Margarita Engle’s The Surrender Tree marked the second time the Cuban-American poet won the Pura Belpré Award, which honors Latino writers and illustrators who best embodies the Latino cultural experience through a children’s book. Her novel, which is written in free verse, tells of the brutality of slavery and war, and the compassion people share despite it. The Surrender Tree was also awarded a 2009 Newbery Honor, the first time the award had ever gone to a Latina author. Engle spoke with Children’s Bookshelf about her passion for Cuba, why it’s important to her to write for younger readers, and about her new book, Tropical Secrets.
Given the recent controversy surrounding the Newbery Medal, do you feel that your winning this award serves as proof that times are changing?
I hope so, and hope that The Surrender Tree didn’t win because of the controversy. I hope they’re not trying just to fill a demand for greater diversity. I would like to think that it’s a genuine interest, that they’re not doing it under pressure.
The Pura Belpré Award was normally given out every two years because committee members felt there weren’t enough Latino authors putting out enough Latino books for Latino children in order to grant an award annually. But starting this year they’re going to award the prize annually. Are there more to choose from these days?
This honor is shared by all the great Latino writers in the United States whose writing came at a time when the structure of these organizations was not ready to honor them. They laid the groundwork and I share the honor with them, beginning with my mentor, Tomás Rivera, author of Y no se lo tragó la tierra. He was a successful educator, the first Hispanic chancellor of the University of California at Riverside. He was a farm worker who taught himself to read. Yet the time wasn’t ripe for him to win a national honor like this.
It was thrilling and it’s humbling when I think of all of who have gone before me who were equally if not more deserving. So there is a matter of the times being ready, but I don’t think it was a lack of books—perhaps of distribution of the books where they were often published by small presses, and maybe the national award committees weren’t as exposed to them.
This is your second Pura Belpré Award....
I got it two years in a row! I’m amazed. I didn’t think that was possible, and then when they called me about the Newbery Honor.... I certainly didn’t think that was possible. It’s just been an amazing year [so far]. I just found out that The Surrender Tree is getting the Lee Bennett Hopkins Honor—from the Center for the Book in Pennsylvania—and the Bank Street College of Education’s Claudia Lewis Award for Poetry. It’s not just that it’s unusual for Latino books to get some of these awards, but I think a lot of the award committees haven’t usually considered poetry.
Why write The Surrender Tree?
For starters, it’s really not meant for young children because there are some harsh realities of slavery portrayed. It is more of a middle-grade or young adult book, and I certainly hope it will be enjoyed by adults, as well.
Not so many years ago, books that were thought of as for young people were in fact written for adults—Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn—and they had quite mature vocabulary and a crossover value, where both an adult and a child would enjoy reading them. The novel in verse form, which I happen to be madly in love with—I love the freedom that it gives me to distill a complex story down to its emotional essence—I would hope that this form would appeal to teenagers who are ready for emotional ways of expressing themselves. I feel that’s when Americans are most open to poetry, to reading and writing it, because they are so emotional at that age.
When did you start experimenting with the novel in verse form?
I beat my head against the wall trying to write about Juan Francisco Manzano [for The Poet Slave of Cuba] for 10 years, struggling with lots of false starts in prose, and when I finally tried switching to poetry thinking, “Well, he was a poet and I’m trying to write about the life of a poet, maybe I should try poetry...” all of a sudden it worked and it flowed, and that’s what the story needed.
I definitely was influenced by the novels in prose of Karen Hesse: Out of the Dust and Witness. In particular, Witness, because it was a multiple-voice format.
And so how long did you work on The Surrender Tree?
I took a real false start because I was trying to write too generally on the time and events. Until I had down the story of Rosa “La Bayamesa” as a central part of it, it really didn’t work. But it was a matter of a couple of years.
I just immersed myself in everything I could find in Cuba, about all time periods in Cuba. I’ve spent my whole life doing this. I became very attached to the island during childhood visits, and was able to visit again later as an adult. Even though I wasn’t born and raised there—my mother’s from Cuba, I was born and raised in Los Angeles—I retain that very deep attachment.
I love reading everything I can find about Cuban history, and I love the research process. I got the oldest, most obscure references I could find through inter-library loan—which is a slow process—and then read them and went through the bibliography and worked my way back, farther and farther back, until I could find diaries. Diaries were where I could discover the emotions of the people who were experiencing that period of time, including details. There are details in diaries about what they ate for dinner and what they had to go through to find the food to make dinner, which you wouldn’t find in a standard history book, and that fascinates me.
