It is with great pleasure and excitement that we welcome Cuban American award-winning author Margarita Engle in GatheringBooks for our Girl Power and Women’s Wiles theme. Interview Wednesday is hosted this month by Carmela Martino from Teaching Authors.
We also feel that Margarita’s visit is in keeping with April being National Poetry Month. How positively glorious that our Featured Story Teller is a novelist who shares her narratives in verse.
We have been enchanted by Margarita’s writing ever since we discovered her multi-award-winning novels-in-verse for our Poetry theme November/December of last year – and we have been forever changed by her narratives.
Margarita, congratulations on your newest novel-in-verse, The Wild Book (see my review of the book here). It has been receiving a great deal of adulation in the kidlit/YA community and with good reason. I am certain that it would receive quite a number of awards next year. I have here a few questions about The Wild Book.
The book is meant to describe the yearnings and struggles of your own grandmother who suffered from ‘word-blindness’ or dyslexia. I sensed that this was an emotionally-laden and very personal portraiture that you have opened yourself to. And we feel very privileged as you narrate your grandmother’s story with your voice and hers. Can you share with us your journeys that led you to the writing of The Wild Book? What are some of the heartfelt moments that you have shared with your abuelita when you were a child? What were your impressions of her when you were young?
My grandmother lived to nearly 104, but because of the early twentieth century medical misnomer, ‘word blindness,’ she always believed there was something wrong with her eyes. She never felt confident about her own letters, but she told me that having a poet in the family would be “lo ultimo” (the ultimate). Poetry has always been an essential part of Cuban culture, even in the countryside, even among poor farmers.
I was born and raised in California, but I was fortunate enough to spend childhood summers in Cuba, getting to know my mother’s extended family. The summer that stands out in my memory as definitive was 1960, when I was eight, and my grandmother was around the age I am now. She loved dancing, and she laughed a lot, making up riddles and jokes. She was mystified by my fascination with animals, nature, and the outdoors, but she did share my love of horses. She gave me a colt that was later confiscated by the Cuban government, during the land reform. I think the loss of that colt, and the post-Missile Crisis loss of my right to visit Cuba, marked the end of my childhood, and the beginning of nostalgia. Fortunately, I had a chance to be reunited with her later, when she moved to the United States after leaving Cuba as a refugee.
In Fefa’s young life, you both have shared that it is a tradition to have “albums filled with verses from admirers” – did you have one of those as well as you were growing up?
Albums were a tradition of the times. My mother grew up with them, but by the time I was born, the custom had faded.
The book also made reference to “poetry duels” that family members would often engage in during gatherings – could you tell us more about this?
Rural poetry competitions are still common in Latin America, where powerful recitations, mostly by men, descend from the traditions of itinerant Spanish troubadours. In Cuba, the dominant poetic form has always been the décima, an octosyllabic ten line form with a basic rhyme pattern of ABBA AA ABBA. Amazingly, performances of these complex verses are improvised, with constantly changing lyrics that, when accompanied by music, comprise the basis for rumba songs.
You noted in the Author’s page that Fefa, your grandmother, wrote a lot of letters to her loved ones. Could you share a bit more about this.
Fefa wrote beautiful, careful letters, with gorgeous handwriting, but they were short. She asked how everyone was, and expressed her love. She loved receiving post cards and pictures of bluebirds, because I had told her that in the U.S. they were believed to be lucky. Before her signature, she always expressed her faith, never saying she would definitely do something, but always specifying, “Si Dios quiere,” (If God wills).
What were some of the difficulties that you experienced as a writer as you created this story? What was the creative process like for you? Can you share with us some of your unspoken joys and triumphs as the story slowly unfolded in the blank pages?
The idea for The Wild Book came several years after Fefa’s death. My daughter, Nicole Karanjit, actually gave me the idea. While we were visiting relatives in Cuba, I pointed out places related to Fefa’s childhood, and Nicole insisted, “You have to write it down.”
The Wild Book is quite different from my other novels in verse. Since I was familiar with the farm and town, there was no historical research needed, just my own memory of stories Fefa told me about her childhood. It felt both challenging and rewarding to imagine the youthful voice of someone I only knew when she was old. It felt like time travel.
I found it joyful to remember Fefa, but sad as I pictured her struggling with feelings of inferiority. I hope that young readers will benefit from her tale of perseverance.
Our heartfelt thanks again, Margarita, for your friendship, and your voice that whispers directly to our souls here in GatheringBooks – across seas, mountains, and countless islands in-between.
Do watch out next week for the second installment of our two-part feature on Margarita Engle.