Margarita Engle has tapped into her Cuban-American heritage to create award-winning children’s books about the history of the island.
Her latest book, The Lightning Dreamer, Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist, is out March 19. The story depicts the life of poet and abolitionist Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda in free verse.
In 2009, Engle was the first Latino/a to win the Newbery Honor Award for The Surrender Tree, about a nurse who helps those while war rages in Cuba in 1896. That book also won the Pura Belpré Prize, which honors children’s books that depict the Latino experience.
She also won the Pura Belpré Prize in 2008 for The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano.
Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian was selected as a Kirkus Best Children’s Book.
A: My interest in Avellaneda is two-fold. First, as one of Latin America’s earliest and boldest abolitionist writers, she was far ahead of her time. Her interracial romance novel, Sab, was published eleven years before Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Not only did Sab make an impassioned appeal for emancipation, it surpassed that narrow goal by showing the need for complete equality, with interracial marriage portrayed as a normal aspect of Cuba’s culturally mixed society. In addition, Avellaneda was one of the most celebrated feminist writers of the nineteenth century. Her poetry, prose, and plays were devoted to a lifelong struggle against the archaic custom of arranged marriage, which she regarded as the marketing of teenage girls. In fact, Sab is thought to be inspired by real people Avellaneda met at the age of 15, when she was sent away to a country estate “to rest,” after rejecting an arranged marriage that would have been profitable for her family.
Like so many other early abolitionists and feminists, Avellaneda (right) has been forgotten by history. She is no longer well known outside of her native country of Cuba, and Spain, where she lived much of her adult life. I wanted to help bring her back from obscurity. In particular, I felt excited about depicting her life in accessible free verse, hoping that young readers might be inspired by her independent way of thinking. She believed in the Golden Rule. She used stories and poetry as a way to make an emotional plea for complete equality, and completely voluntary marriage. She was brave enough to do this a time when most writers restricted interracial love stories to lurid tales of wealthy men with forbidden mistresses.
Personally, for me, the most impressive aspect of Avellaneda’s life is the way she overcame obstacles while she was still very young. Her mother regarded reading and writing as inappropriate for girls, so she had to write in secret, then burn her stories and poems.
Q: Many of your children’s books are about Cuban history. Why did you choose that particular subject to write about? How do you research the subjects?
A: My mother is Cuban and my father is American. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, but during long childhood visits to the island, I developed a deep bond with the extended family, and with tropical nature, as well as an interest in Cuba’s complex history. I loved listening to stories my grandmother and great-grandmother told about their own childhoods. Listening made me wonder, and wondering makes me want to write. The research process is slow and painstaking. I read everything I can find about a subject, both in English and Spanish. I utilize bibliographies, working my way farther and farther back in time, hoping to discover diaries or other first person accounts. Since many of those primary sources are not yet digitized, I rely on interlibrary loan as a way of obtaining antique volumes. Once the research is complete, I begin selecting those aspects that seem most important to me. Since most of my books are novels in free verse, I have to omit many facts and figures. All the names and dates of history won’t fit into a poem. My goal is to offer young readers a friendly, welcoming page filled with thoughts and feelings that have some universal resonance, in any time, and every place.
Q: What made you want to become a writer? Were there any Latino writers who influenced you?
A: As a child, I was such an avid reader that writing just seemed natural. While I was very young, I wrote poetry, and even when I drew a picture, there were always a few mysterious words scribbled in crayon, like the start of a story.
When I was little, my mother recited José Martí’s Versos Sencillos, and later, on my own, I discovered that I loved reading poets as diverse as Rubén Darío, Antonio Machado and Jorge Luis Borges. I found it strange that so few women were represented in Latino literature. Emily Dickinson had to fill the gap where Latina poets were missing from library shelves in the U.S. Eventually, I discovered Gabriela Mistral, and Dulce María Loynáz.
As a graduate student at U.C. Riverside, I had the privilege of taking a creative writing seminar from Tomás Rivera. He was a great Mexican-American poet and novelist, the first Latino Chancellor of a U.C. campus, and a wonderful educator. He taught me to write from the heart, without worrying about publication. So that’s what I do. I choose subjects that inspire me, instead of ones that are popular. He also taught me that writing takes practice, so that’s what I continue to do. I write at my own speed, as if time does not exist.