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.
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?
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 was born in Havana, Cuba and grew up in New York. She has lived in Spain and Mexico and has returned to Cuba to build bridges around culture and art. She is the author of the prize-winning middle grade novels, Lucky Broken Girl and Letters from Cuba, as well as the picture book, Tía Fortuna’s New Home, which have all been PJ Library selections. Her new picture book, Pepita Meets Bebita, was co-authored with her son, Gabriel Frye-Behar, and addresses transitions in a new family. Her latest middle grade novel, Across So Many Seas, a work of Sephardic historical fiction, will be released in February, 2024. She lives in Ann Arbor, where she is a Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology at the University of 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 Times, The 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.