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Writing Life (no. 21): An interview with Ruth Behar

This article is part of the series:
Image 1: One of Ruth’s writing spaces filled with family and childhood photos, art and objects that inspire her and that are filled with memories.

On the laptop screen in my home in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in a Zoom call, Ruth Behar turns on her camera. In the background appear the bookshelves of her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, US, as we start our conversation about home, connection, anthropology, and writing.

I became inspired over a decade ago by Ruth Behar’s reflexive writing about traveling, returning, and goodbyes, about home and homesickness, and about the need for empathy and emotions in research and writing. It represented the kind of anthropology I fell in love with, and connected to my own experience of migrating while growing up, traveling back and forth, and building a home in different places. The dynamic of leaving and creating new homes in other places has been at the core of anthropological research, but how can we begin to put this experience on paper? What is the place of home in anthropological writing?

Natashe Lemos Dekker (NLD): How do you go about writing about home?

Ruth Behar (RB): Hmm, writing about home, well the question is, what is home? We would have to start there, home can mean so many things. We can think of home as a concrete place, we can think of it as a country, a nation, a place with specific borders. It can be the place where we reside, or the place where I am talking from now, where I am surrounded by my books. That’s home, but would home be anywhere where I would be surrounded by my books? Home in language, do we find home in our writing? Does our writing become our home? So, it means so many things. 

As a person who came to the United States as an immigrant child from Cuba, I often think of Cuba as home, because it is where I was born and where I spent the first few years of my life. But from an ethnographic perspective, when I think of home, Cuba may be my original home, but I have a lot of other homes that I have acquired since. I spent many years living in Spain, and many years living in Mexico, and they also became home. So why is Cuba more home than those places? I guess because it is saturated with so much memory and so many stories. And I have a family legacy as well, and the pictures of the family in Cuba, which show a sense of “we were home in this place for a while”. 

So I guess if we go with Cuba, then we have the complex dynamics of my traveling to Cuba. Not only traveling to Cuba, but always knowing that I can leave. So is it really home? If it is a place that I can leave? But it is a place with very complex dynamics for me because of the politics of the place, and the complexities of going there as a Cuban, who is part of the Cuban-American community. When I go, I have the complexity of being in a place where I no longer live but where I still feel connected and where after a few days I feel more Cuban. After a few days I start to speak Spanish with a different accent, and tempo and musicality, and everything. But there is also the sense of privilege and knowing that because my family chose to leave, I have certain options that people there don’t have. 

So it’s a place that is very fraught. When I go back I can feel tremendous joy and happiness, but then, I can also feel tremendous sadness and sorrow about not being there anymore on a permanent basis, because I have another home somewhere else. So how do I write about this place and the people there, and do justice to their stories? And how do I do that without either claiming a superiority for myself, or over-romanticizing the life that they experience there? So, I would say, in terms of writing, it’s always very complex to write about those places that you are connected to. I think that’s a way to start answering your question. 

NLD: What you are saying resonates also with my own experiences as I came to the Netherlands from Brazil when I was 6 years old. Now, I started working on this project for which I could have gone anywhere in Brazil, but I chose to go back to where my family lives in the South of Brazil. And I was thinking to myself, what is it that pulls me back, now that I can go anywhere I want? But perhaps it is a form of writing as a way of keeping the connection, of giving meaning to that longing. And at the same time, indeed the privilege, and the guilt, and the confrontation with that part of you that no longer belongs there. 

RB: I definitely identify with all of that, and I think the word that you used, longing, is a very important one. We have a longing for something that we don’t know if we will be able to recover it, but that’s why we make the journey. 

NLD: So, then, when writing about home, how do you write about people who are close to you?

RB: I think, if you are going to write very honestly about someone else, then also write very honestly about yourself. So write, and implicate yourself in the story. If you are going to bring something into the public about someone else, also do that about yourself. I try to write in terms of relationships. That the relationship is partly what is being explored, and not just the other person in isolation. 

NLD: That’s a very interesting way to look at it. I am currently writing about ageing and loss and I grew up partly with my grandmother, and she is getting older. So there are all these family dynamics happening, to provide care for her, in which I myself am also implicated. And I am wondering if I should bring this into the project or leave it, and how to go about that? 

RB: Yeah, those are good questions. I mean, it never hurts to go ahead and write. You can aways take things out. Sometimes you just have to go ahead and try it and see how it looks on the page. Maybe you question yourself, “how do I feel writing about this?” and maybe you write that. And maybe you use it in your text, and maybe you don’t. But it’s there for you to think it through. I think writing is a process of thinking. You don’t always know your thoughts until they are down on paper. I really suggest, write more and you can always cut. 

NLD: Are you then also in a sense saying: write, to discover what we are thinking, but also to see what we are feeling? 

RB: Yes, definitely. Thinking and feeling are very interconnected. Sometimes we start with the feeling, but there is just no way to put it into words, whether it’s sorrow or grief, rage or some combination of complex feelings. But then, when you start writing and creating a story out of it, you can see, “oh, that’s what I felt, I feel anger, or uncertainty, or hurt, or that something is missing.” So writing really helps. As humans, we also keep evolving, changing and thinking in new ways. And I think writing allows you to evolve, for your thinking to evolve at different times, and enables you to reflect back to see who you were.

Talking to another person sometimes can be very helpful too. To talk through ideas and then sitting down and writing it. I think that that truly is one of the ways to understand what is going on. You are trying to understand, who are these people? What are they going through? What is upsetting them? But also, what is the situation where the story is unfolding? Are you in the bedroom with your grandmother, or are you in the kitchen? Thinking of all of that, and how you are going to tell that story, can be a great way to think about everything, to think about the feelings and thoughts too.

NLD: I also find it much easier to talk first and then to write. There is sometimes the fear of the blank page, and by telling it to someone you just start. You don’t have the confrontation that the story is not there yet. 

RB: Right, I call it the kitchen table talk. You just imagine that you are at the kitchen table of a friend, and that’s how you should try to write. Not as if you are up on a podium or at a lecture hall. You should write, as if you were at the kitchen table telling a friend, well this is what happened to my grandmother the other day. 

NLD: Do you feel that the audience influences your writing? If you are at the kitchen table, or at a AAA meeting?

RB: Absolutely, I mean we write in different genres. One thing is to write a lecture that you are giving to an academic audience, another thing is to write a fictional story, or a poem, or an op-ed for a newspaper. But at the same time, in a larger sense, I think when you write, you should forget the audience. Also because if you get too conscious about the audience and start asking, “who is going to be reading this, are they going to like it or not?” that can really limit you creatively. Sometimes I encourage students, when they get stuck, to write as if they were writing a letter to a specific person. It can be very helpful, just knowing that there is one person that is going to listen to what you write, and you are writing for that one person. 

NLD: Also because it will bring about things that you would otherwise perhaps not say. 

RB: Exactly. Particularly if you want a more intimate kind of writing, you can write to someone that you are close to, but you could potentially also write to someone you dislike. It can be used in different ways. And it can be very helpful, to think with my audience of one. A writer friend once said to me that when she writes, she tries to imagine an audience that is the most different from her own culture. How am I going to communicate the story to somebody for whom everything I am saying is so foreign? That is another helpful way to think about audience too.

NLD: Which is also interesting because it means we have to make explicit the cultural things that we take for granted. 

RB: Exactly, and then you have to figure out, as we do in anthropology, how much do we need to translate of what we know? Things that seem obvious to you about Brazil, how much do you need to explain, translate, explore, give definitions? Anthropology is all about connecting. Finding ways to connect and understand each other.

NLD: Definitely. The possibilities we have as anthropologists to establish deep and meaningful connections with people and have the time to listen to their stories, that’s often the best part of the work that we do. 

RB: I agree. It’s all about moments of listening, sharing and trust. That somebody trusts you with their story. Sometimes we work with people for years and have these long-term relationships, but then other times, it’s urgent and you only have a few hours and maybe you will never see the person again but in that moment you establish a deep tie. I have done both when I was working with the Jewish community in Cuba. There were people I had known for 20 years, and sometimes I would only talk to a person one afternoon and write about that, based on that meeting. I feel that with ethnography we do a combination of those things. 

The writing does bring you closer to people and I think that that is what writing is about. That we write to connect with others and that is why we do anthropology. And the beautiful thing that happens when total strangers become people that you are close to. You are embarking on this project of conversation together, to understand something about life, something about a ritual, or an event that happened. So I feel that with writing, it’s about connection. 

NLD: And if we think about connection and change over time, do you feel that the longing for Cuba or for other homes has changed? How has that influenced your writing? 

RB: I write a lot about Cuba so I feel that even when I am not there I am thinking about Cuba, but I think of myself as a person who has multiple homes and can be in multiple places. I also think you can carry home. Maybe that happens once you get older, when you realize that home is something that’s transportable. You take it with you in your memories as well. So memory is an important part of it. 

