Writers on Writing: Memoirs/Margarita Engle

Today’s post begins a short series from amazing and talent writings that will move us deeper into the realm of fiction and nonfiction books.

We begin with the Margarita Engle and memoirs. Memoirs differ from biographies in that Margaritathey focus on a particular event or episode in one’s life, such as Margarita’s Enchanted Air. Two Cultures. Two Wings, a memoir about growing up in Cuba and American during the cold war. As Margarita points out, memoirs are important tools in helping us understand one another.

Memoirs are relatively new to children’s literature. What makes them an important addition to what’s written for young adults?

Two of my favorite older books for young people are Alma Flor Ada’s Under the Royal Palms, and Where the Flame Trees Bloom, so I don’t think of memoirs as new. Verse memoirs aren’t really new either, but there haven’t been many in recent years. When I wrote Enchanted Air, I didn’t know that Jacqueline Woodson and Marilyn Nelson were doing the same thing at the same time! I assumed Enchanted Air would languish alone on library shelves, but it turns out to be in fantastic company. In fact, if Sonia Manzano’s Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx hadn’t come out at the same time as Enchanted Air, I would have missed my chance for a glowing New York Times Review of both books! The timing is amazing. Perhaps there is a whole generation of multicultural authors reaching an age when we feel that if we don’t tell our own life stories, someone younger might romanticize eras that weren’t simple.

I think memoirs can help young readers see that their families aren’t the only weird ones. Life is surrealistic, or in my case magic realistic, a term that sounds much better in its Spanish original: lo real maravilloso, marvelous reality. Life is a blend of wonderful and terrible experiences, some personal, others historical. The historical ones affect the personal ones. Won’t it be amazing if teachers use all these recent memoirs to show students that they can write about their lives too? By reading each other’s stories, we can begin to understand each other, and that leads to empathy, the first step toward peacemaking.

What do you think makes a particular biography or memoir a story worth telling?

All life stories are meaningful and important, but honesty is the one thing that makes a memoir worth telling. Without honest emotions, a memoir is not factual. Memoirists can’t keep secrets or hide weaknesses.

Enchanted Air is such a personal story. What made you decide it was time to tell it?

I had started to believe that U.S.-Cuba relations would never be renewed in my lifetime, so I wanted to leave my story to the next generation of decision-makers, as a plea for peace and reconciliation. Incredibly, during the same week when advanced review copies arrived on my doorstep, President Obama made his December 17, 2014 announcement! I rushed to revise the author’s note at the end, changing it from a plea to a song of gratitude.

For whom do you write?

Any child, any teen. I think there is a misconception that Latino authors write only for Latino readers, but that’s simply not true. I hope all young people are encouraged to read books written by people from a wide variety of backgrounds, about a vast range of subjects.

What can we expect from you in 2016?

Thank you for asking! I have two verse novels:

Lion Island, Cuba’s Warrior of Words (Atheneum, August). This is a young adult biographical novel about Antonio Chuffat, a Chinese-African-Cuban messenger boy who became a translator, and documented the freedom struggle of indentured Chinese laborers in Cuba. Chuffat’s story is interwoven with the arrival of five thousand Chinese-Californians who fled to Cuba, escaping anti-Asian violence in Los Angeles and San Francisco during the late 1860s-early 1870s. Lion Island is the final volume in my loosely linked series of verse novels about forced labor in 19th century Cuba, beginning with The Poet Slave of Cuba, The Surrender Tree, The Firefly Letters, and The Lightning Dreamer.

Morning Star Horse (HBE Publishers, autumn) is an illustrated middle grade historical fantasy inspired by a true situation so strange that I chose to write it in the real maravilloso style that I mentioned earlier. In other words, it’s a magical horse story. Anyone who has read Enchanted Air knows that I was a horse crazy child, so for me, this book is my 9-year-old self’s dream come true. The setting is the Raja Yoga Academy in San Diego, where Spanish-American War orphans from Cuba were imported and taught art, music, theater, gardening, weaving, and yoga. HBE is an innovative new small press that is willing to experiment, so Morning Star Horse/El Caballo Lucero will be available in the all-English or bilingual format, another dream come true!

Margarita, thank you for this interview! In writing Enchanted Wings you gave me new insights on an important event that I lived through and you’ve had me examining my own childhood during that era. Yes, indeed memoirs begin conversations!

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