Blank Ocean and Mere Sky, James Crowe Richmond

Ruth Behar and Mar­jorie Agosín have been friends and admir­ers of each other’s writ­ing for close to thir­ty years. They have much in com­mon as Jew­ish Lati­na writ­ers and edu­ca­tors: Both write in two lan­guages — Span­ish and Eng­lish — and in mul­ti­ple gen­res, includ­ing mem­oir, essays, poet­ry, and fic­tion. Behar’s work is informed by her back­ground in anthro­pol­o­gy; Agosín’s by her human rights activism. Recent­ly, both authors have turned to writ­ing for younger read­ers, win­ning the pres­ti­gious Pura Bel­pré Award for their debut mid­dle-grade nov­els, Lucky Bro­ken Girl and I Lived on But­ter­fly Hill, respec­tive­ly. In this con­ver­sa­tion, they dis­cuss how they found their unique lyri­cal voic­es by bridg­ing bor­ders and cultures.

Ruth Behar: One of the many things that bring us togeth­er is our deep con­nec­tion to the coun­tries of the oth­er Amer­i­ca” where we spent our child­hoods – you in Chile, and I in Cuba. Let’s start this con­ver­sa­tion by dis­cussing how we, as Jew­ish Lati­na writ­ers, have been shaped by mul­ti­ple lan­guages and cul­tures. What were the lan­guages that influ­enced you?

Mar­jorie Agosín: As a child grow­ing up in San­ti­a­go, Chile, I was sur­round­ed by many lan­guages: Yid­dish, Ladi­no, French, Ger­man, and Hebrew. It seemed to me that the com­mu­ni­ty of Euro­pean Jew­ish refugees — who fled the Nazis and pogroms — always con­gre­gat­ed at my grand­par­ents’ din­ner table. I loved lis­ten­ing to them switch between lan­guages. At the same time, both Yid­dish and Ger­man scared me because of their asso­ci­a­tion with dis­place­ment. Yid­dish was used when the adults want­ed to hide things from us or when they cursed some­one, and I sensed I was enter­ing a for­bid­den ter­ri­to­ry of my family’s past when I heard it. Only decades lat­er did I come to know about the Holo­caust and the mur­der of mem­bers of my fam­i­ly, but I sensed this before I actu­al­ly knew about it.

My beloved lan­guage was Span­ish. It was the lan­guage of the every­day and the lan­guage I spoke at school along with Hebrew. Span­ish was also the lan­guage of friend­ship and of belong­ing. I longed to belong to a coun­try, to a com­mu­ni­ty, and to my school because I sensed I was an out­sider in Chile, which was pre­dom­i­nant­ly Catholic and some­times anti­se­mit­ic. My grand­par­ents were always ready to take flight; my grand­moth­er kept a suit­case packed. Per­haps I became a writer to tell their sto­ries, as I have done in sev­er­al of my mem­oirs, but also to belong to a lan­guage that gave me a sense of being root­ed in one place. I have come to believe that this is an impos­si­ble task … but when I was a child, the idea gave me solace and peace.

And you, Ruth — what were the lan­guages of your childhood?

RB: The lan­guages that were spo­ken in my fam­i­ly were Yid­dish, on my mother’s side, and Ladi­no, on my father’s side. My Ashke­nazi grand­par­ents knew Pol­ish and Russ­ian, but they nev­er spoke either of them; those lan­guages were left behind in the coun­tries where they had suf­fered. My Sephardic grand­par­ents had more ami­ca­ble feel­ings about Turkey, where Jews had found an oasis after the expul­sion from Spain in the fif­teenth cen­tu­ry, and they pep­pered their con­ver­sa­tions with Turk­ish words. But for all four grand­par­ents, the com­mon lan­guage — liv­ing in Cuba and rais­ing their fam­i­lies on the island — was Spanish.

The major­i­ty of Jews in Cuba were Pol­ish, and that is why the term for a Jew on the island is pola­co, even to this day. The Pol­ish Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty was so insu­lar that it was con­sid­ered an inter­mar­riage when my moth­er mar­ried my Sephardic father in 1956. My mater­nal grand­moth­er asked, How will we speak to Albertico’s fam­i­ly? They don’t speak Yid­dish!” In her mind, you had to speak Yid­dish in order to be Jew­ish. Lit­tle did she know that only a few years lat­er they would all be immi­grants in the Unit­ed States, and that the lan­guage of home that would unite the fam­i­ly would be Span­ish. I briefly attend­ed a Jew­ish day school in Havana, where instruc­tion was in Yid­dish and Span­ish. When we left Cuba in the ear­ly 1960s, my moth­er packed my school uni­form in her suit­case and I still hold on to it as a pre­cious sou­venir, but I for­got most of the Yid­dish I learned. I felt sad about los­ing this Jew­ish lan­guage. Grow­ing up, I’d see my grand­moth­er read­ing Forverts and books by Isaac Bashe­vis Singer in Yid­dish, and I longed to be able to read them, too.