La Bayamesa didn’t keep a diary, but there were diaries kept by others that were really helpful.
And these diaries mentioned her? Is this how you gathered enough information about her?
She was not specifically mentioned in all of them, but in some. When the leaders of the Mambí rebels wrote their diaries they were careful not to mention people by name who might then be hunted, as La Bayamesa was, because they had to protect their identity and location. But I did find enough about her to provide the seed for my imagination to then run wild imagining some of the details of her daily life.
What inspired you to tell this story?
I really enjoy writing about someone I admire. I admired Juan Fco Mancano, the poet slave of Cuba, and Rosa “La Bayamesa,” whose story is The Surrender Tree. She was born into slavery and found herself stuck with a life of decades of war, but she made the amazing choice to heal people—and not just the soldiers of the rebel forces, which she supported, but enemy soldiers as well. She had this courage to live in the wilderness, hiding in caves, and had the self-taught wisdom of how to be a wilderness nurse and use wild plants to heal. And she had the kindness to heal everybody.
But, as you write, “She couldn’t heal their souls.” Am I right to interpret a spiritual element in these stories?
Yes, it’s true and I’m glad it comes across. These moral decisions Rosa made are spiritual in the sense that she felt—just like most traditional Latin-American healers feel, even today—that her ability to heal is a gift from God. So they didn’t charge money, they were simply trying to help people.
Rosa wasn’t one of a kind. There was a whole generation of women out there in the Cuban wilderness trying to do the same. She just happens to be one whose name was remembered. But she represents a time and place when people were faced with these extraordinarily difficult circumstances and had to make tough choices. I think young people can be inspired by reading about the choices others have made in the past.
The maternal lineage in the book seems to be mportant to you. Did you know your great-grandmother and grandmother?
Yes. When we would visit Cuba we would visit my great-grandmother. The last time I saw her was for my ninth birthday, in 1960. I do have very vivid memories, and I’m so glad I got to meet her. And of course I knew my grandmother, though there were many years when we were cut off; after the missile crisis it was impossible to visit. Cubans were hesitant to write or to call; they felt they were being watched.
And on this end too. The FBI came knocking on our door asking why we were receiving letters from Cuba. The missile crisis was a big terror in the American psyche.
To me, the Cuba I knew was family. I didn’t know politics—I was a child.
Did you incorporate any of the stories your grandmother and great-grandmother shared into this book?
I did, a little bit. The inspiration of the town that [the character] Silvia describes, that’s my mother’s hometown of Trinidad, in the south-central coast of Cuba. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site for its beautiful architecture, some of the best-preserved architecture in the Americas. We would also go out to my great-uncle’s farm where my grandmother was born. I developed my love of nature there. I went on to study botany and agronomy before picking up writing. And that’s because I loved that farm so much.
There were stories, adults gossiping, and things happening. But as my grandmother got older, she came to the United States and lived in New Jersey, then Miami, eventually in Los Angeles. She’d love telling stories and would go on and on. She lived to almost 104, and the older she got, the more she could remember about her childhood, the more vividly she’d tell her stories.
Did you base Silvia, the only fictional character in the book, on anyone?
No. I read firsthand accounts of people who had been in the re-concentration camps [in Cuba]. I’m amazed that it’s not a more familiar history. It really isn’t something that’s taught in school [here]. In reading these accounts, I just visualized this composite character—a child who experienced that, a universal refugee experience.
One very important Cuban hero you incorporate into the story is José Martí, and though he’s not mentioned across too many pages, it’s enough to convey his significance during the war. Why did you think it was important to include him in this story?
In Latin America in general, and Cuba in particular, poets have been the inspiration behind struggles for independence, struggles for freedom of all sorts. Martí is a beautiful example of that; without his inspiration as a poet, [the war] would’ve been much more difficult. He did live most of his life in exile, so he really wasn’t present physicall,y aside from smuggled poems. During those first two and half decades of war, it would’ve been only at the very end that he came in physically, and died in his first battle.
There’s a statue of him in New York City...
Of him falling in battle?
