A conversation with Elizabeth Graver about KANTIKA, the story of a remarkable woman’s journey, spanning five decades and four countries

Elizabeth Graver’s fifth novel, Kantika, was inspired by her grandmother, Rebecca née Cohen Baruch Levy, who was born into a Sephardic Jewish family in Istanbul in 1903 and whose tumultuous and shape-shifting life journey took her to Spain, Cuba and finally New York. Exploring identity, place and exile,  Kantika  also reveals how the female body—in work, art and love—serves as a site of both suffering and joy. It’s a haunting, inspiring meditation on the tenacity of women. Kantika is out April 18 from Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Co.

Elizabeth’s fourth novel, The End of the Point, was long-listed for the 2013 National Book Award in Fiction and selected as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

Tell us what Kantika is about. Who are the key characters?

Kantika is a story of migration, motherhood, blended families, disability and finding joy amidst tumult, as well as a homage to a vanishing culture. Inspired by my maternal grandmother, Kantika’s central protagonist shares her real name, Rebecca née Cohen Baruch Levy.  My grandmother died in 1992, but a few years prior to that, when I was twenty-one, I recorded her telling stories from her life. She was born in Istanbul in 1903, into a wealthy Sephardic Jewish family. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Cohens lost their fortune and conditions worsened for Turkish Jews, and the family moved to Barcelona, a surprising destination given that centuries prior, during the Spanish Inquisition, Spain had expelled and killed the Jews or forced them to convert. There were hardly any Jews in 20th-century Spain, but the family’s home language of Ladino and many of their songs, food and customs had Spanish roots.  

In the novel, as conditions worsen in Europe, especially for the Jews, Rebecca finds a way to move to New York by way of Cuba and builds a new life. I inhabit her perspective, as well as that of her father Alberto, her mother Sultana, and eventually, her son, David—a boy traumatized by having been torn from his grandparents in Spain. I also explore the point of view of Rebecca’s disabled stepdaughter, Luna, a bright, ambitious girl with whom Rebecca has a particularly intense relationship. I was fascinated by how this migration story plays out differently for different people and across generations and countries, with Rebecca always at the center. She can be difficult and exacting, but she is also lusty, creative, and determined to make a vibrant home in the world for herself and her family.     

What drew you to this story?
Oh, so many things, even as it’s also a story I resisted telling for a long time, as it felt both too close to home and quite far away in terms of my lack of knowledge of many of its elements. I was raised in a culturally Jewish but secular household.  I always knew that my two sets of grandparents (my paternal ones were Ashkenazi) were very different from each other in the food they ate, the languages they spoke, their religious practices, and more. I was particularly drawn to my maternal grandmother, Rebecca. She was full of song and stories and endlessly creative, always making things. She was also unconventional for her time, unusually forthright and at home in her body. As a child, I was confused about her origins. I knew she was Jewish but was she Turkish or Spanish? She talked about having been born rich, but I knew my mother had grown up in a family of modest means.  

I interviewed my grandmother in my early twenties and treasured the two micro-cassettes that held her voice, especially after she died, but decades went by before I returned to her story. What made me turn to it? Several things, I think: I had gained confidence through writing my previous novel, The End of the Point, which has a big cast of characters and explores how individual lives intersect with major events in history; I was watching the worldwide refugee crisis unfold in our current moment; I was aware of the passage of time and of the generation above me growing old. My uncles David and Albert helped me with the novel—I spent some wonderful days interviewing them—but both of them sadly died before it came out. My mother, well into her eighties now, has been my steady companion at every stage. I view Kantika as a both public imagining and a private gift to my family.  

Why did you decide to write this book as fiction . . . 
I considered writing it as nonfiction, but there were too many holes, and I wasn’t interested in pointing them out or tracking my own position as a writer sleuthing to reconstruct the past.  I’m at heart a novelist. I love to chart inner life. I didn’t expect, when I started, to imagine my way inside the heads and hearts of Alberto and Sultana—great-grandparents I never met in real life—but they called out to me: Alberto with his deep affection for Istanbul, his love of gardening, his bewilderment and bitterness at the turn his life has taken; Sultana, a caretaker, quiet in her sorrows, having to start anew at an advanced age. Soon I was deep inside truly fictional territory, while also still in conversation with the facts.