Like you, my favorite lan­guage has always been Span­ish. Even as I stu­dious­ly learned Eng­lish as a young girl in New York, I loved hear­ing and speak­ing Span­ish. It was only when I was in my twen­ties that I began to under­stand that Span­ish came to me not only through my Cuban her­itage, but also through my Sephardic her­itage. Ladi­no — a mix­ture of Old Span­ish, Hebrew, and oth­er lan­guages — had been used by half of my fam­i­ly for cen­turies. Once I real­ized this, Span­ish became an even stronger part of my iden­ti­ty, and it’s what led me to go into cul­tur­al anthro­pol­o­gy and spend years trav­el­ing to Spain, Mex­i­co, and Cuba, liv­ing and writ­ing in the Span­ish language.

How did you begin writ­ing, Marjorie?

MA: My ear­ly writ­ings were poems. I wrote them day and night, and some­times they even came to me while I was dream­ing. My par­ents always praised me for this, espe­cial­ly my father. He told me that it was bor­ing to be a doc­tor or a lawyer, but that being a poet was mag­i­cal. He is no longer with us, but every morn­ing when I go to my desk in the attic, I hear his voice and I greet him by say­ing, Here we are, Papa, ready to start the day with a poem.”

When I was a child, we would often see Pablo Neru­da when we stayed at our sum­mer house. He became my hero because he was always so atten­tive, look­ing at the sea and then try­ing to draw it with his words. I want­ed to be a bit like him. He gave me a hand­writ­ten poem that I still keep as a trea­sure. When my chil­dren were very young, they would tell their friends that their moth­er had a poem writ­ten by Pablo Neru­da. I am sure their friends did not know who Don Pablo was, but it felt so spe­cial that my chil­dren knew that this small gift from the Nobel lau­re­ate was impor­tant to me.

Agosín with her grand­moth­er Jose­fi­na in Viña del Mar, Chile, in 1995. Pho­to cour­tesy of the author

RB: How won­der­ful that your father encour­aged you to be a writer. My tra­jec­to­ry was dif­fer­ent, because I wasn’t encour­aged to read or to write by my fam­i­ly. Short­ly after we arrived from Cuba, I was in a ter­ri­ble car acci­dent, which I lat­er wrote about in my mid­dle-grade nov­el, Lucky Bro­ken Girl. It left me bedrid­den for a year and turned me into a read­er and a writer, since there was lit­tle else for me to do while immo­bile. After I could walk again, I became very con­tem­pla­tive and shy, and was always read­ing poems and nov­els, and phi­los­o­phy books I didn’t under­stand. I kept a diary, and with the encour­age­ment of a high school teacher, who was also Cuban, I began to write poems and short sto­ries in Span­ish. That was how I start­ed writ­ing, but I lacked con­fi­dence. My gre­gar­i­ous fam­i­ly thought I was strange and lone­ly. They want­ed me to be a nor­mal” girl who went to par­ties and wasn’t so serious.

I gave up writ­ing poems to study cul­tur­al anthro­pol­o­gy. It was only after I embarked on sev­er­al trips to Cuba, start­ing thir­ty years ago, that I returned to my old love for poet­ry and fic­tion. My next project is a pic­ture book, Tía Fortuna’s New Home, which intro­duces young chil­dren to Sephardic cul­ture. You were a read­er of an ear­ly draft, and your encour­age­ment was impor­tant to me. Speak­ing of writ­ing for young read­ers, how did you decide to write for children?

MA: I began writ­ing for chil­dren thanks to the love and trust of my good friend Lori Carl­son Hijue­los, who invit­ed me to con­tribute to an anthol­o­gy for mid­dle-grade read­ers. I devel­oped a char­ac­ter for the col­lec­tion named Nana Del­fi­na, who lat­er also became a pro­tag­o­nist in my two YA nov­els, I Lived on But­ter­fly Hill and The Maps of Mem­o­ry. I could not have cho­sen a more mean­ing­ful path for myself than writ­ing in this genre. Writ­ing for young ado­les­cents is a way to engage with a new gen­er­a­tion. As authors, we want to instill a world of pos­si­bil­i­ties. We want to give young peo­ple agency, the capac­i­ty to dream and to be resilient when faced with adver­si­ty. How did you start writ­ing for young readers?

