Cuba is a beautiful island nation with a tumultuous history that includes colonization, slavery, and revolution. Through her historical verse novels, Cuban-American author Margarita Engle offers readers a window into Cuba’s turbulent past. Her book “The Surrender Tree” earned Engle the 2008 Pura Belpré Medal and a Newbery Honor, the first awarded to an author of Latino heritage. Her other verse novels, which include “The Poet Slave of Cuba,” “Tropical Secrets,” and “The Firefly Letters,” have also won numerous awards and accolades. Engle’s upcoming verse novel “The Silver People,” about the building of the Panama Canal, has already received critical acclaim. Engle’s historical novels are written in delicate, lyrical verse. Despite the hardships that they often depict, one theme that is prevalent in all of Engle’s books is hope.
For more information on Margarita Engle and her books, visit her website and her Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/margarita.engle.1). YARN is honored to share this interview with Engle, along with some of her original poetry (click here!).
YARN: In an interview, you mention being haunted by an idea. Can you describe how this feels and how you proceed to soothe this powerful emotion?
ME: I wrote my first verse novel, “The Poet Slave of Cuba,” because I felt haunted by the life of Juan Francisco Manzano, who taught himself to read and write while he was a child, even though literacy was forbidden to slaves. I wanted to write about him because I admired his courage, and felt that he deserved to be better known. At first, I struggled to write about him in prose, for adults, but it just never worked. Once I switched to free verse, and wrote it for young people, everything began to flow. It was as if he’d reached down from heaven and reminded me that he was a poet, and that his own autobiographical notes were about his youth.
YARN: In another interview, you said that you had been influenced by Karen Hesse’s novels and verse. Who have been some of your other literary influences?
ME: The “magic realistic” poets of the Latin American “Boom” (1970s and 80s), including Octavio Paz, and Jorge Luis Borges, as well as certain earlier Latin American poets, especially José Martí from Cuba, and Rubén Darío from Nicaragua. I also love the poets of early twentieth century Spain. Antonio Machado is one of my favorites. Some of my favorite modern poets are Dulce María Loynáz and Mary Oliver.
YARN: You’re known for writing in verse, but you’ve written in prose as well. From your experience, is there anything markedly different about writing novels in verse rather than prose? When do you know to choose one style over the other?
ME: Most of my prose was for grownups. Sometimes the critics said it was “too poetic.” The older I grow, the more I want to write for young people, and the more I write for young people, the more I want to write in verse, perhaps because I loved poetry so much during my childhood and teen years. Poetry is an emotional refuge. Prose still has a valuable place in my life, but I don’t think it offers the same level of intimacy between author and reader. When you show someone a poem you’ve written, you’re giving them a glimpse of your heart and soul. Everything is right there, out in the open, visible. There is nothing like an uncluttered page of free verse to expose one’s innermost self.
YARN: On a related note, in addition to writing both poetry and prose, you also both Spanish and English! How do you decide what “language” to use—poetry or prose, English or Spanish—for both the entire book, and for specific passages? Have you ever started in one, and had to change course and switch to the other?
ME: My mother is from Cuba, but my father is American, and I was born and raised in the U.S., so I tend to write in English. In general, I write in English for long projects, and in Spanish for shorter ones. English is much more direct and concise. Spanish is round-about and flowery, but the sounds are so beautiful.
YARN: You write books for many different ages. How do you know when a story is going to be more YA, J, or MG?
ME: For longer books such as “The Poet Slave of Cuba,” “The Surrender Tree,” “Tropical Secrets,” “The Firefly Letters,” “Hurricane Dancers,” “The Lightning Dreamer,” and “Silver People,” I wrote with a transitional age in mind, the age when a reader begins to seek mature topics, such as freedom and justice, but still enjoys the natural wonder of childhood. In other words, before adult cynicism sets in. So far, I’ve only written two verse novels that I would consider middle grade, “The Wild Book,” inspired by stories my grandmother told me about her childhood in Cuba, and “Mountain Dog,” inspired by my husband’s volunteer work training wilderness search and rescue dogs to rescue lost hikers in California’s Sierra Nevada forests. In these cases, the subject matter decided the format. When I get an idea for a picture book for very young children, it often arrives in a visual form, even though I’m not the one who will do the art work. I wrote “Summer Birds” because I could see Maria Merian—one of the earliest female scientists and explorers—observing butterfly life cycles. “When You Wander” came to me after I saw the fear of lost children who had wandered away from a campground. “Tiny Rabbit’s BIG WISH” is a re-told Cuban folktale that I saw as a simple way of encouraging self-acceptance.
YARN: As someone who is bilingual, does knowing Spanish and English affect or alter the way you manipulate these languages? Do you feel more comfortable writing in one over the other? How are they different/similar?
ME: I feel more comfortable writing in English, but I read poetry in Spanish every day. I absolutely love to read, and it is important to me to read in both languages.
YARN: What does your writing process consist of, from the idea to publication? Do you outline, draft, revise? What is your favorite part it? Your least favorite?
ME: I do an incredible amount of research for historical topics. I can’t emphasize this enough. I read everything I can find, including bibliographies. Working backwards from modern studies to antique books that contain excerpts of diaries and letters which aren’t available digitally, I search for any first person account that will give me a wealth of details, as well as a key to the emotional aspects of life in a particular time and place. Then I outline. Then I ignore the outline, changing everything as I go along. I keep writing in different voices until I find the ones that seem natural. It’s as if I’m meeting a lot of characters, and becoming closer friends with some than with others. Revision is the hardest part. Each time I finish a draft, I let it sit for a while, then come back and try to read it as if I’ve never seen it before. That’s when I catch glaring errors, and horrible weaknesses. Often, I see that I need to start over from scratch. I’ll salvage portions, and re-write other parts completely. It’s a painstaking process, but also exhilarating.
