Margarita Engle: 2010 National Book Festival

Uploaded by LibraryOfCongress on 13.10.2010

>> From the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

>> Hello everyone.
Good afternoon.
I'd like to ask you to take a seat please so that we can go
on to our next presentation.
So how is everyone?
Good, good, good.
I've been asked to take care of one little piece
of housekeeping before we begin.
The presentations in the pavilion are being filmed for the Library
of Congress website and for their activities.
That young man, that handsome young man that's sitting back there,
he's going to wave.
And he's going to appreciate that you be mindful of that,
not bump into the risers etcetera
so he can get the best filming possible.
So with that said, hello everyone.
My name is Laurie Montenaro.
I work Telemundo Network here in Washington,
D.C. and could have we have asked for a better day
for the National Book Festival.
After all that rain the past years I think this is a great day.
I am certainly very, very excited [Speaking
in a foreign language] I am also very honored [Speaking
in a foreign language] to be here today to present our guest author,
poet and journalist, Margarita Engle.
However, I have a little secret.
There's another reason I'm excited,
because as Margarita, I am of Cuban descent.
Not from Havana though, I'm from Oriente, but its Cuba and her love
for books began when she was very, very young.
She started to read when she was young.
She started to write since she was very young
and I think we are all blessed with the fact
that she is sharing her gift with us.
She has a way with words and you all know what I mean.
But I have to say from someone who's
from the Caribbean we do have a way with words.
Some of us we [Sound effects] as you all know.
But seriously she does have this wonderful gift of prose
and this has earned her many, many words.
For example for two years now she has won the Pura Belpret Award.
It also marks the very, very first time that a Hispanic,
[Speaking in a foreign language] author has received
such a distinction.
I love the fact that she says [Applause] Yes.
I love the fact that she says, "I want to write for young people,
not just children but teenagers because they are the future."
I know how many distractions they have in their lives
and it's a privilege when they actually listen to a poem
and ask amazingly intelligent questions and they think
about things and are aware of the world and their surroundings."
On critic said, "She gracefully packs a lot of information
into a spare and elegant narrative
that will make the historical moment be as describing and accessible
to a wide range of readers."
Another said, "Engle's prose breeds life into each character
and her rich use of language catapults the reader
into each setting."
This is her first time at the National Book Festival
and we hope Margarita it is not your last.
Can I ask all of you to please stand up?
Please let's stand up and welcome her.

