Edith E. Scott Saavedra ’80 has recently released a bilingual historical novel entitled “The Lamps of Albarracín/Los candiles de Albarracín.” Through a fictionalized, first-person narrative, the novel illustrates the multicultural complexity of medieval Aragón during the years of the Spanish Inquisition. The author paints a compelling picture of a town thrust into crisis, where Jews, Christians and Muslims living side by side find themselves in the midst of a perilous political shift that would change their lives forever. Scott, who, in the Spanish tradition, is also using her mother’s Sephardic surname Saavedra for purposes of the novel, sat down with The Harvard Crimson to discuss her book and her time at Harvard.
The Harvard Crimson: How did your research in writing this novel connect you with your ancestry or background?
Edith Scott Saavedra: I only discovered that my mother's clan had been Sephardim about seven years ago, and I had started on a search to understand the origins of her family back when I was an undergraduate at Harvard, because as I was growing up in Washington, D.C. in the 1970s, my mother raised me in a traditional way. She came from rural Central America, and she taught me precepts, rules, sayings that didn't mesh to anything I knew. I found out now in retrospect that they were preserved from 15th century Sephardic tradition and the Talmud.
THC: When you first started doing this research, did you know that you wanted to write a historical novel?
ESS: The truth is I had no idea. I had no thought to write a historical novel. About seven years ago I began to research, on my handphone, on the internet, at night. Maybe research is too cold a word… I had a thirst to understand, to take in this incredible period of Western history, this time and place. So I just began searching and searching and pulling up wonderful material on the internet, original documents from medieval Aragón, original artwork which had been pulled together by groups which are now organizing to preserve and communicate the culture of medieval Aragon. And the more I saw images, the more I saw artwork, the more I saw handicrafts, ceramics, poetry, the more fascinated and drawn in I became. I did this for several years, and then suddenly one fall five years ago I began to write a novel.
THC: How did Harvard shape your career path, as well as your work as a writer?
ESS: At Harvard I had two competing interests. One of them was very much Social Studies. The other was literature, and so I took several courses in Spanish literature, including the seminal famous HUM 55, which was taught at the time by Juan Marichal… I decided to concentrate in Social Studies, because I had a desire to understand — it sounds maybe naive now — but I wanted to have a framework in which I could understand how the world worked, in particular the political social world that we live in, the government, laws, etc… And both of these strands came together to enable me to write my novel, because I basically pulled up my sleeves and cut through received wisdom to understand what was really happening at that time and place.
THC: What role do you think that creative historical fiction as you've created this novel, plays in the larger historical narrative?
ESS: I think it plays a major role. We've all heard the adage, “there's no history, history is constantly rewriting itself.” But in instances where there is a totalitarian authoritarian regime that has completely controlled the recording of history and the historical story that has been handed down, I feel it is morally incumbent on us who have the tools, who have the perspective, who have the access to international research and creative minds, who can think outside the box, it is incumbent on us to go back and recreate the experiences of the people who were oppressed. Because their stories have been erased. The Jews were expelled from Spain, the expulsion occurred within six years of that conflict. How could these people maintain any record of what happened to them?
THC: You studied civil rights at Harvard with Robert Coles. Do you see any comparisons between what happened in Spain under the Inquisition and periods of oppression in this country?
ESS: It's very difficult, and perhaps perilous, to try to draw summary comparisons between periods of history. I think what I'll do with this question is jump forward to the present day. Because definitely, Robert Coles has shaped the way I think, in the sense that I took his seminar as a sophomore. I think that in the Western world today… increasingly, we're thinking of people divided into groups. Increasingly, we're saying that something is not true where the statement is in itself repugnant and shouldn't need to be even thought. And I fear that for all of us, this imposes a burden and a danger that we all will increasingly focus on this discourse of disunity and not think about our common humanity, and our common polity… We might think, oh well, of course, we're not experiencing anything like that.
Well, pause. If we are dragged and led far enough along this road, our discourse can fundamentally disintegrate, our way of thinking, and our souls. So in order to combat this, again, every day, how do we think, how do we act, and if we are so inclined, religiously, how do we pray?
THC: You've released your novel concurrently in English and Spanish. What audiences do you hope to reach by putting forth a bilingual work?
ESS: Spain has never come to a national agreement or consensus over Franco, much less the Inquisition. And I have been told several times that nothing was wrong because everybody knows that only three people ever died in the history of the Inquisition. Now, we may smile at this, but I am being told it repeatedly. But I also sent out about 8,000 Linkedin messages to people in Spain and Portugal, and I received 1,500 messages of support… They cherish their multicultural heritage, and it's time for the story of these different peoples to be told. So I believe that this book should be very much a book that belongs to Spanish speaking readers, and not a translation of an English work that comes out later, but a book that's created in two languages, which is how I went about it.
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