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Yiddish Book Center: "Geographies of the Soul" with Marjorie Agosín and Ruth Behar

Last night the Yiddish Book Center hosted a (virtual) conversation with writers Marjorie Agosín and Ruth Behar titled "Geographies of the Soul." The talk focused on "Memory, Identity, and Storytelling" from the perspectives of these two Jewish Latina YA authors and poets. 

Marjorie recalled her childhood in Chile, where "everyone was a poet" (including her neighbor...Pablo Neruda!). "I grew up with poetry, it was a way of speaking." Her grandparents spoke Yiddish "when they didn't want us to understand," and both at home and in the world around her, it represented something that was "forbidden but very, very present." "I grew up in a family where tikkun olam (repair of the world) meant everything," and through her work as a YA author: "I am compelled to write to understand myself and hopefully help others to understand themselves...writing for young people is writing for the future. You cannot lie to children."

Ruth's family is from Cuba ("my mother's family is Ashkenazic, my father's family Sephardic"), where the community "worked hard to maintain its Jewish identity." Immigrating to the U.S. at age five, she later studied cultural anthropology, "almost like I wanted to be an immigrant for life," and was named a 1988 MacArthur Fellow. "Going back to Cuba was very emotional – I couldn’t do anthropology in Cuba, so I started writing poetry, then fiction."

Both writers talked about their connection to language. "I don't write in English...my soul is in Spanish, and the Ladino world," said Marjorie. "As a child, I had a hard time learning English," said Ruth. "Spanish is the language of my heart and of my emotions."

They also both feel a draw to the sea. Ruth: "The sea is such an important ‘character’ in the lives of all Cubans...it sweeps things and memories away and brings them back." Marjorie: "I feel like I belong to the port of Valparaíso. It became a harbor for my family [escaping the Nazis], a lighthouse, a place where I will always arrive...The fluidity, ambiguity – it’s always there; the sea pays attention to history."

Regarding identity, Marjorie said: "I still have challenges with my identity, every day; I'm made to feel like a 'guest' in America." But "being in the margins makes you a good writer, having that little bit of discontent." She added: "I believe that eventually I will go back to Chile, to return home, to be in Spanish and not 'translated,' in all senses of the word – often to be translated is to be completely misunderstood." Ruth has also felt like an outsider, but as an anthropologist, she always tries to “adapt.” Citing poet José Martí, whose adoration of Cuba continued throughout his years living in New York, she said: "I want to feel at home wherever I am; I feel very connected to Cuba but also to many other places where I have been or lived." 

Marjorie Agosín's I Lived on Butterfly Hill was the 2015 Pura Belpré Award winner for narrative (also a Sydney Taylor Book Award Notable Book). Ruth Behar's Lucky Broken Girl won the same award in 2018; her most recent book, Letters from Cuba, was a 2021 Sydney Taylor Book Award Notable Book. For more on the Pura Belpré Award, see our upcoming May/June Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: The Pura Belpré Award at 25. For more about Jewish children's books and diversity read "We Need Diverse Jewish and Muslim Books: A Conversation." 

Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. She holds an MA from the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons University and a BA from Oberlin College.

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