­ered rem­nants of their own hid­den pasts in the absence of a set archive. In tack­ling the con­cept of authen­tic­i­ty” head-on, The Converso’s Return com­pels read­ers to con­front the many con­ver­gences of 1492 and its reawak­ened lega­cies more than a half-mil­len­ni­um later.