I wish next to it they had put one of him telling stories to children, because he lived in New York City and he taught not only at schools for black Cubans, adult schools and high schools, but he also would go around Central Park with the children of other Cuban exiles and recite poems. I would like to see a happy statue of him. He wrote a great deal for children.
Now that this book has won these awards, particularly the Newbery Honor, it’s going to be available to many children, not just Latino children, and it won’t be highlighted specifically as a Latino story.
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 surroundings. That spirit of wonder is so important in youth; anything we can do to slow down enough in our adulthoods to recapture that magical spirit of wonder is very valuable. For me poetry does that.
And as far as being a Latina writer, I’m honored by these awards.... I’m fascinated by things all history shares, but at the same time I agree with the Basque poet [Miguel de] Unamuno, that we can learn more about history from the daily lives of ordinary people. That’s why I’ve focused on the stories of specific individuals rather than writing an epic saga with too many facts and figures of history.
Your new novel, Tropical Secrets, focuses on Holocaust refugees in Havana. What drew you to this subject matter?
I was drawn to the subject of Holocaust refugees in Cuba after reading about Cuban teenagers who volunteered to teach Spanish to the refugees. It seemed like such a simple way to help people who must have felt abandoned by the entire world. The German ships they were on had already been turned away from New York and Toronto. Havana Harbor was their last hope. Any refugees who were not accepted by Cuba would have been sent back to Germany.
Did you have any personal connection with this period of history?
My mother is Cuban, so I identified with her youth during this time period. I have no personal connection with World War II refugees, but my father is an American of Ukrainian-Jewish ancestry. His parents fled villages near Kiev during the pogroms of the early 1900s, and ended up in Los Angeles, where I was born.
In choosing to write about Jews in Cuba, I wanted to honor both sides of my ancestry. My Cuban mother was raised Catholic, and my American father was raised Jewish. I was raised agnostic. After being rejected by a Jewish synagogue because my mother was Catholic, and by a Catholic church because my father was Jewish, I eventually attended Quaker meetings, and became a non-denominational Protestant.
Talk a little about the research process for this novel.
The most valuable reference was Tropical Diaspora: The Jewish Experience in Cuba, by Robert M. Levine (University of Florida Press, 1993). I decided to write Tropical Secrets as a novel in verse, with completely fictional characters. I felt like I had to imagine the emotions myself, both the pain and the hope.
When you did the research for this book, did you find out anything that surprised you?
I was astonished by the reversal of fortune. Non-Jewish Germans in Cuba were interned, just as Japanese-Americans were interned in the U.S. Suddenly, the same red J on refugees’ passports that had made them so vulnerable in Germany turned into a symbol of protection. Without proof of Jewish refugee status, the Christian spouses of Jewish refugees were arrested and sent to the prison on Isla de Pinos. This was such a strange, there-but-for-fortune situation that I couldn’t help feeling intrigued, and at the same time, it was a bit surrealistic. It was as if this reversed situation could somehow explain to the world: see, this is what it would feel like if things were backward, and suddenly the majority was oppressed, instead of a minority. It seems like a universal lesson in compassion.
Which was your favorite part about writing this book?
I loved imagining the shared “common ground” found in music. I imagined a refugee boy who loves traditional European music, and discovers Andalusian melodies and African rhythms in Cuba. I have absolutely no musical talent myself, but I love to listen, and I perceive music as a balance against sorrow, a symbol of hope.
I also loved imagining a Cuban girl who wants to help the refugees, even though she has to live with her own terrible secrets. She keeps homing pigeons and doves in a dovecote that takes on a fairy-tale aspect of isolation. I am a birdwatcher, and the inspiration for the doves came from a “peace dove” that landed in our backyard, looking lost. Peace doves are so highly domesticated that they have no homing instinct. Once they get lost, they cannot find their way back to the nest. They are also born without a natural fear of predators. They are completely vulnerable, and need human help to survive. They are a lot like children.
Even though the characters in my story are young adults, rather than small children, I felt an affinity for the aspect of vulnerability. Refugees from any country, in any period of history, are completely dependent on the compassion of others. They need safe harbors, and once we feel compassion, we realize that they can turn into us at any moment. We all need the kindness of strangers.
The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom by Margarita Engle. Henry Holt, $16.95 ISBN 978-0-8050-8674-4
Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba by Margarita Engle. Henry Holt, $16.99 ISBN 978-0-8050-8936-3