For more than two decades, Margarita Engle has produced award-winning work for children of all ages. Among her many distinctions, she is a multiple recipient of the Pura Belpré medal, the Américas Award, and the Jane Addams Award. She is also the first Latina author to have earned a Newbery Honor Award for her 2008 novel-in-verse, The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom.
Margarita has long been known for impeccable research and thoughtful books that shine new light on figures in history. But her new project goes inward. Her memoir-in-verse, Enchanted Air (Simon and Schuster,) arrives in book stores this week. Here at the dawn of the United States’s new relationships with Cuba, Margarita tells us about her book, her own relationship to Cuba, and what it means to write from the heart.
When we speak of reciting poems “by heart,” we mean “from memory.”
That is because memories live in the heart, in emotions, in a past that remains swirled together with the present and future. Memories are the one place where time is defeated by love.
Writing about one’s own childhood is a process of writing by heart. There are no guidelines, no patterns to follow, no research to depend on, no papery or digital maps of the mind. When I decided to write ENCHANTED AIR, Two Cultures, Two Wings, all I had was my own memories, and the emotions they still contain, long after adulthood has made an unusual childhood seem like someone else’s strange, impossible life.
I wrote this memoir in the form of free verse—and in present tense—in order to bring the memories back to the surface, an experience I have always dreaded, and never thought I would want to share in public, where I am guaranteed to cry when I read the poems out loud.
My reasons for writing a memoir are various, depending on what the reader brings to my pages:
Enchanted Air is a celebration of the role of travel in a child’s education.
Enchanted Air is a plea for peace and family reconciliation.
Enchanted Air is an act of empathy for stateless people.
Enchanted Air is a true story meant to speak directly to bicultural children, and to the adults who try to understand us.
Yes, I do mean ‘us,’ not ‘them,’ because with respect to this aspect of childhood, I still carry it around inside my heart, like a series of linked poems. Bicultural children can feel divided or doubled, claiming both the daily self and the invisible twins we turn into when we cross the border between our two parents’ homelands.
I am not a typical Cuban-American, and I don’t presume to speak for those who are. I am neither a refugee nor an exile. As the California-born daughter of an American father and Cuban mother, I was blessed with the chance to visit relatives on the island both before and after the revolution. Now, as Enchanted Air goes into print, I worry about how it will be perceived in Miami, but it is my own true story, my only true story, the first time I have tackled a post-revolutionary topic in any of my books for young readers. I hope they will accept it in the spirit in which it is offered, as a testament to that very word: HOPE.