Give her a warm [Speaking in a foreign language] Margarita Engel.
>> Margarita Engel: Thank you so much.
Thank you Laurie for that beautiful introduction.
Writing is an exploration.
No matter what I set out to write I always discover
that I have explored some aspect
of freedom whether social, emotional or spiritual.
I wrote my most recent novel and verse, The Firefly Letters,
because I felt such deep admiration for Fredrika Bremer,
a woman who is far ahead of her time.
A courageous Swedish women's rights advocate
who visited my ancestral homeland of Cuba in 1851,
at a time when women simply did not travel alone; courage
and compassion are stories that remain relevant for all of us
at any age and in any historical context.
With the help of Cecilia, a young pregnant,
enslaved African born translator Fredrika Bremer wandered all
over the countryside interviewing slaves and freed slaves as well
as poor whites from Spain and from Cuba.
Her diaries and letters provide the most complete known record
of daily life on the island at that time.
While researching this story I became fascinated
by the relationship between Fredrika and Cecilia.
I wondered how they might have influenced each other
and I also imagined Elena, a fictional upper class girl
who chaperoned life was restricted
to the indoor world of silks and lace.
And whose future offered nothing beyond a forced marriage
to a wealthy stranger.
Could three young women from such different backgrounds
become friends?
For me, one of the most intriguing aspects
of Fredrika Bremers diary was the image
of three young women roaming the countryside buying freedom
for fireflies that had been captured by children
who used them as playthings.
From that point on the story became one about changing the world
by making hopeful choices in situations that seemed hopeless.
Because they would buy freedom from fireflies, turn them loose
and then the children would capture them again and then they'd have
to buy their freedom again, and yet they didn't give up.
They kept doing this and it became a metaphor for me of the struggle
for freedom within their human world.
My connection to the history of Cuba is personal.
My American father traveled to the island
after seeing National Geographic pictures
of my Cuban mother's hometown of Trinidad on the south central coast.
And even though they did no speak the same language,
they fell in love at first sight.
And since they are both artists who have now been married
for 62 years [Applause] they communicated
by passing sketches back and forth.
Young people will get in trouble if they repeat this in class.
But it worked for my parents.
They were soon married and although I was born and raised
in my father's hometown of Los Angeles, California we spent summers
in Cuba where I developed a deep bond with my extended family
and I also developed a lifelong passion for tropical nature
and for the mysteries to the islands past.
During one of our summers to Cuba, diplomatic relations
between the island and the U.S. broken down
and after the 1962 missile crisis travel was forbidden.
So even though my experience was not that of a Cuban born refugee,
I felt as if I had inherited a surrealistic form of exile.
Life seemed like science fiction.
One day I had a huge extended family and the next day they were as far
out of reach as if they were on a distant planet.
I wondered about the lives of my cousins.
I wondered what my life would have been like if we had settled
in my mother's homeland instead of my father's.
And even today after returning to the island many times as an adult,
I still feel a profound sense of wonder
about the strangeness of life.
That is why I choose poetry as a suitable vessel
for the complex riddles of history and the depths of emotion.
It is also why I choose to write for young readers
who are constantly faced
with troubling situations and difficult decisions.
I hope that the courage and kindness of young women I wrote
about in the Firefly Letters and of Rosa la Bayamesa
and The Surrender Tree and Juan Francisco Manzano and the Poet Slave
of Cuba and of the people in Tropical Secrets.
I hope that all of these characters will serve
as an inspiration during modern times as young people struggle
to make their own hopeful choices in situations that might seem hopeless.
My other novels and verse for young adults are also tributes
to this same spirit of courage and compassion.
The Poet Slave of Cuba tells the true story
of Juan Francisco Manzano, a child who taught himself how to read
and became a great poet despite the obstacles of slavery and cruelty.
The Surrender Tree is about Rosa la Bayamesa, a wilderness nurse
who healed soldiers from both sides during Cuba's three wars
for independence from Spain.
And then when the United States charged
into the battle during the final years which are known in the U.S.
as the Spanish-American war although they are still known in Cuba
as the third war for independence from Spain,
Rosa la Bayamesa healed American soldiers.
She hid in caves.
She hid in jungles.
She used wild plants so again in a situation that most
of us would have seen as hopeless and we'd say,
"Oh I wish I could help these wounded soldiers or these people
who are ill or suffering from malaria
or yellow fever, you now what can I do?"
Well she figured out something to do.
She experimented with wild plants.
She learned how to use what she had available
and her story is especially amazing because in Cuba it says
if you combined the war for independence or revolutionary war
with the civil war, because the struggle for independence from Spain
and the struggle for freedom from slavery coincided.
They happened at the same time.
In October of 1868 planters freed their slaves and went to war
against Spain, declared independence and fought side by side
with former slaves for independence from Spain.
Rosa la Bayamesa received her freedom at that time.
But instead of going off to the city to enjoy her newfound freedom,
she stayed and made the decision to help others.
And this is just so amazing to me.
I can't imagine that kind of courage and compassion.
And so that's why I wanted to write about these types of people,
her and Fredrika Bremer and Juan Francisco Manzano.
I write about people that I admire.
And truly I have to say their stories haunt me until I write
about them and then they continue to haunt me afterwards.
I just find the profoundly inspiring.
My third young adult novel and verse is called Tropical Secrets and it's
about Holocaust refugees who found a safe harbor
in Havana receiving the kindness of strangers
when Cuban teenagers volunteered to teach them Spanish.
Again, the kind of courage and compassion involved in a situation
like that is hard to imagine and yet that one is
so much more recent in history.
And these things that seem so impossible,
how could such a thing have occurred have occurred
within the memories of living people.
And so I felt like I really wanted to honor the actions that were taken
in places where Holocaust refugees did receive the kindness
of strangers in a safe harbor.
What happened is the ships that left Germany in the late 1930's filled
with German-Jewish refugees were turned away from New York
and Toronto and then they turned southward and anchored
in Havana harbor until most of the refugees did receive asylum.
I think that the contribution
of several Latin American countries during that period
of time is extremely complex because I don't want to sugar coat it
and make it sound like everybody welcomed them.
There were tragedies and there was trauma and there was trickery
but most of the refugees did actually become Cuban and I wanted
to write about the adjustment that it was for them to think
that they were headed for New York and were going to have
to learn English and then end up in the tropics having
to learn Spanish and become Cuban.
In March of 2011 my next novel and verse will be released.
It's called Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck.
It's set in 1509 a much more difficult time period to research
because so little was written that long ago.
And that which was written was only written from one point of view,
from the Spanish point of view since they had the written language.
This book is about the dramatic encounter
between peaceful Cuban Indians
on the south central coast just a few years later became my mother's
hometown and the first Caribbean pirate who was shipwrecked along
with his hostage, a brutal conquistador.