RB: It hap­pened spon­ta­neous­ly. As I was near­ing the age of six­ty, mem­o­ries came flood­ing back about the car acci­dent I was in when I was ten years old, and I wrote them down. I not only recalled how it felt to be bedrid­den as a young girl, but also imag­ined what it was like for my Cuban immi­grant fam­i­ly to have to con­front such a dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion when they were strug­gling to sur­vive and adapt to a new life in the Unit­ed States. I thought about my moth­er hav­ing to take care of me, my father work­ing sev­er­al jobs to pay the med­ical bills, my mater­nal grand­moth­er telling me sto­ries to calm me, and friends and neigh­bors all try­ing to cheer me up and give me hope that I would heal.

These mem­o­ries and imag­in­ings devel­oped into the nov­el Lucky Bro­ken Girl. After­ward I wrote anoth­er nov­el, Let­ters from Cuba, also about an immi­grant jour­ney. It was inspired by my grand­moth­er Esther, who start­ed a new life in Cuba after flee­ing Poland on the eve of World War II. I set the nov­el in a rur­al town called Agra­monte, a few hours from Havana, and depict­ed a a twelve-year-old char­ac­ter, Esther, who inserts her­self into the mix of Span­ish, Afro‑, and Chi­nese Cuban cul­tures, while hold­ing on to her Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and help­ing her father bring their oth­er fam­i­ly mem­bers out of Poland.

How do polit­i­cal issues influ­ence your work?

Behar in Havana, Cuba in 2017. Pho­to cour­tesy of the author

MA: Polit­i­cal vio­lence has had a direct impact on me. I lived in Chile in the sev­en­ties, when peo­ple sim­ply dis­ap­peared or were tor­tured in the base­ments of for­mer depart­ment stores. In the sum­mers, it was pos­si­ble to hear the screams of the vic­tims. I did not want to become an obliv­i­ous observ­er; I want­ed to share with oth­ers what the his­to­ry books often try to negate. The pro­tag­o­nist of The Maps of Mem­o­ry, Celeste Mar­coni, learns that her moth­er was tor­tured dur­ing the Pinochet regime. This leads her to become engaged in social jus­tice. I believe chil­dren already under­stand the pain of oth­ers and that they suf­fer great vio­lence from the adult world.

RB: I agree. While we can’t hide the hor­ri­ble events of his­to­ry from young read­ers, it’s impor­tant to also offer hope and remind them that there is good­ness in the world. The young pro­tag­o­nists of my two nov­els, Ruthie and Esther, are deeply aware of the tide of his­to­ry bring­ing sud­den and fright­en­ing change, whether it’s the rev­o­lu­tion in Cuba, as por­trayed in Lucky Bro­ken Girl, or the rise of Nazism, as in Let­ters from Cuba. Both pro­tag­o­nists learn about the val­ue of form­ing com­mu­ni­ties in order to stand up for what is good and humane.

The sea is impor­tant to both of us, in our lives and in our work. What does it mean to you?

MA: El mar, always the sea. Dur­ing the long sum­mer months when I was a girl, we used to dri­ve every week­end to our small cot­tage in a sea­side vil­lage called El Quis­co. It was there that I became enam­ored of the music of the water. At night, I would open the win­dows of the bed­room that I shared with my sis­ter and fall asleep to the gen­tle sounds of the waves.

Lat­er on, the vast oceans of the world took on a dif­fer­ent mean­ing. I learned that rel­a­tives on both sides of my fam­i­ly fled the Nazis by ship and land­ed at the port city of Val­paraiso — the sea brought them to a safe harbor.

I now spend part of the year by the coast of Maine, where my first YA nov­el, I Lived on But­ter­fly Hill, takes place. The Atlantic has become my new ocean. I love its grays that turn into blues. For me, the sea rep­re­sents his­to­ry and new beginnings.

RB: I was born on an island, so the sea will always be a part of me. In the apart­ment where we lived in Havana, the sea was a few blocks away, and when I was a child, my par­ents would take me to stroll along the icon­ic Malecón sea­wall. Grow­ing up in NewYork, I knew the sea was there, but it was too far away to feel it in my bones. When I returned to Cuba as an adult, it was so emo­tion­al for me to stroll on the Malecón again; I couldn’t stop cry­ing. The sea rep­re­sents the many exiles of my ances­tors, who left homes that no longer felt like home, cross­ing the infi­nite waters to start over in new places that promised hope. Being from Cuba, I know the sea is sacred. With its waves, its back-and-forth, it brings togeth­er past and present, giv­ing us a glimpse of eternity.

