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A Journey of Identity: Graver Details the Path of an Immigrant Family’s Life in ‘Kantika’

Growing up with two parents who were English professors at Williams College, Boston College English professor Elizabeth Graver said her childhood was filled with many different stories. Nevertheless, one story was missing—her grandmother’s.

“We were quite close, but she was confusing to me,” Graver said. “She would say she was Spanish, or she was Turkish, or she was Jewish, but she was differently Jewish from my other grandmother who was Ashkenazi.”

Inspired by her grandmother’s story, Graver wrote her newest novel, Kantika. The novel explores themes of immigration and has recently been named one of the top 100 books of 2023 by The New York Times

Graver details the intense story of the Cohens, a family of Sephardic Jews whose ancestors moved to Turkey, part of the former Ottoman Empire, after being expelled from Spain in 1492. 

“I’m always interested in inner life, family, psychology, kind of how people move through the world in the daily ways in terms of their consciousness,” Graver said. “But I think I’m also increasingly interested in how these small figures intersect with the big history.”

When she was 21, Graver interviewed her grandmother to see if she could decipher her life’s history. This was the moment when the possibility of writing a book based on her grandmother began to blossom, Graver said. 

When she actually began crafting Kantika, Graver said her writing was also influenced by contemporary social issues.

“I was watching all kinds of things—like children separated at the border—just all kinds of things in our current world that I had some urge to respond to,” Graver said. “I responded through my work in a way by thinking about how history repeats itself or can teach us in certain ways.”

BC professor of English Suzanne Matson—a longtime colleague and friend of Graver—said the complex characters and careful structuring of Kantika’s narrative are two of the most important aspects of the novel. 

“Well, it’s very meticulously researched,” Matson said. “In all her historical fiction, she creates a really vivid sense of place with a lot of texture and depth. The tapestry of Kantika is rich and has a lot of characters across time to follow, so it’s a very engrossing story.”

Michal Miller, former student of Graver and BC ’23, helped conduct research for the novel. 

Though she began her time at BC as a biochemistry major, Miller said she had always been interested in English and publishing. After taking one of Graver’s English classes, she said she finally found her true passion for writing and editing.

“I started to stay after class every day and talk to Professor Graver about that desire [to switch my major] because I knew she was writing this book,” Miller said. “So, it was through those conversations where I sort of came in with Kantika and where she welcomed me into that process.”

From there, Graver began handing over drafts of her book for Miller to review and analyze. Miller said Graver would ask her about historical elements of the story and task her with creating timelines.

In addition to doing research, Miller said she was able to offer perspective on how certain scenes from the novel might be interpreted by readers.

“She brought me into these conversations and discussions and let me print out a bunch of copies of this book and have at it,” Miller said. “When she started to get notes from her actual editor, she would share some of those with me and that was really wonderful because I got to see what I would be doing if I became an editor.”

But for Graver, conducting online research, writing, and editing was only one part of the project—she also traveled to the different countries in which Kantika is set, including Istanbul, her grandmother’s hometown. Graver said it was interesting to see and experience the different settings of Kantika in the present day.

“Like the neighborhood where my grandmother grew up, Fener, was filled with all Syrian refugee kids,” Graver said. “So the layers of history—for her, it was home and for them, it was where they had been forced to go—were incredibly moving.”

Through Kantika’s vivid accounts of immigrant experiences, Graver said hopes readers will be drawn to reflect on their own identities and family lineage. 

“I’m excited when people tell me, ‘Oh, this made me think about my story’ or ‘This made me pull out my photos’ or ‘My family has this journey,’” Graver said. “The immigrant stories are just endlessly fascinating.”

According to Matson, Kantika can resonate with a wider audience than just immigrants. 

“It’s definitely a book about negotiating culture and identity in different contexts,” Matson said. “So, anyone who’s feeling displaced, anyone who is looking for a place, can find a relevant story in this novel.” 

Whether it comes from down the road or from the other side of the world, Graver said she believes every story has value in helping people understand the way the world works. 

“Stories that involve all of these crossings have a kind of richness and importance to them,” she said.

For Graver, the word “kantika” means more than its direct translation to“song” in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). For her, the word relates to the way her grandmother’s voice comes through Graver, telling her story.

“The book starts with singing,” Graver said. “Rebecca’s singing as a little girl, and her mother sings, and her father sings … That song is voice, which is music, which is poetry, which is writing—it’s all part of the same world for me.”

Update (12/21/23, 12:45 p.m.): This article was updated to clarify the ancestry of Sephardic Jews.

December 20, 2023