This literary magazine has been adding to my TBR for years. Its coverage has consistently been outstanding and now I’m thrilled to say that I’m making a very small contribution to its pages as well. In this issue I review Québécoise author, Audrée Wilhelmy’s new novel in translation, The Body of the Beasts, a strange and hypnotic fairy-tale-gone-wrong.
But seeing Margarita Engle on the cover of the Winter 2020 issue of WLT reminded me that it had been some time since I read a book of hers. Her loosely linked historical verse novels offer younger and older readers insight into Cuban history and culture: The Lightning Dreamer, The Firefly Letters, The Surrender Tree, The Poet Slave of Cuba and Lion Island. (A few years ago, at Natasha’s urging, I read The Lightning Dreamer.)
The Surrender Tree (2008), a Newbery Honor Book, would have made an excellent beginning. It opens in 1810 with a peek into the first Cuban separatist movement, which was suppressed by Spain, and the story stretches to 1899. There is a timeline in the back of the book, which outlines the populace’s efforts to resist colonization, but readers of all ages will simply connect to the book via character.
Principally with Rosa, who is a young girl, a “child-witch”, who “learns of cures” and works to “experiment like scientists” with plant medicine, which she uses to treat the rebelling populace. This is a place where a garden is a pharmacy and Rosa is based on Rosario Castellanos Castellanos, who is popularly known as Rose la Bayamesa.
When Rosa grows up (which only takes a few poems – the nice thing about reading in verse is that there is always another poem on the next page – it’s rare for a poem to stretch to two pages), she works with her husband José Francisco Varona, continuing to heal the revolutionaries in hospitals that have been established in caves, in structures old enough to have “handprints on stone”, which hearken to a legacy of endurance and survival. (Ultimately Rosa is buried in 1907 with military honors, for her dedicated years of service.)
Another significant voice in the book is Lieutenant Death. He, too, is based on a historical figure, a slavehunter, although Engle creates a particular vendetta between him and Rosa, whereas all that is known for sure is his commitment to disrupting the resistance and recapturing slaves. Either narrator could say “sometimes war feels like just one more form of slavery”; either could say “one battle leads to another”.
As the years pass, Captain-General Weyler’s efforts to control the populace take the form of “reconcentration camps”. (These play a significant role in a later book by Engle, The Wild Book, based on her grandmother’s life, because her parents were confined to one of these camps and stripped of their possessions.) These camps were officially formed in 1896 and would later influence infrastructures in the Boer War and in the Second World War.
In her grandmother’s story, words and stories have a particular importance from the start, because as a young girl, Fefa copes with “word blindness” (dyslexia) and has to work very hard to develop the knack of reading. But throughout Engle’s work, language and storytelling plays a powerful role. In The Surrender Tree, eleven-year-old Silvia takes comfort in the legendary stories about Rosa’s bravery, and Rosa takes comfort in the words of José Marti, especially admiring his poem about knowing the “strange names of flowers”.
In Lion Island, Antonio Chuffat is a “warrior of words” even from a young age. The historical background of this story is vast. In the 1840s, a quarter million men were shipped to Cuba and Peru from China, to work in the sugarcane fields alongside the African slaves. Even when some slaves were freed in Cuba, in 1868, the populace continued to struggle for independence from Spain, and there were still a large number of Asian refugees (including 5,000 from the United States, who faced discrimination and unrest on the west coast of America).
Chuffat would travel extensively as a translator for Havana’s Chinese consulate, he would establish the island’s first Chinese-language newspaper, and after the third war for independence in Cuba (the war known as the Spanish-American Civil War in the United States), he battled the racist policies which accompanied the American occupation of the island.
The relevance of these experiences is underscored when Antonio, who is twelve years old in 1870, observes that many people have journeyed to this “lion-fanged island of brutal eight-year contracts” because “no one in [the U.S.] ever pays for any crime against people who look different”.
Young Antonio and his friend, Wing, embrace their complex ethnicities in this book, something that Engle herself understands intimately. The author’s two-volume memoir details her experiences as the daughter of a Cuban mother and an American father (whose family left Ukraine to flee persecution there): Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings and Soaring Earth.
Engle is fourteen years old in the first volume of her memoir, whereas the second covers her high-school years (quickly) and college years (including some mishaps that were not college-related – it’s refreshing to read about hasty decisions and miscalculations, rather than have authors pretend their life story has as tidy an arc as an historical biography or a fictional narrative).
It’s interesting to compare how differently her two sets of grandparents feel about their homelands. And, because Margarita comes of age during the Cold War, she experiences the heightened tensions between nations at a personal level.
(The talk of the travel bans and her inability to access the homeland of her mother’s family is a timely matter too.)
In both volumes, she is preoccupied by reading and writing. In Enchanted Air, she notices that most of the characters she’s reading about (in books like White Fang, Call of the Wild, and The Black Stallion) are boys. And later she notices that none of these boys are Cuban either. She feels more and more like a “misfit bookworm”, like she has a “second self”, an “invisible twin”, like she is a wave caught between two shores. In Soaring Earth, she begins to study Davanagari, an alphabet shared by more than 100 Indian languages, with 47 letters (14 vowels and 33 consonants), and she watches the moon landing on television and protests the Vietnam-American war.
Later last year, I reviewed a mystery by Teresa Dovalpage for The Chicago Review of Books, which was set in Cuba (the second in a set of novels which shares a setting and some characters). That was an excellent reminder of how little I know about this island nation.
Margarita Engle’s books do not necessarily fill that gap for me, as an adult reader, but they do establish a sense of the dimensions of that gap in my knowledge, help me understand just how little I know about Cuba. I’ve taken entire classes about English history, and England is twice as far away from where I sit. Coincidentally, my calendar nudged me towards Cuba in this month’s “Here and Elsewhere” too.