In her new memoir-in-verse, Newbery Honor-winning poet Margarita Engle introduces readers to her “Two countries / Two families / Two sets of words” and her own “two selves.” We spoke with the author about Enchanted Air and how traveling between her two countries has turned the "chasm [of biculturalism] into a bridge."
Like many of your other works, Enchanted Air is written in free verse. What attracts you to this form?
I love the natural flow of thoughts and feelings, with line breaks left open for a young reader to experience his/her own thoughts and feelings. In the case of Enchanted Air, a verse memoir is a unique and challenging experience. Unlike historical fiction, this book is completely and absolutely personal. All the thoughts and feelings are mine, and all are nonfiction, but they are not my adult impressions. They are childhood memories. It was a huge decision, but I chose to write in present tense, bringing those moments back to life and granting them the power of immediacy.
"[A] verse memoir is a unique and challenging experience. Unlike historical fiction, this book is completely and absolutely personal."
The English word air echoes the Spanish word aire, which according to the text means “both spirit and air” and “can be a whoosh / of refreshing sky-breath, or it can mean / dangerous / spirits” What inspired you to choose this word—accompanied by enchanted—as the title of your book?
I’m so glad you asked that, because the title is such an essential aspect of this particular book. As a young child, flying on an airplane to visit relatives in Cuba was a magical experience. I wanted to choose a title that would recapture that spell of gravity-defying excitement and hope. I borrowed the image from this excerpt of Antonio Machado’s Poema 19:
¡Oh tarde luminoso!
El aire está encantado.
La blanca cigüeña
dormita volando . . .
Oh luminous evening!
The air is enchanted.
The white stork
flies dozing . . .
Of course, the subtitle is essential, too. Two Cultures, Two Wings refers to the sense of freedom I gained by traveling back and forth between my parents’ two homelands, two languages and two histories.
Your poems describe the fear and uncertainty of the Cuban Missile Crisis from the point of view of your 11-year-old self. While the world anticipates nuclear war, your daily life also includes algebra, junior high cliques and even your first kiss. What was it like revisiting this tumultuous time, both in the world and in your own life?
Memories of that era are extremely painful. I dreaded writing about the “Cuban Missile Crisis,” which I now regard as a misnomer, since three other countries were involved: the United States, the Soviet Union and Turkey, where the U.S. had missiles aimed at Moscow. I had to struggle to keep that portion of the memoir confined to a tween’s eye viewpoint, instead of superimposing my adult opinions and attitudes.
As far as the other sources of middle school misery, I knew they would be temporary, as long as I could survive by avoiding the drugs that were destroying my friends.
Much of Enchanted Air focuses on your experience growing up in two places, among two cultures and with two languages: Your mother’s family has lived in Cuba for generations, and your father is the American son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants. Can you tell us anything more about your dual background—maybe an anecdote that didn’t fit in the book?
One of the most personal aspects of a bicultural background is related to what I think of as a gene for nostalgia. I inherited my mother’s añoranza for Cuba and, as a result, the desire to keep visiting the island. My sister did not. She never wanted to speak Spanish, and she has never returned to Cuba. She regards herself as completely American, while I have always thought of myself as a hyphenated Cuban-American, long before hyphens were common. I started traveling back to the island in 1991, and I still go as often as I can, most recently in April. Visiting doesn’t erase the hyphen, it just changes it from a chasm into a bridge.
One particular challenge facing your family after the Cuban Missile Crisis was the uncertain status of your mother’s Cuban passport. In fact, you dedicate Enchanted Air in part to “the estimated ten million people who are currently stateless as a result of conflicts all over the world.” Can you elaborate on the difficulties that such people face?
Refugees often become stateless in wartime, as they flee across borders. However, one of the most shocking peacetime cases is occurring right now, to an estimated 200,000 people of Haitian ancestry whose citizenship has been revoked by the Dominican Republic. They don’t have Haitian citizenship, and many families are separated from Haitian language and culture by nearly a hundred years as dominicanos. Where can these stateless people go to find compassion and a sense of belonging?
"I can’t meet expectations. All I can do is write from the heart and hope that my words will reach readers."
You’ve won a Newbery Honor for The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom, two Pura Belpré Author Awards for The Surrender Tree and The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano, several Pura Belpré Honor medals and numerous other awards. How has this recognition impacted your work and your career?
Those awards are both emotionally satisfying, and extremely useful. Without awards, honors and positive reviews, I would not have continued to find publishers for verse novels.
People often ask whether awards have caused me to feel pressured by expectations, and of course the answer is yes, but I can’t meet expectations. All I can do is write from the heart and hope that my words will reach readers.
Exploring nature, riding horses (or wanting to) and reading books (especially ones that “have meanings / instead of doubts”) formed important parts of your childhood. Are these pursuits still as important today?
Yes, I studied botany and agronomy, and worked in those fields when I was younger. Now I spend a lot of time outdoors, hiding in Sierra Nevada forests to help train my husband’s wilderness search and rescue dog how to find a lost hiker. A lot of my first drafts are scribbled in the shade of a sugar pine or incense cedar, while hiding.
As an agricultural entomologist, my husband shares my curiosity about nature. We love gardens, bird-watching and traveling to tropical rain forests.
I read voraciously, and I did have my own horse for a few years, but I was never a skillful rider. The sight of any horse still gives me a thrill. There is nothing more peaceful than watching herbivores graze.
I still read voraciously and eclectically. I start the day with poetry. Then I write. Later in the day, I tend to read fiction or nonfiction, depending on my mood.
Enchanted Air is one of several books you’ve published in 2015, and the only novel. What do you enjoy about writing both picture books and novels?
My 2015 picture books, Drum Dream Girl (Harcourt), The Sky Painter (Two Lions) and Orangutanka (Holt) were all so much fun to write, and the respective illustrators are amazing: Rafael López, Aliona Bereghici and Reneé Kurilla. I love the brevity of picture books because I can capture an aha! moment, as if I were writing haiku. Everything else is up to the editor and artist. I plant a tiny seed, and the illustrator grows an immense garden. It’s a beautiful collaboration. However, my greatest challenge with respect to picture books is finding publishers for verse biographies of great Latino scientists who have been forgotten by history. I have several of these wandering through cyberspace, searching for editors, along with a picture book about a festival in Nepal, co-authored with my daughter and her Nepali husband.
Verse novels, unlike picture books, are a solitary experience. The extremely slow research and writing process requires peace, quiet and time, lots of time . . . It’s a leap of faith, hoping that a year or 10 years down the road, an editor might turn out to be a kindred spirit, agreeing that this particular story is worthwhile.
What projects are next for you?
Thank you for asking! Lion Island is a historical verse novel about an amazing hero of the Chinese-African-Cuban community. It’s scheduled for publication by Atheneum in 2016, and already has a gorgeous cover by Sean Qualls.
I’m currently working on two middle grade U.S. Latino historical books, both extremely difficult to research, but important enough to be worth the effort.