During the course of the research of this book I became a subject
of the Cuban DNA project verifying what I had always
instinctively suspected.
My maternal DNA is Native American.
For five centuries almost all history books have stated
with absolute certainty that all Cuban Indians are extinct.
But the history books were wrong and DNA studies are proving this.
Maternal DNA studies in particular
because women did survive the near genocide
of the 1511 conquest of Cuba by Spain.
So I wanted to write about Taino and Siboney Indians and also
about the mixed race children
because 1509 there were already children
who were half Spanish and half Indian.
And the Spaniards -- Africans were not the first slaves in Cuba.
The Spaniards enslaved the Cuban Indians during those early years
and the mixed raced children were known as "broken" children.
So I really wanted to write about those survivors who did manage
in body as well as spirit to overcome incredible odds.
Now when I research a historical topic I try to read everything
that I can get my hands on with fresh eyes,
asking myself whether the people telling a story really understood
their subject or were they merely repeating rumors.
In order to be sure that I've researched thoroughly I use
interlibrary loan, borrowing diaries and other older references
that are not always available completely online yet.
I search especially for first person accounts
because they contain the emotional aspects
of daily life answering the question what did it feel like at that time.
Once the research is complete the process of writing begins.
And while research is painstaking and meticulous poetry is expansive
and imaginative and my hope is
that the two moods will blend offering a glimpse into the lives
of people who lived long ago.
When I write a novel and verse I feel as if wilderness is one
of my characters, forests, animals and this Cuban weather
that we have here today are powerful forces in my stories and that is
because I studied agriculture and botany along with creative writing
and I did that because I loved my ancestors farm in Cuba so much.
It was a farm that I visited during those childhood summers
and it has essentially become part of my imaginary world,
sort of a magical world that I enter whenever I write about Cuba.
I do have on picture book for younger children
and another one coming out in another year or so.
The one that's available now is called Summer Birds
and its subtitled The Butterflies of Maria Merian.
Maria Sibylla Merian and my interest in her comes from my botany
and agriculture training.
She was a woman who lived in the 1600's
and became an amazing illustrator, scientist and explorer again
at a time when women just did not travel alone
and she studied butterfly lifecycles and proved the dystheory
of spontaneous generation long before any of the men
who got credit for that work.
And my next picture book is about wilderness search and rescue dogs
because in my real life in my spare time my husband trains search
and rescue dogs to find lost hikers in the Sahara Nevada Mountains
in California and I'm a volunteer victim.
I hid in the forest so that the dogs can practice finding someone.
[Laughter] Much of my writing is actually done during those quiet
hours when I wait to be found.

[Laughter] And thank you so much for your attention
and I would be happy to answer any questions.
This has been a wonderful experience.

[Applause] Yes.
>> [Inaudible background question]
>> Margarita Engle: Thank you.
Please come to the microphone when you do have a question.

