Margarita Engle is the Cuban-American winner of the first Newbery Honor ever awarded to a Latino. Her award winning young adult novels in verse include The Surrender Tree, The Poet Slave of Cuba, Tropical Secrets, and The Firefly Letters.
Engle’s most recent books are The Lightning Dreamer and When You Wander. Her new middle grade chapter book, Mountain Dog, was published in August 2013 and is a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2013. Margarita’s upcoming book, Silver People, Voices From the Panama Canal, will be released in 2014. It has been selected as one of Junior Library Guild selection for their Spring 2014 catalog.
She lives in central California, where she enjoys helping her husband with his volunteer work for wilderness search and rescue dog training programs.
My prompt for Margarita: I think you’re a courageous writer. You write in a non-traditional format with characters and settings that aren’t typically trending in children’s and YA books. Where do you get the courage to write what you write? How much courage do you need to go to your editor with a story about a little black girl in Cuba, a search and rescue dog or a book written in poem form? Do you think readers find courage in your writing?
FINDING THE COURAGE TO EXPLORE
Writing is a wild exploration. Wilderness explorers need courage. Courage to follow fascinating topics wherever they lead. Courage to face difficult emotions. Courage to experiment with non-traditional forms.
Courage. What a complex word! As a writer, I am terrified of being misunderstood. I’m afraid of not meeting expectations, especially my own. I’m reluctant to experience sadness, while writing about history’s madness. I’m intimidated by the possibility of being judged negatively by critics who often marginalize Latino themes, verse novels, and poetry in general. In other words, I’m afraid of failure, but failure is a complex word too. If I succeed in communicating with readers, then I haven’t failed.
Too often, success is measured by external standards. In order to keep my goals attainable, I need my own personal standards. I need peace of mind, the freedom to write without self-censorship, and the generosity to be content with any level of “success,” as long as I know that I’ve done my best.
So I choose to write about themes that are important to me, in forms that I love. One way or another, each of my books turns out to be about freedom and hope. This is not something I deliberately set out to accomplish. It occurs naturally, while I research, scribble, erase, re-write, revise, wonder, explore…
I have never completely rejected a topic because it was obscure, unpopular, or difficult to research. In the verse novel form, I feel free to fill in missing details by imagining how it felt to live in a particular time and place. I have never avoided a story only because it was emotionally painful, but I do reject historical topics that turn out to have no hopeful ending at all. No matter how fascinating, if the real-life ending is completely depressing, that particular historical event is not a tale I want to offer to young people, who already face so much discouragement and confusion in their daily lives.
Emotions are one of the scariest aspects of writing. I just completed a childhood memoir about summers with my extended family in Cuba, and the loss of travel rights after the Missile Crisis. It was the most painful writing experience of my life. I postponed it, and when I finally decided to plow ahead, I wrote ferociously, eager to tell the truth of my personal Cold War experience, even though it is different than most Cuban-American stories. I am not a refugee or an exile. I was born in the U.S. Only my mother is Cuban, but those childhood summers were precious to me, and losing them was devastating. I wrote while crying, and if I’m invited to speak about the book (scheduled for publication by Harcourt in March, 2015), I expect to speak while crying. More than fifty-one years have passed, but I still cannot pronounce the words ‘Missile Crisis’ without bursting into tears. Nevertheless, my true story contains the seeds of hope, because somehow, on paper, I feel free to seek hopeful pathways, and follow them, exploring…
In The Courage to Write, Ralph Keyes recounts E.B. White’s belief that a writer’s key problem is to establish communication with himself. “Everyone else is tuned in,” White clarified. “In other words, if a writer succeeds in communicating with a reader, I think it is simply because he has been trying (with some success) to get in touch with himself.” So it’s not simply a matter of courage, but one of sincerity. When we write honestly, fear loses its power, words gain depth, and success becomes a personal journey, rather than a judgment imposed by others.
There are no shortcuts in an explorer’s primeval world. There is no technological substitute for the slow, gradual process of seeking and finding. When I am asked to advise new writers, I tell them to turn off their electronic gadgets, go outdoors, walk, daydream, listen to birdsong, relax in a hammock, scribble with a pen and paper, practice, practice, practice, explore…
Margarita, thank you so much!