Book Interview | Elizabeth Graver Tells the Family Story Behind ‘Kantika’

By | May 25, 2023
A black and white group photo with members Elizabeth Graver's family, whom she based her novel "Kantika" off of.

Elizabeth Graver began writing her fifth novel, Kantika, in 2014, but the Turkish Sephardic dressmaker at the heart of the multi-generational, continent-spanning saga has been with her for a lifetime. That’s because she was inspired by Graver’s maternal grandmother, Rebecca (née Cohen) Baruch Levy.

Not coincidentally, the character at the heart of Kantika—the word means “song” in Ladino—is also named Rebecca. Fact and fiction meet in the key elements of her migration journey, which hew closely to Graver’s grandmother’s real life. Born into a wealthy family in Istanbul at the turn of the 20th century, the fictional Rebecca, like the real one, moves to Barcelona in 1925 when her father, Alberto—spurred by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the demise of the family’s textile factory, and worsening conditions for Turkish Jews—accepts a job as caretaker of a semi-hidden synagogue.

Widowed after a brief, unhappy marriage in Spain, Rebecca is left to raise two young sons. In 1934, with poor marriage prospects and fascism on the rise in Europe, she moves to New York via Cuba for an arranged marriage to Sam Levy, the widower of a close childhood friend. Rebecca and Sam create a blended family from her two sons and his daughter, Luna (who has cerebral palsy and is a central character in the novel) and have three more children together. The second youngest, Suzanne, is inspired by Graver’s mother.

From childhood, Graver felt drawn to the Mediterranean roots of her Sephardic relatives. Unlike her father’s Ashkenazi family, they did not keep kosher, and she preferred their food—feta cheese, phyllo dough, lemons, olives, honey. She was especially drawn to her grandmother Rebecca, a natural storyteller whose biography was irresistible to a budding young writer. At age 21, armed with a tape recorder, Graver interviewed her grandmother. She wasn’t sure what she would do with the information she gathered, but she was aware that time was passing.

It took her decades to start writing the book that became Kantika, and eight years to complete it. Part of that had to do with a lack of confidence; only after writing her previous novel, The End of the Point, with its broad historical sweep and connection to a real place where her husband’s family spends summers, did she feel ready to return to her recordings of Rebecca.

The other reason for the delay was the research. There were trips to Turkey, Cuba, Spain, and to her grandparents’ Queens neighborhoods of Astoria and Cambria Heights. There were conversations with aging relatives, history books to read, historians to interview. Then there was trying to weave it all together into a novel so that readers “wouldn’t see the seams, but it would just feel like a story.”

Graver, who teaches English and creative writing at Boston College, spoke to Moment about why she was drawn to her grandmother’s stories and the challenges of blending fact and fiction.

You said that your grandmother told her stories to your sister and your cousins, too, but that you “pulled them out of her.” Why did you find her so compelling?

I loved listening to her, and I had a high tolerance for the edgier or weirder stories. She was intense, and unusually open for a woman of her time about topics like sex and family conflict. I thought she was fascinating. I don’t think I was thinking, “I’m going to write a novel.” I’d only written a few short stories at that point. I knew I loved her and wanted to hold onto her voice, and that she was a vivid storyteller. She added sound effects! I made a short video about the story behind the book—you can hear her voice in it.

Why did you identify with her so strongly?
From the time I was little, I was always writing stories and drawing and making stuff. My grandmother was kind of an artist manqué. She wasn’t literary, but she was extraordinarily creative. She sewed—for a living but also for pleasure—and she drew and painted and gardened. She loved to sing. In our relationship, she was the storyteller, and I listened. My Grandma Rose, on the other side, was a lovely woman—in some ways nicer than Rebecca, who was a tough cookie in some ways, but she didn’t communicate her past to me. My Grandma Becca’s life contained a lot of drama and loss, but she was always able to find joy. That seemed important too.

