Scholars Talk Writing: Ruth Behar

April 24, 2017
Ruth Behar won a MacArthur fellowship in 1988 when she was only 31. She brings deep intelligence, warmth, and a passionate vulnerability to her work as a professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan and a fiction writer, poet, essayist, and filmmaker. “The experience of being uprooted from Cuba as a child,” she said, in an interview for the Scholars Talk Writing series, “left a hole inside me that gives me the humility and the deep uncertainty from which all my writing stems.”

Your novel for young readers, Lucky Broken Girl, is being published this month. Did your doctoral training help you in writing fiction?

Behar: My anthropological training taught me to pay attention, to listen and observe carefully, and to see every human being as multidimensional — as having a complex life history. I learned that individuals aren’t isolated beings; they are part of a community, or various communities. Concepts such as kinship, religion, ethnicity, nationality, culture, class, gender, and sexuality are the lenses through which I view the world. They deepen my approach to how I think about fictional characters. And anthropology — with its focus on travel to unknown places — gave me a passport to go on journeys and think about what it means to be elsewhere and what it means to be at home.

I am grateful for all that I have learned as an anthropologist. But I did have to unlearn many aspects of my scholarly training in order to become a fiction writer. Fiction lets you take imaginative journeys — lets you create fantasies about what might have been, so you can construct an alternate reality. You have tremendous freedom. A lifetime of basing my story­telling on interviews, real-life observations, and travels to real places made it difficult for me to embrace that freedom. After all the trouble it took for me to learn to make logical arguments in academic papers, I had to let it all go. That was essential for the dreamer inside me to speak, so I could dare to imagine things that had never happened … but could have happened.

Despite many rejections, I loved fiction so passionately that I kept trying to figure out how to write it, though my heart was broken and I had little faith in my work. The good thing was that when the fiction wasn’t working, I could escape to poetry and release my sorrows into a poem. For me, poems are expressions of moods. My poems are pure melancholy.

Can you talk about your development as a writer?

Behar: I was drawn to fiction, playwriting, poetry, and film as a young woman, and tried my hand at all of those genres. I was also drawn to deep thinkers, to philosophers like Simone de Beauvoir, and to the idea of being a traveler. I chose to go into anthropology with the hope that I’d think big thoughts, travel, and write.

But once I set off on the academic path, I struggled with the writing I was expected to do. I was supposed to explain the world and I longed to see the enchantment of the world. I wanted to write more with my heart than my head. I wrote poems and stories, compartmentalizing as well as I could, keeping my academic writing separate from my creative writing. Then those voices began to merge and I tried to write ethnographies that didn’t kill the artistic soul.

I have several writer friends, and watching how hard they worked, how devotedly they revised, and how they would disappear for stretches of time when meeting a deadline, taught me that writing takes great dedication, great seriousness of purpose, a sense that nothing matters but the writing. I found I had to give yet more time and energy to my writing and dare to address bigger, more universal themes.

Edwidge Danticat (the Haitian-American novelist and short-story writer) talks about creating dangerously. I think that is crucial — speaking about things that are too scary to say out loud, taking risks for the sake of writing with true urgency. You get to a point where you write to live and live to write. That is when you know you’ve become a writer.

Are there dangers in using the first person in academic writing?

Behar: There are many different ways to do academic work and it’s important to respect the various approaches to writing. In recent years I have been writing with a strong personal voice because much of my work as a cultural anthropologist is auto­ethno­graphic. I can’t erase my presence because I am writing about people and places that are part of my own heritage and history. I want to understand who I am as I tell stories about others.

For many of us who are doing academic work about our own communities or our own diasporas, it is ethically necessary that we write in the first person. To be absent from the text would be a betrayal.

But the challenge of writing in the first person is how to place yourself in the story gracefully, so you don’t overwhelm the narrative. You’re walking a tightrope, taking the risk of failing both to do good academic work and good personal writing. Nevertheless, I think it’s worth it. As more scholars write in the first person, we acquire more literary models for autoethnography and we all get better at expressing ourselves in this genre.

What do you teach your students about writing?

Behar: I tell them to read not just for content, but for the architecture of language — noticing how words are placed on the page, and how cadence, metaphor, and rhythm come into play. We discuss the limits and possibilities of writing in different genres — including memoir, fiction, ethnography, and blurred genres — and we read passages aloud to see the various ways that writers can make magic with words or bore us to tears.

Learning to read as a listener, learning to hear the music in writing, is one of the many strategies I have used to teach students to read as writers. And I always recommend that they read Francine Prose’s wonderful book, Reading Like a Writer.

Is there anything to be done to make academic prose less stinky?

Behar: The problem with scholarly writing is that we need to prove we are working hard in order to maintain our status in the academic hierarchy, and the usual way to do that is by writing complex, convoluted prose that only an elite group can read. When our writing is too pretty or too pleasurable, it runs the risk of not seeming serious enough. Graduate students are acutely aware of this and that is why they are afraid to wander too far from the stultifying academic prose that they quickly learn is the norm they must follow.

And yet, at the same time, there is a growing movement among academics who seek to write more accessibly, more vividly, more clearly. We want to be read. University presses need to sell their books and they are promoting the importance of good writing. We now have numerous writing manuals for scholars. But the best way to learn to write better is to read widely and learn from the authors we love.

These days our efforts to write well are hurt, I feel, not so much by stinky prose, but by the excessive amount of news and information we consume daily on the internet, which is affecting how we think, how we read, and how we write, and snatching away the joy of sinking into a great book and reading without interruption, for hours on end.

How do you approach revision?

Behar: I revise a lot as I write. I need a good paragraph before I can move to the next one, which means I write slowly. I deliberate over word choices and sentence structure as I go. Once I’ve written through to the end of a draft, I return to the beginning, and start playing around with the order, to see if passages and sections should be moved for better plot structure. I add layers of description; I enrich the visual images. I read aloud to see if the sentences sing. I add or trim dialogue. I look at the words on the page as if I were arranging flowers in a vase.

I’ll go through this revision process several times. What I usually discover is that I’m not done when I think I’m done. There’s always more revision to do.

I don’t have tools, tips, or tricks, I’m afraid. Just fall in love with the process of writing and feel blessed for every word that has saved you from silence.

Why did you decide to write a novel for young readers?

Behar: I had been working on an adult novel for years. I revised it many times, trying to make it perfect, and sadly it lost its center. I still love the concept of that novel and hope to come back to it. But I needed to take a break.

I started writing in the voice of a young girl. At the age of nine and a half, I had been in a car accident, which left me bedridden in a body cast for a year. I had a very difficult time learning to walk again. After recovering, I became a girl who withdrew into the world of books. That experience changed my life, turned me into a different person.

I had told the story of the accident in an essay in my book, The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart, but in an adult voice, looking back at the child. I decided to give myself permission to be that girl again, to speak in Ruthie’s voice. I imagined myself in that immobile body and what it was like for my parents and extended family to care for a bedridden child. We had fled communism in Cuba to start a new life in New York, and suddenly I was immobile, unable to go anywhere. I remembered everyone who helped me heal, and as the writing grew, I found myself recreating the “village” of my immigrant girlhood in Queens, New York. It was liberating to speak with a child’s candor and boldness, to shed my academic persona. That’s how Lucky Broken Girl was born.

After working so hard my entire career to feel smart enough to earn a place in academe, I treasure the idea of children reading a book of mine.

Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’s writing program in Spokane. Her website is