A few years after Ruth Behar and her family arrived in Queens, New York from Cuba in the early 1960's shortly after Fidel Castro took power, they were in an awful car accident that killed five teenage boys and left her in a full-body cast for most of the next year. She was nine years old, and spent her 10th birthday in that cast.
She tried, at points, to tell the story of that time as an adult looking back, to make sense of the trauma from that accident and the year that followed — the panic attacks she's had, why she still doesn't like to drive on highways. Eventually though, she figured out it should be written from the perspective of that little girl, confined to a bed, with no idea when she'd be able to get up or if she'd walk again (Behar says she never did run again).
Behar is an anthropologist and professor at the University of Michigan and has written a lot about Cuba and the Cuban diaspora, including for her project with poet Richard Blanco, Bridges to/from Cuba. Her story of that year became her first novel, a novel for children, "Lucky Broken Girl" (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Young Readers Group). The book also taps into the experience of being Cuban and Jewish, growing up among other immigrants from India, Belgium, Russia, Turkey, Mexico and beyond, and losing your country.
Listen to our conversation about the book here, and read some excerpts below:
WLRN: I want to look at this idea of being thought of as not smart because you don't know English.
BEHAR: I remember that very distinctly, arriving and just being placed in a regular classroom, and you just had to sink or swim. I mean, there weren't ESL classes — English as a Second Language classes, you know, in the mid-'60s. And I remember knowing that I was in the dumb class ... I mean, of course that's not what it was called, but kids called it that ... That was the class that the foreign kids were in. ... And I remember seeing math problems placed on the board, and knowing the answer but not knowing how to say it in English, and how awful that felt.
Ruthie, while she's laid up in bed for all of these months, writes letters and prays to God, the God that she knows through her Jewish tradition, but also Shiva, and then her Mexican neighbor Chicho introduces her to the artist Frida Kahlo, the great Mexican artist [who, after a bus accident, also spent months confined to her bed, painting from bed]. And she sort of thinks of Frida Kahlo as almost like a guardian angel type, and then prays to all three.
Well, I think that is the Jewish child who is being given a very open sense of what Jewishness means. And I think a lot of Cuban Jews ... sometimes they will pick up a little bit of Santería belief and mix that in with their Jewish beliefs. And there's a moment in the book that I really loved writing where her mom is asking her if she remembers her nanny back in Cuba, and the mother tells Ruthie, "You know your nanny has gone to the shrine of San Lázaro," the shrine of Saint Lazarus, a very, very important shrine on the outskirts of Havana.
And Ruthie asks, "Well, is that OK? Can we accept this, [because] ... I'm Jewish?" And then her mother says, "Well, everything that's done in good will I think we should accept." And so Ruthie goes, "Oh good, cause that's what I think too."
And so at the end when she makes one of her final prayers, it's to God, it's to Shiva, it's to Frida Kahlo, and she also invokes San Lázaro ... for good measure, that might be able to help her.
You really did get a teacher who came and gave you private lessons for that year.
Yes. My public school in New York, they got me a tutor who came to my bedside and taught me and brought me books, brought me math problems, brought me Highlights magazine. And I think of that as the year that I became smart. Because I couldn't move, I had a lot of time to think and to contemplate and to read a lot more books than I had ever read before. We didn't have books in the house. You know, my parents weren't going to go out and buy books when we needed food, you know. So it was a time of great suffering, but it was also a time of very positive transformation, and that's why it's "Lucky Broken Girl," because she's definitely broken — but the luck of finding her path through this process.
And one of the things that helped me write the book when I was starting it my brother made this offhand comment, and he said, "I don't think you remember what an active little girl you were, like how you jumped around, and like how active and athletic you were." And when he said that, I realized that I didn't remember that I had changed so much as a result of that year ... I didn't remember that Ruthie. I had become this other Ruthie, this very contemplative, shy, quiet, retreating Ruthie, who liked to read books. And we see that in the book. Ruthie's personality changes. She uses the word metamorphosis -- the idea that sometimes life puts you on an unexpected path, but if you can accept being on that new path, you'll go to places you never imagined.
Ruth Behar will be in conversation with the poet Richard Blanco at Books & Books in Coral Gables Tuesday night (July 25, 2017) at 8 p.m.
Listen to her read an excerpt from Lucky Broken Girl here: