Margarita Engle on Thoughts Trapped and Free

Margarita Engle’s podcast as US Children’s Poet Laureate addresses the privilege of reading, books as a forbidden commodity, and the limitations on the lives of women relative to her verse novel, The Lightning Dreamer.  Engle’s historical narrative is a fictionalized biography of the 19th century Cuban abolitionist poet Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda, known simply as Tula. Multiple voices tell the story of the poet’s life as a teenaged abolitionist.

One image that remained with me was that of little brother Manuel, trained to be “a brave smuggler of words,” bringing the forbidden treasures of books to his sister. Borrowed schoolbooks, hidden beneath embroidery hoops, become the fodder of literacy. Words “glitter/ and glow/ in starlight.” Invented worlds are the stuff of comfort. A forced marriage looms in Tula’s future, yet “Thirteen is the age for dreams.”

lightningdreamer.jpgThere is broken glass here as well, a society in turmoil and a girl who stands witness to the plight of the enslaved and begins to take action in her own way. Engle’s books are child-sized yet each one is vast in scope. The Lightning Dreamer suggests that the failures of societies might well arise from a failure to imagine the world of the alienated, the oppressed, the other.In the end, empathy is the force of empowerment in this book–the ability, as Tula puts it, to “trade my thoughts/ for theirs.”

It doesn’t come naturally, empathy. Our deepest instincts push back against empathy when we feel threatened. They push us to fight against those who are different from ourselves, however we define that difference. We’d do well to think about this right now, in this moment, in our world today.

HavanaBut at another level, things get murkier. Because who gets to tell the stories of the other? Who should? Are there even definitive answers to those questions? Here’s Margarita Engle turning to these complex matters. She says:

Many non-‘own voice’ authors do thorough research, but Cuba is an easy country to misinterpret. Rural Cuba, in particular, is often misunderstood by tourists who speed past impoverished villages and farms in air-conditioned buses, listening to official stories told by government guides.

And then again, where do the limits of empathy lie? Is there such a thing as the objective truth about a place or people? No answers, only questions. The more we can talk about them, the better.

Diversity Within Diversity: Guest Post by Margarita Engle



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.


lion-islandI 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.

antonio-chuffatfullsizerender-3Lion 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.