9 2022

Meet Author Cambria Gordon via Zoom

4:00PM - 6:00PM  


Cam­bria Gor­don is the co-author of The Down-to-Earth Guide to Glob­al Warm­ing, win­ner of the Nation­al Green Earth Book Award. She has writ­ten for Los Ange­les Times Mag­a­zine, Boys Life, Par­ent Guide News and The Jew­ish Jour­nal of Los Ange­les. She lives with her hus­band and youngest son, while being as near as pos­si­ble to her two adult chil­dren, with­out annoy­ing them.


The Poet­ry of Secrets

The set­ting for Cam­bria Gordon’s new young adult nov­el is the world of fif­teenth-cen­tu­ry Spain pri­or to the expul­sion of the kingdom’s Jews. Six­teen-year-old Isabel Pérez is caught in a dai­ly strug­gle as a cryp­to-Jew. Her fam­i­ly seeks an impos­si­ble bal­ance, out­ward­ly con­form­ing to the church as con­ver­sos while hop­ing to secret­ly pre­serve their Jew­ish prac­tice. The out­side envi­ron­ment threat­ens Isabel, and ten­sions at home — which mir­ror the mul­ti­ple respons­es of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty — also impose their own painful real­i­ty. Gordon’s nar­ra­tive empha­sizes the inter­play between exter­nal and inter­nal pres­sures on a strong and gift­ed young woman as she tries to nav­i­gate the ter­rors of her time.

Gor­don demon­strates how Span­ish Jews were faced with unbear­able choic­es. The uncom­pro­mis­ing reli­gious views of mon­archs Fer­di­nand and Isabel led them to oppress their Jew­ish sub­jects in an inter­nal ​“recon­quest” of Spain par­al­lel to their mil­i­tary bat­tles against Mus­lims. Some Jews chose to emi­grate, while oth­ers con­vert­ed to Catholi­cism and sur­ren­dered their Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. Still oth­ers, like Isabel’s par­ents and her beloved abuela (grand­moth­er), attempt­ed to main­tain some essen­tial ele­ments of their faith while out­ward­ly liv­ing as Chris­tians. Isabel ago­nizes over this hypocrisy and feels increas­ing­ly alien­at­ed from any reli­gious belief; her core iden­ti­ty is as an aspir­ing poet. Con­flicts with her sis­ter, Beat­riz, who has become a devout believ­er in the church, present dai­ly frus­trat­ing evi­dence of the divi­sions tear­ing apart her fam­i­ly and her com­mu­ni­ty. When she becomes attract­ed to Diego Altami­ra­no, a young aris­to­crat, their roman­tic feel­ings for one anoth­er meet the same bar­ri­ers as all her oth­er attempts to cre­ate a ful­fill­ing life. Young adult read­ers will iden­ti­fy with Isabel’s frus­tra­tion and will also learn about an era in Jew­ish and world his­to­ry when com­plex reli­gious, social, and eco­nom­ic dif­fer­ences brought both fruit­ful cul­tur­al inter­ac­tion and dan­ger­ous upheaval to Spain’s Jews.

Gor­don has under­tak­en an admirable amount of research; the book is enriched by her atten­tion to detail, although there are occa­sion­al errors. (For exam­ple, unmar­ried women did not reg­u­lar­ly attend the mik­vah for rit­u­al bathing.) At times an anachro­nis­tic tone enters the nar­ra­tive as part of the novel’s pos­i­tive intent to reclaim free­dom for women’s con­scious­ness in the past. While cer­tain­ly many women would have felt frus­trat­ed by society’s lim­i­ta­tions on their auton­o­my, Isabel’s vehe­ment protests about the sub­ju­gat­ed role of women with­in Judaism — com­par­ing their treat­ment to that of con­ver­sos by ​“old Chris­tians” — seems more con­sis­tent with stan­dards of a lat­er time. Sim­i­lar­ly, Diego’s enthu­si­asm at hear­ing that Mus­lims had con­struct­ed a mosque on the site of a for­mer church reflects a sen­si­bil­i­ty that like­ly would have been alien to him, even as an aspir­ing artist who appre­ci­at­ed Islam­ic con­tri­bu­tions to cul­ture. Since it is evi­dent that the author is try­ing to con­vey a fla­vor of medieval Spain’s con­sid­er­able cul­tur­al diver­si­ty, these choic­es may be under­stood in that context.

The dra­mat­ic ten­sion grows as Isabel, with the sup­port of her abuela, becomes inter­est­ed in explor­ing Jew­ish texts. Gor­don includes Isabel’s poems, writ­ten in the tra­di­tion of Span­ish Jew­ish and Ara­bic verse, along­side selec­tions of work by his­tor­i­cal poets. The young woman’s attrac­tion to lan­guage as a means to exam­ine, cod­i­fy, and express her own expe­ri­ence and that of her peo­ple is a cen­tral theme of the nov­el — as impor­tant as fam­i­ly bonds and roman­tic love. The com­plex­i­ties of the author’s goal make her nov­el as vibrant as a street in medieval Spain; read­ers will want to fol­low Isabel on her wind­ing path towards freedom.

The Poet­ry of Secrets includes an author’s note with both per­son­al insights and his­tor­i­cal back­ground material.