INTERVIEW WITH RUTH BEHAR
What is the name of the piece that you have in Grabbed?
The Man with the Violin Case
What was the inspiration for your piece? What compelled you to write it?
I’ve never forgotten the real-life experience that inspired my story. It has haunted me to the present day. Sometimes you carry experiences like that your whole life, not knowing if they’re worth telling, let alone writing them down. Somehow it felt right to share the story now in the hope that it would be meaningful in the context of our anthology.
What compelled you to submit your work for this anthology? Was it a difficult decision?
I believe in the importance of this anthology and knew that all of you amazing editors (Richard, Cary, Nikki, and Elisa) would create a powerful and necessary book. I admit that I was initially concerned that my story wouldn’t fit the mold of a sexual harassment story, since in the end “nothing” really happened, meaning I wasn’t physically touched or molested or “grabbed.” But as I wrote, I realized that the story is relevant in exploring how harassment can take on numerous forms and that creating fear and terror in a woman’s mind is another way to cause harm and make her feel vulnerable and unsafe.
Why did you choose this particular form or genre for this piece?
I decided to write the piece as a mini-memoir essay. I’ve always loved the genre of the personal essay and in this one I blended in elements of an extended panic attack, so the temporality of the story takes place in one very intense moment but also moves back and forth in time to a childhood in Cuba and the present tense of a young woman coming uneasily of age in New York.
Can you speak to the evolution of writing your piece? How long did it take you to write this piece, including revision?
I think it took about two to three months, between the very first version and then the revisions. I was fortunate to have Nikki as my editor. She asked me sharp questions that pushed me to go deeper into the emotions I felt at the time and the emotions that the memory of the encounter still provokes in me.
As a writer, do you feel obliged to share difficult experiences? Why?
I can’t say I always share difficult experiences on the page, but I often do. I think as writers we are like archaeologists, excavating our emotional history, digging up the many layers of the past and the present, and seeing how all of that comes together in ways we can’t always articulate until we sit down to write our stories. We find broken pieces, fragments, of our lives that we’ve carried around and then when we write we try to recreate the context in which those pieces, fragments, were once whole so we can understand better what wounded us and what we need to do to heal.
What do you feel the impact of the #MeToo movement has been on your work, if any?
I have been a feminist ethnographer for many years and involved in bringing attention to the work of women anthropologists who have been erased from the canon. Throughout my writing life, I’ve turned to women writers, especially Latina writers, for models of how to be a strong woman in a man’s world. The #MeToo movement has emboldened all of us who have been on these quests to continue, to speak up more, and not be afraid.
What would you say to another writer who has been uncomfortable or silent about their experience? How can they begin to share their experiences?
The first step is to share their experience at the kitchen table with a trusted friend, or over the phone or Facetime, if that’s not possible. I think many stories begin as a confidence shared with someone who will listen and keep your secret, if that’s what you want. Having told the story and given it breath, you can then work to make it come alive on the page.
How can a publication such as Grabbed help to empower or heal readers?
If a reader can see themselves reflected in even one story in Grabbed, that is an important way to begin the healing process. And if there are several stories readers can identify with, then there are many ways to be empowered and to heal holistically.
Ruth Behar was born in Havana, grew up in New York, and has also lived in Spain and Mexico and returned to Cuba often. She is an acclaimed writer of poetry, memoir, children’s fiction, and travel books that explore her return journeys to Cuba and her search for home. She is the author of An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba and Traveling Heavy: A Memoir in Between Journeys. Her poems are collected in a bilingual edition, Everything I Kept/Todo lo que guardé, and her documentary, Adio Kerida: A Cuban Sephardic Journey,is distributed through Women Make Movies. She won the Pura Belpré Author Award for her debut middle-grade novel, Lucky Broken Girl, which explores her experience growing up Cuban-American while confined to a body cast. Her new middle-grade novel, Letters from Cuba, a work of historical fiction, is inspired by her maternal grandmother’s escape from Poland to Cuba on the eve of WWII. Ruth was the first Latina to win a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. Other honors include a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship and being named a “Great Immigrant” by the Carnegie Corporation. She teaches anthropology at the University of Michigan and lives in Ann Arbor.
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