Margarita Engle is the author most recently of Lion Island, a new novel in verse for young adults. Her many other books for young readers include Enchanted Air and Drum Dream Girl. She lives in central California.
Q: How did you learn about the story of Antonio Chuffat, which you tell in Lion Island, and why did you decide to write about him?
A: I read everything I can find about Cuba, so when I discovered Antonio Chuffat’s memoir about the nonviolent freedom struggle of indentured Cantonese laborers during the 1860s and ‘70s, I felt inspired to honor his efforts to document their petitions to the Emperor of China.
I am convinced that it was one of the largest mass uses of the petition format in history, and many of the petitions were written in verse.
Q: Your book combines historical and fictional characters. What did you see as the right blend of the two as you were writing?
A: When I read Chuffat’s memoir, I learned that while Chinese indentured laborers were struggling for freedom in Cuba, five thousand Chinese-Californians arrived on the island as refugees, fleeing anti-Asian riots in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Since I did not find a first-person narrative by a child, I imagined fictional twins to represent that part of this interwoven history.
Certain aspects of Cantonese culture and linguistics are so unfamiliar to me that I depended heavily on the kindness of Chinese-Americans who proofread the manuscript and made corrections.
Q: How did you research the book, and what surprised you most in the course of your research?
A: This book is largely based on Chuffat’s memoir, but other references were useful as well, and they are listed in the back of the book. Most of the petitions have never been translated into Spanish or English, but the ones that were available are beautiful and inspiring!
Q: You note that Lion Island is the last in a series of historical verse novels focused on 19th century Cuba. What are some of the themes that run through all these novels?
A: Each of the verse novels in this loosely linked cycle honors a historical figure who found some nonviolent way to struggle for freedom and justice: Juan Francisco Manzano in The Poet Slave of Cuba, Rosa la Bayamesa in The Surrender Tree, Fredrika Bremer in The Firefly Letters, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda in The Lightning Dreamer, and Antonio Chuffat in Lion Island.
The unifying theme is hope.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: My contemporary verse novel, Forest World, will be published by Atheneum in October 2017. It is a family reunion story set in modern Cuba, with siblings meeting for the first time. It has a strong environmental theme.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: We have entered a new era of publishers experimenting with Spanish editions and bilingual books! If people don’t buy them, the experiment will fail, just as it has in the past, so please support the effort to make children’ books available to all the generations of Latino families, both immigrants and U.S.-born.
My poetry picture book, Bravo!, is beautifully illustrated by Rafael López, with English and Spanish editions both scheduled for March by the brand new Laura Godwin imprint of Holt.
Around the same time, my middle grade historical fantasy Morning Star Horse/El caballo Lucero will be available from HBE Publishers, in a choice of three separate versions, English, Spanish, or bilingual, with beautiful illustrations, and a gorgeous Alexis Romay translation.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Margarita Engle, please click here.