Zahara and the Lost Books of Light opens with a gripping scene from the Spanish Inquisition. In a moonlit plaza in Granada, “The smell of incipient violence taints the air.” Although a dozen severed earlobes hanging from the Arc of the Ears bear witness to the loss of human life that day, the incipient violence in the air is not directed toward heretics. It is directed toward heretical works: books.
The plaza is piled high with books of poetry and all manner of scholarship that have been ripped from library shelves and “thrown together like corpses in a heap.” The crime? The books were written by Muslim and Jewish poets, philosophers, and scholars. The punishment? The books are to be burned.
I was immediately reminded of the Library at Alexandria, its apocryphal destruction by fire, and the centuries of questioning what ancient wisdom had been lost forever and what we could have gained from it. Similarly, in 1499, book-burning was not a symbolic act. Once those those texts went up in flames, the knowledge they contained would be gone forever. There would be no retrieving it from a backup in the Cloud.
Enter two ethereal forms, who direct a workman to save as many of the books as he can, to be hidden in a safe location, which comes to be known as Zahara. Before the two forms disappear through a time portal as beams of light, one intimates that someone from the future will be needed to keep the treasures of Zahara safe.
That someone is Alienor Crespo, a Seattle journalist of Spanish Sephardic heritage. She will travel to Spain ostensibly to do a news story on the repatriation of people whose Sephardic ancestors were banished from Spain in 1492. In reality, she is in search of her own heritage, driven in part by her gift of Vijitas Lokas, by which she is transported through time as various female ancestors to experience important moments in their lives. Ultimately, to fully understand her own identity, she must learn how her ancestors, particularly a great-aunt in an interfaith marriage, had to deny theirs.
While in Spain, Alienor meets her second cousin Celia, whose house is directly above Zahara, an underground library that Alienor first accesses through a trapdoor in Celia’s bedroom closet. The world-building for Zahara was one of my favorite aspects of the novel. Alienor discovers a muraled passageway, a ventilation system, security cameras, intercoms, and locks activated by thumbprints. There are various rooms dedicated to the different types of books, with a separate librarian responsible for each room.
In addition to Alienor’s search for her heritage, the plot is propelled by a nefarious political organization that seeks to destroy Zahara to maintain Spain’s cultural purity. There are plenty of twists and turns along the way, as well as a love interest for Alienor.
In the end, what impressed me most about Zahara and the Lost Books of Light was that I believed it–libraries of irreplaceable books rescued from the flames of the Spanish Inquisition, ethereal forms who turn into beams of light, Alienor’s travels through time as other people–I believed it all. Now, that’s great story-telling!
Thanks so much for hosting me and ZAHARA AND THE LOST BOOKS OF LIGHT on your blog, Liz!
ZAHARA was inspired by a song, Cuando el Rey Nimrod –a joyous retelling of the birth of Abraham, with lyrics composed in Ladino—a mixture of Judeo-Spanish and Hebrew originally devised to confuse the ears of the Inquisition. When my vocal-with-percussion group Abráce performed Cuando we would begin with a wish that someday Muslims, Jews and Christians would come to honor Abraham as their common ancestor—and as another song lyric says, “turn their swords into plowshares.”
As part of my research for writing ZAHARA, I traveled to Spain and spent time in the villages of La Alpujarra in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas.
On my first night, I climbed a hillside and photographed this plaque inscribed with the legend of two star-crossed lovers – Muslim and Christian — whose spirits are said to meet whenever water flows down into the fountain. A metaphor for the many complex relationships that have shaped Spain and would eventually shape my book.