I'm pleased to welcome Ruth Behar to Michigander Monday!
Debbie: Ruth, please tell us a little about yourself.
Ruth: I was born in Cuba to a Jewish family and left the island with my parents and my little brother when I was a child. I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Queens, New York where I attended public schools and spoke Spanish at home. From a young age I loved to write, but I also wanted to travel and that’s what led me to study cultural anthropology. I spent many years traveling to Spain and Mexico before going on to reconnect with Cuba, where I have been building cultural bridges with the United States for over two decades.
In 1986, I settled in Ann Arbor with my husband, David, also an anthropologist, as well as a translator. Our son, Gabriel, was born in Ann Arbor, and though he now lives in New York, he is passionate about his Michigan roots. I have been teaching at the University of Michigan for thirty years. David and I live in a Victorian house in Ann Arbor that is painted in bright Caribbean colors.
Debbie: And, of course, we want to know all about your book.
Ruth: My book, Lucky Broken Girl, is my debut novel for young readers. I am thrilled to have been able to write it. The story was inspired by the year I spent in a body cast, confined to my bed, when I was nine going on ten. It was a traumatic experience for me as well as my family. We were immigrants, just arrived from Cuba, penniless and afraid, and suddenly the family had an invalid girl to take care of. Looking back, I realized how painful the situation was for everyone around me who wanted to help me heal. The book brings together those two narratives – the immigrant story and the story of healing from a serious injury – and takes up universal themes of self-acceptance, forgiveness, and learning to embrace the lucky aspects of even the worst things that happen to us in childhood.
Debbie: Other books or projects on the horizon?
Ruth: I am at work on a new novel for young readers. It is set in Cuba at the time of the revolution. I was inspired by Carson McCullers’s haunting novel, The Member of the Wedding. The story focuses on a twelve-year-old girl who watches jealously as her older sister prepares to marry and is fitted for a beautiful lace honeymoon nightgown sewn to fit her measurements. Then things get more complicated as the revolution brings about dramatic changes and her parents decide to send her out of Cuba to the United States with the Peter Pan Operation.
Debbie: Upcoming appearances?
Ruth: I have two events coming up in Ann Arbor. I will be doing a reading from Lucky Broken Girl at Literati Bookstore on May 2nd and will participate in Children’s Book Week at Nicola’s Books on May 3rd.
Debbie: Do you have a favorite Michigan bookstore? And/or a favorite Michigan library?
Ruth: I have many favorite Michigan bookstores! Ann Arbor is filled with the most wonderful bookstores. I miss Shaman Drum and Borders, which were havens when I first arrived in Ann Arbor, but I am thrilled that we have Nicola’s Books and Literati Bookstore, both of which are very supportive of local writers. I buy used books at Dawn Treader Book Shop, which has a great selection of classics and contemporary books. The Ann Arbor Public Library is an amazing resource and organizes terrific events with visiting writers. I’m in awe of the vast holdings at the University of Michigan Library where I can find every book I dream of.
Debbie: How about a favorite place in Michigan?
Ruth: I love the Old West Side in Ann Arbor, where I live. The tree-lined streets become so leafy in the summer it feels like a jungle. But our greatest Michigan treasure, I think, is the Detroit Institute of Art. I’ve gone many times to see the stunning Detroit Industry Murals by Diego Rivera, which were painted between 1932 and 1933 and represent the workers at the Ford Motor Company. Frida Kahlo accompanied her husband Diego Rivera during their stay in Detroit and it was there she painted many of her most important and haunting self-portraits.
Debbie: Do you have a Michigan event or happening that you love to attend?
Ruth: The Ann Arbor Summer Festival is a lot of fun. I like the music events at Top of the Park and the outdoor salsa dancing. And while Ann Arborites complain about the inconveniences caused by the yearly Art Fair, I enjoy the carnival atmosphere and the streets filled with people strolling about.
Debbie: A few fun Michigan people we should all know about?
Ruth: There are so many great people in Michigan. Here are a few that come to mind, among colleagues and friends in Ann Arbor: visual artist Joanne Leonard; anthropologist Jason De Leon; photographer David Turnley; women’s studies scholar Sidonie Smith; linguistic anthropologist Bruce Mannheim; psychologist Susan Gelman; Latina/Latino Studies scholars Maria Cotera, Yeidy Rivero, and Larry LaFountain; musician and doctor Alberto Nacif; yoga teachers Carter and Ana Hough; and fellow Cuban-American writer Derek Palacio.
Debbie: Something you'd like a non-Michigander to know about Michigan?
Ruth: The winters are bad, it’s true, but autumn, spring, and summer are beautiful.
Debbie: Last question. Some folks in Michigan refer to themselves as Michiganders, others as Michiganians. For our ongoing vote tally: are you a Michigander or a Michiganian?
Ruth: I’m afraid I’m neither. Since I’m not originally from Michigan and come from an immigrant background, plus I’ve traveled so much as an anthropologist, I fear misleading people about my identity if I say I am either a Michigander or a Michiganian. What I usually say is that I’ve been a resident of Michigan for many years and that is where my only child was born.
Debbie: Ruth, we'll make a brand new column for our tally! Thank you so much for joining us for Michigander Monday!