So why not write a family memoir? Why a novel?
I didn’t have enough material to write it as a memoir unless it was one that constantly pointed out its own holes, or where I, as the granddaughter, took on a central role, which didn’t interest me. And I wanted to imagine my way into lots of different characters and go inside their heads. It’s not just Rebecca’s story. Neither my mother nor I even met my great-grandfather, Alberto Cohen—he died in the bombing of Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War—but I ended up giving him a point of view.

In the novel, Alberto is a dreamer who would rather be caring for his plants than running a textile factory. Then he leaves his homeland to become a janitor at a synagogue in a country that had expelled his ancestors. How challenging was it to make him so dignified in light of that?

I love Alberto. He was the character who surprised me the most. I didn’t expect to take on his point of view, but there was something about him—his passions, maybe, and his relationship to place. How much he lost. I invented a lot of it, but I do know that my real great-grandfather loved to garden and was a lousy businessman, and that he loved Istanbul and viewed it as his home. In the 1920s, Spain briefly offered citizenship to descendants of Sephardic Jews who had been expelled from Spain in the 15th century (interestingly, this happened again in 2015, though the law isn’t working very well). They kind of said, “This is your homeland. Do you want to come back?” There’s something to that—Ladino contains Castilian Spanish and there’s cultural overlap in terms of song, tales and food. But Spain’s reasons for this so-called welcome were largely self-interested. The Ottoman Empire had welcomed the Sephardim who fled Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. For hundreds of years, that was their home. Spain wasn’t. But by the time my family moved there, many other doors had closed. It’s an unusual story, to go “back” to Spain.

And yet Rebecca—the character, anyway—makes a life for herself in Spain. She starts a successful business and even flourishes in some ways, despite plenty of
I read and teach a lot of wonderful literature by immigrants from a wide range of places, and I’ve become interested in what it means to migrate when you’re old versus when you’re young, and also how gender and other elements of identity play in. Barcelona feels open and new and Western to Rebecca. She can wander about by herself. It’s not all easy, but she can see the beauty. Her father is desperately homesick for Istanbul. He just wants to be able to tend his parents’ graves and walk the streets he knows, and he’s very nervous about being Jewish in Spain. In some ways he’s more alert to what’s really happening than his daughter, but he’s also bitter, closed and fragile, and he has a much harder time making a new life.

Are you concerned that readers will be confused between fact and fiction because you use some real names and include family photographs?
I want the photos to signal from the very first page that this fictional story is in conversation with a real one. I’m interested in the intersections between fact and fiction. Of course, all family stories have fictional elements. Photos can serve as historical records, but they can also be full of artifice, or even lies. In Kantika, Rebecca—who is both a dressmaker and a beauty—is interested in manipulating surfaces and self-fashioning. She isn’t above using looks to get what she wants. She has to use photos as legal proof for passports, marriage deals, things like that, but photos also matter as ties to family members she’s been separated from. In real life, my grandmother managed to hold onto her family photos across multiple migrations. I found that powerful.

Are you worried that because people won’t see the seams, they’ll assume it’s all true, that this is your family’s story?
I don’t want anyone in my actual family to think of this as our true family story, because it’s not. It’s me giving imagined life to something from a few seeds. I was immersed in a weird, hybrid conversation between what I knew and what I made up and learned through research, but it’s not like I was writing a biography or memoir. My mother has read it. My sister has read it. They were both really helpful, but I don’t think my mother would say that the Rebecca in the book is her mother. Rebecca has some things in common with my other characters, like Aimee from my novel Unraveling. It just happens that way—characters arise out of the conscious and unconscious self. Writing this book was an intense, dreamy process where I skipped back and forth between history, memory and imagination and then did my own kind of alchemy. I got really into it. I’m on to another project now, but it’s actually hard for me to stop wanting to learn more about Sephardic culture. It’s such a fascinating world—and a vanishing one.

Kantika is published by Metropolitan Books. Debby Waldman is a freelance writer in Edmonton, Alberta, whose reviews have appeared in People, Publishers Weekly and Postmedia newspapers in Canada. She has also contributed to Moment.

Top photo courtesy of Elizabeth Graver

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