>> It's a great book.
I got a copy for me and my niece you know.
>> Margarita Engle: Thank you.
>> But I wanted to ask you, did you study any other books sort of --
I could tell it was sort of new leaf for you when you went into that.
>> Margarita Engle: Thank you.
You know that's actually a very interesting question
because I started to write Summer Birds about 25 years ago
when I was still a practicing botanist and a professor of agronomy
and at that time I did submit it to a few places for publication
but there wasn't really in an interest in the publishing world
for women who were far ahead of their time.
So I brought back out from a hiding place in a drawer in my office
and tried again many years later.
>> There's a book Girls Look on the Rocks by Danita Atkins.
And of course you've been honored.
It's a kinship to that book I feel.
>> Margarita Engle.
Thank you.
I hope so.
>> I hope I didn't miss this but where did you first hear
about the Holocaust survivors that came to Cuba
because I had never heard of that until your book.
>> Margarita Engle: You know I'm just shocked
of how little known it is.
There's an amazing non-fiction study for adults,
very detailed called Tropical Diaspera by,
I'm sorry I can't remember the first name but it's Levine.
And it's just -- it's what alerted me to this incredible subject
that should be better known and not just Cuba
but some other Latin American countries also received a great many
Holocaust refugees who had been turned away
from the U.S. and Canada.
>> Hi. Which authors do you turn to like mentor types.
Books that you read that inspire you not like how to write books but ones
that help you to write better.
>> Margarita Engle: I love poetry
and I just read poetry every day before I do anything else.
Early in the morning I grab whatever poetry book is closest at hand
and I'll read the same poetry books over and over.
But I really have to credit Karen Hess' Witness as the book
that helped to give me a form for The Poet Slave of Cuba,
the multiple voice, novel and verse.
I did get that idea from her book Witness.
I had been trying to write about Juan Francisco Manzano in prose
and it just never worked.
And as soon as I switched to novel and verse form inspired by her,
I never met her, but I always try to credit that book, it just flowed.
So I think he was kind of reaching down pounding me
on the head and saying I was a poet.
Write about me in poetry.
>> Thank you.
>> Margarita Engle: Thank you.
>> Hi. I am Jacqueline Jewels and I met you in Seattle
at the ALJ convention where you won --
>> Margarita Engle: Yes, thank you.
>> Sydney Taylor award for Tropical Secrets
and while I was there I bought Surrender Tree.
I read it on the plane ride home and after that I read Firefly Letters
and Tropical Secrets and I just loved all three of them.
>> Margarita Engle: Thank you so much.
>> And I just want to thank you for all three of those books.
>> Margarita Engle: Thank you so much.
[Applause] And you're question reminds me
to acknowledge the Sydney Taylor award which is a wonderful award
for Tropical Secrets and I do want to mention
that my personal connection to that story is that I did say
that my father is American and traveled to Cuba, but his --
he was born and raised in Los Angeles but his parents came
to the U.S. from the Ukraine as refugees from pogroms.
So I do have a personal connection to that story as well.
>> Hi. I actually happen to be a Cuban refugee from Trinidad
and I was wondering what's your favorite Cuban writer or author?
>> Margarita Engle: Well you know you and I might be cousins
because that's a small town.
Everybody I've ever met from there is a cousin.

[Laughter] I just read Christina Garcia's Lady Matador's Hotel
and really enjoyed it.
And for young adult books I really enjoyed Nancy Osa's Cuba Fifteen
and I just love so many poets and authors.
My mind is cluttering up with names
and I can't choose one, I'm sorry but thank you.
>> Thank you for being here.
>> Were there any other reasons you decided to write in verse?
>> Margarita Engle: I feel like for me verse really helps me decide what
I want to write about, because I can't fit everything on that page.
I end up with a very crowded page and I really have to narrow my focus
down to the things that are the most important to me,
what aspects I really want to --
and at the same time I feel like I can put emotions in poetry --
with all the crowded page there wouldn't be room for those emotions
in the same way in say a non-fiction history book.
And I love to read a non-fiction history book
but it's just not my passion for writing.
My passion for writing is with poetry.
Thank you.
Are you a poet?
Thank you.
>> One more thing congratulations to you rising to this stature.
>> Margarita Engle: Thank you.
>> My wife is a first time author.
It is difficult to get published if you're a first time author.
So what we did is we self-published and it's coming out in September.
But the problem is how do you get recognized?
Do you have an agent?
>> Margarita Engle: No I do not have an agent.
I sent the Poet Slave of Cuba into what is called the slush pile.
The slush pile is thousands and thousands and thousands of books
that editors sift through.
And just am so grateful that an editor's assistant pulled the book
out of the slush pile and gave it a chance.
>> We'll try real hard.
>> Margarita Engle: We'll try real hard.
>> Hi I'm just wondering if your books are distributed in Cuba and if
so what kind of reception they've received,
especially for the Poet Slave in Cuba.
>> Margarita Engle: No they aren't.
There would not be any format
for an American book seller to sell books in Cuba.
The only one of my books that is at present
in a bilingual format is The Surrender Tree,
which is published now in a paperback that has the entire novel
and verse in English first and then the entire novel and verse
in Spanish in the same volume.
It's not a facing page bilingual translation.
But I just don't think that at present there would be a format
for American publishers to -- I think it would violate the Trading
with the Enemies Act of 1962.
I'm guessing at that, but I just don't think there would be a format?
Yes. Thank you so much.
You've just been a wonderful audience.

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