Margarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of numerous highly acclaimed verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Lightning Dreamer, a PEN USA Award winner. Her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, received the Pura Belpré Award, Golden Kite Award, Walter Dean Myers Honor, and Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, among others. Her other books have received multiple Pura Belpré, Américas, and Jane Addams Awards and Honors, as well as a Claudia Lewis Poetry Award, and International Reading Association Award. Her most recent picture book, Drum Dream Girl, received the Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text.
I invited Margarita to write about her newest historical verse novel. Lion Island: Cuba’s Warrior of Words is the story of a little-known figure in Cuban history. It’s set against an astonishing intersection of cultures and resonates with notes of courage and resilience, yearning and hope. Here is what she wrote:
Many North Americans assume that all Latinos are similar, and that all Latin American countries share the same cultural background. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Even the Spanish language is not uniform, with indigenous and West African words varying from region to region, and in certain countries, a mixture of Chinese words as well. Chinese? Yes, specifically Cantonese. As the result of a mid-nineteenth century treaty between the empires of Spain and China, hundreds of thousands of indentured laborers were shipped to Peru and Cuba. On the island of my ancestors, they were treated like slaves, and housed with slaves, feeding the plantation owners’ insatiable craving for imported laborers to plant, harvest, and process sugarcane. Within a few decades, so many Chinese men had married Congolese and Yoruba women that an entirely new culture took shape, creating a unique linguistic, spiritual, and musical blend.
Lion Island is not only an introduction to the Chinese-African blend within Cuban culture, but also a tribute to Antonio Chuffat, a messenger boy who became a translator and diplomat. His extremely rare memoir documented the nonviolent freedom struggle of indentured Cantonese laborers. Their petitions to the Emperor of China might be history’s largest mass use of written freedom pleas, and perhaps one of the most creative as well, because many of the petitions were written in verse. Interwoven with the arrival in Cuba of five thousand Chinese Californians who fled anti-Asian riots in Los Angeles and San Francisco during the late 1860s and early 1870s, I hope my historical verse novel will inspire young readers to explore writing as an approach to seeking justice.