Sunday, April 09, 2017

"If I Didn't Tell The Story, No One Else Would:" _Lucky Broken Girl_, by Ruth Behar

Cover Art by Penelope Dullaghan
Born in Havana, Cuba, Ruth Behar was five years old when she and her family moved to Queens, New York.  "I grew up in the sixties and seventies in crowded rental apartments . . . My parents longed to buy a house with a front yard where my mother could plant petunias.  But we were refugees and short on money. And in the back of their minds, my parents thought we'd return to Cuba someday" (from Behar's website).  But that did not happen. Instead, Ruth grew up to become a professor of anthropology at The University of Michigan.  She is also a writer of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction.  Ruth is the first Latina to win a MacArthur Fellowship (also known as the "Genius Grant").  In this new book of fiction, Ruth returns to her childhood to create a story based on her own experience living through a challenging year of recovery.  Welcome Ruth!

Amelia Montes:  What inspired you to write this book?

Ruth Behar:  What inspired me to write Lucky Broken Girl was the thought that, if I didn't tell the story, no one else would.  The time in my life between the ages of nine and ten years old, when I spent a year in a body cast recovering from a severe fracture to my right leg, is very vivid in my memories.  I'd written an essay from the perspective of the adult woman looking back, but I'd never told the story from the girl's point of view.  So I just started letting Ruthie speak.  She was sassy and wise and I felt like there was a life rope tying the two of us together.  As I wrote, I recognized it wasn't simply my own story I had to tell, but the story of my Cuban Jewish family finding their way in New York, amid other immigrants struggling with them, and how everyone who surrounded me came together to help a child heal.  Whenever I felt uncertain, I turned for literary inspiration to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks, and The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.  That was how I kept going until I got to the end.

Professor, Writer, Ruth Behar (photo by Gabriel Frye-Behar)
Amelia Montes:  Why write for a young adult audience?

Ruth Behar:  I've been in academia a long time, and though I continue to love the world of ideas and scholarship, and have spent most of my career writing non-fiction, I never gave up my youthful hopes of writing fiction.  I'm a daydreamer at heart and it took an enormous amount of self-discipline for me to learn to think logically and rationally so I could be accepted in academia.  But once I acquired that self-discipline, I then became afraid to let it go.  It wasn't easy to give myself permission to make things up, to invent what might have been, to embellish my experience with a touch of magic.  Somehow, though, as I wrote Lucky Broken Girl, I began to let go of the reins.  Knowing I was writing for young readers, I felt I had the freedom to use my imagination.  I could create wondrous moments.  And just as important, I could create heart-opening moments.  I realized that writing for young readers called upon me to dig deep into the feelings of all my characters.  For example, there's a mean nurse in the hospital who makes Ruthie angry and sad.  I might have left it at that, but Ruthie dares to ask the nurse if she hates all children, and that's when the nurse opens up and tells her about her family woes and even apologizes, while Ruthie is so moved she feels her heart crack, "like the sugar crust on Mami's flan."  I don't think I exaggerate in saying that writing from a child's point of view put me back in touch with my creativity and taught me empathy.

Photo by Ruth Behar
Amelia Montes:  How is Lucky Broken Girl important for this moment in history?

Ruth Behar:  At this moment in history, we are experiencing a very frightening rise in sexism, homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and anti-immigrant sentiment.  We need to counter this trend by building more bridges between individuals and communities, not by erecting walls.  The cruel deportations taking place in the United States are splitting apart Latino families and destroying the hopes for a better future of countless young people.  The stories of immigrants, all immigrants, need to be told and heard, so our shared humanity can stand above all the misperceptions.  We need to instill, in children as well as adults, a sense of tolerance and respect for the diverse cultures that coexist in our society.

Lucky Broken Girl is an immigrant story but it doesn't limit itself to just telling the Cuban immigrant story.  There are several intersecting immigrant stories shown through Ruthie's friendships, with a boy from India, a girl from Belgium, a neighbor from Mexico, and a physical therapist from Puerto Rico by way of the Bronx, and her close relationship with Baba, her Polish Jewish grandmother who finds refuge on the eve of the Holocaust in Cuba and then has to uproot to the United States.

All I can hope is that the world of shared understandings that I try to conjure in my book will offer a bit of hope in these dark times.

Amelia Montes:  Thank you so much, Ruth!  And for you, dear reader, if you are in New York, don't miss today's "book launch" at Books of Wonder (4 - 6p.m.).  See flyer below.  

flyer created by David Frye

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