. . . and yet include family photographs? 
Can’t I have it both ways? That choice, while unconventional, stems from the fact that Kantika has a relationship to a real family (mine!) and engages with an overlooked history of 20th-century immigrant Sephardic Jews whose actuality matters to me. Including photos is one way to signal this; using some real names is another. The photos offer a glimpse of reality, even as they are partial, set-up, full of artifice. Photographs also interest me in the context of migration, where they can be used as proof (a citizenship or passport photo), a memory bank (the images you carry with you when you leave loved ones behind), a form of capital and seduction (a photo sent to a potential mate for an arranged marriage), and more. In the first half of the 20th century, they were scarce and rare—so different from in our current times, when as long as you have a cellphone, you can snap and carry pictures. Photographs are also a way to think about the female body, which is a theme throughout the book. Rebecca is a dressmaker and beauty who cannily deploys her looks to fit the circumstance and pass. She loves to dress up, pose, be seen. Her stepdaughter, Luna, who has cerebral palsy and lives in an ableist, prejudiced world, has a quite different relationship to the body and being photographed.  

Your research apparently involved quite extensive reading, travel and interviews. Were there any particularly exciting or interesting finds?
More than I can name, though I hope the research is folded inside the story and doesn’t show its seams!  In Istanbul, I interviewed residents at the Sephardic Home for the Aged. Djentil Nahon’s character and the stories she tells, particularly a disturbing one about Spain, was inspired by a woman there. I found a 1929 film in the archives of the National Center for Jewish Film that contained unattributed footage of my family at the secret synagogue where they lived in Barcelona. That blew me away. I was aided by several scholars of Sephardic Studies, who helped me with Ladino, cultural references, and more. My family—my mother, uncles, Aunt Luna (who died before I started writing Kantika but left some writing behind)—were treasure troves of information. It was a true gift of this process to get to sit down with relatives and hear their stories. When I teach writing to college students, I’m always telling them to record their grandparents. They’ve gathered some powerful stories. 

Your novel ends in 1950. How does it connect to the world we live in today?
We live in a world where migration remains a central, pressing fact, and where wars and regime changes (and now also climate change) continue to push people across the globe, often at the will of systems whose policies aren’t shaped by an underlying commitment to human rights. Xenophobia of many sorts is alive among us; antisemitism is on the rise. Families, including mothers and children, are still separated by migration, as happens in my novel. Another still-present theme is how the idea of a homeland, though powerful and necessary at times, can be deployed for colonial, nationalist or racist ends. Why does Spain occasionally (in 1925, and again in 2015; my daughter has tried, unsuccessfully, to obtain a Spanish passport) offer citizenship to Sephardic Jews but make the process so labyrinthian and costly that it’s often bound to fail?  

On a more positive note, I’m interested in how the Jewish community in Turkey lived peaceably, if not without complications, in a predominantly Muslim culture for hundreds of years, after the Ottoman Empire welcomed the Jews during the Spanish Inquisition. As a child in Istanbul, my grandmother went to a French Catholic school, her classmates Muslim, Catholic and Jewish girls. She loved the nuns, had friends across creeds, and spoke of it as one of the best times of her life.  

How did you choose the title? What does it mean?
“Kantika” means “song” in Ladino (also called Judeo-Spanish), the endangered language of the Sephardic Jews. The word invokes a rich Sephardic history of music and poetry and helps keep a beautiful, strange word in circulation. Rebecca sings throughout the novel, so the title also has a literal meaning. I hope the book itself reads as a kind of song. More than a story of my own singular invention, I think of Kantika as a duet—between English and Ladino, fiction and history, the past and the present, my grandmother and myself.


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