Novels that grapple with themes of history at the Miami Book Fair

Writers Ruth Behar, Jasmine Warga, and Saadia Faruqi will present novels that grapple with themes of history, hardship and healing at a Miami Book Fair livestreamed panel discussion Saturday at noon.

Their books tell very different stories but connect through themes of overcoming personal difficulties and healing. 

“Even though [the books] are very different from each other, they do connect around those themes,” said Behar. 

Behar’s novel, “Letters from Cuba,” follows Esther, a young Jewish girl, as she moves from Poland in 1938 to be with her father in Cuba, with hopes of bringing the rest of her family there. 

Esther must learn to cope as she deals with antisemitism in Cuba while examining her own cultural identity and those of her new neighbors. 

“I just believe that there’s a lot of room for people to intersect,” Behar said. “That doesn’t mean that anybody loses their own culture, but rather that everybody gets to learn about each other’s culture, and that creates more tolerance and understanding.” 

Behar’s novel and those of Warga and Faruqi offer ways readers can approach difficult topics through the lens of history. 

“What we do as authors is work really hard to figure out how to talk about difficult things,” said Behar. “We create a space where we can open up to talk about things that maybe are silenced for a certain reason, because they’re difficult to talk about, or because people just would prefer not to talk about them.” 

For Behar, open discussions about these topics are important because they allow people to process their own struggles, and see others’. 

“Sometimes if you can see them through a fictional lens you can get more clarity,” Behar said. “You can get some distance from the problem and view it through the characters’ experience, that can create the possibilities that are understanding, better empathy.” 

“Letters to Cuba” is also deeply personal to Behar, as she based it on her own family’s history. 

All four of her grandparents were immigrants to Cuba, coming from Poland, Russia, and Turkey. Esther’s story is based on the life of her maternal grandmother, who also immigrated to Cuba.

“To be a young girl and to do that was incredible,” said Behar. “To take that risk, that hardship with the hope of helping to save her family, helping to bring the family to Cuba, that sense of sacrifice was so huge.” 

Through her novel, Behar considers her grandmother’s struggles starting over in a new country as she confronts two cultures. 

“I wanted that to be part of a story,” Behar said. “That’s very much a part of how I’ve grown up, with that mixed culture of being Jewish and Cuban.” 

Behar hopes that her panel with Warga and Faruqi will inspire viewers to think about the themes of their books, and about what they can do to bring compassion into the world. 

“Whatever we can do to welcome the immigrant, to welcome the stranger, to create more kindness, and more understanding and compassion for one another,” said Behar. “Those are really important things and I think that comes out of our conversation.” 


Elise Gregg is a junior majoring in journalism with a minor in criminal justice. Upon graduation, she would like to pursue a career covering international crime, particularly human rights violations and religious oppression around the world.