I just wrote a children’s book, a picture book called Tia Fortuna’s New Home. You would find it interesting because it is about an ageing woman who has no choice but to leave her home because her building will be demolished to create a luxury building, so she has to leave.  Her niece Estrella comes to help her say goodbye to her little house on the beach, and then she is going to a senior retirement home. And that’s the new home, Tia Fortuna’s new home. The story is for young children but it’s meant to be very bittersweet. She is a person who carries home with her and she is packing up a suitcase and Estrella is asking her, “Oh is that all you are bringing?” And she says, “Well, but I have a suitcase right here, I don’t need to bring that much,” and she points to her head, because it’s all the memories she’s taking with her. And then, as a gift, she gives Estrella the key to the cottage on the beach, so Estrela will have this key to remember this home that has been lost. 

So I think of home as also being rooted in memory and in story. And the key is an important symbol of a lost place. I think, at different stages of our lives, home can become more transportable. And in other phases you are still figuring it out, the connections, the back and forth and the in-between, neither here, nor there. 

NLD: Something that you write about in Traveling Heavy, is that sometimes you need to have distance in order to be able to write about a place. I was wondering if you could elaborate a bit more about this?

RB: I think it’s kind of the basic rule of ethnographic writing, that you go some place and that you depart from that place, to be able to write about it. I think it’s the way places become familiar to us, once we are in them. Its sense of difference all stands out to you at the very beginning, but then after a few months it becomes normalized, and you don’t notice things that you noticed at the beginning. I think that’s why this notion of distance is important. Once you leave a place, and you look back and rethink what you went through, you see it a little bit more clearly, because you are not totally enmeshed in it. I think it is that sense of separating for a little while which is needed to then be able to reflect. Because with reflexivity, it’s always about looking back. That looking back is a very important process. 

For me, ethnography is always a kind of memoir writing because it is always about looking back and reconstructing what happened with your notes and interviews. Digging deep into what happened, because with ethnography, you are trying to understand ‘what happened’? We are continuously writing down the experiences that we have had, what we witnessed. And as witnesses we must write, and tell the stories of what we saw and heard and felt and remembered, and painful as it may be, what we tried to forget and couldn’t. 

Image 2: Natashe’s writing space in Amsterdam

Natashe Lemos Dekker is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University. Her research focuses on death, dying, and end-of-life care, and dynamics of time and future-making in The Netherlands and Brazil. She was awarded her PhD from the University of Amsterdam and has published in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute and Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry among others. She is a board member of the Medical Anthropology Europe Network.

Ruth Behar is the James W. Fernandez Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. Born in Havana, Cuba, she has lived in Spain and Mexico and returns often to Cuba to build bridges around culture and art. She is a MacArthur Fellow, a Carnegie Corporation “Great Immigrant,” and an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her acclaimed scholarly books include The Presence of the Past in a Spanish Village, Translated Woman, The Vulnerable Observer, An Island Called Home, and Traveling Heavy. Other works include a bilingual book of poems, Everything I Kept/Todo lo que guardé; a documentary, Adio Kerida; the prize-winning young adult novels, Lucky Broken Girl and Letters from Cuba, and Tía Fortuna’s New Home, a children’s book on Sephardic Cuban heritage.

About the series

Writing Life focuses on the craft of writing in the social studies of medicine. Amidst the current challenges to making texts, this series invites scholars in our field to take time to reflect, in conversation with each other, on how to navigate and nurture their craft.

Each post in Writing Life delves into the black boxes of writing life, exploring the specificities of producing texts about the lives of those entangled in illness, care, pain, diagnosis, experiment, research, suffering, and recovery.  The spirit of the contributions is collaborative — an exploration through dialogue. In crafting the posts, authors also explore a research practice central to our fields – interviewing – and the work and art of transcribing and editing other people’s words.

Notes from the series editor:

We find Natashe Lemos Dekker’s poignant and insightful conversation with Ruth Behar a fitting end to the Writing Life online series. Over the last two years, across three series, we have been privileged to witness the exchanges between pairs of writers in our field exploring their–writing craft, struggles, and strategies–from around the world and across different stages of academic experience. We want to thank all the writers involved, all the readers who engaged with the series, Somatosphere for hosting, especially Eugene Raikhel for his support and Talia Gordon for making it all happen. We hope that these conversations will continue to inspire.

Anna Harris and Denielle Elliott

References

Behar, R. (2013). Traveling Heavy: A Memoir in Between Journeys. Duke University Press.

Behar, R. (2020). Un cierto aire sefardí: Recuerdos de mis andares por el mundo. Editorial Verbum.

Behar, R. (2022a). Tía Fortuna’s New Home: A Jewish Cuban Journey. Alfred A. Knopf, Penguin Random House.

Behar, R. (2022b). El nuevo hogar de Tía Fortuna: Una historia judía-cubana. Alfred A. Knopf, Penguin Random House.


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