My favorite part of the writing process is immersion in those early drafts, when I’m still working with a pen and paper. That’s the stage where it all feels so daydreamy, and everything flows. Once I go to the computer, I know there is real work ahead of me. Daydreaming isn’t enough. It has to make sense, too.
YARN: Have you ever felt “stuck” in your writing? What advice can you give teens who might be struggling with writing assignments and need to get unstuck before the due date?
ME: For me, deadlines are intimidating. I write best if I start far enough in advance so that I don’t have to rush. I need to write in a quiet environment, without distractions. If I get stuck, I look at visual images, such as photographs. Seeing a landscape or a face can really help my mind travel, or even time-travel.
YARN: Writing and reading about Cuba has allowed you to experience it in a specific way. Why are these methods of understanding just as important as visiting Cuba in the flesh?
ME: If I had my choice, I would have visited “in the flesh” all my life, but for more than three decades, official U.S. government travel restrictions made that impossible, so I used my imagination, remembering childhood visits, and wondering about the person I would be if that right to travel back and forth freely had not been taken away from me by a historical situation. I have written a verse memoir about those childhood visits. Writing it was a painful experience, but I hope it will help the next generation of voters understand the need for diplomatic relations between neighboring countries.
YARN: Many of your books, both fiction and nonfiction, have been historically based, but one of your recently published middle grade books, “Mountain Dog,” is set in contemporary times. Do you plan on writing more books set in modern times?
ME: Yes, I would love to try. I never know which story ideas will work, until I try them, but I do love to consider possibilities.
YARN: You have written many verse novels, but have you ever considered releasing a poetry collection of stand-alone poems?
ME: Right now, I’m in love with storytelling in verse, but when the right subject inspires me, I do write stand-alone poems. If enough of them were held together by a common thread, I might try a collection.
ME: Well, of course it was absolutely stunning, amazing, and unexpected, but at the same time it makes no sense at all. How can that be? I received the Newbery Honor in 2009. By then, there had already been so many great Latino books. Why didn’t one of them win sooner? Maybe it was just the right timing, but I also feel like I’m standing on the shoulders of giants. My mentor, Tomás Rivera, should have won a long time ago. Pam Muñoz Ryan, Pat Mora, Alma Flor Ada, Juan Felipe Herrera, Gary Soto, the list of worthy competitors is extensive and impressive. I don’t understand how they could have been neglected by award committees. There seems to be a tendency to ignore books from diverse sources.
On YA And Other Books/Stuff:
YARN: How do you think cultural diversity is important in children’s literature? As readers, how can we ensure that more books that promote ethnological literacy are available to young minds?
ME: Whenever they walk into a classroom, library, or bookstore, children and teens from all backgrounds should see lots of choices. Some of those choices should be about the countries where they were born, or where their ancestors were born, and some should be about the cultural interface where immigrants become American, or where Americans travel overseas. However, I also think it would be a mistake to only read books about our own ethnicities. All of us benefit from learning about the wider world. When I was a child, there weren’t any multicultural children’s books at all, so I instinctively started looking for adult books. I sneaked into the forbidden grownup section of the library, and read everything I could find about every continent in the world. I needed to travel, at least on paper, if not in real life. The first book I bought with my own money was “Things Fall Apart,” by Chinua Achebe. I was ten years old.
YARN: For readers looking for more diversity in their YA, what writers/books would you recommend?
ME: I’ll limit my answer to just a few examples of Latino authors, because if I include all the great ones, along with all the great African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and books written overseas, the list would take up dozens of pages! So, for middle grade and young adult readers, I would recommend the Latino authors I mentioned above—in the Newbery question—just as a starting point.
YARN: What are some verse novels you have read by other authors? What is your favorite verse novel/author?
ME: I can’t choose one. Here are just a handful of favorites off the top of my head. I apologize to anyone I’ve forgotten! Nikki Grimes, Thanhha Lai, Juan Felipe Herrera, Karen Hesse, Sonya Sones, Guadalupe García McCall, Jacqueline Woodson, Walter Dean Myers, Virginia Euwer Wolff, Cynthia Rylant, Holly Thompson, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Helen Frost, Hope Anita Smith, Sherman Alexie.
YARN: You were a Latina Author and Poet keynote speaker at this year’s National Latino Children’s Literature Conference. Congrats! Can you tell us a bit of what you touched upon in your speech and why such conferences are imperative for our literary community?
ME: I’ve been developing a presentation titled, “Two Cultures, Two Wings,” which actually was born last year, when I was the writer in residence and Words Take Wing author at the University of California, Davis. Whether I’m speaking to adults, teens, or children, I include lots of visual images of Cuba from childhood visits as well as more recent trips, simply because most Americans have never had a chance to travel to Cuba. I find that even adults benefit from seeing a map, because the island has been isolated for so long that there’s a tendency to forget that it’s one of the U.S.’s closest neighbors. I always talk about how falling in love with Cuba as a child influenced my writing. I like to read a poem or two from one of my more recent books, and invite participants to imagine a time when neighboring countries will once again be friends. For certain presentations, such as one I’ll soon be giving at the University of Arizona’s Poetry Center, there is time for a more in-depth consideration of the verse novel writing process. One of the points I like to emphasize is the importance of letting words flow. Poets have a tendency to be perfectionists. We agonize over line breaks, metaphors, and sounds. All of that is fine in later drafts, but I believe the first draft should flow from the heart, not from the mind.
YARN: Thank you so very much, Margarita, for answering our many questions, and for giving us four precious poems to publish. Happy National Poetry Month!