Ruth Behar has called herself “an anthropologist who specializes in homesickness,” and her books, both fiction and nonfiction, bear this out. In her middle-grade novel Letters From Cuba, a young Jewish girl living in Cuba writes to a sister left behind in Poland. In the adult memoir Traveling Heavy, Behar—who was born in Cuba to a Jewish family and later immigrated to the United States—explores her own changing relationship to cultural identity over the course of her travels and education as an anthropologist. Her newest work, Tía Fortuna’s New Home: A Jewish Cuban Journey (Knopf, Jan. 25), places the theme front and center in a picture bookllustrated by Devon Holzwarth, that our review calls a “nostalgic glimpse at a little-known but rich culture within the broader Jewish American community.” It tells the story of a young girl who helps her aunt, an elderly Jewish Cuban woman who’s long settled at the beautiful Seaway condominium in Miami, move on once again. With an eye to the past and hope for the future, aunt and niece work together to accept a new chapter. We spoke to Behar by Zoom to learn more. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did your background as an anthropologist inform this book?

I think about anthropology as a discipline that’s about the search for home. There’s a lot of people, like myself, who I call diasporic anthropologists. We’re going back to the place where we or our families are from and doing research there. And then, when we go back to where we actually live, which in my case is Michigan—which, well, is not exactly Cuba [laughs]—I’m homesick when I’m here, and when I’m in Cuba, I realize there’s a strong part of myself that’s American and that can’t be Cuban anymore. Anthropology gave me a framework and a philosophy to think about that. In this part of my life, this parallel career where I’m writing the things I’ve always loved—poetry and fiction for young people—I have a new way of talking about ideas I’ve spent so long untangling for myself.

What were the things you were focused on, telling a story for young readers?

In a lot of ways, I found it much harder to write a picture book than a middle-grade novel! I had to be so much more precise.

More like writing poetry?

Yes, much more like writing poetry—like a long prose poem. I loved that aspect of it, but if I was writing a novel, I would have been wondering, Well, who was Tía Fortuna? And there was all this context that I would have filled in with a novel or ethnography.

There are so many themes that come up in this story—loss; diaspora; the acceptance of loss, of aging, of mortality.

It was about passing culture onto another generation but doing so with joy, because you don’t want to be saddling a child with all the melancholy of the Sephardic story. How do you relay that beauty and resilience in a children’s story? I focused on symbols—foods like the bourekas and the ojitos, the evil eyes. All of these traditions mean a lot to me. And the place itself, the Seaway, which is a real place and which was actually facing demolition. I remember visiting these beautiful casitas that were right on the beach, and I thought about what saying goodbye to that place would mean for Fortuna as a diasporic woman.

I loved the way she said goodbye to her surroundings, like old friends.

I saw moving on and accepting new places as part of her heritage. She’s from Cuba, but her parents are from Turkey and, before that, from Spain. Her goodbyes to the space were her heritage speaking, but there’s also an element of magic in how she says goodbye. I wanted everything to be a little alive for Tía Fortuna. And I loved the idea of the magic of trees, which stay put so long.

What was the process of collaborating with your illustrator, Devon Holzwarth?

I sent her a lot of pictures! Pillows—because I felt certain Tía Fortuna would have a lot of embroidered pillows—and evil eye bracelets and hamsas. Devon did such a wonderful job adding the interior details of the home. Since it’s a story about Fortuna losing a home, the interior details really mattered to me.

You have a Spanish edition coming out at the same time as the English version—did you consider translating the text yourself?

I was self-conscious about translating. I speak Spanish all the time, but I was concerned about choosing the right words and grammar. I did insist on reviewing the translation, but in the end I made very few edits. Yitzia Yani is Sephardic and Cuban as well, and she did an incredible job. I’m absolutely thrilled that the two editions are coming out contemporaneously. I wanted to come out with a Ladino edition at the same time, but we’re going to see how the Spanish version does first.

What are you working on now?

My next novel is a middle-grade novel, and it’s like nothing I’ve worked on before. It follows four characters from different time periods. All four are Sephardic, and they’re all young women struggling with different facets of identity and religion. They all have very revolution-centered stories.

Ilana Bensussen Epstein is a writer and filmmaker in Boston.