So, I won­der, Mar­jorie, was it dif­fi­cult for you to adjust to life in the Unit­ed States? Do you still feel like an immi­grant, or do you feel like you are part of this country?

MA: We emi­grat­ed from Chile when I was fif­teen. My father’s lab­o­ra­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chile was con­stant­ly being van­dal­ized and the pres­ence of the mil­i­tary was always in the air. My father hoped to find a bet­ter life in North Amer­i­ca, but our ear­ly years here were painful for many rea­sons. We left our extend­ed fam­i­ly back home — aunts and uncles who were always retelling the sto­ries of their past, old­er cousins play­ing jokes on me, Sun­day din­ners at my grand­par­ents’, and many birth­day par­ties. I no longer had all that was so pre­cious to me. My par­ents tried to find belong­ing in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty of Athens, Geor­gia, but we were not wel­comed at all and were even met with sus­pi­cion. My moth­er even­tu­al­ly found solace and com­pan­ion­ship among Span­ish-speak­ing friends — all Catholics, and all new­com­ers. They includ­ed us in their world and invit­ed us to their tables.

I believe, Ruth, that this sense of being an out­sider has defined my iden­ti­ty and my writ­ing life. You once told me that you find com­pan­ion­ship in books and music. I also find a sense of home in the intan­gi­ble, and in the mem­o­ries that come to me when I begin to write and hear the wise words of my father that we are always from some­where else.

RB: I empathize with you in feel­ing like an out­sider, and the words of your father are very wise. I have often had to explain my iden­ti­ty to those who don’t under­stand that it is pos­si­ble to be Jew­ish and Cuban, so I know how painful it is to be mis­un­der­stood and to feel that you are being stripped of your sense of wholeness.

My per­spec­tive is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. I find inspi­ra­tion in the words of Cuban poet José Mar­tí, who fought tire­less­ly for the inde­pen­dence of Cuba, yet lived in New York for the last four­teen years of his life. He wrote a poem in which he stat­ed, Yo ven­go de todas partes/​Y hacia todas partes voy” (“I come from many places/​And to every place I go”). I also feel like I come from many places and belong to many places. My bond with Cuba is unbreak­able, but I also have strong ties to New York, where I grew up; Ann Arbor, where I have lived for thir­ty years and where my son was born; and Mia­mi, where I have fam­i­ly and friends and the north­ern Cuba” com­mu­ni­ty. I have also felt at home in the places where I worked as a cul­tur­al anthro­pol­o­gist in Spain and Mex­i­co, and was grate­ful to find so much kind­ness among strangers. And, as you say, Mar­jorie, we also con­struct a sense of belong­ing in our hous­es, which are filled with mem­o­ries and sou­venirs of our lives, and in lis­ten­ing to music — I lis­ten to Sephardic songs that I love, even though they make me cry. We find our homes in our writ­ing, and in doing so, we can help to cre­ate a sense of home for read­ers who are search­ing to belong more ful­ly to the world we all share.

Ruth Behar, the Pura Bel­pré Award-win­ning author of Lucky Bro­ken Girl and Let­ters from Cuba, was born in Havana, Cuba, grew up in New York, and has also lived in Spain and Mex­i­co. Her work also includes poet­ry, mem­oir, and the acclaimed trav­el books An Island Called Home and Trav­el­ing Heavy. She was the first Lati­na to win a MacArthur Genius” Grant, and oth­er hon­ors include a John Simon Guggen­heim Fel­low­ship and being named a Great Immi­grant” by the Carnegie Cor­po­ra­tion. An anthro­pol­o­gy pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan, she lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Mar­jorie Agosín is the Pura Bel­pré Award – win­ning author of I Lived on But­ter­fly Hill and The Maps of Mem­o­ry. Raised in Chile, her fam­i­ly moved to the Unit­ed States to escape the hor­rors of the Pinochet takeover of their coun­try. She has received the Letras de Oro Prize for her poet­ry, and her writ­ings about — and human­i­tar­i­an work for — women in Chile have been the focus of fea­ture arti­cles in The New York TimesThe Chris­t­ian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor, and Ms. mag­a­zine. She has also won the Lati­no Lit­er­a­ture Prize for her poet­ry. She is a Span­ish pro­fes­sor at Welles­ley College.