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Indiana author inspires hope, resilience and belonging in her community

By Bridget Eckert, Director of Marketing and Communications, Indiana Arts Commission with Shana Ritter, Author

As part of her Individual Advancement Program grant, Indiana author Shana Ritter attended a weeklong writer's retreat where she completed the revision of her latest novel. The historical novel tells the story of a mother and her daughters facing choices and consequences when the Spanish Inquisition orders Jews to leave Spain or convert. Will they forsake all that is integral to their lives, or leave to seek refuge far from home?

We sat down with Shana to find out what motivates, inspires, and drives her work.

What inspired you to write in the Time of Leaving?

I first lived in Spain in the mid-seventies, a time of great change. People were looking back on their history, and they had questions for me about mine. What was it like being Jewish? Most people had never met anyone who was. I began to dig into the history of the Jews in Spain and went to visit Toledo, home to one of the few remaining synagogues, and the Sephardic museum. Toledo had once been a city of Muslim, Jewish and Christian collaboration, housing the school of translators. Walking the old Jewish neighborhood it was if stories began to emerge from the doorways, the traces of a young woman’s voice seeped into me. I carried it for years, it became a poem, then a series of short pieces and finally I was able to give it the time and space to grow into a novel. 

There was a lot of research involved and over the course of many visits to family there, I married someone from Spain, I went back to Toledo and revisited many other towns and cities. As I learned more of the history, the voices of the women in my book became clearer. I thought a lot about immigration, exile, home, belonging. I thought of my mother, who was an immigrant to this country forced to leave Poland in the 1920’s because of Pogroms. Then I found out the Polish king opened his country to refugees fleeing Spain in 1492. Perhaps that was my family? This connection made me want to tell that story of exile and resilience from the point of view of a mother and daughter. 

How has your community embraced your work? And how have you related the story back to your community?

Support began with my writing group reading chapters, then others willing to read the first and second drafts. So many people contribute to the process of writing a book. 

Through the Writer’s Guild, Women Writing for a Change, and Beth Shalom Jewish Community Center, all in Bloomington, I‘ve had multiple opportunities to read my work and to discuss not only the writing process, but what I learned about the era of 1492, a tumultuous time not so different from our own.  

"Ms Ritter takes us on this sad but historically accurate tale of abandonment, survival and strength in adversity. Her prose is often filled with poetry as she spins us into her plot. I underlined many passages that sang to my heart. Let’s always remember these stories of unspeakable terror at hands of powerful leaders and vow to never repeat them again." - Amazon review

Many are surprised to uncover this aspect of history. The “edict of expulsion” took place within months of the reconquest of Spain and Columbus’s first voyage. It effected hundreds of thousands of people and changed not only the history of Spain, but of Europe and what would become the Americas.

Readings at community gatherings and book clubs have led to discussions on immigration, hope, resilience and belonging. They have been rich discussions. My hope is that the book will continue to spark conversations in more communities. 

What advice would you give to people looking to advance their career with an Individual Advancement Program grant?

Be specific about what you want to do with the grant. Attend a workshop? Go on a retreat? Purchase materials? The more specific you can be in how you want to use the grant money, and in what way you see that contributing to your growth as an artist, the easier it will be to write your grant proposal. I’d also advise you to speak with the people at the Indiana Arts Commission and with other artists who have received grants through the program. I found everyone to be supportive and helpful. Creating is a process, an everyday practice that needs to be sustained. The IAP contributes to that by allowing you to further your commitment to your art. 

The Indiana Arts Commission's belief in my work opened up new paths for me and helped me to expand and grow as a writer.

Where can people go to support your work?  

Self-promotion is a challenge for everyone, and every artist has to do it. We can all make a huge difference by supporting local artists.

  • Tell a friend about In the Time of Leaving.
  • Post about the book on social media.
  • Invite me to read or speak at your local library, community group, church, mosque, synagogue, book club, etc. 
  • Buy the book, give it as a gift, ask your neighborhood library to purchase one.
  • Visit my website and follow my occasional blog.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently working on putting together a new poetry manuscript and a series of short prose pieces entitled “Threads”. I teach writing workshops in various settings, and in April I’ll be teaching a short course on “very contemporary” poetry. I’m also working with local writers to put together a “Celebration of Bloomington Writers” for late Spring 2020 at our Monroe County Library.

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