A Mi Libro, Mi Espejo Interview with Margarita Engle
By Dagmara Garces Ruiz
In 2017, you became The New Young People's Poet Laureate for your outstanding achievement in poetry for children and adolescents. From the Poetry Off the Shelf, a Poetry Foundation program, Curtis Fox interviewed you, and you shared with him the influence in your work of your mother’s readings in Spanish, Jose Marti, and your travels to Cuba. You said that you started writing as a child. What was the first motivation to write your first poem?
I composed poems while walking to and from school, inspired by a view of hills and trees, even though I was in the big city of Los Angeles. I think the rhythm of my footsteps was the starting point for those poems, because poetry is essentially a natural form of music.
Image by Marshall W. Johnson
What inspires you to write stories in verse instead of prose? Do you find the metrical rhythm more manageable?
I’m not sure what you mean by manageable. I find the rhythm beautiful, and poetry makes me happier than prose. With the music of language, I can face difficult subjects in an optimistic way.
You have written 36 books. How long it takes to process one work and start a new one? What is your writing process?
In general, the long verse novels take a year or more, while picture books vary. I’m often researching the next book while writing the current one. I love to write first drafts early in the morning, with a pen and notebook. Later drafts are revised on a desktop. I don’t like laptops because I prefer a big screen. I need solitude and silence.
Family, social justice, and immigration are recurring themes of your work. Considering that most of your audience are children and young adults, why do you think these are essential themes for them to know?
Family is essential to everyone at any age. Social justice is important for young people because they are the only possible peacemakers of the future. Immigration is just part of who I am, and it’s an identity I share with so many others from different backgrounds.
I have noticed that José Martí, Juan Francisco Manzano, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, Dulce María Loynáz, and other Cubans authors influenced or inspired your work. Some of these authors are silenced or unnoticed in the literature curriculum of the island (except José Martí). Instead, from outside Cuba, you have dedicated your literary work to keep them active; they give an evident sense of “cubanía” in your writing. Do you feel an urgency for the new generations, inside and outside Cuba, to know and read them? Why?
I write about people I admire, without worrying about whether they will fascinate anyone else.
How do you build the characters of a story?
It’s a process of exploration. I scribble many drafts, experimenting with voices.
Eventually the characters speak for themselves, and if they don’t, then I set that story aside and try again a few months or years later.
Your Heart My Sky talks about a specific time in Cuba in the 90s. Why do you think that young people outside Cuba must know about the “special period”? Why is this part of Cuban history worthy of learning from your perspective?
No one is immune to hunger. What happened in Cuba could happen anywhere. I hope young readers will feel compassion, and I also hope they’ll wonder why the U.S. didn’t help feed starving neighbors, why peacemaking was not a priority. I hope they’ll see that no matter how much people suffer, we can still fall in love.
Your new project, Light for All, illustrated by Raúl Colón, celebrating immigrants in the US, will be available next September. Tell me about this book. What triggered you to write about it?
This was Raúl’s idea. He wanted to do a picture book about the Statue of Liberty. I was fortunate that his editor chose me for the text. It doesn’t just celebrate immigrants. It’s about freedom and equality for all, including Native Nations and descendants of slaves, and are often overlooked when people praise the Statue of Liberty, claiming that “we’re all immigrants.” That’s simply not true.
Why do you think that it is essential to write for children? How can literature contribute to teaching values to new generations?
I love communicating with the future. I hope to write poetic stories that will be enjoyed. If they also teach, that is extra.
What advice can you give to new writers interested in children’s literature?
READ, READ, READ! Then practice, practice, practice. Don’t expect to publish your first manuscripts. Persevere, persevere, persevere.
Margarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of many verse novels, memoirs, and picture books, including The Surrender Tree, Enchanted Air, Drum Dream Girl, and Dancing Hands. Awards include a Newbery Honor, Pura Belpré, Golden Kite, Walter, Jane Addams, and NSK Neustadt, among others. Margarita served as the national 2017-2019 Young People’s Poet Laureate. Her most recent books include Your Heart, My Sky, A Song of Frutas., and Light for All. Margarita was born in Los Angeles, but developed a deep attachment to her mother’s homeland during childhood summers with relatives on the island. She studied agronomy and botany along with creative writing, and now lives in central California with her husband.
Facebook: Margarita Engle
Dagmara Garces Ruiz was born in Cuba. She grew up in a poor neighborhood of Havana, with parents with low levels of education, a shoemaker and a store employee, who had dreamt of a life of opportunities for their five children. In 1992, she graduated with BA in Russian Literature and Language and Italian as a Second Language at the University of Havana. Her work experience developed in the tourism field, a job opportunity for the 1992 class of foreign languages in the Cuban major economic crisis of the 90s. She immigrated to the United States in 2011 and enrolled in English ESOL classes, REVEST Program, at Miami-Dade College. She is a Senior student at the University of the District of Columbia, majoring in English. Surmounting the most challenging period of immigration, she has worked in different fields, which she considers part of the learning process of the new country. One of the challenges she is through right now is creating and collaborating to promote a space for Cuban poets, writers, and artists living in America who are unknown, forgotten, or prohibited on the island.
Mi Libro, Mi Espejo (My Book, My Mirror) is a community literacy service project by Dr. AdaVilageliu-Díaz. The primary goal of this project is to provide Latinx children cultural mirrors that affirm their identity and instill pride in their diverse cultures, languages, and traditions. This program promotes literacy skills in both Spanish and English while empowering children to see themselves and tell their own stories. The project is also focused on promoting Latinx authors and illustrators who are historically underrepresented in mainstream and bilingual children’s literature.